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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 2/23/11

Humanitarian War vs. Humanity

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The idea that wars are waged out of humanitarian concern may not at first appear even worthy of response. Wars kill humans. What can be humanitarian about that? But look at the sort of rhetoric that successfully sells new wars:

"This conflict started Aug. 2, when the dictator of Iraq invaded a small and helpless neighbor. Kuwait, a member of the Arab League and a member of the United Nations, was crushed, its people brutalized. Five months ago, Saddam Hussein started this cruel war against Kuwait; tonight, the battle has been joined."

Thus spoke President Bush the Elder upon launching the Gulf War in 1991. He didn't say he wanted to kill people. He said he wanted to liberate helpless victims from their oppressors, an idea that would be considered leftist in domestic politics, but an idea that seems to create genuine support for wars. And here's President Clinton speaking about Yugoslavia eight years later:

"When I ordered our armed forces into combat, we had three clear goals: to enable the Kosovar people, the victims of some of the most vicious atrocities in Europe since the Second World War, to return to their homes with safety and self-government; to require Serbian forces responsible for those atrocities to leave Kosovo; and to deploy an international security force, with NATO at its core, to protect all the people of that troubled land, Serbs and Albanians alike." Look also at the rhetoric that is used to successfully keep wars going for years:

"We will not abandon the Iraqi people."
Secretary of State Colin Powell, August 13, 2003.

"The United States will not abandon Iraq."
President George W. Bush, March, 21, 2006.

If I break into your house, smash the windows, bust up the furniture, and kill half your family, do I have a moral obligation to stay and spend the night? Would it be cruel and irresponsible for me to "abandon" you, even when you encourage me to leave? Or is it my duty, on the contrary, to depart immediately and turn myself in at the nearest police station? Once the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had begun, a debate began that resembled this one. As you can see, these two approaches are many miles apart, despite both being framed as humanitarian. One says that we have to stay out of generosity, the other that we have to leave out of shame and respect. Which is right?

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly told President Bush "You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You'll own it all." According to Bob Woodward, "Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it." Senator John Kerry cited the rule when running for president, and it was and is widely accepted as legitimate by Republican and Democratic politicians in Washington, D.C.

The Pottery Barn is a store that has no such rule, at least not for accidents. It's illegal in many states in our country to have such a rule, except for cases of gross negligence and willful destruction. That description, of course, fits the invasion of Iraq to a T. The doctrine of "shock and awe," of imposing such massive destruction that the enemy is paralyzed with fear and helplessness had long since been proven as hopeless and nonsensical as it sounds. It hadn't worked in World War II or since. Americans parachuting into Japan following the nuclear bombs were not bowed down to; they were lynched. People have always fought back and always will, just as you probably would. But shock and awe is designed to include the complete destruction of infrastructure, communication, transportation, food production and supply, water supply, and so forth. In other words: the illegal imposition of great suffering on an entire population. If that's not willful destruction, I don't know what is.

The invasion of Iraq was also intended as a "decapitation," a "regime change." The dictator was removed from the scene, eventually captured, and later executed following a deeply flawed trial that avoided evidence of U.S. complicity in his crimes. Many Iraqis were delighted with the removal of Saddam Hussein, but quickly began to demand the withdrawal of the United States military from their country. Was this ingratitude? "Thank you for deposing our tyrant. Don't let the doorknob hit you in the ass on your way out!" Hmm. That makes it sound as if the United States wanted to stay, and as if the Iraqis owed us the favor of letting us stay. That's quite different from staying reluctantly to fulfill our moral duty of ownership. Which is it?


How does one manage to own people? It's striking that Powell, an African American, some of whose ancestors were owned as slaves in Jamaica, told the president he would own people, dark skinned people against whom many Americans held some degree of prejudice. Powell was arguing against the invasion, or at least warning of what would be involved. But did owning people necessarily have to be involved? If the United States and its fig-leaf "coalition" of minor contingents from other nations had pulled out of Iraq when George W. Bush declared "mission accomplished" in a flight suit on an aircraft carrier in San Diego Harbor on May 1, 2003, and not disbanded the Iraqi military, and not laid siege to towns and neighborhoods, not inflamed ethnic tensions, not prevented Iraqis from working to repair the damage, and not driven millions of Iraqis out of their homes, then the result might not have been ideal, but it almost certainly would have involved less misery than what was actually done, following the pottery barn rule.

Or what if the United States had congratulated Iraq on its disarmament, of which the U.S. government was fully apprised? What if we had removed our military from the area, eliminated the no-fly zones, and ended the economic sanctions, the sanctions Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had been discussing in 1996 in this exchange on the television program 60 Minutes:

"LESLEY STAHL: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

ALBRIGHT: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is worth it."

Was it? So much was accomplished that a war was still needed in 2003? Those children couldn't have been spared for seven more years and identical political results? What if the United States had worked with the demilitarized Iraq to encourage a demilitarized Middle East, including all its nations in a nuclear-free zone, encouraging Israel to dismantle its nuclear stockpile instead of encouraging Iran to try to acquire one? George W. Bush had lumped Iran, Iraq, and North Korea into "an axis of evil," attacked unarmed Iraq, ignored nuclear-armed North Korea, and begun threatening Iran. If you were Iran, what would you have wanted?

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at http://davidswanson.org and http://warisacrime.org and works for the online (more...)
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