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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Sophistication of War

Tarkan at the Harbiye
What ever happened to a brave, new world, Mr Obama?

I have been asked by a work colleague to share what I think about any American-led military action against Syria.

I have made my views on violence clear. Right off the bat, let me also state I also recognise the need to defend yourself, and I'm not against the military per se, either. I've been in the army and found it to be great training.

When I temporarily relocated to Cyprus some years back to work in the legal community, I had to overcome the legal requirement of conscription by doing a shortened-term of national service rather than the requisite 18 months. Don't let the word "shortened" fool you; we had a shorter term, but it was extensive. We did as many marches, as many lessons, and as many exercise regimes as the 18-monthers. We had wake-up calls at all hours, including the middle of the night. Our dorms were checked for cleanliness and prohibited items (which used to be mobile phones, although I hear that they are now allowed in the army) and we were shouted at by our superiors daily.

I was surprised, however, at how much I enjoyed the daily routine, and the rigorous exercises; I first began boxing classes whilst there as a way to keep fit, and I learnt how to clean and fire a Heckler & Koch G3 battle rifle. I had my own personal rifle, assigned to my tag number, and although it went under lock and key outside of military exercises, I was forbidden to give it to anyone else at any time or mess about it. I learnt the mechanics of it inside out, and at the end of my time was taught to perfect my trigger finger (by keeping a coin balanced on your rifle), and fire three shots in a triangle around a bullseye from a good distance.

I spent one day in confinement because I refused to point my firearm at a living thing during night watch (it happened to be a very noisy wild rabbit in our barrack's wired fencing which we rescued), and came to the attention of my superiors, who utilised my legal and language skills, and offered me desk duties, but I enjoyed being outside and the exercises too much to want to be stuck behind a desk. I did help out with translations when necessary, and spoke on the phone. I was offered a permanent position with the army, and the only reason I didn't take it up was because I believed I could better help my community outside of the military.

At the end of the day I was mindful this was only training and not active duty. It's also about your mindset; the army is not going to be for everyone. I just got on with the job of being there, and found I enjoyed it, but ultimately the army deals with combat and combatants, and death and violence. There is no way to pretty it up; a military lifestyle may be healthy, the camaraderie is worthy, but apart from a humanitarian crisis, war is a bloody mess of violence.

There is no subtlety to killing. It isn't a clever chess game of tactics when human lives become nothing more than collateral. There is no excuse to say, "Oh, you don't understand, one situation is very different to the other." I am one of the first to argue about the sophistication with which we need to understand our past, the world, and all living things in it, but this is exactly the point. Once violence enters the equation, sophistication goes out of the window. Blood and mayhem make brothers out of the bloody episodes in Egypt and Syria, whether they are in fact related or not.

War isn't about arguing semantics, like with the word "coup". Despite the limited action America is promising, military attacks mean you're leaving the house of peace to enter the house of war. Officially declaring war doesn't make it any more legal, or illegal. As a lawyer I understand the meaning behind the terms politicians use, because of the legal ramifications, but the ethical reality is that you're entering a war zone the minute you entertain violence.

War will always be about firing on the weak and powerless, whether that be an oppressor to the oppressed, or a stronger power coming in defence of the oppressed. Dialogue only happens when parties see themselves as equals, or at least come to the table with the wisdom that history tells us no one is better or worse than the other.

When we give in to war and posturing, escalation on both sides can lead to people becoming monsters, genocides occur, people always die needlessly and all die with indignity and without impunity, the situation is always out of control; every day that passes with war sees more death - and every death makes it that much more harder for dialogue, reconciliation and forgiveness.

If you check my posts where I have my say, I am usually wary of using generalisations such as "always", but the wide scale nature of violence in war does indeed generalise; for once, no individuality, or multi-faceted subtlety survives the onslaught of its noise, and the ensuing bloodshed.

Even those of us against war often mistakenly believe that war complicates things, but it doesn't, it just blurs things, and makes us all as bad as each other. In three words: It solves nothing. Here's another three: it resolves nothing. The only thing war complicates is the road back to peace.

Add to that, what message does this give out to the world to bomb a country already battered by civil strife in the name of some outmoded ideal of morality - of good versus evil? Can you imagine if we fought crime in the streets of our "civilised" societies in this way? Does anyone know why vigilantism is outlawed?

If my neighbour gasses his family to death next door, should I then in turn throw a Molotov cocktail through his living room window to "persuade" him not to do it again? Even if I got support from the police force to do this, and the backing of the whole street, what do you think the result would be? What if emboldened by my actions, all the people in the street began to act in the same way, waging their own little battles against "evil", on assumptions they know what's best for the rest of the neighbourhood based on their own views.

Forget about the wars of times past, where people died for principles of liberty against European fascism, for example. Today, this is as sophisticated as war gets - trying to rein in a bully who is only master in his own streets and no threat outside of them - because we have ruined previous lofty ideals our grandparents fought and died for by selling them out when it has been politically expedient to do so.

Rather than reacting in defence of life, war is now only about violence, even more so than centuries back when a few ruling people dictated why we went to war, because we have a greater technology capacity to destroy - and those of us enlightened enough to know there are other options feel the shame of still watching humanity trying to catch its own tail running round an ancient dilemma.

We still haven't been able to evolve past the dilemma of what we should do when confronted by "evil". Not to take direct violent action, not to stand our ground and oppose it doesn't mean we condone it, but for many it seems to be the same thing. To me, resorting to violence to combat the evils that result from violence is like beating a child for bullying his brother.

I question the belief that when we are faced with a dilemma we have to resort to violence to oppose it, and I strongly believe warfare needs to be relegated to less developed times. We often hear politicians saying that dialogue and diplomacy has failed, but it is diplomacy and dialogue without this foresight that has lead to many of the situations we see in the world at the moment.

The massacred men, women and children will not be brought back by some politically motivated vengeance, neither will the bloodshed end with ineffective military strikes. Make no mistake, this is a strategically important and volatile region. Going in and out will not be easy even if it is only done by air. Otherwise why is Russia engaged in propping up the regime in Syria and obstructing every attempt by other countries to bring that regime to account? Do we really need Russia, who is brutally running an anti-gay campaign in its own streets, to defend Syria as the blood runs in theirs?

But this is what happens, America. If you have your president choose the route to violence, then you will have to resort to dealing with people like Russian President Vladimir Putin asking you to provide proof to the UN, while pointing to Iraq and Libya and other countries in the region and accusing you of another sabre rattle. Putin has got one thing right, though. No one country should get involved, especially at the instigation of the US alone.

It is thanks to an American legacy that we find ourselves in the second decade of the 21st Century still unable to grasp the simple concept that a bullet which kills one can just as easily kill another. That is the level of sophistication war brings you to, and for those who would say dumbing down complex, sensitive issues to simple street examples - while good rhetoric - is not realistic, I would say you don't understand the reality of war.

War is the street; war dumbs down, and in the scream of violence there is no time for talking. In the mess left behind, we think the world has changed - but it is we who change. We move further away from our potential for peace. We have let it come to a point where more than two million Syrians are registered as refugees, after the total went up by a million in the last six months. More Syrians are now displaced than any other nationality, and we feel cornered into using violence.

In less developed times, "might was right" and without the law, whoever had the most guns was the winner, but today, even just using the threat of warfare weakens the argument, and brings no one closer to the table. War takes on a life of its own; at the end of all holy war who manages to remain holy? War always points to the opposite side to divert attention, but peace, like the truth, is not afraid to point to itself.

So, bringing some of that criticism down on me, I wanted to lay all this out along side a more in depth post about Syria below, so that my own biases are clear. When I wrote a post on the election of Obama after his first term of office and entitled the moment as a brave, new world, it made me realise that when words stay on the screen, it becomes just so much rhetoric - and here we are, still in a fearful one.

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of civil rights leader Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream Speech" in his March on Washington, Obama himself said recently there was still much left to do before King's dreams could materialise in America. Former US president Bill Clinton also spoke that day to say it was time America got "back to work" at fixing their issues. King indeed inspires; it can also be taken in another way, that I still have more faith in a person's character than his tumultuous politics.

The post I wrote when Obama was voted in was recognition of America's great willingness to always question itself and to change, and in that I saw hope for a better world. It's one I refuse to give up on. We have to have some faith in the people running the world, and have some hope that Obama will eventually do the right thing according to his conscience, because I honestly believe he is a man with one.

We also need to separate the American people from their politics - many have emailed in to tell me of the good works they are doing to help the victims of these war-torn countries, and in paying dues, and helping out, America is heads above the rest. Who helps out most when people are in need?

I still haven't struck hope, nor Obama, and certainly not the American people, off my list, nor have I lost sight of a brave, new world. It is a world where I look to a person's character, rather than his or her politics - even at the point when the two seem indistinguishable, and suggestions are already being made that Obama may be planning much wider action than the limited strikes that have been publicly proposed.

If Obama is that man of conscience I celebrated being elected into the world's most powerful office, then he will make sure we are not talking about this in another decade or so with even less hope than before.

But I will respect him, even if he fails trying.

O, Fearful Old World

is war a game of chess?
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