1: The author describes how he received an e-mail from the Prime Minister, and why he didn't bother to reply.
Oh, the First World War, boys, served out its fate
The reasons for fightin' I never got straight..
The reasons for fightin' I never got straight..
Bob Dylan, Lyrics 1962-85
Tony and George wanted their war; Tony and George got their war.
The papers, even the ones who started out opposing it, went through their 'Falklands factor' rhetoric and convinced themselves that the good old days of the Blitz and the Queen Mum had come again. The news programmes were double their usual length; students sat down in front of busses in the center of Bristol. A rather chic boutique on Park Street hastily put up a window display saying 'Buy clothes, not bombs'; and swear to god, there was a poster saying 'Ocean Estate Agents Say No To War.'
I saw two school-girls bunking off for the afternoon carrying 'Not in my name' placards. There were two lads behind them, chanting, 'We want war', provocatively. Well, obviously. 'War' and 'Not War' are now two tribal orientations, like Gareth and Wil or Arsenal and Spurs. It's another big media event. More interesting than Celebrity Fame Academy, but less interesting than 24.
I'm doing my very best to feel angry with Tony, but I can't manage it. I didn't go on the March. 'Tony is an irritating sanctimonious toad and George Bush is obviously certifiable, but nevertheless there are good arguments on both sides'won't fit on a placard.
It's not that I love the Empire; I hate it, but there's nothing I can do about it right now.
Tony Blair once sent me an e-mail. No, honestly, he did.
Subject: Your Web Site
Date: Wed, 5 Sep 2001 23:07:38 GMT
X-Mailer: Endymion MailMan Professional Edition v3.0.26
Subject: Your Web Site
Date: Wed, 5 Sep 2001 23:07:38 GMT
X-Mailer: Endymion MailMan Professional Edition v3.0.26
I came accross your site, I don't understand why you don't like me and New Labour.
If you look at our record on Schools, The Economy, and jobs, you'll see that things are a lot better than under the Tories.
For More Information on The Prime Minister visit
For More Information on New Labour visit
I never replied. I realize that it was probably written by a Milbank minion. I looked it up now because reading it does almost generate a real twinge of anger.
'Our record is better than the Tories.' Well, yes. In the sense that cancer is nicer than AIDS. I voted Liberal, but I would have voted Labour (wearing rubber gloves and with a clothes peg on my nose) if I thought that was the only way to stop the Tories winning Bristol West. I would vote Monster Raving Loony if I thought it was the only way to stop the Tories winning Bristol West. (I'm voting Bristolian in the local elections, as are all decent folks.) Is 'not as bad as Mrs. Thatcher' really something that I am supposed to feel good about?
'If you look at our record on schools, The Economy and jobs....' Do you really suppose that Schools and the Economy are such binary, black and white areas that one can say that they are 'better', and not need to comment any further? I have no doubt that, according to his own lights, Tony believes that he has made schools 'better'. New Labour is doing better than the Tories at taking the country in a particular direction but it is always possible that that's not a direction I want to go in.
So, Tony: if you are still a reader—and you did once claim Lord of the Rings was you favorite book—I can just hear that wounded, Dead Ringers, sincere hand-gesture voice. 'Considering that Saddam Hussein was a dangerous madman who used weapons of mass destruction against his own people, how can you possibly talk about being angry at me?'
A just question, my liege.
2: The author describes his reasons for thinking that war is a bad thing, and possible reasons for dissenting from that view. De-ontological and teleological ethical systems contrasted.
Sarah, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you, and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to become a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?
'Genesis of the Daleks'
What is so terrible about 'war' that it can make young people stir themselves from their Gameboys and demonstrate against it? People die all the time. 3,000 people die every year in road accidents but we regard 3,000 deaths as a suitable blood price to pay for quick travel.
Did John Logie Baird mention this when he proposed the internal combustion engine, I wonder? 'Good news: I have a wonderful new machine that will enable you to go from London to Edinburgh in 12 hours rather than three days. Bad news: It will kill 3,000 people a year.' We could reduce the road-death-toll to zero by banning private cars; but we aren't going to do this. We even protest about the idea of putting up speed cameras, because, dammit, we have the right to drive faster than the speed limit. (Imposing the law? Why does the government have this vendetta against motorists?)
So: peaceniks will march against George-and-tony because they are going to take action which will result in the deaths of many Iraqi civilians but they won't do so because they are failing to take action which would prevent the deaths of many English civilians. Morally, the road-deaths are on Blair's hands just as much as the collateral war causalities.
The more I think, the more convinced I become that people believe war to be wrong because it generates ritual impurity. That is: the death I cause directly will desecrate me, put blood on my hands; whereas the death I fail to prevent, (reprehensible as that might be) will leave me relatively unpolluted. Many moral issues become clear when you have grasped this idea.
1: . The more directly I cause the death, the more polluted I become. Killing a single child with my bare hands is as bad or worse, in terms of ritual impurity, as ordering the deaths of hundreds or standing by and permitting the deaths of thousands. We hate Myra Hindley more than we hate General Pinochet, not because she did more harm, but because she incurred greater defilement.
2: I am more desecrated when the blood is literally on my hands than when the killing is at one remove: it's worse to strangle someone, looking them in the eye, than it is to pull a lever and drop them through at trap door. Not worse for them, and arguable not worse for the society which lets it happen, but worse for you. To kill someone who you can see, and who is begging you not to is to desecrate yourself. To knock a kid over in a car because you had too much to drink is merely to be a moron.
3: As a townie, I am always slightly shocked by the way in which farm people can give pet names to cattle and eat them anyway. Jokes about eating pets, even if it's only at the level of Homer Simpson's lobster, make me mildly nauseous. It's clear what is happening: I have an irrational fear that if I think of a creature as a person and then kill and eat it anyway I will defile myself much as if I had really killed a human being. (My own sub-urbanite solution, to let working-class slaughter-house workers become ritually impure while I buy my sausages hygienically packed from Sainsburys is the worst one possible. To be consistent, we need a society entirely made up either of hunters or of vegans.)
4: Opponents of blood-sports can't logically be worried about the welfare of the fox. They aren't trying to save the life of the small mammal that was probably going to be hit by a car in any case; they are trying to prevent the hunter from ritual pollution.
5: Pro-lifers know perfectly well that many fetuses are spontaneously aborted in the normal human reproductive process: but they feel that the cold-blooded murder of a baby is wrong in any case. This was particularly clear in the grotesque case in which pair of conjoined twins were almost certain to die; but an operation which killed one of them would give the second a very good shot at life. A body of Roman Catholic opinion held that it was morally better to let both die naturally than to kill one deliberately. This is incomprehensible without recourse to a theory of blood-guilt.
Once you've recognized the ritual-pollution theory, it becomes very clear that all those World War II conscientious objector tribunals were arguing completely at cross purposes. The pacifist sat there and said 'Killing is wrong', and the magistrate came up with complicated circumstances under which killing one person might save many lives in the long run. If the pacifist accepted any of these, then this was held to prove that 'pacifism' wasn't true, and the CO went to prison.
'What would you do if you were attacked in the street by a rabid dog?'
'I would try to reason with it.'
'What would you do if a German officer was trying to rape your Grandmother?:'
'I would suggest that he re-buried afterwards'
What the CO should have said is 'I believe that if I kill someone; then the ritual pollution which I would incur—the harm that it would do my soul— is so dreadful that it outweighs the deaths of any number of Kurds or Jews—even, in the last analysis, than the deaths of the whole human race.' He might have extended the argument '...and a society which is full of people who are ritually impure, a society of damaged souls, would not be worth living in.'
'But Andrew: this is a magical theory—fine for Ancient Greeks and Jews, but not something that anyone in the real world believes in.?'
Well, no. Obviously not.
The only alternative on offer is to say that we judge our actions by looking at their long term results: the killing of a child might be justified if the end result was that the lives of many children were saved. If you told Tony that his war would certainly result in the deaths of many civilians at the hands of badly aimed Coalition missiles, he replied that not having a war would also result in the deaths of many civilians at the hands of Saddam. There are other considerations to look at as well as 'number of lives lost'; because most people think that some things are more important than human life. It might be valid to kill a very large number of people in order to prevent, say, the British Museum from being blown up, depending on the value you place on art and knowledge and history. It might be worth allowing the whole of America to be turned into a nuclear wasteland in order to save the world from communism, depending on how evil you think communism is and how precious you think democracy is. If you sincerely believe that America is a Great Satan, then it might be morally valid to...well, anyway.
The idea of defilement—of 'sin' as a kind of filth—is quite central to the Old Testament view of morality. (That, I assume, is why quite so much of the Torah is taken up with laws about literal cleanliness.) The Old Testament model of defilement and cleansing underlies the New Testament view of Salvation and Atonement. The Bible is quite deeply rooted in our culture, and still fairly important in some forms of Christianity. So maybe there is something to be said for it.
I am a human being. All my programming, biological and social, tells me not to kill other people—and especially, not to cut them up, not to eat them, and not to kill my own offspring. If I do so, then I first have to overcome that programming. In fact, I have to make several quite specific shifts to my mental attitude: either to think that the person I am killing is not really a person, just a slab of meat; or that he is so evil that he really deserves it; or that I am actually only blowing up a machine, not the person in it, or that the bitch loves it, really. Military indoctrination works hard to create this mind-set, which is why civilians avoid pubs in Aldershot on a Friday night. But having once made that mind-shift then a part of myself has been killed—at any rate, changed beyond recognition—and I have become a different person. No longer quite human.
'But Andrew: up until, say, 1792, there can't have been many people who had not killed an animal, fought in a war, or witnessed an execution. All your heroes had 'killed part of themselves': by your arguments, there haven't been many 'real human beings' in history. The veggies, peaceniks and pro-lifers are clinging to a sort of sentimentalism that is an historically recent invention.'
Yes, maybe. Or maybe that 'sentimentalism' is part of what we mean by 'civilization' .
3: A short digression, in which the author uses a trivial incident to illustrate the proposition that the desire for retribution is not necessarily ignoble.
If you strike a child take care that you strike it in anger, even at the risk of maiming it for life. A blow in cold blood neither can nor should be forgiven
In February, there was a news item about a school strike. A young man had shot a teacher. This had been regarded as very naughty, and he had been expelled from school. Under a complicated appeals procedure based on the ludicrous idea that schoolchildren have legal rights, the kid was re-instated. The teachers, not unnaturally, were a little perturbed.
Granted, we are talking more Dennis the Menace than Columbine: the weapon in question was a more than usually vicious pop-gun, but they still felt that pointing guns at teachers was not an acceptable way of expressing dissent in the modern education system. I believe in the end there was some kind of very complicated compromise, whereby the kid stayed technically expelled but was allowed to go to school and be educated in a separate classroom. (Like when Di was allowed to stay a Princess but stop being a member of the Royal Family.)
When I was at school, back in the Paleolithic the offending youngster would have been struck repeatedly on the palm of the hand with a blunt instrument, and the matter would have been forgotten until he appeared on Trisha blaming childhood trauma for his failed marriage and/or weight problem.
I don't advocate beatings (except between consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes) but this may not have been the worst possible way of handling the situation. There seems to be a powerful emotional feeling that when someone has done something wrong, something ought to be done about it. A humiliating punishment might be a rough-and-ready way of taking the youngster down a peg and act out a little drama which says 'Shooting teachers is one of the worst things we can think of.' As it is, the teachers had the sense that nothing had been done, and therefore the original offence hadn't been that bad.
I believe that similar arguments are sometimes put forward on behalf of the families of murder victims by members of the strangulation lobby.
Three thousand people died on September 11th, and I swear I thought of the 7-11 joke before Ali G did. There is a strong and understandable feeling that if we don't do something, really, really, really, terrible then we won't believe that September 11th was a really, really, really, really terrible event: that if the world doesn't change, then all the people who died would have died for no reason. The response has to be proportionate and dramatic. More security at airports, or better designed skyscrapers wouldn't feel apocalyptic enough even if that would guarantee that another September 11th could never happen. In any case, politicians prefer doing Big Apocalyptic things to small scale sensible ones. It makes them feel important.
We are in danger of constructing international policy not in terms of what is sensible or practical, but in terms of what makes dramatic sense.
4: The author describes the use and misuse of stories as a guide to reality, and ruminates on the growing tendency of a post-religious society to see politics in mythological terms.
'It's like in the great stories, Mr Frodo; the ones which really matter...'
Peter Jackson, after Tolkien.
'Fundamentalist' is a big word. These days, it rarely means anything other than 'Someone whose religion I disapprove of.' Its official meaning is 'one who believes in the literal truth of the Bible' but that's not very helpful. Most of our grandparents believed in the literal truth of the Bible, in the sense that they accepted Jonah's Ass or Jacob and the Whale in the same uncritical spirit as King Alfred's Cakes and George Washington's Cherry Pie—but this didn't mean that they treated the Bible as the Only Authority In All Matters of Doctrine and Conduct. Indeed, most Christians who actually call themselves 'fundamentalist' to themselves are perfectly well aware that Ecclesiastes says something different from St John. They are prone to mutter 'whole counsel of scripture' while waving their hands furiously.
George would probably claim that he believed in the literal truth of the Bible; Tony would probably say he didn't—or at any rate, squirm and say that that wasn't the real question.
A working definition of 'fundamentalist' might be 'someone who confuses stories with reality'. A relatively benign form of the complaint involves treating a story as if was an historical event. You or I read a wonderful story about a good man, the last good man in the whole world, and how God told him that he was going to destroy the whole world, everyone apart from him, and so to hurry and build a special boat....and ask 'what does it mean?'
'It's an answer to the question 'If the world is so terrible, why does god allow it to carry on?'
'No, it's about ecology; if God has promised not to destroy the world, then neither should we.'
'No, its about which laws apply to the whole world, and which apply only to Jews'
'No, the point of the story is what happened after Ham accidentally caught a glimpse of his father's willy''
The fundamentalist, on the other hand, starts looking for the boat.
But there is a more malign version of the complaint. It is one thing to mistake a story with something to say about the real world with a piece of history which happened in the real world. It is quite another to start to think that the real world functions like a story. .
People call Wagner a Nazi, and ban 'Ride of the Valkyrie' from Israeli mobile phones. But there is nothing remotely nasty inThe Ring. The story of an heroic teenager being raised by a cynical deformed miser, and eventually discovering his true identity as a son of the gods is one that speaks to everyone's psychology and emotions. It only becomes dangerous when someone identifies the Nieblung with a particular racial group and sets about wiping them out. The British National Party attempted to appropriate Jackson's Two Towers as a metaphor for the white race's resistance to black immigration. This works perfectly well, so long as you already know that Afro-Caribbean's are just as sub-human as the orcs. Timothy McVeigh claimed that his killing of civilians Okalahoma city was no worse than Heroic Luke Skywalker's slaughter of all the millions of people in the Death Star; which is quite fair, granted that you already know that the US government is as evil as Darth Vader. Tempting, under George Bush, I admit, but hardly axiomatic.
There is no story which cannot become cancerous if used in this way. Somewhere, at this moment, a fat kid with lower middle class parents is being duffed up behind the gym on the grounds that he is a muggle.
In Jackson's desecration of Lord of the Rings, there is a scene in which the Hobbits try to persuade the French, sorry, the Ents to join the coalition against Isengard. Treebeard says gravely that this is Not His War. Merry (or possibly Pippin) agrees with him, and says that the Hobbits should go back to the Shire which they love. But Pippin (or possibly Merry) says that there will be no neutral ground in the coming war.
The fires of Isengard will spread. And the woods of Tuckburough and Buckland will burn. And all that was once green and good in this world will be gone. There won’t be a Shire, Pippin.
This is a very moving scene. If there really were an enemy as destructive as Saruman; a race of people as innocent as the halflings, and an ally as wise but cautious as Treebeard, then the moral choice really would be that simple, and I would rally to the colours along with the CGI trees. But of course, life isn't like that: Jackson-Tolkien has left out all the specific messy details which make reality so complicated. As Tolkien might have said, had he thought of it: he has cut away the foliage of reality to enable us to see the shape of the Tree of story.
Confronted by Darth Vader or Saruman, it's easy to know what the Right Thing to do is. The trouble, in the real world, is deciding where they are.
This is why I find Tonygeorge's war rhetoric so frightening. They have found their Darth Vaders, and think that it's now just a matter of blowing them up It's a bit unclear as to whether Darth is Saddam, or Osama, or Iraq, or something broader like 'terrorism' or the 'axis of evil', but they've jolly well found it, and this gives them the moral authority and moral certainty which only someone in a fantasy story can ever have. A perfectly good pragmatic case for the current adventure can be made out, but the rhetoric of 'you are either with us or against us' belongs in Middle-earth rather than the Middle East.
Not that I don't feel sorry for the politicos. It must be very galling when you get the keys of Number 10 to discover that you are not in fact going to spend your days and nights establishing brilliant stratagems to make the world a better place; but merely bickering about the minutiae of a bill about making the trains run on time. It must be very tempting to start inventing stories in which you really can Save The World; or to see the tiny little nuance of government by bureaucracy in apocalyptic terms. So when someone disagrees with you about a minor point regarding public health policy, don't worry about the issues; just recast the argument in terms of a great battle between Good (you) and Evil (The Forces of Conservatism.) If there is a terrible terrorist outrage, then don't worry about boring little details about who did it and why: announce that this our opportunity to Re-Order The World.
The most extreme version of seeing reality as a story is the one which believes that we are in the Last Days, and that modern history (whenever you happen to be living) is the last few pages of a narrative which started out in Genesis Chapter One. How much influence the pre-millennial tradition has on George Bush, I don't know. Does he, like Ronald Reagan, believe that nuclear war is inevitable, Because The Bible Says So? Is he one of those who thinks that, when John the Divine talks about Israel, he doesn't mean 'the Christian church and (by extension all of God's people in history)' but 'the modern state of Israel'? Or that when he mentions 'Babylon' he means, not 'the Roman empire, (and by extension all the oppressors of God's people throughout history)' but 'the actual city of Babylon, and the country around it, namely, er, Iraq.' Certainly, an equation of Saddam with Babylon/Satan would go some way to explain why the western conscience has fixed on this nutty dictator in particular, and left so many other nutty dictators alone.
To be fair to Tony Blair, and that is not an expression you will often read in this column, he rarely sets out to make political capital out of his religious allegiance. It was unfair, although very funny, for Paxman to ask him if he and George pray together. Tony is in the tradition of British folk-Anglicanism, a strong social conscience, nice hymns, and a firm conviction that you shouldn't bring God into religion. It's a safe bet that Tony doesn't think that he's going to literally inaugurate the Book of Revelation. However, England has its own apocalyptic mythology to which Tony is perfectly prepared to appeal. The Second World War occupies a special place in the story that England likes to tell itself about itself, because it was almost the last time it got anything right. In that story, Hitler (not to be confused with the German politician of the same name) is a signifier for 'evil', scarcely less legendary Darth Vader.
5: The authors concedes that Saddam was a very nasty person, and wonders out loud whether it is necessary for us to go to war against all nasty people, without reaching any very clear conclusion
Tony, Georgie won't you say
How many kids did you kill today?
How many kids did you kill today?
Dreadful things were done in Iraq. Whether it's you favorite form of torture (tongue amputation, dropping people into vats of acid, pushing them through paper shredders); use of poisoned gas ; lack of freedom of speech and internal repression. Iraq had it all.
No-one, to my knowledge, ever denied any of this. One of the most pathetic things about the pre-war 'debate' was the way in which some 'hawks' responded to the 'doves' re-iterating, slowly, how many atrocities Saddam had committed. The implication was that the pacifists didn't realize this, and would instantly become war-mongers when it was explained to them. The buried assumption was 'if a regime is nasty, then it is axiomatic that you want to go to war with it; the only reason for not wanting to go to war with it is that you don't know how nasty it is.'
It's the oldest and most dishonest political trick in the book: 'if you question my proposed means, then you obviously don't agree with the end that I'm trying to reach.' When Labour didn't approve of some dot or comma in the Tory education policy, Mrs Thatcher said that it was because socialists didn't approve of learning; Michael Howard responded to some sub-clause of Labour law and order policy which he didn't think would work by arguing that the Labour party liked criminals more than law abiding folk.
Saddam has a nasty, repressive regime. Not, according to Amnesty International, the worst in the world, but pretty bad. If Agent Jack Bauer had Saddam's head in the sights of his rifle and we knew in advance that the death of Saddam would instantly and of itself bring the torture and oppression to an end then everyone, except the most muddle-headed kind of pacifist, would agree that pulling the trigger was a good idea. Most of us would be prepared to go further: if the US attempt to assassinate Saddam on Day Zero of the war had taken out him, his cronies, and as many collateral citizens as your heart desires, then (granted that we know that the death of Saddam will instantly and of itself bring the torture to end) then everyone (except the most muddle-headed kind of pacifist) would think that they had done a Good Thing.
However, this is a scenario only marginally further removed from reality than the exemplum of Merry and the Ents. We can't simply vaporize Saddam; and we don't know that if we did so, his regime would instantly vanish and be replaced by a pastel shaded happy valley where ponies happily cavorted in the meadows.
In practice, when we say that 'we' are going to defeat 'Saddam' because 'Saddam' is 'evil', what we actually mean is that some of our soldiers are going to kill some of his soldiers, and some of his civilians as well. We think that, the process of bombing installations and taking Baghdad will probably end the current Iraqi regime; and we think that whatever comes afterwards willprobably be better than what existed before; and we think that the deaths of servicemen on both sides and civilians on their side will probably amount to a lesser evil than the deaths which would have occurred had Saddam been left in power. We may, in fact, agree with all the 'probablies'; but it is a far, far greyer shade of black and white then the rhetoric of the politicians would have us believe.
Presumably, different individuals are benefited by this process to different degrees. If I was about to have my hands chopped off by one of Saddam's gangsters, and a Coalition serviceman came in and rescued me, I would be extremely pleased. If I was living in a suburban housing estate in Baghdad, knowing that if I criticized the government I might be killed, and the news came over the radio that Saddam was dead and I could now buy the Guardian, I might be quite pleased; not as pleased as the guy being tortured, but pleased nonetheless. On the other hand, if I (like the majority of citizens in Iraq and elsewhere) was minding my own business, not annoying the government, turning a blind eye to injustices being committed on my behalf by my leaders, and therefore not in any danger of having any part of me chopped off, and a bomb dropped on my house and blew me into a million pieces, then I might be quite annoyed. The fact that the bomb was a smart bomb that was actually aimed at the military installation next door would only be a small consolation to me.
Granted that torture is a bad thing (something apparently no longer universally agreed about, particularly when the torturer is a western government and the torturee a terrorist suspect) how was the judgment that Saddam is especially and uniquely 'evil' arrived at? Hussein tortured people and gassed them; granted. But then China shoots people for trivial crimes and sells their internal organs; Saudi Arabia chops peoples hands off and stones them; Malaysia and Singapore whip people for trivial offences; parts of the United States seal people in air tight rooms and force them to inhale cyanide.
Is a country where some very terrible cruelty is inflicted on a very small number of citizens more or less evil than one where moderate cruelty is inflicted relatively frequently?
If one person lives in a country where he knows that political dissidents are killed; and another lives in a country where nearly everybody wears shoes that were made by slave labour, how do we quantify the degree of evil involved?
Do we tolerate Saudi beheadings because they come at the end of a judicial process? Or is the problem that Saddam appears to enjoy torturing people; would we put up with it if it was carried out by disinterested executioners?
Is there a limit to the number of servicemen we are prepared to kill in order to save one person from being tortured?
Which would you rather: be dropped into a vat of acid and die, or see your wife and all your children blown to bits by a friendly bomb?
I would be more inclined to support the rhetoric of war if it was clear to me that Tonygeorge had woken up one morning and said 'I have £75,000,0000,0000 in my pocket: where could it do the most good? AIDS in Africa? A cure for Cancer? Freeing Tibet? Freeing the Kurds—let's make a shortlist.'
I would be more inclined to support the rhetoric of war if it was clear to me that there had been a process by which the international community had determined that Iraq was the worst and nastiest regime on earth; if there were a supreme court, a Jedi council, a united nations which determined these things according to set of principals which everyone had signed up to in advance.
I would be more inclined to believe in the rhetoric of a war against evil if Tony hadn't said that he was quite happy for Saddam to say in power, and therefore, presumably, to continue to chop off as many hands as he wanted, provided he gave up his nukes and his anthrax.
I would be more inclined to believe that we are motivated by the suffering of the Iraqi people if, when they arrive in the UK and claim asylum, we weren't so keen to send them back. Tony stated his willingness to consider re-writing the human rights convention to allow him to send immigrants back to countries where they might be tortured.
6: The author considers various ideas about just wars, both from the point of view of just causes and just conduct, with particular reference to the works of Mr Shakespeare and Mr Chaucer. Mr Lewis alluded to, without ever quite being quoted.
You mean, I'll put down my sword, and you'll put down your rock, and we'll try to kill each other like civilized people?
The Princess Bride
The children lying down in front of the busses think that war is wrong under all circumstances. They think that the willingness to make war creates a moral equivalence between Saddam, George Bush, Tony Blair, and Adolph Hitler. At any rate, that is what they chant and what their posters say.
If nothing else I feel that this represents a pretty extreme degree of cultural dissociation. These kids apparently feel no connection with any part of our historical or legendary past. They exist in a world in which the Bible, Greek and Roman civilization, and the works of Shakespeare are evil texts; glorifying war and coming from a world as dark and alien as the Third Reich. Henry V's as bad as Hitler; Winston Churchill's a crazy man who wanted to get us involved in killing. There was little to choose between English servicemen and the Gestapo. They both killed people. (One wonders who the video games industry sells its products to; presumably, these kids look at Halo and Ghost Recon and say 'This is horrid! It's about war!')
If we were allowed to know about the past beyond Horrid History cartoon books, then we would know that civilized people have generally thought that 'war' is something that you can, as a last resort, get involved in; and that when you do so the solders can rightly be regarded as heroic.
I find the spectacle of churches with 'No war' posters outside rather eccentric, considering quite how much killing God seems to approve of in the Bible. The venerable Methodist peace campaigner Lord Soper was inclined to get round this by advising audiences at Speakers' Corner to simply disregard the Old Testament. ('I was taught to regard David as a hero, but all my sympathies should have been with Goliath'). But that doesn't really help: that well-known hippy Jesus Christ claimed to have twelve armed legions of angels under his command; and happily used military scenarios to re-enforce points about the Kingdom of God. It would be an odd way to behave if war was always and all times a great evil: put on the gasmask of faith, the flak-jacket of truth and arm yourself with the scud missile of the Spirit.
Christians warriors haven't even necessarily seen themselves as fighting 'holy wars' on behalf of God against a demonic enemy. They've simply believed that they were on the right side in a particular conflict. Henry V's question before the French campaign is not 'Is the Dauphin part of an axis of evil' but 'May I with right an conscience make this claim?' Since it is obviously the case that France belongs to England, than it's quite all right for me to use an army to take it back off them. .
The Medieval Law of Arms said that you could only make war on the grounds of treason: people rebelling against their rightful monarch; one monarch taking back land that had been unjustly taken from him by another monarch; one monarch defending himself against invasion by another. We could go to war against Turk because they had taken Jerusalem, which obviously belonged, by rights, to the King of Cyprus: we could not go to war against Islam just because they were infidels.
I find this kind of war very easy to defend.
Imagine the Iraqis have invaded Wales. (It isn't hard to do.) At this moment they are massing on the Severn Bridge, about to march into Bristol. Tony Blair is standing there in his kilt, rallying the troops.
'Fight, and you may die' he is saying 'Run away, and you'll, you know, live: at least for a while. But dying in your bed, many years from now, would you trade all the days from that to this, for, your know, we few, we happy few, this sceptred isle?'
Under those circumstances, half a dozen pacifists would say that killing is wrong under all circumstance and that Saddam ought to be allowed to rampage all over Swansea if that's really what wants, and the rest of us would grab the nearest rifle and rally to the colours.
Or imagine that Saddam has invaded the Falkland Islands. The Falklands are under our protection; and our citizens there definitely don't want to be forced to speak Arabic and drink mint tea. The only possible moral question is one about proportionality; given the numbered of citizens on the island, and given the number of servicemen likely to die, and given (a not irrelevant consideration) the cost of the war, wouldn't it be better to come to some sort of teems with the aggressor.
Or, suppose that he has invaded, say, Kuwait. Kuwait isn't specifically under our protection, but the principal that countries should not invade either countries is a good one, one we all agree with.
So: a war fought to protect ourselves, or to protect someone we have a treaty with; or to protect someone who is being bullied and we just feel morally needs our help, would classify as 'Just wars'. In neither case does a politician have to 'make the case for war' and admit that there are good and sincere arguments on the other side: the circumstance has been forced on you, and the options are 'have a war' or 'do nothing'. If War is a last resort, then if you have to 'make the case for war' then by definition, there isn't one.
Modern wars are bigger and nastier than the ones which Henry V was involved with. We aren't talking about solders killing each other with swords and guns; but with tanks, aeroplanes, and terrible weapons of mass destruction, (which are a good thing when we have them and a bad thing when the other side have them.) Medieval knights nominally followed rules of conduct: they didn't kill an enemy who had surrendered; or a person with a safe conduct, or a civilian who wasn't actively supporting the enemy; or a woman or child under any circumstances. This works well when you have a sword; less well when you have a machine-gun, and not at all when you are dropping weapons out of an aeroplane. It would be tempting, although not very realistic, to say: 'Just wars must be conducted according to the laws of chivalry. The aeroplane is an intrinsically unchivalrous weapon, therefore, all modern wars are unjust.'
When wars are very big and very nasty, we need very big and very nasty justifications for them. Hitler was, it is generally agreed, quite nasty, so the Second World War entered our mythology as a battle against a force of pure evil. This made up for the national trauma of the First World War, which wasn't about anything in particular. Then we spent fifty years engaged in something called Cold War, the whole strategy of which was based on our willingness to destroy civilization rather than nationalize the means of production. People could only reconcile themselves to the idea that we were paying taxes in order that we were better able to destroy the world than the other side was by convincing themselves that the Russians really were an evil empire.
This has left us with a polarized world view; only a force of Evil is worth going to war against. So we have to up our rhetoric and imagine that the enemy are Forces of Evil, rather than just people we happen to be at war with right now. You can't imagine Coalition troops having a quick game of soccer with the Iraqis before killing them, or giving the enemy commander a funeral with military honors, or saluting the honorable foe after they have surrendered. (You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.)
Once you have convinced yourself that you are fighting the battle of Armageddon, then old questions about justice and chivalry and the conduct of the war can safely be discarded. There are limits to the number of losses you are prepared to take in liberating the islands of Falk. There is no limit to the number of dusky skinned children who can legitimately be slaughtered in the attempt to rid the world of Sauron Hussein.
The idea of 'just war' doesn't apply to the present adventure. War is not being used as a last resort against an invader. It's an instrument of policy; one of a number of surgical procedures which we think may have a positive outcome.
A good pragmatic case can be made out. We want to defeat 'International Terrorism.' We can't do this by arresting individual terrorists, even by killing Mr Bin Laden. (So far as I can see, Al Quaeda is not an organization like the Klu Klux Klan or the Boys Brigade, with membership cards, initiations ceremonies and a uniform. Its much more a description of an ideology and a life style, like 'pirate', 'Mafiosi' or 'liberal democrat'.) The only way we can defeat 'terrorism' by making it too damned hard to be a terrorist. We don't want nutters to get their hands on anthrax or nukes; so we surgically cut out nations which are run by lunatics which would be likely to give nukes to terrorists. And since Saddam is both weak and unpopular, he is an obvious place to start. In terms of a game of Risk or Civilization it makes perfect sense. It does rather require you take on board the notion that it is the right and duty of the USA to act as Grey Lensmen, blowing up a planet here and there in order to safeguard their vision of Civilization.
'We have decided that an action which will involve the deaths of many of your civilians is necessary because it will probablysave the lives of many of our civilian' is an arguable case. It's when the corolorary 'And in the process we will liberate the surviving civilians from a nasty regime, so in fact, this isn't about our own self-interest after all, its an altruistic war about knocking down statues' is added that I start to feel nauseous. It feels horribly as if Tony has convinced himself that he has a moral duty to do what he was going to do for selfish reasons in any case.
7: By means of an extended and mixed metaphor drawn from cowboy films, the author demonstrates to his own satisfaction, if no-one else's, that International Law is a contradiction in terms. A brief swipe at Euro-scepticism.
In brightest day, in blackest night
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil's might
Beware my power: Green Lantern's light!
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil's might
Beware my power: Green Lantern's light!
The Oath of the Green Lantern corps.
Where do laws come from? I don't think that the stork leaves them under the gooseberry bush. Someone thinks them up. In democracies, this is done democratically. For example, in the United States, everyone has a vote, and the person who gets the second most votes becomes President.
I don't think that it follows from this that laws are just what the majority of people in a particular country happen to want. If that was true, you could never have 'just' or 'unjust' laws; laws would simply be what everyone agreed with.
'Why are you lynching that black man?'
'We took a vote first'
'Oh, well, that's perfectly all right then. Carry on.'
'Laws' which governments invent are in fact a rough and ready approximations of Natural Law, which God or Gene Roddenbury or someone decided on. Most of the time, a country's laws represents the government's best guess at doing the right thing. You look at the law and say 'Is that just? Is that fair? Is that moral?' and if it isn't you change it. Democracies seem to be quite good at this, although I've never quite managed to convince myself that this is the only valid approach. A wise autocratic surrounded by advisers might also work quite nicely.
So: if the law is just our best guess at writing down Natural Law, then if I ignore the law and just do what's right, I can't go wrong, can I? When someone makes a bad law, or applies a good law in such a way as to produce counter intuitive results, then I should just ignore the law and go with my conscience, shouldn't I?
Of course, if I do this, the Police and the State come down on me like a ton of bricks. They don't care if I had a good reason, or if I knew in my heart it was right: if I killed someone, then I am no different from any other murderer. In civil societies, the forces of Law always win because they are infinitely stronger than private citizens doing what they 'know' is 'right'. In the last resort, the state can send in the army. This rarely happens, because most citizens think that it is better to have laws (even when we don't personally agree with them) than for each man to be a law unto himself.
It sometimes happens, especially in John Wayne movies, that the believers in What's Right are stronger than the enforcers of the Law. So when the Judge decides to let the bad guy go for some silly reason like there's not enough evidence to convict them, they all get together and kill the bad guy without reference to the judge. (This is known as "having a democratic element in sentencing policy.")
The 'natural justice' mob start off by lynching a really nasty felon who no-one wants to defend. When the Sheriff tells them not to, they say 'This man just killed three people. He's evil, goddammit. How can you object to us lynching him. You aren't saying he should have got off scott free, are you? The law is only there to defend murderers. The law is the villain's friend. You are either with the lynch mob, or you are with the murderers.' Once the Sheriff concedes this point—that a result consistent with natural justice is more important than the strict application of the written law—then it is easier, next time around, for the vigilantes to pick a less clear cut victim. Before very long, people are being lynched 'because we didn't like the look on their face' or 'because they are black' or 'to encourage the others.'
The Sheriff can only rein in the vigilantes by being stronger than they are; and that can only happen if the majority of the townsfolk think a system if law is better than mob justice.
We can talk about 'international law' until we are red, white and blue in the face, but unless there is an international policeman capable of enforcing it, it doesn't mean anything. If the United Nations had an army that was capable of enforcing its will on any country in the world, then 'International Law' might mean something. If it had moral authority such that every country in the world feared being censured by the UN so much that it obeyed its rules and mandates, then 'International Law' might exist. But right now, the UN is like an un-armed police officer, blowing his whistle and shouting 'Stop! Or else I'll shout 'Stop' again'. Neither the criminals nor the vigilantes pay very much attention.
It is just conceivable that at some future time, every county in the world might decide that international law is such a good idea that it would put a substantial body of its own armed forces under UN control, making the UN stronger than any single country on earth. It is even possible that a future US administration might contribute to a force whose objective is to remove its own power. (After all: I pay my taxes partly in order to pay for police officers who will come and arrest me if I don't pay my taxes.)
But in the real world we ought to accept that no such thing as 'international law' exists and that in fact, foreign policy will be dictated by strength. Right now, Vigilante Bush has picked Bad, Mad Saddam as his first lynch victim; and since everyone agrees that Saddam needed to be Got, few people are going to speak out against him. Heck, I don't care about international law, lets just do what's right. But once you start doing things 'just because its right', its a very small slide to 'just because I can' and 'just because its in the interests of my family and my nation' and 'just because I feel like it.'
The power of the American vigilante could be restrained if there were another superpower, one capable of influencing it both economically and militarily. Say, if there was a balkanized continent that much of the world had historical links to; a cultural center of civilization; one that had been moving closer and closer together after a series of costly civil wars; one that was already amalgamating its currency. If it unified its foreign policy and its military, became a new Confederacy of nations. Two superpowers, both democratic, both broadly allies, but both able to restrain the worst excess of the other.
But Tony Blair has largely given up on that one. At crunch time, his instincts were to honour the Last Alliance with the US, and tell the European Union and the UN to bugger off and eat cheese somewhere.
I am writing this on a Microsoft computer in a Starbucks coffee shop. There will be very much worse places for an educated white man to spend the 21st century than an American hegemony.
8: The author describes how, on the first day of the recent middle-eastern adventure, he experienced his own personal 'voila' moment, and after confessing a moment of moral cowardice, humbly takes his leave.
Gandalf as Ring-lord would have been far worse than Sauron....While Sauron multiplied evil, he left good clearly distinguishable from it. Gandalf would have made good detestable and seem evil
JRRT, September 1963
Sometimes, I think: 'Tony really believes that Saddam is just as bad as Hitler, and that it is his moral duty to oust him. George Bush is using this sincere, charismatic Englishman to give a veneer of moral authority to his political war. '
Sometimes I think: 'No: Tony believes that a surgical removal of the Hussein regime is necessary to make England safe from International Terrorism The nastiness of Saddam provides a pretext for him to do this. '
But then I think: 'No: he has made a long term decision that the future of the International Order is with an American hegemony, not with Europe, and has made a pragmatic decision to back America, so that he can be a small voice in the new order, instead of a large voice in the old one: the threat of terrorism provides a pretext for him to do this.'
But then I think: 'No: however you cut it, this boils down to vengeance against the Arabs for 11.09.01, and Blair wants to write himself into the grand narrative of what is basically a racist war.'
But then I think: 'No: its an act of policy in the Middle East; to establish a base to use against the Saudis if the Saudis ever went awol; or as part of a long term domino scheme to 'infect' the middle east with democracy. The popular thirst for Arab blood is being harnessed to support a sort of benign imperialism.'
But however I look at it, when Blair puts on his sincere, furrowed brow, and says that he really and sincerely believes in this war because he wants so much to liberate the Iraqis and bring democracy to the region and over throw an evil dictator, then I am convinced that he is Not Telling The Truth. Morality and sincerity and human rights are being used as a political tactic, to galvanize people behind a military action which he supports for purely pragmatic reasons.
All through the build-up, my contempt for Tony was running off the scale; and every time George and his keepers or some bellicose 'nuke em til they glow' U.S vox pop polluted the air waves, I have to physically remind myself that I have really likedevery single American who I have ever actually met. Clair Short comes up with reasons why saying that she is going to resign and then not resigning is actually the path of integrity. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who I've had such high hopes for ever since he took The Incredible String Band to his desert island makes long wise statements saying absolutely bugger all. Throughout, I maintain my 'good arguments on both sides' pitch.
But then the missiles start flying, and everyone reverts to type. Falklands Blitz rhetoric clicks in; even to question the Prime Minister implies a Lack of Support for Our Brave Boys. ('Boys' is very ironic, considering how often the UK has been taken to task for sending under age solders into the front line and discriminating against female service people.) And the Sun runs a headline:
Show them no mercy. They have tainted souls.
Doing a double take, I check to see if this was something that Evil Saddam is saying about the Infidel. But no indeed. This is the opinion of the editor of the Sun.
Actually, it was a misquote from Air Marshall Brian Burridge, the total and utter chief of staff of the British Army. I've rather liked him ever since the press conference where some fool asked him if it was true that the British soldiers didn't have enough toilet paper and he replied 'I don't want to get bogged down in minutiae.' The text of his speech was rather in the tradition of old fashioned chivalry and human decency in the face of mass slaughter. Look here, chaps. There's going to be spot of bother now, and I'm pretty sure you'll do a good job. This being a war, I'm afraid some you might get killed; and you may have to kill some of the enemy. But look here: Johnny Iraqi is quite a decent sort of cove, and if he surrenders to you, treat him with jolly decent English courtesy; our fight isn't with him. But one or two of them are all round bad eggs who support Saddam and do dreadful things. And if we jolly well have to kill some of that kind them don't shed any tears, oh no, they have tainted souls.
But translate it through what for want of a better word I will call the mind of Rupert Murdoch, and it comes out as unadulterated fascism. Kill the sub-human enemy. Tainted souls. Orcs. Niggers. Stormtroopers of the US government who we can vaporize with our little proton torpedo. To save this village, we had to destroy it.
And then, of course, the pro-war graffiti started to appear around town. The small 'No war' poster outside the Wesley Chapel had the words 'Why not? Nuke the bastards' added, probably in crayon. There was one near Ikea that said 'Wham, bam, fuck Saddam.' (Bristol is a world center of political graffiti, but this wasn't a good example, in my opinion. )
I experienced what I believe is referred to as a voila moment.
No longer was I collateral damage caught in the friendly fire between the competing narratives of war, patriotism, international law, liberation, Dad's Army and the Book of Revelation. There was a clear demarcation, between the Axis of Jingoism and the Forces of Humanity. Blair has aligned himself on one side, with Bush and Murdoch and against Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter and Europe and the United Nations and...er...everybody else, basically. I was required to pick sides.
Whatever Blair thinks he is doing; and his policy relies on the good old jingoism of the British public. If the British public couldn't be relied on to hate Arabs and French and Asylum seekers, then this war could never be prosecuted. Blair can put on a serious, worried, more in sorrow than in anger face because he knows that Murdoch will whip people up into a racist fervor anyway. 'I honestly and sincerely believe that it is our moral duty to defeat this terrible evil' and 'You're shi'ite and you know you are' ultimately amount to the same thing. The one legitimizes the other. It's good and noble for us to kill Argies and Gerries and Towel heads and Frogs because that nice religious Tony Blair says so.
You are either with us, or you are against us: either aligned with the 'nuke the bastards' racists or with the hopelessly naive peace campaigners, who think that 'war solves nothing' but that holding up the traffic for ten minutes solves all sorts of things. Everything is black and white and we have to make a choice. Either 'They have tainted souls' or else 'Don't attack Iraq!'
It would have given this article a nice, punchy conclusion if I could say 'So I went and joined the sit down protest in Millennium square' but unfortunately my commitment to this column doesn't run to getting arrested. But I did smile at the protestors as I walked past.
Not in my name, Tony. Not in my name
I saw footage of a US tank in the gulf with the legend 'Attitude Adjuster' written on its barrel. I believe that this is how American school -teachers traditionally label their canes.
 The other time was a football match in 1968; and we tend to get the two events confused.
 Julie Burchall, a totally round the bend columnist in the Guardian describes the peace campaigners as "pro-Saddam" and argues that they oppose the war because they are are sexually attracted to Saddam Hussien.
Just re-read this after being pointed back to it in a more recent post: a superb bit or writing.ReplyDelete