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 the big picture



THE LONDON Necropolis in Brookwood, Surrey, was opened 150 years ago to relieve London of its growing number of corpses. Decomposing in the capital’s crypts, they had contaminated watercourses and sucked up so much oxygen that candles in some churches couldn’t burn. At its peak, the London Necropolis Company ran 35 trains every day, carrying funeral parties from the Company’s terminus next to Waterloo station. (The service ended when the terminus was bombed in the Second World War.)


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Anti war demonstration London
Overlooking US World War One cemetery.

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At the heart of the cemetery lie the bones of 468 American soldiers from the First World War, a war that made America wealthy, powering the USA’s steady rise to belligerent military supremacy. Overlooking this US military outpost, and its neat, lovingly-tended rows of uniform white crosses, is a rather older section. Here, an untidy collection of ornate tombs with mystic inscriptions hold the remains of followers of Zoroaster, founder of the Parsee religion in the 6th century BC. (Zoroastrianism flourished in Persia and its empire for a millennium, and so reached Mesopotamia – a part of Iraq where over 50,000 twentieth century British soldiers are buried and commemorated in 16 cemeteries.) According to Zoroaster, one supreme, good god is in continual conflict with a hostile evil spirit. This sharp duality is echoed in Christianity; the struggle of forces of good against forces of evil is a concept very real to President Bush, who is convinced he can identify them unerringly.

The human race seems to have difficulty in learning from its history. But there is a lot we can learn from the past. Empires come – and go; the meaning of ‘hubris’ should be the subject of several lessons for every schoolchild. What we might learn from past events, however, depends not only on our sources of information but also on the accuracy of the metaphorical glasses we look through.

The perspective of many movers and shakers, their supporters and hangers-on, reveals a simple world of threats against which armed force can be the only solution. This view, coupled with fundamentalist belief in ‘good’ and ‘evil’ (nothing in between), a touch of propaganda, and some selfishness, leads readily to the conviction that might is right. (And the more might the better; for those who have it, that is.) Wrap this belligerence in high-sounding words (‘liberation’, ‘the defence of freedom’) and a flag, and the brutality of the military enterprise is rendered opaque – and thus palatable to those who privately don’t truly care if people they don’t know suffer or die. Crocodile tears, however, heal no wounds. This process was visibly operating in the weeks before tanks rolled into Iraq. Majority opinion was against a pre-emptive attack by the US and UK, yet would accept it if the UN approved. Did this majority imagine that the people left to mourn their dead, endure dreadful injuries, or face dislocated lives, cared whether their suffering was sanctioned by the UN or not?

Asked about casualties, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon predictably repeated that great care was being taken to avoid civilian deaths and that ‘no more than expected’ had been killed. But when asked how many Iraqi civilians had been killed, he broke eye contact with the interviewer, looked at his shoes and said he did not know. Numbers don’t count in the algebra of war. Keeping public perception on side is the priority.

By the third week of the war (as more civilians were injured and killed by US troops in that other ‘liberated’ but now almost forgotten country, Afghanistan) British support for the invasion had risen substantially. As US Marines toppled Saddam Hussein’s statue in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd, watched by the world’s television cameras, the numbers of anti-war demonstrators were dwindling. People like to be associated with what looks like success. But, however the invasion of Iraq is characterised by the US and UK administrations, those three weeks could more truthfully be described as having seen the destruction of Iraq. The taxpayers of America and (to a lesser extent) Britain have paid for the reduction of much of Iraq to rubble; and have impoverished themselves in the process. That the Chancellor is willing to spend ‘whatever is necessary’ on this war is less surprising than that so many citizens seem willing for their hard-earned money to be used to maim and kill children and parents.

If we look through more accurate lenses we can see that might has rarely been shown to be right. Force, even overwhelming force, rarely benefits most people. ‘Most’ of course is the key word. And with even clearer sight, we find that any ‘Boys’ Own’ images of war have disappeared. Instead we see highly complex situations, which most of us are not aware of or want to grapple with. We now notice that not all armed conflicts are the same – but that all of them destroy people’s lives. We see that sometimes there is a clear and unprovoked aggressor (as in the US/UK attack on Iraq); but that the events leading to deadly conflict always trail a long history behind them, and their participants often come from far-away and more powerful countries under leaderships with agendas of their own. Above all, we see that in every case a different course of action was possible.
We may also observe how conflicts influence other conflicts, and how we are implicated in them in all kinds of ways. Those of us in ‘democratic’ and wealthier countries can and do have a major influence on the shape of the world. But many of us are passive about it – though there’s no Saddam Hussein to have our tongues cut out if we dissent. Opposition here is handled more subtly: it is ignored. ‘I believe history will be my judge,’ says Tony Blair.

As these words are being written, the prime minister is sketching out Britain’s martial future to graduates at Sandhurst. ’The traditional view of the armed forces is the same as it has always been,’ he says – which is no doubt comforting to the serried ranks of cadets in front of him, whose job he described as a ‘noble calling’; though ‘noble’ did not exactly qualify the mission he outlined for them. ‘We no longer need to defend our country, but we have strategic and long term security concerns around the world.’ So there we have it. Those of us who whinge about civilian casualties just need to see the big picture, without changing our glasses.

It’s hard to generate much optimism. The image of the Marines draping a US flag over the face of Saddam Hussein’s statue, and then ‘diplomatically’ replacing it with an Iraqi flag (which was then also removed), forces the memory back 14 years. Then, whole walls were being pulled down. Some of the hopes of those heady days have been realised. But now the old military ‘balance of power’ has been replaced by military ‘asymmetry’, rather than the peace dividend most of us hoped for, and the world is not much better off.

So we comfort ourselves with small things. The PPU’s web site, for example, has seen a dramatic rise in visitors in recent months. Sure, much of this was due to the ‘Iraq effect’. Many people have visited our Iraq pages. But we’re particularly pleased to see that most of the growing band of users visit our educational sections designed for learners and teachers. (In case you’re interested, US visitors are the majority users of the Genocide section whilst Europeans favour the Century of Peace Action pages.) If we’re to sustain some hope that this century will be more just and less violent than the last, we need, alongside our other pro-peace activity, to show young people – the movers and shakers of the future – that where there is justice violence is absent and where there is violence justice is absent.

Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from the past is that our actions have unforeseen consequences. Some of the consequences of the ‘war to end all wars’, to which those 486 American soldiers in Brookwood were conscripted to kill and die, are now being played out in the Middle East. The victors of that war created new nations (such as Yugoslavia), refused demands for a Kurdish state, paved the way for the birth of Israel, and drew a frontier round three provinces of the dismantled Turkish Empire and called the result Iraq.

Harold Nicolson, a diplomat centrally involved in the Versailles Treaty negotiations, wrote in his diary for May 1919: ‘There were Wilson and Lloyd George and Clemenceau with their armchairs drawn close over my map on the hearth-rug. It is appalling that these ignorant and irresponsible men should be cutting [the world] to bits as if they were dividing a cake.... Isn’t it terrible, the happiness of millions being decided in that way?’ Those Ottoman provinces, now Iraq, were neighbours only by geography; their peoples had different, and disparate, backgrounds and beliefs. It could all have been done differently, with more sensitivity and care. We should at least try to look at the future (through clean, untinted glasses) taking people, rather than power, into account.

Jan Melichar




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