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Of Cannibals: The Chilcot Report and Never-Ending War

Michel de Montaigne once described the ceremonies of the Tupinambá in Brazil in his celebrated essay, “Of Cannibals” (1580) wherein he compares the cannibalism of these people to the 16th century barbarism within Europe:

I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things. They are savages at the same rate that we say fruits are wild, which nature produces of herself and by her own ordinary progress; whereas, in truth, we ought rather to call those wild whose natures we have changed by our artifice and diverted from the common order. 

This statement by Montaigne regarding the “other” was everything that non-Europeans represented:  savages, cannibals, anyone deemed less than human. These were the humans deemed to be feared, a viewpoint which permeated much of Western civilisation at the time. While Montaigne’s work ushers forth an equally problematic framing of the “noble savages” whose existence represented the innocent “state of nature,” what the cannibal represents today demonstrates the limits of political ideology. Or rather, where one human’s “war” is the other’s terrorism.

And so it goes that today, seven years later, the Chilcot Report is finally released.  At the time I began writing this article I did not have access to the report as the Iraq Inquiry website states: “Inquiry’s report and supporting documents will go live once Sir John Chilcot has finished his public statement on 6 July.”  But the prelude to this report was telling as the BBC had been laying the groundwork for the release of this report from the weekend prior highlighting the historical development of this report through various video clips and articles, publishing snippets of Sir John Chilcot stating the obvious: “Careful analysis [is] needed before war.”  At the risk of sounding dismissive, why, exactly, was this person chosen to be the chairperson to the Iraq Inquiry?  Chilcot, who served in the home office as Deputy Under-Secretary for the Police Department, permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office during the height of Irish troubles, various other civil service appointments in the home and cabinet offices, and private secretary to Roy Jenkins, Merlyn Rees, William Whitelaw, and head of the civil service William Armstrong, retired from civil service in 1997.  Today Chilcot is the Chairman of Trustees for the independent think tank The Police Foundation which in recent years has focused upon the policing of young adults and crime reduction.  One must wonder to what degree this report can be any more than a symbolic hand-slapping given the basic conflicts of interest that Chilcot represents.

Tangentially one must question why is every single person on the Iraq Inquiry committee is a member of the peerage:  Sir John Chilcot, Sir Lawrence Freedman, Sir Roderic Lyne, Baroness Prashar and Sir Martin Gilbert (now deceased)?   While Chilcot clarifies that this committee is not a court, he claims, “We’ve tried to apply the highest possible standards of rigorous analysis to the evidence where we make a criticism….”  But how is criticism or any objective inquiry possible when this particular group of examiners has been vetted by the crown, bearing titles which speak to the vested interests of the royal family and of the state?   By their very nature, these individuals cannot possibly be objective examiners and any conclusion that they draw would necessarily be far less severe than someone who has examined the larger historical and political theatres which set up Blair as both somewhat at flaw and yet in a difficult position, whereby according to the likes of Lord Butler “he exaggerated the reliability of intelligence but acted in good faith and did not lie.”

Let’s leave the class nepotism aside and go to the part where Chilcot expands in his BBC promotional video a central facet of the report:  “The main expectation that I have is that it will not be possible in the future to engage in a military or indeed a diplomatic endeavour on such a scale and of such gravity without really careful challenge, and assessment and collective political judgment being applied to it.”  I am now at a loss to as to how it took seven years to reach this conclusion given the deaths in Iraq alone amount to approximately one million by conservative estimates, that is if we are speaking of Iraqi lives as equal to British lives. The weight preceding this report’s release, however, has not been put on the value of Iraqi lives, but instead on the British lives lost. Certainly, it is a painful reality for many families in the UK to learn that their children killed in combat were pawns in a larger political war.  Or, in the words of Reg Keys who lost his son, “He did not die defending his country, he died serving his country because his country was never under threat from Iraq.”

What the Chilcot Report produces in faux knowledge has already been preemptively set up by the media and politicians.  And while many suspected beforehand that this report would be as part of the larger theatre of democracy where an allegedly serious body sets out to uncover the “truth” about Iraq, it was inevitable with such a hand-picked committee that any “truths” uncovered would fit into the larger legitimation of military aggressions in the neo-colonial expansion of capital.  It is through such truisms where “war” and “serving one’s country” covers up the backstage actions of politicians seeking to keep their political narratives intact, their economic dealings with transnational corporations in check, all the while creating a nifty package where money is to be made in destroying countries because we can just send in our own companies to pick up and set up shop once again. Just ask Halliburton and Bechtel how that worked out for them!

Ultimately what the Chilcot Report does not question is the inevitability of war that most everyone in the UK, to include Reg Keys, embrace:   “I am proud of my son.  He faced death in the face along with five colleagues and not one of them tried to run…He served his country.”   As those under thirty years of age comprise of over 50% of the armed forces in the UK, they take a gamble with their lives when it is time to serve overseas in any of the questionable occupations that the UK has joined in recent years.  Still in 2016 so many buy into the glorification of war whereby notions of bravery and cowardice dominate the discussion and where being proud of one’s dead child is the only measure of political patriotism.  Indeed, it would be refreshing if the Chilcot Report endeavoured to uncover the tendentious links between recruitment of young adults and narratives of patriotism, but I am quite certain this was not in the interest of this committee or of the political figureheads who stand by this report.  Nor are the worrying statistics about the massive rates of violence or suicide by ex-military men returning home after deployment in the Global War on Terrorism.

More interesting than the countless editorial pieces and various blog entries from Amnesty to The Economist, are the comments in these mainstream publications where the British public evidences that they are not easily duped by the latest political theatre created by the Chilcot Report.  As one Independent commenter, Makhnovtchina, states:  “If we are lucky, Chilcot will lead to further questions as to how such events are endemic to all political structures dominated by elite groups and hierarchies, no matter their colour, under the influence of charismatic leadership and powerful, Orwellian-style propaganda systems. But don’t hold your breath.”  Indeed, Chilcot does not produce any earth-shattering revelations about how the war was conceived or the degree of culpability specific to each political player in this tragedy.  The best political critiques on the UK’s involvement in Iraq have come from journalists like Patrick Cockburn who writes:  “If there is one word which springs to mind in describing the approach of all arms of the British state towards the Iraq war it is “amateurism”, a persistent lack of rigour in knowing the terrain in which a British Army would be operating combined with a tendency towards wishful thinking.”  While the Chilcot Report offers insight, it is a bit too little, too late, authored by a group of individuals whose children were not deployed and who offer symbolic conclusions over a series of neo-colonial transactions that continue in various other forms.

The two issues highlighted in Chilcot’s 6 July statement establish a re-thinking of Great Britain’s international policy as necessarily being independent from that of the United States:

There are many lessons set out in the Report.   Some are about the management of relations with allies, especially the US. Mr Blair overestimated his ability to influence US decisions on Iraq.  The UK’s relationship with the US has proved strong enough over time to bear the weight of honest disagreement. It does not require unconditional support where our interests or judgements differ.

Inasmuch as these points give comfort for those Brits who were among the million who protested Blair’s advances to war in 2003, the Chilcot Report still leaves military invasion and occupation (for us), terrorism (for the other), on the table. There is no ethical questioning of how military action might be phased out in a larger diplomatic policy which has left the United Kingdom’s fingerprint over many of the sites of ethnic cleansing and civil wars that have followed UK colonisations around the planet.  Indeed as we see a group of Tory MPs organising to put forward a vote against Tony Blair for contempt of Parliament over his decision to invade Iraq in 2003, the Chilcot Report argues that the legal basis for war was “far from satisfactory,” still not specifying that it was illegal.

What our culture celebrates, sadly, is the invisibility of the Iraqi other in this conflict together with the conterminous marginalisation of the soldiers returning home whose narratives do not fit the images which a film directed by Howard Hawkes might represent.  Just in the past month we have seen some troubling trends which celebrate the military draft of women and the inclusion of transgender Americans in the military. Instead, what we ought to be asking as a society, as should have the Chilcot Report, is this:  why are military options from recruitment to drafting celebrated at all?  Why can we not arrive at a consensus politically where neo-colonial occupations are no longer options to be adorned in the language of heroism, but should instead be regarded with the very shame of Montaigne’s realisation that once we step foot into that mire of violence, we too are cannibals.

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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