Bad seeds in a good war

Douglas Murray
8 June 2004

The “pottery barn” rule of interventionism (“if you break it, you own it”) has won some new adherents recently. Even many opposed to the liberation of Iraq agree that those responsible for it might fix any mess before withdrawing. But there have been some strange variants of the “pottery barn” recently. There’s Charles Peña’s version (“if you break it, hand the pieces over to the owner of the barn and run”) and then there’s Marcus Raskin’s version (“I’ve seen pots broken before, so you ain’t gonna get me near any damn barn”).

Read Mai Ghoussoub’s response to this article here

It seems a shame that the fate of the 24 million Iraqis left behind by the Saddam Hussein regime should be determined or even speculated on by people seriously affected by such moderate political winds. Deaths of American servicemen were down by a half in May 2004 from the previous month; a new, unprecedentedly enlightened constitution has been ratified; a minority uprising quelled; and handover of sovereignty is mere weeks away. It seems a strange time to be calling, like Raskin and Peña, for full troop withdrawal.

The United States army has asked for more troops in certain areas, and they should be provided. That much is necessary to safeguard peaceful Iraqis, and also the least that Americans, Britons and citizens of other coalition countries can do to protect our own servicemen. As for Peña’s suggestion that we withdraw forces and offer asylum to any good Iraqis who don’t want to stay – that seems to suggest he either believes his country willing to take in a majority of the Iraqi population, or has a very low opinion of where the average Iraqi stands these days.

Perhaps these people just find it too hard not to be swayed by events, as a lot of people are, when you have minute-by-minute, 24/7 news. But minute-by-minute judgment-swinging is no judgment, and the very worst perspective. The intervention in Iraq is as right now as it ever was.

You cannot be serious

Let’s take one example of the sort of the thing people have cited for a Spanish-style swing in favour of the forces of jihad by considering for a moment the “Abu Ghraib scandal”.

Most vocal were those who were always against the liberation, and who were aroused beyond their wildest anti-interventionist hopes by the story. The results were almost as kooky as the awful Lynndie England’s idea of a good night out.

The flagellator-in-chief, Robert Fisk, led the field (“In September 2001, the planes smashed in to the buildings; today, Lynndie smashes to pieces our entire morality with just one tug on the leash”, Independent, 7 May 2004); Richard Overy had an article in the Guardian under the headline “Like the Wehrmacht, we’ve descended into barbarity” and of course Susan Sontag (in the New York Times) talked spurious comparisons with the holocaust and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s appalling last film, Saló.

openDemocracy got into the game with Maï Ghoussoub’s curious “All I can do is scream…” article, where she asked: “Are [the soldiers] aware, were they ever told, that those who acted in Bosnia as in the pictures circulating these last few days are being tried for war crimes in the Hague?” The answer to which, Maï, is “no”. I shouldn’t think they were aware of that, and neither am I. The criminal genocidists on trial in The Hague (able to be tried thanks to a successful United States/United Kingdom-led intervention) are, if you can imagine it, facing charges even more serious than pulling down a man’s trousers for kicks.

Our morality and the justification for intervention was not “smashed” even a little by Lynndie England. Besides, I have yet to work out how Ms England’s penchant for naked pyramids equates to the murder of 3,000 Americans or which history book told Guardian headliners that the Nazi’s efficient death system had anything to do with making men stand on boxes and then not torturing them (there are gradations between “torture” and “humiliation”, but contra the 1984 convention, if you call what these pictures reveal “torture”, you may well find yourself stuck on how to describe Saddam Hussein’s acid-baths).

Our morality wasn’t smashed, nor changed, but something certainly was. Those who always wanted to discredit this war are doing so for their same old reasons, and in the especially dim hope that if Iraq turns out badly it’ll just be a blow against Bush. The lack of seriousness with which these people really view the situation in Iraq (as opposed to the rhetoric they use) is epitomised by the reaction to the Abu Ghraib story.

For it is not only the “anti” lobby that have seized on this one – it actually seems to have changed the mind of some people who said they supported the war (along with those who took the admirable and little-noted stance of indifference on the presumption that their government was doing the right thing). Two notable armchair retreat-beaters in the UK were the Mirror’s Tony Parsons and the Times’s Mary Ann Sieghart.

After the Abu Ghraib pictures, Parsons noted (with awful self-pity): “Tony Blair fooled me. He told us we were fighting for freedom, democracy and national security in Iraq. I see now it was a pack of lies”. Sieghart cried, “That’s it! I’ve had enough. I’m fed up with justifying the war in Iraq to sceptical friends, family and acquaintances.”

A generation’s challenge

There is a serious issue at stake here, but to read and hear a lot of babble at the moment you’d think there was nothing more than personal pride to play for. Really, there’s nothing brave about being pro- or anti-war in Britain or America, and to reduce the matter, as Parsons did, simply highlights the appalling contemporary tendency (nicely dissected in Patrick West’s pamphlet Conspicuous Compassion) to drag all affairs, however great, to the level of the personal.

We should be clear: if you’re surprised that some soldiers behave badly in wartime and if such behaviour will turn you against an otherwise justifiable war then you have no right to be pro- or anti- a war. Not to know that in any conflict and on any side people behave badly is simply ignorant: you don’t even need to have been in a war-zone to know this – you just need to have read a book.

The rightness of this conflict remains. The antis want to have (and should have) the argument about weapons of mass destruction, the apparent echo-chamber of intelligence and the “imminent threat” claims. Likewise those of us who were for the Iraq war wouldn’t mind having the debate over all the things that didn’t happen which we were told would (the hundreds of thousands who would be killed; or the claim that we were going to pilfer all the oil and stay there until we’d drained the country dry).

But the fact that Abu Ghraib is now synonymous in the west with despicable humiliations by a few US soldiers rather than the slaying and torture for real under the Hussein regime tells us much about what moral lesson people want to derive from Iraq, and who they’re really interested in a war against. The perpetrators of these equivalences are more bothered by their private war against Bush than they are by the liberation of the Iraqi people.

Iraq has been freed from its dictator, and, in record time, its people will have power handed over. The antis might for once believe all the real signs of progress in Iraq and realise that President Bush is and was telling the truth when he said on 24 May: “I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free not to make them American.”

Iraq may be the big intervention of this generation. Success means the success of the Iraqi nation in a region of failing states and unprecedented freedom for a nation previously cowed by brutalism and ignored by pacifism. Failure means not only the failure of the Arab world to allow freedom and democracy to stick, and the failure of the civilised world to stand up to tyranny, but the failure and loss of many more lives in a country which finally found hope and a future.

It takes a lazy armchair pundit to u-turn in the face of a silly girl’s perversions, but it takes a fool, and a self-regarding fool at that, to wish us – and the people of Iraq – all failure.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData