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What it really means to be for this war

Stephen Gowans

in his 1939 antiwar classic, Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo builds a story around an American casualty of W.W.I. Horribly mangled in combat, Trumboís casualty has no arms, no legs, no eyes, no ears, no tongue. He canít talk or hear or speak or walk or touch. Confined to a glass case, lost in mute isolation, all he can do is breathe and eat and shit and piss...and think.

"Take me wherever there are parliaments," he thinks, "and diets and chambers of statesmen. I want to hear when they talk about honor and justice and making the world safe...Let them debate...why should we take all this crap off Germany or whoever the next Germany is. Let them talk more munitions and airplanes and battleships and tanks and gases, why of course weíve got to have them, we canít get along without them, how in the world could we protect the peace if we didnít have them? Let them form blocs and alliances and mutual assistance pacts...But before they vote on them, before they give the order for all the little guys to start killing each other, let the main guy rap his gavel of my case and point down at me and say, here gentlemen is the only issue before this house, and that is, are you for this thing here or are you against it?"

Weeks after the US and Britain began bombing Afghanistan, leveling Red Cross warehouses, destroying Red Crescent buildings, flattening hospitals, taking out mud huts, the true nature of the war has begun to sink in.

As many as 1.5 million Afghans are on the move, according to the UN, fleeing the bombing. Up to 7.5 million face starvation, as bombing disrupts the humanitarian food relief efforts needed to alleviate the effects of decades of civil war and one of the worse droughts in the countryís history.

And thereís carnage. If you donít turn away, itís there for you to see. The Afghan child, maybe two or three, with the red pulpy divot taken out of the right side of her skull, lying beside the still, lifeless body of her brother. Had a madman driven a golf tee into the childís head, and then swung at the ball resting atop the tee sunk into brain tissue? Did he swing too low, driving his three iron through the childís skull, with an explosion of blood and bits of pulpy tissue that splattered all over her motherís face and clothes? Or was it a young American pilot, a guy who plays golf when heís at home, who had dropped a bomb marked Made in the USA that accomplished what a three iron could accomplish just as readily? Did the pilot scrawl across the bomb, "To Osama bin Laden," the way World War Two flyers used to write To Adolph Hitler on their bombs? Or did he write, "To Mamoud, aged 2"?

For thatís what war is, isnít it? It isnít a pilot giving the thumbs up, as she waits to take off from an aircraft carrier, captured by an AP photographer, his handiwork splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world to make the people back home feel good about this war of terror thatís supposed to root out terrorism. She was taking off for another bombing run against, what? Taliban targets, or that little kidís house?

Brains sprayed across the floor, mothers weeping over little kids who got in the way, amputated legs on the operating room floor, poor, starving, wretched people, with what few possessions they have, trudging up a muddy road, to get away from all the bombing, not knowing where theyíre going to live, not knowing how theyíre going to survive, not knowing whether the jets flying over their heads are going to make another of their infamous blunders and unleash the fires of Hell on them, just innocents, trying to get out, away from the devastation, and all the corpses. Oh well, thatís war, shrug the phony sages and corporate media executives and politicians back home.

Thatís what this war is, isnít it? It isnít Osama bin Laden, on the run, hiding in a warren of caves high the Afghanistan mountains (or is it somewhere in Pakistan, or maybe Albania, by now?); itís 16-year old Assadullah, not a Taliban solider, but an ice-cream vendor, without a leg and two of his fingers gone, blasted away when an American missile slammed into an airport near his home. Itís Trumboís Johnny, no Mohammed, no legs, no arms, no eyes, no mouth, no ears, lying in his glass case. Are you for this? Or against it?

Those who are for it -- the politicians and Generals and newspaper editors -- are afraid that more and more of us, arenít.

In Britain support for the war is "wobbly," as the British press puts it. Tony Blair urges those whose support is faltering to think about how they felt when the Twin Towers collapsed. War feeds on emotion. War needs emotion. War demands emotion, to fog the brain, to keep people from thinking about the essential contradiction: Weíre killing innocent civilians to show that killing innocent civilians is wrong.

In Canada, the Globe and Mail tries to put some steel into the spines of Canadians whose support for the war is flagging. It publishes the photographs of 19 Canadians killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, under the headline, Never to be heard from again. It wonít publish the photographs of the hundreds of Afghans killed by US and UK bombs under the same headline.

On October 31 the newspaper gives over a full page to its religion and ethics reporter, Michael Valpy. Accompanying the article is a cartoon depicting God giving a thumbs up to American bombers. The headlines read:

The Just War

The right to smite

If the US and its allies are to maintain the moral high ground, they must weigh the costs of their war against its benefits, (assuming off the bat thereís a moral high ground to maintain.)

And then Valpy writes: "Those theologians who are not pacifists have generally given the US and its allies the green light on the right to go to war."

Buck up, Canadians. God is on our side.

Were the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin alive, he may have thundered in retort: If God approves the war, then God, if he truly exists, must be abolished.

Just a day before, Walter Isaascon, chairman of CNN, decided that his reporters were focussing "too much on the casualties and hardship in Afghanistan," and ordered CNN reporters "to make sure people understand that when they see civilian suffering there, itís in the context of a terrorist attack that caused enormous suffering in the United States." Rick Davis, CNNís head of standards and practices, tells anchors to put scenes of Afghans suffering "into context." He recommends anchors say: "The Pentagon has repeatedly stressed that it is trying to minimize civilian casualties in Afghanistan, even as the Taliban regime continues to harbor terrorists who are connected to the Sept. 11 attacks that claimed thousands of innocent lives in the US. We must keep in mind...that these US military actions are in response to a terrorist attack that killed close to 5,000 innocent people in the US."

In other words, because innocent people were killed in the US, itís all right to kill innocent people in Afghanistan. Or as Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley said, when asked about civilian casualties, "Canada would feel that innocent people have already been hurt." Kindergarten moral reasoning.

Turn this around: Imagine Osama bin Laden remonstrating with his followers who are uncomfortable with the deaths of innocent Americans in the New York and Washington attacks. "The US government refuses to renounce its Middle East policies which have led to the deaths of 1.5 million Iraqis through sanctions and have allowed the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine to continue for over three decades, causing untold suffering for Palestinians. Washington refuses to apologize for atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for the killing of millions of civilians in South East Asia. You have to understand that while you see civilian suffering there, itís in the context of American foreign policy that caused enormous suffering in the Middle East and throughout the world."

Reasoning like this was vigorously disputed when some people -- Simon Fraser university professor Sunera Thobani, for example -- tried to explain the Sept. 11 attacks as blow back for what she called "blood-soaked" US foreign policy. Who was disputing the views of Thobani and others like her vigorously? The very same people who are telling you that the suffering of innocent Afghans has to be understood in the context of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Johnny continued, "And if they are against this, why goddam let them stand up...and vote."

And if you are for this, then stand up and say so, too. Donít hide behind God or the 6,000 killed in Washington and New York or John Manleyís kindergarten moral reasoning or lame aphorisms about war being terrible (so too is terrorism -- does that excuse it?). Say youíre for the killing of innocents, because thatís what youíre for. Say youíre for millions starving, because thatís what this war is about. And say youíre for the smashed in skull of a three year old, and for her mother weeping over her. And remember whose support allowed it all to happen.

Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at

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