Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why There is No Such Thing as a "Humanitarian" War

President Barack Obama became the fourth president in a row to authorize military action in Iraq, on Thursday. Obama ordered airstrikes over the region in retaliation to increased aggression by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, a newly-formed branch of al-Qaeda. The president hinted over the weekend of further U.S. actions to come.

But fear not: This is strictly a "humanitarian" mission. We know this because, in addition to the countless Hellfire missiles the U.S. is raining down over Iraq, we are also dropping food packages for the Iraqi people. Hence, the New York Times headline the following day (Fri, 08/08/2014) reads, "U.S. Drops Food Aid to Iraqi Refugees; Militants Bombed." (The headline to the online version of the article differs from the print edition.)

This is what reporters typically refer to as "Burying the lead."

Indeed, given the similarity of Obama's actions to those of George H. W. Bush in the 1991 Gulf War, combined with the fact that the top-grossing movie in the country is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Americans may be forgiven for thinking they may have stumbled into some sort of time-warp. Relax: It's merely a glitch in the Matrix.

Just to review: The hostage situation in Iraq is a "humanitarian crisis," which "necessitates" a U.S. response. Yet, when Israel slaughters close to 2,000 Palestinian women, children, and civilians, well, that is just Israel exercising its "right to defend itself." It is a curious hypocrisy, worth reflecting on.

While many progressive commentators now lament Obama's sudden "shift in strategy" over Iraq, the truth is he never really was the anti-war champion the press has made him out to be. Candidate-Obama said himself, "I don't oppose all wars... What I am opposed to is a dumb war."

In fact, that one vaunted speech essentially constitutes the extent of Obama's supposed "criticism" of the Iraq War. And even despite his misgivings about the war, as a U.S. Senator, Obama dutifully voted for every single supplemental war-funding bill that came up during his term.

Likewise, the media narrative that Obama ended George W. Bush's war in Iraq is also an outright lie. Sure, he pulled some--but certainly not all--of the military forces out of Iraq. But the remaining 30,000 "non-combat troops" as well as private mercenary operatives like Blackwater/Xe, have allowed the brutal U.S. occupation of Iraq to continue all along. 

In fact, it is likely our initial 2003 invasion of Iraq, as well as our unwavering support for U.S. puppet Nouri al-Maliki, led to the creation of ISIS in the first place. Our latest terrorist bogeymen--just like al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden--are born out of our own imperialist overreach and shortsighted alliances. In our insatiable quest for global empire and corporate profits we, like Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, unwittingly sow the seeds of our own destruction.

The CIA has a term for these sorts of unintended consequences: "Blowback." 

To be certain, the situation in Iraq is dire. ISIS's takeover of the Mosul Dam in the town of Sinjar has sent tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing the area.

And so the inevitable question arises: "What should we do?" The goal of "humanitarian intervention" is a longstanding "go-to" rationale for waging war. (Comparing the enemy to Hitler is also popular with war-makers.) And it is one traditionally embraced and supported by supposedly "anti-war" progressives. Indeed, Bill Clinton's bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 was sold to the public as just this type of "humanitarian" intervention.

Yet, even when these sorts of humanitarian interventions are launched out of a genuine desire to stop violence, end human rights abuses, and save lives, they rarely achieve any of these goals. If anything, bombing civilians in an effort to save them tends to make matters worse.

As blogger and anti-war activist, David Swanson writes of the Iraq War in his 2010 self-published book, War is a Lie, 
Rather than "spreading freedom" with bombs and guns, what would have been wrong with spreading knowledge? If learning leads to the development of democracy, why not spread education? Why not provide funding for children's health and schools, instead of melting the skin off children with white phosphorous? (96)

Glenn Greenwald, writing at The Intercept.org ("U.S. 'Humanitarian' Bombing of Iraq: A Redundant Presidential Ritual," 08/08/14) concurs, pointing out the historical repetition of the so-called "humanitarian" war. He writes:

"Humanitarianism" is the pretty packaging in which all wars...are wrapped, but it is almost never the actual purpose. There are often numerous steps the U.S. could take to advance actually [sic] humanitarian goals, but those take persistence and resources, and entail little means of control, and are thus usually ignored in favor of blowing things and people up with Freedom Bombs.

Finally, the utter hypocrisy implicit in the very concept of a "humanitarian intervention" is, again, worth noting. Quite simply, if the United States truly desires to be the exalted "Cop of the World," then we cannot pick and choose which victims we save. We cannot, within the span of the same week, bankroll Israel's latest horrific onslaught of the Palestinians, but claim the Kurds are somehow more worthy of our help.

Is the crisis in Gaza not deserving of "humanitarian intervention"? Where are the "targeted airstrikes" and "precision bombings" over Israel? (Cue anti-Semitism accusations in five, four, three...)

The rank hypocrisy of the American military empire--wherein we strategically pick and choose which atrocities to condemn and which to condone as if the globe is one giant chessboard--reminds me of my favorite line in Stanley Kubrick's classic film, Dr. Strangelove. "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here!" declares Peter Sellers's U.S. President. "This is the war room!"

In the end, as Kubrick as well as Catch-22 author, Joseph Heller observed, all war amounts to little more than such contradictory absurdities.

War--whether it takes the traditional form of ground-soldiers and tanks, or that of modern high-tech weaponry like drones and "precision" bombings--is never a force for good. It does not save or "liberate" citizens, no matter how oppressed they may be.

This is not to suggest we do nothing to squelch the very real and deadly violence carried out by ISIS. But to insist, as so many do, that our only conceivable options are one of two polar extremes--War and Passivity-- constitutes an abysmal failure of imagination. Indeed, it is a damning indictment of civilized man--and so-called human "progress"--when war and mass killing are deemed our only acceptable means of resolving international conflicts.

Albert Einstein put it best. "War cannot be humanized," he said. "It can only be abolished."

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