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Few willing to say theyíre for what this war is really about

Stephen Gowans

"Donít hide behind God or the 6,000 killed in Washington and New York or... 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."

when I challenged readers to say theyíre willing to put 7.5 million Afghans who have nothing whatever to do with the Sept. 11 attacks at risk of starvation, that they can live with 1.5 million driven from their homes, that theyíre prepared to accept the smashed in skulls of three year olds, I didnít know Iíd set off an avalanche of mail. But as e-mail after e-mail rolled in, I realized that something in my Nov. 6 column galvanized readers. I received eloquent and passionate denunciations of war, an aggrieved missive from a respected journalist, challenges to say what I would do, and a few replies dripping with hate and racist venom.

Philip, a newspaper man for the U.S. Marine Corps in WWII, wrote, "I had to interview casualties at the hospital on Saipan (during WWII). These were from Okinawa and Iwo Jima. It was there that I became convinced that war is man's greatest stupidity."

Later, Philip was among the first US troops into Nagasaki, after the Boxcar had dropped its deadly ordinance on the city. "I saw the ravages of that thing, created by man, to do inhuman things. I knew that I could never go to war again."

To those who say the atomic bombing was necessary to end a war, Philip disagrees. "I knew when I saw (Japanese) planes at, I believe, Yatsushiro -- there was no gasoline on the field to fly them -- that the bomb need not have been dropped."

Some, who thought they disagreed with me, wrote eloquently about the horrors of war. William, a Vietnam vet, said, "Yes I know what war looks like. There is no moral high ground in war. It is a mean and nasty business. War is not a video game. It is real -- the blood, the guts, the smell. You don't get used to it."

On that, he and I agreed. On this we didnít: Just because war is brutal and inhumane doesnít mean itís a bad thing. William wrote, "You have to grit your teeth and get the job done. You learn to live with it. Sure this war is going to kill" non-combatants, he points out, but thatís "the way war works."

And, invoking the necessity of preventing another Sept. 11, he concludes that, "We did not ask for this war, but America must win it."

Kyle, less polished than others, but perhaps more honest, chose not to hide behind religion or kindergarten moral reasoning or lame aphorisms about war being terrible. " Iím not against killing Mamoud, aged 2" he said. "Mamoud, aged 2, will grow up to become Mamoud, aged 22, a terrorist. I say kill all Arabs."

One correspondent was more polished, polite, and articulate than Kyle. Less frightening on the outside, but little different from Kyle on the inside, Jim began with a reassuring, "Of course Iím not for the killing of innocent civilians," and ended with, "but civilian casualties shouldnít stand in the way of bombing Afghanistan."

WWII, the "just" war, was Jimís model. "Millions of civilians were killed in that war," Jim pointed out. "Does that mean we shouldnít have fought Hitler?"

Jim confuses two issues: Justice for war and justice in war. The first concerns whether the reasons for war are just. The second, whether the war is carried out in a just way. William, the Vietnam vet, says the idea of justice in war is a crock. "Thereís no moral high ground, " he points out.

But Jim wants to believe that if the reasons for going to war are just, the means by which the war is fought must therefore be just, as well, as if having a just reason to restrain a child justifies placing him in leg irons and shutting him up in the attack. The war against Japan may have been just, but that doesnít make the fire-bombing of Tokyo or the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just, and it doesnít make civilian casualties just either. The issues are different.

But what of the question of whether there is justice to war? Pearl Harbour and the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, are, for Jim, and a lot of other people, indistinguishable acts. But are they?

As legal scholar Aziz Kurta points out, "some 18 terrorists of disparate Arab national origins carrying sets of box cutters who commit kamikaze attacks against a state and its population cannot be said to have committed an Ďarmed attackí and nor attributed to a particular state." The point is, unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor, itís not clear which government, if any, instigated the Sept. 11 attacks.

And then thereís the matter of the Taliban offering to turn Osama bin Laden over to a third country for trial, if Washington could present a prima facie case of the Saudi exileís culpability. Washington, which claims it didnít want this war, refused. If youíre handed a way to avoid war, and you reject it, can the ensuing war be just?

Not surprisingly the UN Security Council has withheld endorsement of the US attack on Afghanistan, no matter how fervently Washington would like us to believe otherwise. Security Council Resolution No. 1373, passed on Sept. 28, condemns the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and reaffirms "the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense as recognized in the UN Charter," but makes no reference to Afghanistan, the Taliban or Osama bin Laden, and doesnít authorize an attack of Afghanistan.

But many of those who support the war argue, or have readily assumed, that thereís no other way. But then, when your government has the largest military in the world -- indeed, in history -- itís not surprising that military intervention becomes the favoured solution to everything.

Sometimes the US reminds me of a guy whoís been puttering around in his basement workshop for years, and then decides to invest a substantial sum of his savings in buying the best table saw money can buy. Not one of those standard garden-variety table saws you can pick up at the local hardware store, but the Taj Mahal of table saws, something to make his brother in-law salivate and neighbors turn green with envy. And once he has the saw installed in his basement, all gleaming and shiny, in its little alcove-cum-shrine, he starts looking for wood working jobs to do. "Iíve just spent a bundle on this thing," he tells his wife. "Iíd better put it to good use."

It all starts innocently enough. "Maybe Iíll rip down the fence, and put up a new one," he decides. And then the projects get more elaborate.

"Letís take down the south wall, and build an extension," he says one day. "Iíve got the saw. Iíd better put it to use."

Soon, every wood working chore has to be folded, distorted, misshapen and rearranged so that the table saw -- the glorious expensive table saw -- can be used. Before you know it, heís trying to figure out how to fix the kitchen plumbing with it.

"Dylanís grown too big for his bed, honey," his wife points out one evening over dinner, served on a dining room table whose top has been lovingly fashioned with the help of the table saw. "What shall we do?"

"Bring him downstairs. Iíll saw six inches off his legs."

"But isnít that a little drastic -- indeed, Procrustean?"

"Thereís no other way, dear. Shortening legs is a mean and gruesome thing. The stench. The blood. You never get used to it. But I didnít ask for Dylanís legs to get too big, but damn it all, something has to be done, and it will be done."

"What would you do?" a number of readers asked. Well for one, Iíd get rid of the table saw. If the kitchen sink needs fixing, use a wrench.

When Timothy McVeigh committed the terrorist atrocity against the Oklahoma City Federal Building and the people in it, an atrocity, it will be recalled, initially blamed on Arabs, Montana wasnít bombed. Instead, the culprits were sought out and punished.

"Ah, but yours are the views of someone who shouldnít be listened to, because," said one reader, "you come from Canada, a socialist country." Socialism is one of those words that you have to define before you use it because it has so many meanings. But Canada, as a country, fits none of them.

Itís strange, though, me being from Canada. My column is carried on a Web site called Canadian Content, talks about the Toronto Globe and Mail, refers to Canadaís Foreign Minister John Manley, and still a number of readers got it into their heads that Iím American. Which makes me wonder whether they got past the first paragraph. Hmmm. Whatís this? Another of those cry-babies shedding tears over the poor, destitute Afghans when American lives are in peril? Iíll tell him a thing or two, and Iíll use lots of words spelled in caps to do it!

One American correspondent, who exchanged a number of notes with me, remarked, "Isnít it great that we live in a country where we can have an exchange of views and not worry about a knock on the door in the middle of the night. I bet they canít do that in Afghanistan."

This on the day it was announced that in addition to the 1,100 Muslims held in detention without charge, US authorities wanted to talk to another 5,000, at a time the civil liberties-unfriendly US Patriot act had sailed through Congress and the FBI was openly musing about using torture. This at a time when other readers were writing to tell me I should be thrown in jail for sedition, deported (to where, wasnít clear), and that I was a fifth columnist (no, just a Canadian Content's columnist.)

For many living in America, there have been plenty of knocks of the door in the middle of the night already, and more to come, but not for people, who, like my correspondent, are neither Arab nor critical of their government. As for Afghans, their more pressing concern is not a knock on the door that announces a midnight visit by the religious police, but a knock on the wall announcing the arrival of an American made missile whose visit will prove far more devastating than anything the religious police are capable of.

Some readers had divided the world into "us" and "them" and so reacted to any concern over "them" as indicative of a lack of concern over "us." A respected journalist reacted to my observation that while his newspaper printed the photographs of Canadians who had died in the Sept. 11 attacks, it would probably never publish photos of the innocent Afghans who had been killed by US and British bombs. The point was that Canadians and Americans killed on Sept. 11 and Afghans killed in the weeks that followed were all innocent victims, each deserving as much compassion and pity as any other, no matter what their national origin. To focus on one group to the exclusion of another, is to say that some lives (Canadian and American) are more important than others (Afghan.)

Had I blundered into the same kind of reasoning that led CNN to order its reporters to balance scenes of suffering Afghans with scenes of the devastation in New York, he wondered. If you present "our" side does that mean you have to present "their" side?

But I never thought of Afghan civilians as the other side. Like you and me, theyíre ordinary people, going about their lives, sharing more in common with us than either of us do with Osama bin Laden or Tony Blair or George W. Bush or Jean Chretien. How could we be on different sides? Itís them, Bush and bin Laden, so ready to order the killing of ordinary people, American or Afghan, who do so in the pursuit of more power, more prestige, more wealth, more influence, who are on the other side. Michael Bakunin called them, "the vampires of history, ever nourished upon human blood." Are Bushís fangs any different from bin Ladenís?

Itís them mother,

Itís them that sits and rules,

Weíve got to fight the wars they make,

Itís us who are the fools.

So wrote Robert W. Service, soon after WWI, in his poem Michael, about a returning soldier whose moodiness, whose introspectiveness, whose haunted eyes, leads his mother to beg to know whatís wrong. He explains that heís troubled by what heís been a part of, what heís seen, and what heís done. "When will it all end, Michael?" his mother asks. "When will it all end?"

Only when ordinary people break free of the yoke of "them that sits and rules," he replies, only when they demand,

What are we fighting for?

Then, then, will end that stupid crime,

That devilís madness,


Decades ago, the old Nazi, Hermann Goering, leaned in to his microphone at the Nuremberg trials and held forth on war and propaganda. "Why of course the people don't want war," began Goering. "That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along."

The Nazi leader paused, then continued. "All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger."

Sound familiar?

Of all the readers who wrote, eight of 10 fervently opposed the war. Only a few reminded me of those Goering said it is a simple matter to drag along. Thatís heartening.

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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