Wednesday, May 09, 2007
How to sanctify mass murder. posted by Richard Seymour
Now, look at this. When you've bombed hospitals, destroyed cities, attacked the civilian infrastructure, shot people up in their houses and cars, shot at ambulances, fried people alive with white phosphorus, killed hundreds of thousands of people, tortured and raped prisoners to death, and pounded housing estates with bullets and shells, you're probably running out of possibilities for barbarity and savagery. Time for a school run. Seven kids killed, three wounded, and the contemptible excuse offered that they were only trying to kill the bad guys, who are so wicked and evil that they hide themselves among the civilian population, even tricking good American boys into believing that they may be secreted in the clothing of small children in a school. They forced the yanqui liberators to fire on those poor kids, and so it's their fault.
Let's deal with this bullshit once and for all, because I'm sick of hearing every time American military forces blow up a wedding ceremony, or a refugee convoy, or family home, that it's all the fault of the bad guys. If you choose war, you choose its consequences. If you choose the tactic of urban warfare and sectarian death squads, you are responsible for what takes place. If you choose to pound a school with shells, even if - and I want to be absolutely clear about this - even if you are under the impression that there might be nefarious folks hanging around in the vicinity, then the deaths are your fault. It doesn't matter if you think the military are bullshitting on this or not: there is a whole ideology involved here, which is inherently exculpatory and in many of its manifestations deeply racist.
This is the ideology of the 'western way of war', in which it is claimed that western states uniquely refuse to target civilians (see Martin Shaw's The New Western Way of War for an explication and qualified apologia). Isn't this always the claim? When Bush senior explained that he had no beef with ordinary Iraqis in 1991, indeed prayed for their safety as his army was incinerating, shredding and burying alive Iraqi conscripts and civilians hiding in bomb shelters, he explicated an obnoxious and supremacist mythology. For while it is true that Western states engaged in military conquest have not on the whole sought to commit widespread massacres against civilians, the very innocence of the distinction between combatants and civilians is deeply suspect. To begin with, because it implicitly denies any legitimacy to opposing combatants, it licences a wide variety of industrialised slaughter techniques that can be used against them: even where they are not the initiators of the conflict. This has permitted not only the use of indefinite and secret imprisonment and torture against suspected combatants, but also the preference at every stage for intensified aggression with predictably high rates of death and destruction, rather than serious consideration of demands or claims made by oppositional groups. Secondly, the category of civilians appears to be suffused with racist sentimentality - the implicit claim is that any right they have to be exempted from high-tech slaughter is a sort of reward for passivity and acceptance of conquest. Even that right is imperiled if they manage to give the impression of being potential combatants, or protecting or otherwise aiding them, or even being in close proximity to them. One's rights as a civilian are so precarious that a bunch of enraged or deranged occupying troops can take them away with little prospect of discovery and a great effort at cover-up if someone does find out. This is an elemental condition of war and occupation. Indeed, it is a highly unsatisfactory right, since one is supposed to passively accept not only exposure to "collateral damage" - the inevitably widespread civilian deaths that occur from military strategies designed to wipe out the enemy ruthlessly, efficiently, and from a great cocooned distance - and not only the destruction of the infrastructure that enables life, and not only the constant disruption and fear: one is also expected to accept the political priorities of the aggressors, whatever they happen to be. Somehow, the slim chance that you will be among those given two grand by the occupiers for having had a family member certifiably killed by US troops, isn't adequate compensation.
Before, I had thought that the problem was the inevitability that the distinction between combatant and civilian would be eroded or erased once it became clear that the combatants had a community of support and a mandate to wage war with the resources of that community. I had thought, in other words, that the problem was in the degenerate tendencies of especially longer wars. This is partially the case: it is no mere accident, but systematic. And in fact, not only does war possess those inherently degenerative tendencies ranging from massacre to genocide, but the relationship between war and genocide manifests itself in other ways: curiously, it was pro-war commentator William Shawcross who outlined this some decades ago, in his book Sideshow, in which it is described how the Khmer Rouge were "born out of the inferno" of the American bombing of Cambodia. It is well within the range of possibilities that a post-occupation Iraq will succumb to similar forces. Yet, that only gets one so far - and at any rate, the Pentagon et al prefer short wars with comparatively few (and discreet, or unnoticed) casualties. No, the problem is deeper, because we're talking about an analytical frame within which war is perceived, and not simply a paradigm within which it is fought: the problem resides in the way the civilian/combatant distinction is made, and the way that it legitimises great harm to the communities under attack, always displacing the blame onto the opposing combatants (and eventually, onto the civilians too, since they have failed to live up to expectations). If they didn't fight, they would be civilians, thus protected: that is, if everyone does as they're told, no one will get hurt. This is the ethics of the bank robbery or the ransom note.
The racism of this ideology couldn't be clearer: only Americans are entitled to self-defense (and even, tacitly, a great deal of vengeful excess) if their citizens, territory or even claimed interests are attacked. Everyone else has to suck it up. And of course, the military supremacy comes with an added dimension of ideological supremacism. The very fact that military aggression is presented as, variously, emergency management, democratisation and security - all tapping into universalist claims with axiomatic appeal among the target audience (the population of the warmaking states), means that any opponent is automatically disqualified from the normal range of human consideration because by simple virtue of resisting, They're Opposed To Democracy. And if they're opposed to that, ironically enough, they are not entitled to self-determination (catch 22: if they're not opposed to it, then they aren't entitled to self-determination either, because the United States claims to be delivering democracy).
I raise all this as the White House predicts without the slightest hint of shame, that it's coming wave of attacks in Iraq will produce massive casualties. Tony Snow, the spokesperson, explains that in a bid to crush the resistance, they are going to press into the "tougher neighbourhoods". He says, as if to disarm critics, that: "We've known that, been saying it all along. We're getting into some of the grittiest security operations". It doesn't need saying, because it goes without saying, that massive organised carnage and the hacking and tearing and burning of individuals to death through long-range weaponry, is legitimate if directed principally against armed opponents of the occupation. At worst it is too risky, or bad for American troops, or making a crisis worse, perpetuating an unwinnable war, but the basic legitimacy of such choices is never challenged. Similarly, the US apologises for civilian murders in Afghanistan, after considerable reluctance to accept responsibility it has to be said, but does so in a way that clearly places the larger part of the blame on 'Taliban' while reducing their repeated (usually disavowed or concealed) massacres to a series of unfortunate accidents.