Published in Radical Philosophy 111 (Jan/Feb 2002), pp. 11-19
It is said that generals always fight yesterday’s war, but this is even truer of anti-war movements. Although the ‘war against terrorism’ is billed as a ‘new kind of war’, the anti-war rhetoric has seemed even more familiar than the military practice. In this article I bring my experience of thinking about peace politics to bear on the largely inherited attitudes implicit in anti-war responses to the crisis since 11 September 2001. I write as someone who publicly opposed the military thrust of the ‘war on terrorism’ from George Bush’s first pronouncements. But I proceed by making ten challenges to common lines of anti-war argumentation, and propose alternative foundations for a coherent critique of the war.
1 Do we pay more than lip-service to the criminality of the initial aggression?
Anti-war activists invariably preface their critiques with ‘of course we condemn the terror attacks’ – just as in the Gulf War, they said ‘of course we condemn the invasion of Kuwait’ and over Yugoslavia, ‘of course we condemn ethnic cleansing’. And yet this is a particularly insidious form of argument. It almost invariably means that the speaker does not take seriously the act of aggression which has provoked Western military action. While recognising a tactical need to acknowledge its illegitimacy, the speaker hopes to move on quickly to the West’s own ‘crimes’ without really addressing the nature of the initial aggression.
In the case of ‘911’ (as some Americans call it) the failure begins with an inability to name the attacks. Of course, this is not a failing only of anti-war opinion; we do not have an agreed terminology for these events. President Bush was quick to call them an ‘act of war’: correct so far as it went, but manifestly an incomplete naming. It was an act of murderous propaganda – which is the meaning of terrorism. Innocent travellers and workers were burnt alive, crushed, suffocated, or forced to jump to their deaths. It was an immoral and illegal act of war, illegitimate according to all the standards accepted by worldwide humanity and agreed by its political representatives.
Killing was directed overwhelmingly against innocent civilians for no other reason than that they were presumed to be Americans. In terms of law and of literature it would be accurately named as a genocidal massacre. And like many acts of war and most genocidal massacres, what presented as targeted violence was experienced as indiscriminate slaughter, killing Britons and Indians, Jews and Muslims, everyone and anyone in the path of its assault.
Any response to this massacre that is remotely close to being adequate has to address its absolutely outrageous and horrific character. Those who are quick to condemn America’s response have not been slow to use terms like ‘genocide’ to refer to the deaths of Afghans from starvation, the likelihood of which has been only indirectly increased by US action. But they have often been slow to find similar language to describe the terror attacks themselves, which manifestly invite it.
2 Do we avoid misplaced comparisons that pre-empt moral response?
Anti-war critics often minimise the significance of aggression through misleading analogies designed to move the argument onto anti-Western territory. The significance of the terror massacre has been denied by false comparisons with the crimes of America itself. Thus Noam Chomsky’s initial reaction was to compare this event – in which thousands of people had clearly died – with President Clinton’s bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan in 1998. Even if this had been a relevant comparison, we can ask whether an immediate comparative framing of any kind was appropriate. The massacre called out for an active moral response – Chomsky’s first reaction was to pre-empt one.
However the dubiousness of the enterprise was emphasised by the inappropriateness of the comparison. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out, the Sudan analogy was singularly unconvincing. The criminality of Clinton’s attack was one of carelessness – misidentification of the target – motivated by political calculation. (It was also a response, however misguided, to the massacres of Africans and Americans in the 1998 embassy bombings, victims who do not figure in Chomsky’s argument.) As Hitchens pointed out, the Islamist terrorists not only intended, in destroying the huge World Trade Centre, to kill thousands of civilians – they may have even have expected to murder a hundred thousand (‘a Dresden for the Taliban’) had the towers fallen lengthways across Manhatten. Chomsky made his comparison despite the fact that no one was actually killed – although a nightwatchman was horrifically burned – in the Sudan attack.
Chomsky’s case rested on unseen and unintended ‘collateral damage’, the thousands of deaths that he believed must have been caused in the Sudan through the absence of drugs. This is indeed the most serious aspect of Clinton’s Sudan fiasco, and no one would deny that it greatly compounds its morally objectionable character. But if Chomsky wanted to enter indirectly caused deaths into a calculus of slaughter, he should obviously have considered the probable indirect casualties of 911 – not least from deepened poverty throughout the Third World from the economic crisis that the massacre provoked. In short, Chomsky should have compared like with like. The point is not so much the deficiency of his comparisons as what they tell us about his response and its motives.
3 Can we resist temptations towards fallacious contextualisation?
These comparisons are examples of a wider problem – the use of contextualisation to distract attention from the need for a morally and politically adequate response to the terrorist massacre. It will not do to say that the United States had itself committed, condoned or failed to prevent similar crimes against others. Not only do such claims, however true, provide not a scrap of justification or excuse for what was done – by themselves they also fail to provide a sufficient guide to our actions in the aftermath.
However not only anti-war activists, but sceptical press and even academic commentary, have frequently substituted political and economic analysis of the Middle East and Central Asia for a serious response to the massacre. Partly this is a matter of political habit – we all know how American policy has sustained Israeli occupation in the West Bank, and so on. And this certainly helps explain why many Arabs and Muslims hate America and sympathise with Bin Laden. So while relevant to the framework for a wider political response, it is pernicious when used to explain away the massacre and to minimise the justification for a response to it. This mode of argument is so pervasive, and even motivated by good intentions (towards Palestinians, for example) that its inappropriateness perhaps needs particular emphasis.
4 Have we taken seriously the US’s own moral and legal rights?
These kinds of false responses are often linked to an over-hasty dismissal of the US’s moral and legal rights to make a military response to the massacre. It was, as I have said, an act of aggression, whose seriousness was compounded by the targeting of civilians. Clearly there is a prima facie case for America’s right to respond militarily, not merely as retaliation but in self-defence against the clear danger of further attacks.
Initially there was a strong argument that the US did not know who was responsible, and the ‘Wild West justice’ of possible attacks on Iraq as well as Afghanistan seemed seriously illegitimate. However this argument seems no longer valid, in the light not only of the US’s evidence, but of Bin Laden’s own propaganda efforts, coming forward to claim the political credit if not – in the light of a possible trial, we must presume – the direct command responsibility. Nor is there any doubt about the Taliban’s generally close links with Bin Laden. So in this context, America’s right to attack al-Qaida and the Taliban is not in serious doubt. No wonder that the veteran radical international scholar, Richard Falk, has pronounced in favour of a possible ‘just war’ – the first American war he has supported. Or, of course, that almost unnoticed the US has obtained UN backing.
Of course, the right to make war does not make war right. But it does no favours to an anti-war cause to deny the elements of traditional international legitimacy in America’s response. Anti-war activists have been quick to cry foul when America has failed to observe the formalities of international legitimation – when over Kosovo, for example, NATO was able to gain Security Council backing only retrospectively. They are under an obligation of consistency, if nothing else, to take seriously its international rights in this situation.
5 Have we developed the idea of justice as an alternative to military action?
The problem with anti-war politics is precisely that it is mostly against the war rather than for justice. Coalitions have been built around the lowest common denominator of opposition to US action rather than around an adequate alternative response to the core issue of this crisis, the terrorist massacre. This is a fundamentally moral and political failing of many current anti-war movements. However it is also one that has profound consequences, since it gives governments the easy response that criticism of the war does not address the 911 outrage, and allows them to present American action as the only possible response.
The only morally and politically effective answer to the US’s war in Afghanistan is that there was a choice. The massacre was an act of war, but it was also a crime – it could have been treated as a criminal act. As Sir Michael Howard, the doyen of British military historians, has argued, ‘Many people would have preferred a police operation conducted under the auspices of the UN on behalf of the international community as a whole, against a criminal conspiracy, whose members should be hunted down and brought before an international court. Terrorists can be successfully destroyed only if public opinion supports the authorities in regarding them as criminals rather than heroes.’
Even radicals like Falk question whether such a response would have been sufficient, and certainly it was asking for a leap of imagination and politics that was highly improbable in George W. Bush. But imagine the effect if he had embraced an international tribunal as the way to morally frame the criminality of Bin Laden and the other perpetrators. This would have been a powerful and enduring symbol of the global commitment to defeat terror. With America’s drive behind it, it is not too much to think that bin Laden, like Slobodan Milosevic, could eventually have been brought to justice. Unlike the bombing of Afghanistan this course would have had unquestionable global legitimacy. It would have required less cosying up to authoritarian rulers in Moscow, Beijing and Islamabad. And it would have been much more difficult to whip up anti-Western feeling on the streets from Gaza to Jakarta.
In America, all but the ‘hard left’ opponents of the war have tended towards a ‘justice not revenge’ response. In Britain, however, at a greater distance from the impact of the terror massacre, all too many of the activists have opted for the old modes of anti-Americanism and anti-war.
6 Have we avoided complicity in denigrating international justice?
Indeed the hard left’s response has not only avoided calling for international justice as the alternative to war. It has also undermined this case by denigrating the available models of international law enforcement. In this way it has entered an unholy alliance with the most determined opponents of international justice, on the American right. Under their pressure, Clinton ganged up with China to water down the ICC treaty, and only signed up to it in his final days. It is no secret that Bush would like to renege on even that commitment. For Republicans, the idea that an international court could try Americans – and, it seems, the killers of Americans – is anathema. Many on the American right have called for ‘war not law’.
However the tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, established by the UN in the 1990s, have been a remarkable example of international justice at work, and a triumph for European-driven ideas of law over might. They have impartially indicted, and increasingly convicted, high-ranking officials responsible for crimes against humanity. The conviction of Serbian general Krstic, co-responsible for the genocidal massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, and the indictment of former President Milosevic for this and other crimes, are highly relevant precedents for the treatment of the 911 terrorists.
A significant section of the international left has spent the last two years, however, in systematic denigration of the Yugoslav tribunal as a tool of Western power. Focusing on the Tribunal’s decision, following a report by an investigative committee, not to prosecute NATO for its bombing of Serbia, the ‘hard left’ has set aside the careful work that has created by far the strongest model yet of international criminal justice. In the context of the terrorist massacres, this ‘left’ lines up squarely with the American right to block the only serious alternative to war as a response to 911. ‘Pilgerstan’ turns out to be not so far removed from Bush’s ‘Wild West’.
7 Anti-American or anti-war?
Not only, however, is too much anti-war activism also anti-justice. It is also doubtful if it is seriously anti-war. There are, of course, two main senses in which it is possible to be anti-war. We can oppose this particular war – essentially what anti-war politics means in the current situation. As I have pointed out, coalitions are being built on the lowest common denominator – mirror images of Bush’s own lowest common denominator anti-terrorist coalition, with its collection of unsavoury regimes.
Pacifists are in unholy alliance with anti-Americans, opposing this war exactly as they have previous American wars, making little distinction between them (although there are actually quite important differences between this war and, for example, Kosovo). But most anti-Americans are not pacifists. They would support other kinds of war, maybe even the other side in the current war, and some of them even advocate war at home (hence childish slogans like ‘no war but class war’ on some recent banners).
This is not just an abstract point. If America’s cause is morally and legally justified, then the only serious ground of objection is not to its general ends, but to the means that it is using. Two kinds of argument are possible. First, it can be argued that the means will be inefficient and counterproductive. Because al-Qaida is a transnational terrorist network, it can’t be defeated by military action in Afghanistan; because the Taliban will carry on guerrilla resistance, America faces a long and difficult war with uncertain success; and because the war will radicalise Muslims outside Afghanistan, the terrorist threat will be increased.
These sorts of consequential arguments are important and one doesn’t have to be a pacifist to make them. However, deeper moral objections, essentially pacifistic if not pacifist, can be made to the methods of the war. It is important to make these correctly: it doesn’t help to exaggerate the wrongfulness of what is being done in Afghanistan. Bush is not fighting an old-style total war with weapons of mass destruction, but the new type of relatively high-precision, relatively low-casualty, media-conscious campaign that has been practised in the Gulf and Kosovo. So long as America takes care to ‘minimise’ civilian deaths, it could remain within the limits prescribed by just war thinking (as Falk points out).
That word relatively covers, of course, a multitude of sins. Whether or not the war is ‘just’ or legal, there is something disgusting about military planners in their Pentagon offices coldly, even if accidentally, incinerating a whole village in eastern Afghanistan. This is especially so when, effectively, such accidents are programmed into the most careful use of even the smartest weapons – and when risk to US military personnel is almost programmed out, at least so long as the war remains one of bombing. Systematic transfer of the risks of war to civilians, however limited these risks are by historical standards, is profoundly questionable. These sorts of objections are compounded by the known dangers of gravely exacerbating the food crisis of millions of poor Afghan people, and of forcing even more into overcrowded, prison-like refugee camps in which the weak will often not survive.
8 Are we engaging actively with the consequential issues of the war?
Thus Chomsky and Pilger are right that this sort of ‘collateral damage’ can be as serious, when spread across any more lives, as the direct physical harm caused by bombs. However it is doubtful that much anti-war politics really takes seriously the plight of the poor and hungry in Afghanistan. ‘Stop the War’ could mean the victory of the Taliban and the return of the conditions that already produced mass hunger long before Bush intervened. Stopping the war, without other measures, would make us feel better – but would it actually help the Afghan people?
A serious politics will recognise the reality of the war and the unlikelihood that the US is going to give up in response to anti-war protests. As well as criticising the resort to war, and the bombing, it will raise ‘reformist’ demands – for bombing pauses and serious humanitarian relief efforts, if necessary that US and UK troops protect and assist humanitarian provision. While core anti-war politics, on all past evidence, will remain a minority pursuit, TV news, press and relief organisations could well build momentum behind such demands. The big precedent is the Kurdish relief operation of 1991, the pressures for which I described in Civil Society and Media in Global Crises (Pinter, 1996). As well a ‘humanitarian’ demands about the economic misery of the Afghan people, we should be watching the changing political situation – above all to prevent the excesses of Northern Alliance forces, and to support those who press for see a stable, secular government which respects human rights.
9 Are we taking responsibility for our own past positions?
One of the peculiarities of anti-war politics is that while very knowledgeable about the history of US intervention, it is often silent on its own history, from which it often learns little. Many of those who oppose the American war in Afghanistan also opposed the wars in Kosovo and the Gulf. As we have seen, they do not always remember to be consistent, for example in upholding international norms, from one war to the next.
More seriously, however, they don’t appear to have learnt from the mistakes of previous anti-war campaigns. The campaign against the Gulf War particularly comes to mind. Then too, much of the European centre-left and left opposed the war. They focused most of their efforts on preventing any extension of the military campaign or any broadening of war aims. When President Bush called a halt with the liberation of Kuwait, the anti-war movement breathed a sigh of relief. On the ground in Iraq, however, this was the very moment when people rose up against Saddam Hussein. American troops were so close that they could hear the Iraqi Republican Guard massacring the Shi’ite rebels in the city of Basra. But they did not intervene to save them.
But this was not only a failure of George Bush. Back home in Britain and the US, hardly any anti-war protestors raised their voices to demand that the West protect these courageous people on the sharp end of a murderous army. Prominent anti-war writers like Pilger, with regular media outlets, didn’t write about the Shi’as, and only about the Kurds when it was too late. The rebels’ defeat sealed the stalemate in Iraq that has impoverished that society and poisoned world politics to this day: but anti-war activists had done little to prevent it. Like the Iraqis, the Afghan people deserve more than to become our latest propaganda tool against America..
10 Towards a new politics of peace?
The politics of international justice, human rights and humanitarian protection provides a powerful alternative to the politics of bombing and the cycle of violence. As in the dissolution of the Cold War, the goals of human rights and pacific politics combine. However these politics can be advanced only by abandoning the simpler reflexes of traditional anti-war politics, and engaging with the real politics both of the war zones and of international institutions. Faced with a bad and unnecessary war, it is not enough to be AGAINST the war. We must also be FOR the victims, all of them. And that means justice as well as peace. Will we learn this time?