When did we stop caring about civilian deaths?
- The mere monitoring of bloody conflict assumes precedence over human
When did we stop caring about civilian deaths during wartime?
Saturday, 31 January 2009
I wonder if we are "normalising" war. It's not just that Israel has
yet again got away with the killing of hundreds of children in Gaza.
And after its own foreign minister said that Israel's army had been
allowed to "go wild" there, it seems to bear out my own contention
that the Israeli "Defence Force" is as much a rabble as all the other
armies in the region. But we seem to have lost the sense of
immorality that should accompany conflict and violence. The BBC's
refusal to handle an advertisement for Palestinian aid was highly
instructive. It was the BBC's "impartiality" that might be called
into question. In other words, the protection of an institution was
more important than the lives of children. War was a spectator sport
whose careful monitoring rather like a football match, even though
the Middle East is a bloody tragedy assumed precedence over human
I'm not sure where all this started. No one doubts that the Second
World War was a bloodbath of titanic proportions, but after that
conflict we put in place all kinds of laws to protect human beings.
The International Red Cross protocols, the United Nations along
with the all-powerful Security Council and the much ridiculed General
Assembly and the European Union were created to end large-scale
conflict. And yes, I know there was Korea (under a UN flag!) and then
there was Vietnam, but after the US withdrawal from Saigon, there was
a sense that "we" didn't do wars any more. Foreigners could commit
atrocities en masse Cambodia comes to mind but we superior
Westerners were exempt. We didn't behave like that. Low-intensity
warfare in Northern Ireland, perhaps. And the Israeli-Arab conflict
would grind away. But there was a feeling that My Lai had been put
behind us. Civilians were once again sacred in the West.
I'm not sure when the change came. Was it Israel's disastrous
invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the Sabra and Chatila massacre by
Israel's allies of 1,700 Palestinian civilians? (Gaza just missed
that record.) Israel claimed (as usual) to be fighting "our" "war
against terror" but the Israeli army is not what it's cracked up to
be and massacres (Qana comes to mind in 1996 and the children of
Marwahine in 2006) seem to come attached to it. And of course,
there's the little matter of the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988
which we enthusiastically supported with weapons to both sides, and
the Syrian slaughter of thousands of civilians at Hama and...
No, I rather think it was the 1991 Gulf War. Our television lads and
lasses played it for all it was worth it was the first war that
had "theme" music to go with the pictures and when US troops simply
smothered alive thousands of Iraqi troops in their trenches, we
learned about it later and didn't care much, and even when the
Americans ignored Red Cross rules to mark mass graves, they got away
with it. There were women in some of these graves I saw British
soldiers burying them. And I remember driving up to Mutla ridge to
show a Red Cross delegate where I had seen a mass grave dug by the
Americans, and he looked at the plastic poppy an American had
presumably left there and said: "Something has happened."
He meant that something had happened to international law, to the
rules of war. They had been flouted. Then came Kosovo where our
dear Lord Blair first exercised his talents for warmaking and
another ream of slaughter. Of course, Milosevic was the bad guy (even
though most of the Kosovars were still in their homes when the war
began their return home after their brutal expulsion by the Serbs
then became the war aim). But here again, we broke some extra rules
and got away with it. Remember the passenger train we bombed on the
Surdulica bridge and the famous speeding up of the film by Jamie
Shea to show that the bomber had no time to hold his fire? (Actually,
the pilot came back for another bombing run on the train when it was
already burning, but that was excluded from the film.) Then the
attack on the Belgrade radio station. And the civilian roads. Then
the attack on a large country hospital. "Military target," said
Jamie. And he was right. There were soldiers hiding in the hospital
along with the patients. The soldiers all survived. The patients all
Then there was Afghanistan and all that "collateral damage" and whole
villages wiped out and then there was Iraq in 2003 and the tens of
thousands or half a million or a million Iraqi civilians killed.
Once more, at the very start, we were back to our old tricks, bombing
bridges and radio stations and at least one civilian estate in
Baghdad where "we" believed Saddam was hiding. We knew it was packed
with civilians (Christians, by chance) but the Americans called it
a "high risk" operation meaning that they risked not hitting
Saddam and 22 civilians were killed. I saw the last body, that of a
baby, dug from the rubble.
And we don't seem to care. We fight in Iraq and now we're going back
to fight in Afghanistan again and all the human rights and
protections appear to have vanished once more. We will destroy
villages and we will find that the Afghans hate us and we will form
more criminal militias as we did in Iraq to fight for us. The
Israelis organised a similar militia in their occupation zone in
southern Lebanon, run by a crackpot Lebanese army major. But now
their own troops "go wild". And the BBC is worried about
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