There is an agreement over the Iraqi war. It seems as if everybody prefers virtual to real reality: it applies equally to military experts, politicians and even the public! It is said that truth is the first victim of every war, but I am wondering why it has to be the case in Macedonia nowadays. Why do people prefer not to hear the truth? Is it possible that the majority can calmly consent to the deceit and misinformation about this war in which Macedonia is an “honourable member of the Alliance of the Willing”? How is it possible in a country whose population recently declared over 80 percent disagreement with the war in all public opinion polls? Are people honest only in their protected anonymity, or are there very few who dare say something which is not politically correct and desirable, or maybe even risky? Or perhaps our petty souls do not like to be bothered, and our conscience distressed by the true picture of the war in which we take politically part? After all, why should a poor and depressed Macedonian citizen care about other people’s sufferings, about the real motives and consequences of a war that takes place so far away?
Can we actually just say: it does not concern us? Our grandparents used to say that every mountain has its own weight, and here in Macedonia we have too many mountainous of daily problems to cope with, such as post-war traumas, poverty, insecurity, corruption, lies and scandals. And after all, what can we do and how can our voice make a difference in global affairs far beyond our individual ability? Talking about the Iraqi drama, I have problems naming it war as the opponents have not been even nearly equal, and everything resembles the old legend about David and Goliath. The only difference nowadays is that Goliath is supposed to be the good, just and endangered one. Without a visible reason, the memories of our 2001 conflicts keep coming back to my mind. In the spring of 2001, for us here in Skopje, it was so tempting to go out and sit with friends, to get away from all disturbing TV news coming from the war fronts (only 30-40 kilometres away), all in a futile attempt to find temporary oblivion: to forget that everything was happening here and now and not somewhere behind the hills…
We still owe ourselves an honest encounter with the truth about our own conflict, just as in this very moment we, as members of the global village, have no moral right to turn a blind eye to the events that are changing this world, make it uglier, less secure and more unjust. The truth about what is happening in Iraq is the truth about our own future and about ourselves.
As in 2001, I have been repeatedly overwhelmed by the feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. To be an expert, to be able to foresee the tragic outcome, to be certain about the forthcoming terror which cannot be justified by any legal, political or moral arguments, and still to be doomed and unable to do anything in order to prevent it! At least, if only those around you had been willing to listen and understand…
The main defeat these days has been the obviously failure of the intellectuals in the Balkans to get together and sign a joint anti-war declaration. Two drafters (a colleague from Belgrade and I) were assisted by an Italian NGO in an attempt to join our voices against the war in Iraq, against the violence, against anybody that uses terror and force, whether it be the USA or Saddam’s regime. We tried to offer an escape from the false trap imposed on us by saying that if one is against the war, it means s/he is supporting the cruel regime in Baghdad. We failed miserably. Many of us, alleged intellectuals from the Balkans, representative of peoples who have gone through the horror of inter- and intra-state wars, failed to find common ground, a stand against the war and the violence, no matter where it comes from and who justifies it. We are still hostages of our own divisions and hatreds, prejudices and traumas. Sadly, it appeared that we are still unable to heal our own wounds and to offer hands of understanding and reconciliation – thus we miserably failed to offer the Iraqi people some moral support, understanding and empathy.
In a moment of despair, a wise and experienced colleague and friend described to me the destiny of peace researchers, i.e. the fate of the mythical Cassandra, who won Apollo’s prophetic power in exchange for her love but was condemned to remain unable to convince others: no one believed her prophecies. Nevertheless, applied to the Iraqi tragedy, evoking Cassandra’s syndrome is simply not enough, it would be pure exaggeration. It has been so unbeliveably easy to foresee and to identify the real motives and goals of the invasion, even insultingly easy to get to the true explanations. All that increases the frustration with the majority of “intellectuals” who seem to keep silent about or openly deny the obvious farce and lies and take the “right” side on a political and public scene in their own societies.
For weeks now I have been starting my day by reading the latest updates about Iraq, about that biggest war in the new millenium. And constantly, a thought has been bothering me and raising the question: Hey, wait a minute! What’s happening with Afghanistan – that first war in the 21st century? What’s going on with those poor people showered with bombs and bread, and then generously “liberated” by the US, overwhelmed with promises and commitments to the effect that after the fall of the Taliban regime a brighter future would be just around the corner, that there would be a dignified life for dignified people, progress and democracy, women’s rights.
Even under the pressure of the latest developments, I do not want, I refuse to forget about the people who paid their “liberation” with 10,000 civilian casualties (collateral damage!). It’s simply unfair, it’s immoral to forget about them and to abandon them in their despair and renewed chaos. As it is equally unfair to forget about the victims of our Balkan conflicts and international “remedies”. Alas, the world media cry for fresh blood and fresh news… But, see a miracle: there is again a kind of virtual reality which provides interactive maps about what is really happening in Iraq, strategic analyses and serious military reports. The media ask their reporters not to display disturbing scenes of human sufferings (again called collateral damage and unfortunate mistakes). Allegedly, it would not be in compliance with international humanitarian law. All of a sudden, after the most blatant breaches and disregard of it, somebody has remembered that there is something called international law and Geneva conventions!? What a hypocrisy!
It feels unfair and unjust to prevent a tear from dropping – at least, a tear for a child, whose name I learned from Fisk’s daily reports from Baghdad. In his and some other reports coming from the spot, from the eyewithnesses, being it journalists or ordinary people, I can hear people’s screams, despair, their blood flows from each printed line… Still these testimonies do not feel like an insult, like the “sensation hunting” of ambitious “embedded” journalists. These are not technically sophisticated reports, but probably the only voices that can make Iraqi civilians heard. Only a handful lonely moral giants have the courage to see the truth, to write it down, and to “disturb” the White House, Westminster, or the Macedonian President – who, by the way, is a priest, a man of God!
Still, how can we make these voices heard in a small country where the majority does not read English, and even rarely reads local newspapers? Despite everything, day by day, I have to begin my day by sending a motherly thought of care and consolation to a little boy or girl to whom these reports draw my attention. If I fail to do so, I won’t be able to go on into the day and face my little and big problems, if I may call them problems at all. The least I can do is to loudly translate the reports to my old mother, as in my intellectual loneliness and isolation I badly need a person to share with these thoughts and pains. While reading, my voice starts trembling and ends in weeping. As a good woman, my mother cannot stand seeing my breaking down in front of her eyes, so she begs me to stop reading because it upsets me too much. She says it is bad for my health. Poor woman, she cannot understand that this is the healthiest thing I can do for my moral and mental well-being. I am going through the article to its very end, while tears are dropping on the keyboard.
In the vast ocean of alleged “information” on strategic moves, sieges and urbocide, use of new and unknown weapons (but also for the well-known ones such as DU missiles, cluster bombs, etc.), about the “heroism” in an action in which one female POW was rescued, I clearly see – there is no real information. The only meaningful and horrible information, the only thing that really matters is, in Fisk’s words, the immorality and the total failure of the human spirit, about humiliation and human degradation. How many are there like him, how many dare go behind official reports about the military advances of the “coalition” (i.e. the lonely, isolated and robust allies, in alliance only with themselves and their deceit about the war)? Again, only the lonely giants are there, those who are not afraid to look at the eyes of the children in agony, to hear the voiceless cry of their parents, and to tell us that these are fellow human beings! As I fear for the civilians, I fear even more about these “heroes'” well-being. How would this world look like without such journalists, such human beings and their brave voices?
Why is it so difficult to understand that even the soldiers have names, that they are human beings, young recruits, not characters from some American comic strips? It is at all heroic to claim thousands of killed “enemy soldiers” when you possess so much superior militarily? The purpose of international humanitarian law is to humanise war; the military goals should be to disable the enemy army not to destroy it. Not to talk about civilian casualties… Collateral damage in the international law vocabulary is called war crimes.
At the beginning of (the visible part) of this war, the media rushed to get some expert opinions about its possible duration, development and outcome. It was certainly an absurd question: the war had started long before the first missile was fired, and it had been lost for the Iraqis on the military front. The “coalition” had been a political and moral loser before it really moved into Iraq. Today’s media inquiries are even worse: they want to document the victory and the real end of this war. They rushed to picture the joy of the “liberated” and grateful Iraqis, applauding as the symbols of the regime were being toppled, and did nothing about the destruction of museums, cultural and national heritage of the Iraqi nation. Again there is just a lonely voice talking about the dark side of that victory, about the shame on the victors, on the occupying force which again turns a deaf ear to the demands arising from the Geneva conventions. The “heroic” American and British troops again care more about their own safety, shamefully and cowardly speaking about the necessity to protect their “boys”, leaving the chaos, death and destruction to spread.
Will there be an end to this war? Will there be any visible outcome? Yes, the outcome is here: it is called irresponsibility, immorality and ineptitude! It is called greediness, cowardice and chaos. Isn’t it enough after just one war? However, the story is not over yet: the doors of the second Vietnam have been opened, a spill-over effect induced in the region, while a highly divided, hypocritical and impotent “international community” remains idle. And definitily there will be many more stories about innocent suffering written by the brave reporters and analysts.
Ages will pass before the Iraqi youth recovers from the quarter century of Saddam’s rule, from twelve years of genocide due to UN blessed sanctions and the several weeks of the “victorious” military campaign of the most powerful military force in history. However, I am wondering how long it will take before the USA recovers from this moral decay: will American society ever summon the strength to face the truth about the crimes done by “our boys”? If our Balkan experience teaches us anything, it is surely that it will be a painful and very long process.
BILJANA VANKOVSKA is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Military Law at the University of Skopje, Macedonia. She also teaches at Peace Program and European Studies Program at the Faculty of Philosophy in Skopje. She is a member of numerous international associations, such as: ISA, IPRA, IPSA, IUS. She is a member of the Executive Board of IPSA/Research Committee on Armed Forces and Society. Her research and teaching focus is on civil-military relations, Balkan security, international relations and peace research. She works with the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research.
She can be reached at: email@example.com