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Dead and buried: the fallacy that Iraq was a humanitarian project


4:00 pm - October 28th 2010

by Paul Sagar    


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Saturday’s Wikileaks revelations – of British and American troops in Iraq covering-up civilian deaths whilst systematically ignoring and facilitating torture – have begun to expose the full horrors of a war that long-ago went terribly wrong.

Tuesday’s Guardian revelations – that British troops systematically employed torture methods that violate the Geneva Convention – makes the picture darker still, even if only by adding detail.

One consequence of the latest revelations is that they demonstrate the nonsense-thinking behind the original case and “justification” for war.

A central plank upon which the Mad Mesopotamian Adventure was floated was the claim – made tacitly or overtly – that this would be a new kind of war. Our troops would not be invaders but liberators; warriors of peace welcomed by grateful Iraqis.

Connectedly, what came to be known as the “Decent Left” in the UK criticised those who refused to back military action. The Decents chastised what they claimed were the gutless faux-principles of an anti-war left which wouldn’t put its cruise missiles where its mouth was. Somehow the Republican Party – with Tony Blair in tow – would negate the logic of all previous conflict and be back in time for Christmas.

We now know for sure that it didn’t work that way. Abu Ghraib, for a start, was no aberration. “Our” side did profoundly horrible and nasty things for the fundamental reason that profoundly horrible and nasty things are constituent features of all wars – and they are perpetrated by all sides, albeit in varying degrees in varying places and times.

Chris Bertram is thus right when he says:

During an earlier phase of discussion, when those advocates [of war] were still unapologetic, but whilst the slaughter was well underway, we were treated to numerous disquisitions on moral responsibility: yes there is slaughter, but we are not responsible, it is Al Qaida/the Sunni “insurgents”/Al-Sadr/Iran…

Well the latest Wikileaks disclosures ought to shut them up for good (it won’t, of course). “Our” side has both committed war crimes directly and has acquiesced, enabled, and covered up for the commission of such crimes by others. The incidents are not isolated episodes: rather we have systematic policy.

But we can and must go further. The latest revelations are much more than just a reminder that the advocates of war were wrong in this instance. They drive-home a fact about war that should never have been forgotten in the first place: that war is always, and by necessity, hell.

The next time a Bush (or a Blair) comes offering “humanitarian” war of liberation, we would do well to remember such a basic fact. Iraq now sadly confirms an already long-established judgement of history: that “humanitarian war” is inevitably oxymoronic. Even if some wars, very occasionally, have to be fought regardless.

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About the author
Paul Sagar is a post-graduate student at the University of London and blogs at Bad Conscience.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,Middle East

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Reader comments


1. Chaise Guevara

“humanitarian war” is inevitably oxymoronic. Even if some wars, very occasionally, have to be fought regardless.”

This is oxymoronic. But you’re right about the rest.

What’s weird about the whole thing is that we didn’t invade Iraq even for purported humanitarian reasons, whatever Blair may have said after the fact: our justification for invading was WMD. Human rights were part of the debate, sure, but that wasn’t why we went in.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming after the earlier disasterous foot dragging which led to the wars in the Balkans earlier?

I always thought the war in Iraq was a huge act of folly, and agree with CG @ 1 that you’d be hard pressed to argue that the decision was even purportedly humanitarian.

Thinking about the failure of the international community generally (and the West in particular) to act in Bosnia, and later in Kossovo, as well as in situations like Rwanda, until much too late in the game makes me wonder: if we can’t even get it together in situations as clearly humanitarian as those, is it any wonder that Iraq was even more of a bugger’s muddle?

Where does this leave arguments for the future use of armed robots in warfare? The Pentagon are very keen. I’m very scared!

While I hated Saddam I think the lessons were that we shouldn’t have put him into power in the first place. A later confrontation was pretty likely with a guy like him.

I’m still pretty conflicted on this, I did not support the war but I wanted Saddam gone. I’m still glad to see the back of the Ba’athists. Let’s hope their successors aren’t just as bad.

I have some sympathy with troops stuck in the kind of conflict we had in Iraq and still have in Afghanistan. Their opponents are happy to use civilians in any way they can, so the people who’s hearts and minds they are told to win may be spotting for their enemy so that an ambush can be launched. Its an impossible situation.

I’m please Wikileaks have outed the darker side of the conflict. We need to know what happened so the Government can no longer lie to us and sanitise the wars we send our troops to fight. Perhaps it will make it harder to “send them in” next time.

What if there had been an intervention in Rwanda prior to the genocide?

Could potentially have resulted in say 50,000 civillian deaths, 5000 deaths in coalition forces and no doubt years later there would have been revelations showing that both coalition forces and the new regime carried out actions that amounted to war crimes.

I think we’d be hearing a lot of the same arguments – and who in the anti-war left would believe the claim that nearly a million deaths had been avoided.

While I hated Saddam I think the lessons were that we shouldn’t have put him into power in the first place.

That ‘we’ put Saddam into power is of those things that everyone seems to think is true, and I suppose could conceivably be, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to support.

6. FlyingRodent

@4 Indeed! And what if we sent Godzilla back in time to blast Adolf Hitler with his fiery breath and to crush baby Josef Stalin with his gargantuan backside? Why, I bet the anti-war left would be complaining that altering causality through the use of a mutated, hundred-foot tall fictional lizard was a violation of the Geneva Conventions, or something.

You have to wonder how many godawful bloodbaths it’s going to take before the reality of our foreign policy goofs finally hit home. I’m guessing “Infinite godawful bloodbaths” because fundamentally, the Iraq war’s boosters were never in the reality business and would rather eat a bowl of dicks than learn a lesson.

Apologies for the crudity, but you see what I mean.

The UK has been very adventurous overseas post cold war.

UK/NATO troops have policed the Balkans. I am sure that there have been isolated human rights violations there, but nobody has presented a strong argument of systemic abuse.

The UK government sat on their hands until mercenaries invaded Sierra Leone, and then concluded it was pertinent to take control.

In both cases, UK government or NATO decided that they had to intervene. And given that they are criticised in equal volume by the sides that they separate, intervention appears to be impartial. UK troops act as peace makers.

So how do we understand murder and torture in Iraq? The troops who went to the Balkans and West Africa were drawn from the same cohort as those in Iraq. What went wrong in Iraq that did not occur elsewhere?

We have to work out what failed in Iraq and put it right. The wrongs may be too long for Afghanistan to accept us. But we have to understand what was performed in our name and ensure that we never do it again. Look at success as well as failure.

‘ Our troops would not be invaders but liberators; warriors of peace welcomed by grateful Iraqis. ‘

The really scary thing is the dominant voices in the Bush administration really did believe that.

‘ They drive-home a fact about war that should never have been forgotten in the first place: that war is always, and by necessity, hell. ‘

I don’t blame armed forces for not abiding by some bureaucratic rules of war. I blame those who think they can send young men pumped full of adrenalin who are trained to kill and expect them to follow bureaucratic rules. Horrible things happen in war and if they are in urban settings many innocent people are going to die. The lesson to learn is not to conduct wars unless our national security is directly threatened.

“Connectedly, what came to be known as the “Decent Left” in the UK criticised those who refused to back military action. The Decents chastised what they claimed were the gutless faux-principles of an anti-war left which wouldn’t put its cruise missiles where its mouth was. Somehow the Republican Party – with Tony Blair in tow – would negate the logic of all previous conflict and be back in time for Christmas.”

Nice smug mischaracterisation of the decent left, along with some plain mistruths. I doubt any decent leftist thought the GOP would negate logic (what did that even mean anyway?). I imagine they thought instead that Bush, regardless of his domestic policy, was right to work to topple Saddam Hussein. And I imagine none of them thought it would be schnapps in Baghdad in Christmas, as you so blatantly misrepresent it.

What part of getting rid of a genocidal dictatorship and instituting democracy and free trades unions is so odious to you as a left-winger, then? Apart from the obvious racism of low expectations?

10. FlyingRodent

The really scary thing is the dominant voices in the Bush administration really did believe that.

Oh, sure. It shouldn’t have been surprising to anyone that the war was run by fantasists. The loudest squeals for war were coming from the various nutters of the national greatness conservative faction, who had spent the last two decades calling for war with pretty much anyone on the grounds that it’s good for the soul. If I was able to work that out as an internet illiterate 24 year old, cabinet ministers had no excuse. A quick google for “donald umsfeld” or “Michael Ledeen” was all it took.

We have to work out what failed in Iraq and put it right.

I suggest it was the whole “Stumbling into a fractious Middle Eastern powderkeg without anything resembling a plan; smashing large tracts of it to bits and then sitting stroking our egos over our wonderful, freedom-tastic military genius while the country devolved into a sectarian bloodbath” thing. The Americans would’ve gone in anyway, but we could’ve saved a few hundred British soldiers and billions of pounds, if only our Prime Minister hadn’t been an insane egomaniac.

11. FlyingRodent

What part of getting rid of a genocidal dictatorship and instituting democracy and free trades unions is so odious to you as a left-winger, then?

Like I say – infinite godawful bloodbaths, bowl of dicks. It’s like “Risk” with real cannons for these guys, even down to the bit where you can pack up the board, put it away in the cupboard and then insist that you only lost because your opponent was cheating.

…instituting democracy and free trades unions

We’ll feed that through the truth machine…

*Beep*

Doesn’t ring true, I’m afraid…

Global trade union and civil society outrage was heard loud and clear last week by the latest setback to reconstruction in Iraq. The Iraqi government, on 20 July, invoked a ministerial order to shut and seize all offices and property of electrical workers’ trade unions.

Sorry… I’m a hopelessly inveterate “decent” which must be why I can’t understand what, exactly, in the Wikileaks documents is new or revelatory – in regards to the argument made above.

It’s common knowledge that UK forces in Basra ceded authority to Shia militia’s. And that Shia death squads had infiltrated the Iraqi police during the civil war of 2006-2007.

If all of this had been deliberately engineered by the Coalition THAT would be a story. But it wasn’t.

What IS new, is the overwhelming evidence of Iranian military intervention – arming and funding militia groups which caused utter chaos and destruction. Funny how this aspect isn’t getting much attention?

Funny also how Iraqi State torture of Iraqis is being used as proof that it’s wrong to intervene in Iraqi State torture of Iraqis. Presumably we’re not complicit if Saddam were left to torture his population? But totally complicit if stuck in the middle of a brutal civil war started by Sunni jihadis and funded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard?

If only the UNSC had acted in concert…

Funny also how Iraqi State torture of Iraqis is being used as proof that it’s wrong to intervene in Iraqi State torture of Iraqis.

Or, perhaps, that it’s not worthwhile to endanger millions to remove state A if state B is liable to bear heavy resemblance to it. As, indeed, it does.

Or, perhaps, that it’s not worthwhile to endanger millions to remove state A if state B is liable to bear heavy resemblance to it. As, indeed, it does.

Sorry, Ben Six, but the Iraq of 2010 bears no resemblance to the Baathist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

I don’t know what the “sorry” is for – I’m not betting man and don’t sit around thinking, “God, d’ya know what I miss? A Baathist dictatorship…“. A state that doles out this treatment to uncharged prisoners, though, is a damnedly appalling one, regardless of how its leadership is chosen…

A new report from Amnesty International details some of this abuse. Methods include: rape or the threat of rape; beatings with cables and hosepipes; prolonged suspension by various limbs; removal of toenails with pliers; electric shocks to the genitals; piercing of the body with electric drills; asphyxiation with plastic bags; being forced to sit on broken bottles. Add to this vicious beatings and imprisonment for months or years – sometimes in secret prisons, generally without access for family or lawyers and invariably without formal charges being brought – and you get some idea of the degraded nature of Iraq’s response to the security threats it faces.

It’s not as bad, no – it tortures fewer people to death – but one must factor in the costs of war. And they were damned expensive.

17. FlyingRodent

What IS new, is the overwhelming evidence of Iranian military intervention… Funny how this aspect isn’t getting much attention?

I suspect that this is because “Iran ate our homework” is no more convincing an excuse than “Terrorists ate our homework”, the previous excuse. Or, for that matter, no more convincing than the pre-2006 excuse of “Nobody is eating our homework – all this talk of civil war is lefto-terrorist propaganda, everything is going to be fine”.

If only the UNSC had acted in concert…

Now, “The UN Security Council ate our homework” is one that hasn’t been given enough of an airing. At least it’s better than blaming all those homework-hungry Iraqis, which seems to be popular at present.

What IS new, is the overwhelming evidence of Iranian military intervention – arming and funding militia groups which caused utter chaos and destruction.

The bastards! Don’t they know that we’re the only people allowed to do that sort of thing?

Jesus – if you’re getting bent out of shape about Iranian interference in Iraqi internal politics and using it to justify or distract from our fucking massive invasion, you need your head examined.

Proponents of “decent” war are always happy to omit the fact that the means they are willing to employ are foul means. People always suffer in war, and suffer horrifically. Other people do horrific things, willingly and with enthusiasm. The moral responsibility for this rests with them, and with those who created the situation as well. There is no clean and decent war. Human nature ensures that. The “decent” warmongers dismiss this suffering as the price worth paying for victory (as the “decent” industrialists count the suffering of unemployed millions the price worth paying for economic growth and the “decent” welfare reformers count the continued persecution of these unemployed and other “losers” in a wealth-regulated society as the price worth paying for more growth and lower taxes). But as the “winners” (as they always do) smugly pat themselves on the back and ignore that toll of their war on those who bore it, honest people should remember that it is those who pay the price who know the real meaning and price of war. As November 11th approaches and as poppies are donned to show support for the troops as they play their part in the current war of imperial aggressions, we should remember this. We should remember that the message was once one of disgust and revulsion at the thought of what had happened and the promise (now not only broken but arrogantly dismissed) was: “Never Again”.

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