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The left is getting itself tied up in knots about the Just War and the propriety of bombing Afghanistan. I suspect some are intimidated by laptop bombardiers and kindred bullyboys handing out white feathers and snarling about “collaborators” and being “soft on fascism.” A recent issue of The Nation carried earnest efforts by Richard Falk […]

The Left and The Just War

by Alexander Cockburn

The left is getting itself tied up in knots about the Just War and the propriety of bombing Afghanistan. I suspect some are intimidated by laptop bombardiers and kindred bullyboys handing out white feathers and snarling about “collaborators” and being “soft on fascism.” A recent issue of The Nation carried earnest efforts by Richard Falk and an editorial writer to mark out “the relevant frameworks of moral, legal and religious restraint” to be applied to the lethal business of attacking Afghans. I felt sorry for Falk as he clambered through his moral obstacle course. This business of trying to define a just war against Afghanistan is what C. Wright Mills used to call crackpot realism.

War, as the United States has been fighting it in Iraq and Yugoslavia, consists mostly of bombing, intended to terrify the population and destroy the fabric of tolerable social existence. Here’s how a couple of Pentagon briefers described the infliction of terror, as reported by Jonathan Landay of the San Jose Mercury News on October 17: “‘If you’re on the ground and get hit with a bomb from a B-52 it’s over,’ the officer said. ‘But if you’re there and you hear an AC-130 coming, with its Gatling gun going, the experience can be even more frightening.’” Marine Corps Lieut. Gen. Gregory Newbold provided further context: “The psychological effect was intended to convince the Taliban leadership that they have made an error and their calculus some day will be in their interests to see that.”

Those AC-130s were over Kabul. What else can the consequence be but to terrify and kill civilians, whose anguish may or may not impinge upon the “calculus” of the Taliban leaders? Remember, too, that bombs mostly miss their targets. Colonel John Warden, who planned the air campaign in Iraq said afterwards that dropping dumb bombs “is like shooting skeet. 499 out of 500 pellets may miss the target, but that’s irrelevant.” There will always be shattered hospitals and wrecked old folks’ homes, just as there will always be Defense Department flacks saying that the destruction “cannot be independently verified” or that the hospital or old folks’ home were actually sanctuaries for enemy forces, for “command and control.”

How many bombing campaigns do we have to go through in a decade to recognize all the usual landmarks? What’s unusual about the latest onslaught is that it is being leveled at a country where, on numerous estimates from reputable organizations, around 7.5 million people were, before September 11, at risk of starving to death. On September 16 the New York Times’ Islamabad correspondent, John Burns, reported that the United States “demanded elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan’s civilian population.” In early October the UN’s World Food Program was able to resume shipments at a lower level, then the bombing began and everything stopped once more, amid fierce outcry from relief agencies that the United States was placing millions at risk, with winter just around the corner.

On October 15 the UN’s special rapporteur, Jean Ziegler, said in Geneva that the food airdrops by the same military force dropping bombs undermined the credibility of humanitarian aid. “As special rapporteur I must condemn with the last ounce of energy this operation called snowdropping [the air drops of food packagers]; it is totally catastrophic for humanitarian aid.” Oxfam reckons that before September 11, 400,000 were on the edge of starvation (“acute food insecurity”), 5.5 million “extremely vulnerable” and the balance of the overall 7.5 million at great risk. Once it starts snowing, 500,000 will be cut off from the food convoys that should, were it not for the bombing, have been getting them provisions for the winter.

So, by the time Falk was inscribing the protocols of what a just war might be, the United States was already engineering civilian deaths on an immense scale. Not, to be sure, the ghastly instant entombment of September 11, what Noam Chomsky has called “the most devastating instant human toll of any crime in history, outside of war,” but death on the installment plan: malnutrition, infant mortality, disease, premature death for the old and so on. The numbers will climb and climb, and there won’t be any “independent verification” such as the Pentagon demands.

Let’s not be pettifogging and dwell on the point that nothing resembling proof of bin Laden’s responsibility for the September 11 attack has yet been put forward either by the United States nor its subordinate in Downing St. Disregarding the fact that the Bush administration now seems to be substituting Mullah Omar and the Arch Devil (thus perhaps somehow trying to make all out war on Afghanistan more explicable). Let’s accept the so far unproven charge that the supreme strategist of the September 11 terror is Osama bin Laden. He’s the Enemy. So what have been this Enemy’s objectives? He desires the widest possible war; to kill Americans on American soil; to destroy the symbols of US military power; to engage the United States in a holy war. The first two objectives the Enemy could accomplish by themselves; the third required the cooperation of the United States. Bush fell into the trap and Falk, The Nation and some on the left have jumped in after him.

There can be no “limited war with limited objectives” when the bombing sets matches to tinder from Pakistan and Kashmir to Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jerusalem. “Limited war” is a far less realistic prospect than to regard September 11 as a crime, to pursue its perpetrators to justice in an international court, using all relevant police and intelligence agencies here and abroad.

The left should be for peace, which in no way means ignoring the demands of either side. Bin Laden calls for: an end to sanctions on Iraq; US troops out of Saudi Arabia; justice for Palestinians. The left says Aye to those, though we want a two-state solution, whereas bin Laden wants to drive Jews along with secular and Christian Palestinians into the sea. The US government calls for a dismantling of the Terror Network, and the left says aye to that too. Of course we oppose networks of people who wage war on civilians.

So we’re pretty close to supporting demands on both sides, but we know these demands are not going to be achieved by war. What is this war about? On Bush’s side it’s about the defense of the American Empire; on the other, an attempt to challenge that Empire in the name of theocratic fundamentalist Islam. On that issue the left is against both sides. We don’t want anyone to kill or die in the name of the American Empire, for the “war on terror” to be cashed in blood in Colombia or anywhere else, or for anyone to kill or die in the name of Islamic fundamentalism. Go to the UN, proceed on the basis that September 11 was a crime. Bring the perpetrators to justice by legal means.

A final word about “rationalizing”: After the Columbine school killings, people called for more security in schools. They also asked big questions: How could we have raised such children? Was it distance parenting, violence in culture, bullying? If you asked such questions, no one confused explanation with justification. No one charged you with being soft on teen killers.

Leave the final word to Seth Bardacke who remarked to his father Frank, the afternoon of September 11, “I guess now we know that bombing civilians is wrong.”

Doug Lummis, a friend of the Bardackes and of mine, then wrote in his widely-read column in a Japanese newspaper, “The son of an American Jewish friend of mine in a telephone call to his father said I guess this proves bombing civilians is wrong. Of course there are countless people around the world who don’t need such proof. Nevertheless, I find the statement extraordinary in its simple wisdom. It doesn’t use the crimes of the past (the countless civilians who have been killed by US bombs) to lighten the criminality of the New York and Washington attacks. Rather it suggests that fully grasping the total criminality and horror of those attacks can be used to grasp the equal criminality and horror of similar acts in rhe past. This understanding can provide a solid ground for opposing all similar acts (including state terrorism) in the future.” CP