The stories from Iraq are getting worse. There is news of massacres and threatened massacres, reported deaths and abductions, the sufferings of Yazidis, Christians and the many Muslims who reject the message of ISIS. It makes me sad and angry in equal measure.
In 2003, the peace movement predicted that the US-led invasion of Iraq would lead to sectarian violence and possibly civil war. I take no delight in seeing our predictions fulfilled, and on an even worse scale than most of us expected.
But some of the militarists who spoke of “liberating” Iraq eleven years ago seem to have little self-awareness and no shame. The likes of Liam Fox are now popping up in the media to argue that UK forces should join US forces in bombing Iraq, supposedly out of humanitarian concern for the victims of ISIS.
These people were warned in 2003 that their actions would lead to disaster. The disaster has come, and they respond by advocating the very same thing that triggered the disaster in the first place. They want to go to war in Iraq again.
However many times the are proved wrong, the most naïve kind of militarists always believe that the solution to any problem is to drop bombs on somebody.
As usual, it is not clear who they would be bombing. We could debate whether it is ethical to secure one person’s freedom by taking the life of an aggressor. But this is not what is happening in Iraq. The US bombs will kill civilians just as surely as they will kill ISIS fighters. Warfare has never been about killing aggressors. At most it involves killing people who are the same nationality, the same religion or simply in the same place as an aggressor.
Every civilian killed by a US bomb will give ISIS another argument with which to appeal to potential supporters. The very existence of US bombing will help this vicious gang of fundamentalists to present themselves as the true defenders of the Iraqi people. ISIS can be defeated only if its support is undermined, yet Obama and his allies are acting in a way that can only increase its popularity.
I respect the fact that many supporters of the bombing are motivated by a genuine horror at the ISIS butchery and an urge to do anything to stop it. As some have said to me on Twitter, “We must do something”. But responding to this feeling by bombing Iraq again would be like seeing a house on fire and pouring petrol on the flames – on the grounds that you had to do something.
While I respect the humanitarian motivations of some supporters of bombing, I find it difficult to take such claims seriously when they come from politicians and commentators who would never apply the same principles in other areas. The behaviour of ISIS is horrific, but it is sadly not unique. The vicious fighting between Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic has rarely made headlines in the UK, despite the atrocities committed by both sides. The kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria went from being a global outrage to forgotten news in a matter of days, with the girls no more free when they disappeared from the headlines than they were when they disappeared from their classrooms.
The Israeli government and its army have massacred hundreds of innocent civilians in Gaza. The Tory MPs and columnists who want to save the Yazidi from the terrorists of IS are quite happy for the UK to continue to license weapons sales to the terrorists of the Israeli government – and to the regime of Saudi Arabia, whose ideology is hardly a million miles from the views of IS.
Indeed, the UK government sold weapons to Saddam, then helped the US government to remove him and sold weapons to the regime they put in his place. As ISIS have captured weapons belonging to the Iraqi government, there is a good chance they are using some British-made weapons. British ministers now look set to sell weapons to Kurdish troops so that they can use them against the British weapons held by ISIS troops, who have taken them from a government supplied with arms by the UK after the US and UK went to war with the regime that they had previously armed. In this context, it is difficult to regard any supply of weapons as a moral and humanitarian act.
Imagine if the Iranian government were to bomb Israel, saying it was doing so to save the innocent people of Gaza from being massacred. This is substantially the same argument as the US government makes when it justifies bombing Iraq with talk of saving innocent Iraqi Christians. If the two arguments seem different, it is only because we are used to seeing actions by the US and UK governments as inherently liberal and humanitarian. This is not how they are seen in much of the world.
I do not have any easy answers to the dangers of ISIS in Iraq. I do not have solutions to offer with a promise that I can save the enemies of ISIS from being massacred. The cheap answers and supposed solutions are provided by militarists who believe that violence can save us from violence. Their promises are empty, although no amount of evidence will stop them repeating them.
It is odd that pacifists are so often accused of being naïve, when it is militarists who repeatedly offer the same response, no matter how many times it fails. Someone asked me a few days ago if the situation in Iraq means that pacifism is no longer credible. On the contrary, the situation in Iraq means – sadly – that the warnings of pacifists have been proved right. It is not pacifism that has been discredited, but militarism.
I am struggling with my inner pacifist lately. I am completely convinced it is the right way to go, but it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever if the person across the table favors militarism…
I could be content living peacefully in my European bubble of safety (and blissful ignorance?) but it just won’t do… Conflicts no longer respect national borders and if it arrives to my doorstep, what will my pretty white peace dove and I do then…..?
Thanks for your comment, Epi. I can understand what you’re saying. I often question my pacifism too (which surprises some people!). To me, pacifism is not about condemning people who resort to violence in extreme situations that I have not faced. I hope that in their situation I would seek to respond with active nonviolent resistance, but I know this is not always possible and I can’t promise that I would not be violent if I were in the same situation. Pacifism is not a condemnation of everyone who’s violent but a rejection of warfare and militarism – structures and systems that lead to the deaths of countless innocent people even when justified as a response to aggression.
Like you, I’m conscious that I’m in a relatively comfortable situation, at least in terms of being unlikely to face outright physical violence. I suggest that the question we can ask ourselves is “What can we do to make it less likely that people (elsewhere in the world) will face violence and death?”. British arms companies and the British government export weapons and warfare around the world. By challenging them (for example, campaigning for an arms embargo on Israel, working to expose the arms industry’s influence within government, disrupting arms industry events), we can play a part in reducing violence thousands of miles away.