Why no one has been held to account for a decade of UK war crimes

By Matt Carr
Infernal Machine

usawarcostThroughout this bleak decade, we have not found a way to use the democratic instruments available to us to hold our governments accountable for the things they do that are wrong.

At the end of a sad and horrible week, in which the brutal murder of a British soldier in Woolwich has unleashed dark forces that are more likely than ever to place all British Muslims under a state of siege, The Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland chose to berate Ken Livingstone and ‘the left’ for suggesting that the murder of drummer Lee Rigby had anything to do with ‘Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.’

Comparing the Woolwich murder to the rightwing response to Anders Breivik’s mass murders in Norway, Freedland made this obtuse and slick observation:

Be in no doubt, Livingstone and the anti-war movement would be appalled if their arguments were played back to them in reverse. Imagine what they would say to the claim that Breivik’s terror vindicated the old rivers-of-blood warnings, predicting that decades of multiculturalism would end in disaster, and now it was time to change course.

This is really a non-point. Of course the right did say things like that in response to what Breivik did, because there are many on the right who share his racism, his loathing of Muslims, and his belief that immigration is paving the way for the downfall of Europe, even if they didn’t approve of his ‘solution.’

But Freedland’s suggestion that that it is therefore morally shameful to suggest that that there is a connection between the wars and acts of violence that the British government has perpetrated or supported abroad, and the fantasy holy warriors like  Michael Adebolajo is inane and ridiculous.

Since 9/11, successive Britain has been an avid partner in the ‘war on terror’. British governments have fought one war after another in various Muslim countries, in addition to providing political or logistical support to other wars that we don’t hear about, and a whole series of sleazy acts of violence and extra-legal activities that rarely reach the attention of the public but which have become normalised as a result of the terrorwars of the last decade.

The overall effect of this process has been like trying to put out a fire by pouring petrol onto it. These wars and interventions have not made anyone more secure, either in the countries where they take place or in our own. On the contrary they have destabilised whole countries and regions, and unleashed a destructive dynamic in which militarism acts as a justification for terrorism and terrorism then acts as a justification for more militarism.

Throughout this process we have become numbed into fearful passivity by endless terrortalk and bug-eyed rhetoric about ‘national security’ which has transformed the public into spectators of the game of ‘terror’ and ‘counter-terror’, oohing and aahing as the two ‘sides’ trade blows with each other.

We have become seduced by a sanitised and relatively cost-free version of ‘war’, in which  our governments engage in push-button violence whose victims barely appear even as statistics, in which most of us don’t even question the right of our governments to bomb, invade or occupy any country they like. We take it for granted, if we even think about it at all,  that these wars are benign, ‘limited’ and ‘humanitarian’. We hear that our armed forces are engaged in ‘reconstruction’, fighting ‘terror’, or ‘the Taliban’, in order to ‘keep us safe’ or promote democracy and protect the rights of women.

But hundreds of thousands of people have died in these wars, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, in Mali, in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.  Some of them were killed by our armed forces or by our allies and some of them were killed by our enemies. But for the most part, we only count our own casualties, which are always low.

The ‘native’ victims of these wars,   on the other hand, are not even counted, and when statistics suggest that quite a lot of them are dying, we still don’t acknowledge any responsibility for them.  We tell ourselves that our side only kills ‘terrorists’ or ‘militants.’ Our governments play down or ignore casualty statistics that call the ‘humanitarianism’ of our wars into question, as the British government did over the Lancet and John Hopkins surveys into ‘excess deaths’ in Iraq.

Do we even care about the irradiated women of Fallujah who have been giving birth to deformed babies because of the weapons our ally fired on that city in 2004? Do we know that last week, in the same week that ‘terror’ returned to the UK,   hundreds were killed in Iraq’s incipient civil war – the latest grim repercussions  from  a war that our government fought in our name, without any viable justification and for which no one has ever been held to account?

When Israel blasts the Gaza Strip with high-tech weaponry, with the support of our government, we don’t question its right to do so.  We hear from high-level British army officers like Richard Kemp, former commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, of ‘the humanitarian concerns that Israel has for the civilian population among the enemy it is fighting.’

Our governments have now taken warfare to a new level of bloodless  perfection (for us) in the use of drones that only kill the evil ones – or so we are told, and why should we doubt it? We take satisfaction from our technological dominance, from our ‘surgical’ weapons and the clean, tidy deaths they cause, and we are rightly appalled and disgusted by the visceral horrors that our enemies attempt to shock us with, especially when these actions take place in our own countries.

Such actions prove that our enemies are cruel, barbarian fanatics, creatures from another dimension, and they also reinforce our own sense of collective virtue.  We know that we are good, because our governments never cease to tell us that we are, and therefore the fact that our enemies attack us because of our goodness or our ‘values’ only reinforces our belief that they are utterly evil.

Even when we hear episodes about our own side that seem to tell a different story, such as Abu Ghraib, the jokey killing of Iraqi civilians by US pilots, or American soldiers cutting off the ears of Taliban as souvenirs, or British soldiers torturing and beating Iraqi civilians to death,  our sense of our goodness remains undisturbed.

Of course we aren’t the only ones to be ‘blind in one eye.’ Self-styled holy warriors like Adebolajo go off to fight jihad in Somalia, regardless of the thousands of Somali Muslims who have been killed by al-Shabaab.   They condemn the Muslims killed by Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not the civilians who are killed by their own side.

They selectively condemn certain wars while simultaneously glorifying even the cruelest forms of ‘war’ and violence in response. They construct their own ‘binary’ narratives in which they are completely good and fighting against an enemy that is utterly evil.

But such men and organizations and ideologies flourish in a political vacuum.  They see our passivity, indifference, and our seeming uncritical support for the militarism of our governments that has – in recent years – largely focused on Muslim countries – and they take justification and legitimacy from it to give themselves a moral blank cheque, just as our governments often do in the name of ‘counter-terror.’

Throughout this bleak decade, we have not found a way to use the democratic instruments available to us to hold our governments  accountable for the things they do that are wrong.  And in these circumstances we can’t be entirely surprised that  people will try to kill us – and they won’t do it nicely, sitting at a desk with a styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand and a mouse in the other, wiping out some ‘radical sheikh’ in Yemen before taking time off for lunch.

No amount of shutting down ‘preachers of hate’, peeking at the Internet or trying to detect ‘radicalisation’ will be able to stop them entirely. So it is perfectly legitimate to acknowledge that there is a connection between the terrorwars of the last decade and the awful butchery that took place in Woolwich last week.

It is in fact essential, especially when we see terror profiteers like John Reid telling us what we need to do to fight terrorism – the same John Reid who helped plot the Iraq war and once expressed his fury with the BBC because it reported that Iraqi civilians were dying in the early stages of the invasion.

Men like this claim to want to defend and protect us.  But they are also part of the terrorism nightmare. The wars they started helped create a breeding ground in which the killers of Drummer Rigby could flourish, and they have since become rich in the process.

And if we are ever to lay the foundations of a different kind of world in which militarism and terrorism have no place, we need to recognize that they too bear some responsibility for some of the horrendous consequences of those policies, and that we do too, because too many of us could not be bothered to stop them.

Follow @martynjsymons


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