Meet the new war, same as the old war: will we get fooled again?
History stops with every new war in the name of humanitarianism. This time, say the war makers, will be different from all our catastrophic interventions of the past.
In 1941, Bertolt Brecht remarked to his diary that “strategy has turned into surgery, an enemy country is ‘opened up’ after it has been anaesthetised, then it is swabbed down, disinfected, sewn up, etc all with the greatest of ease.”
That was the old style of war. These days, invasions are more like social work. Western nations today always fight in the name of humanitarianism, so that contemporary wars possess a distinctive vocabulary and grammar.
For instance, each new humanitarian intervention must first distance itself from the previous one. In 2013, when John Kerry argued for military strikes in Syria, he presented his plan as a contrast to previous actions: the Syrian intervention, he said, would not resemble the Libyan intervention. He didn’t mention that the Americans and their British allies had sold the Libya mission on an identical basis. For Libya, you see, was to be nothing like Iraq. But then, Iraq, too, was meant to be different. In 2003, George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard all contrasted their war with the disasters of Vietnam.
Now here we are again.
Iraq in 2014 will be “nothing like” the 2003 intervention, says Australia's prime minister Tony Abbott. “They are two very different situations,” he explained. “What’s happening now is a humanitarian involvement.” Which, of course, was precisely what Blair argued – and look how that worked out.
The necessity of the “not like last time” trope stems from the almost universally disastrous record of recent humanitarian missions. Libya (remember that?) offers a particularly vivid example, since, back in 2011, the mission there was widely described, in David Owen’s words, as “the prototype for a new kind of intervention.”
So, after all that humanitarianism, how’s Libya travelling?
Just this week we learned that the Libyan authorities had lost control of most government buildings in Tripoli – they’re now operated by rival Islamist gangs. Since the intervention, Libya has had had five or six governments (depending on how you count them). The conflict is no longer a civil war but “is now being fought regionally, with parallels to other battles playing out in North Africa and the Middle East”.
In other words, the new model of intervention proved as catastrophic as the old brand.
The necessity to distance each fresh conflict from the previous one means that liberals and ex-leftists play an important (perhaps even disproportionate) role in selling contemporary wars.
Think back to 2003 and the extraordinary enthusiasm for the Iraq invasion by prominent progressives (Paul Berman, George Packer, Christopher Hitchens, Kanan Makiya) – many of whom had cut their political teeth agitating against the Vietnam war. Rather than evading the Vietnam comparison, Bush and Blair’s liberal enablers usually raised it: they, they said, understood more than anyone the follies of yesteryear’s wars – and, on that basis, possessed a unique appreciation of how terrific the Iraq invasion would be.
Yet, though humanitarian interventionists refer to the past, they always do so in a peculiarly cavalier way. The advocates of the 2014 mission mention 2003 but only to dismiss the comparison. They invoke history – and then wave it aside. The new war is always a clean slate, entirely uncoupled from the prosaic details of historical (or even recent) events.
How has the Islamic State been so successful so quickly? What relationship might the homicidal sectarianism in today’s Iraq bear to the 2003 invasion or the subsequent surge? What about the west’s attitude to the Assad dictatorship – what role has that played?
Such questions are irrelevant, since, for the west, each fresh mission resets the clock – Year Zero commences as soon as the bombs start falling.
It’s not merely that history begins when we say so (and not a moment before). It’s also that humanitarian interventionists present each crisis as a morality tale, an episode in a genre entirely outside historical time.
We don’t fight men, we fight monsters, creatures so evil that they oppose us on an almost ontological level.
“[T]his new world faces a new threat,” explained Blair, “of disorder and chaos born of brutal states like Iraq, armed with weapons of mass destruction; or of extreme terrorist groups. Both hate our way of life, our freedom, our democracy…”
And here’s Abbott on the supporters of the Islamic State: “They hate us for who we are and where we live. They don’t simply hate us for what we do.”
How could anyone hate us for what we do? It’s not like we ginned up a murderous invasion on false pretexts, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and sending the nation spiralling into sectarian conflict. Oh, wait …
There have been lies; yes, but they were told in a good cause. We have been treacherous; but that was only in order that real good might come out of apparent evil.
Mark Twain’s words about an earlier overseas adventure apply with even more force to the Middle East. We might have done bad things – but we meant well and so we graciously forgive ourselves.
Our enemies, on the other hand, commit their atrocities out of pure malice. Where we have politics, they have pathologies.
Besides, we cannot discuss the past, for the mission is urgent – humanitarian interventions always are. No time! No time! The crisis has been brewing for years. But now it must be solved in an instant, with any hesitation fatal.
The march to war back in 2003 took place against the tick, tick, tick of a stopwatch – or, rather, a nuclear detonator, as Condoleeza Rice explained, the smoking gun might be a mushroom cloud.
We couldn’t tarry then and we can’t tarry now, even as we confront the direct consequences of the previous rush to war. As Simon Maloy notes about the US neoconservatives: “The disaster they helped create is so urgent, they claim, that we can’t waste time arguing about why the disaster exists in the first place.”
But what about the Yazidis, the people we’re ostensibly coming to save?
Again, we’re always coming to save someone – and we always leave them worse off after we’re done.
Remember when every pundit was an Afghan feminist? “The rights of the women of Afghanistan will not be negotiable,” explained secretary of state Colin Powell. “When the light is fully shed throughout all of Afghanistan, the United States is committed to working to ensure not only that the women of Afghanistan regain their place in the sun, but they have a place in their future government as well.”
What happened to that? What about the Marsh Arabs, whom we championed against Saddam back in 2003? How are they faring? Or the people of Benghazi, over whom the world’s leaders exclaimed in 2011? Heard anyone talk of them lately, now that Libya’s a permanent warzone?
Our sympathy generally extends as far as the first week of bombing. Then, as our humanitarianism creates a new generation of refugees, the photogenic victim of yesterday becomes the grasping queue jumper whose boat we must stop.
Besides, the ostensible earnestness of our interventions, the high morality we proclaim, goes hand-in-hand with an extraordinary light-mindedness about how these missions are actually supposed to work.
“What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens?” said the influential neocon Bill Kristol, a few days ago.
Indeed, what’s the harm of dumping 22m AK47 rifle rounds and 32,000 artillery shells into the midst of a civil war? What could possibly go wrong with that?
The militarists of 1941 talked of surgery, while today’s leaders speak only of peace. Nonetheless, when you look at Iraq since 2003, it’s hard not to do it in Brecht’s voice:
Their peace and their war
Are like wind and storm.
War grows from their peace.
Source: The Guardian