In principle, I’m not a pacifist. Faced with the brutality of those in power, of state terror, of armed occupation, one has the right, even the duty, to resist.
But, when you see the results of armed conflict, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it.
Of course, the vast majority of wars are not just. They are fought for the sake of privileged minorities and justified by lies. They are declared – although nobody seems to formally declare war any more, they just go ahead and do it – by old men who have lived full, if not honourable, lives and fought by young people, who, in general, think they are immortal, although I imagine a few hours on the battlefield strips them of that illusion.
When we arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 (see earlier post) we were greeted by women in burkas begging – their husbands had been killed in the wars, they had been banned from working under the Taliban. Liberation for them meant the right to go out on the street and ask for money to support their kids.
And then there were the hundreds, thousands, of people – men, women, children – missing limbs; some were former combatants, many the victims of bombardments or landmines. Some had been lucky enough to have been fitted with artificial replacements by the Red Cross. Many more had not, were unable to work, some in permanent pain.
On a training course for working in war zones, I and several other journalists were taken to a French army centre for training in demining.
A young, working-class bloke showed us the best way to get out of a minefield if you find you’ve stumbled into one. And he showed us the various types of mine and cluster bombs, including small explosive devices that are dropped from airplanes and left lying on the ground. They look like toys and children often pick them up. Of course, they’re killed or maimed for life.
“I’m a soldier and I have to accept discipline,” he told us. “But, if anyone ever tells me to lay one of these saloperies, I’ll refuse, whatever the consequences.”
Arriving in Baghdad in 2003 (article to be posted), we saw bullet casings lying on the roads, crowds looting shopping malls, US soldiers guarding the oil ministry but not much else. A man outside the Red Cross headquarters told me he urgently needed medicine to stay alive and was disgusted with my useless and evasive reply.
In the Palestinian Territories I saw an Israeli tank point its gun turret at an old man and a toddler, barking orders through a loudspeaker system (kids later stoned the tank), a roadblock where every Palestinian man was lined up in a field as if the Israeli soldiers on the road above them were about to open fire, men and women queueing at checkpoints as Israeli soldiers questioned their right to move around their own land, the separation wall – a scar across the landscape.
Shortly before we arrived in Afghanistan, our colleague at Johanne Sutton had been killed entering the country from the north.
Shortly before that Claude had sat near me in the canteen. “When are we going to work together in Pakistan again, Tony?” he asked. I said I was going there soon to cover another election.
A week later he and Ghislaine were dead from a bullet to the back of the head.
As I and my colleagues stumbled through an Afghan valley, believing that we were going to be shot, I thought of the people who loved me and asked myself how I could have been so irresponsible towards them. I’ve since heard other people who have been in similar situations describing the same reaction, so I suppose that it’s a kind of psychological defence mechanism.
Anyway, afterwards you’re unbelievably happy to be alive and determined to get what you can out of life. And death doesn’t seem so abstract any more – yours or other people’s. It’s the end. Not so easy, when you don’t just know that intellectually but feel it in your being, to risk your own life … or think of taking someone else’s.
So, should you be thinking of starting a war, please think of all the individual lives that it will end. The people who die will not enjoy the benefits you say will come from the conflict – not just the soldiers who are, after all, combatants, not just the journalists who’ve chosen to go where the story is, but also the local civilians who are caught in the crossfire, who step on a landmine or are hit in a drone strike.
And this is a challenge for all of us who would like to see the world radically changed.
The rich and powerful are ready to do anything to hold onto power and they infect their opponents with their own brutality. Anyone wishing to change systems, overturn states, topple ruling classes has to be ruthless, ready maybe to sacrifice a generation or two for a better world. Those who die along the way will never know that better world. And the liberators risk becoming corrupted by the struggle – by the absolute power that flows from the barrel of a gun, by learning to live with the injustices they or their comrades are bound to commit sooner or later, by the fear of traitors and spies that can become the fear of all critics.
I realise none of this is any more original than the headline I’ve chosen for this posting. And maybe I’ve known it all along. But, now I’ve seen the effects of war, I feel it, too.