A disastrous way to oppose war

Anti-war activists are demanding an equality of pity between Iraqis and the victims of the Asian tsunami.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Terry Jones, filmmaker, actor and ‘Python’, says he was ‘bewildered’ by the world reaction to the tsunami. Not because he thinks it odd that many in the West should express sympathy and solidarity with the thousands devastated by the tidal wave in south Asia. No, ‘it’s the inconsistency that has me foxed’, says Jones. He wants to know why ‘nobody is making this sort of fuss about all the people killed in Iraq, [even though] that is a human catastrophe of comparable dimensions’. ‘Are deaths caused by bombs and gunfire less worthy of our pity than deaths caused by a giant wave?’ asked the ‘truly baffled’ Python in the UK Guardian (1).

This has been a common response from anti-war types: why don’t people care as much about Iraqis as they seem to about tsunami victims? Veteran left-wing writer John Pilger wrote a piece entitled ‘The other tsunami’, about the hypocrisy of Western leaders showing sympathy for south Asians while continuing to occupy Iraq (2). In the Boston Globe, anti-war commentator Derrick Jackson complained that, unlike for the tsunami victims, ‘no flags have been flown at half-staff for Iraqi civilians’. In response to US secretary of state Colin Powell, who said after visiting south Asia that ‘I have never seen anything like this in my experience’, Jackson wrote: ‘Yes he has. It was in Iraq. The tsunami was us.’ (3)

No doubt some in anti-war circles consider this a clever and radical critique, comparing the Bushies and their British supporters to a giant tidal wave that left sorrow and destruction in its wake – only, where it was ‘weather of mass destruction’ that wreaked havoc in south Asia, it was Bush and Blair’s weapons of mass destruction that did so in Iraq (4). But in fact, this critique points to an opportunism on the part of the anti-war movement, and exposes a sense of powerlessness behind today’s anti-war sentiment.

Some have bent over backwards to demonstrate that, in the words of Terry Jones, Iraq and the tsunami are ‘catastrophes of comparable dimensions’ – even if that has meant bandying about unclear stats. Jones claims that ‘…Iraqi deaths since the war began number more than 100,000. The tsunami death toll is in the region of 150,000’ (5). This 100,000-dead-in-Iraq figure comes from the Lancet, which in October 2004 published research conducted by Johns Hopkins and Columbia Universities in the USA. Yet this research was an estimation, based on interviews about deaths before and after the war carried out in 33 clusters of households selected randomly across Iraq. Even the report’s authors admit that the final figure for Iraqi dead could be anywhere between 8,000 and 195,000 (6).

Of course the war in Iraq has been a disaster for Iraqis, and the tsunami was a disaster for south Asians. But the two cannot be compared. One was a war in which thousands of people have been killed in fighting over a period of two years; the other was a freak of nature in which thousands were killed in the space of three hours. By trying to compare like with unlike, anti-war writers are partaking in a grisly competition, effectively pleading that the Iraq disaster is as big as that other disaster, so why don’t we fret for and sob over and give cash to Iraqis too? Instead of trying to make a political issue of Iraq, which is what it ought to be, they point to its dead and destitute in an attempt to ride the post-tsunami wave of international handwringing and stoke up some disaster-style sorrow for the pitiless victims of the ‘man-made quake’ in Iraq.

This says a lot about how some in the anti-war camp view the war in Iraq – as something akin to a natural disaster, which we might not be able to stop but we can at least express moral outrage over. The Bush administration becomes the unstoppable juggernaut sweeping aside everything in its path, Iraqis the hapless saps unable to do anything about this ‘other tsunami’ ruining their lives, and the rest of us mere spectators whose role is to dig deep in our emotions and our pockets because Iraqis are also ‘worthy of our pity’ (7). As one writer put it, in an article headlined ‘Tsunami hits Iraq’, ‘Massive political plates shifted…. Megatons of pressure, built up from decades of internal strife, sent gargantuan waves hurtling towards Iraq…. Entire cities have been levelled and tens of thousands left homeless….’ (8)

This sense that the war was some terrible force that could not be stopped, an unnatural natural disaster, if you like, has been prevalent in anti-war circles for the past two years. On the anti-war marches of late 2002 and early 2003, before the war kicked off in March 2003, many declared that ‘there isn’t much we can do about the war, it’s gonna happen’ (9). As the Christian Science Monitor reported in October 2002, one big difference between the ‘Vietnam generation’ and the ‘Iraq generation’ is that today’s protesters don’t think they can alter the course of the war: instead, they see ‘war with Iraq as probably “inevitable”, and [believe] that no amount of marching or chanting or drum-beating will likely change that’ (10).

Indeed, the rallying cry of the Iraq generation – ‘Not In My Name’ – perfectly captured this sense of incapacity. That slogan summed up how anti-war protests were not so much about politically challenging Bush and Blair, and maybe even trying to stop them in their tracks, but more about expressing an individual, moral revulsion to war. Resigned to the fact that the war would happen, protesters merely washed their hands of it, with mass protests becoming a way to declare your whiter-than-white credentials and to demonstrate to onlookers that you had cleared your own conscience. It is fitting that some of these activists should now talk about Iraq in tsunami terms, with their emotion shifting from one of revulsion to war to pity for its victims.

What does the tsunami-talk reveal about the anti-war view of Iraqis? In the Iraq-as-natural-disaster scenario, Iraqis are reduced to flotsam and jetsam, tossed about by ‘wave upon wave [geddit?] of tanks, hellfire missiles, helicopter gunships and F16s’ (11). They are not, it seems, people to whom we should offer political solidarity, but rather victims who require our sympathy; they are, as Jones writes, as ‘worthy of our pity’ as those in south Asia.

This is an anti-war view based, not on the belief that Iraqis ought to have self-determination, but rather that they should be felt sorry for – that they, like the tsunami victims, should have flags raised to half-mast in their memory, minutes of silences for their suffering, and presumably cash collections in supermarkets and streets to help ease their plight. Where anti-war activists in the past might have called for equality of sovereignty, for nations to be left to determine their own affairs, today’s call for equality of sorrow, between Iraqis and Sri Lankans, Indonesians and Thais – and for more ‘humanitarian interventions’ for these kinds of people.

Having failed to win active public opposition to the war, some anti-war activists now cynically feed off the international response to the tsunami, hoping that they can tap into what one writer calls ‘hidden solidarities’ around the globe (12). In response to a natural disaster like the tsunami, sending emergency aid and feeling sympathy for the victims is pretty much the best we can do. You cannot, after all, win an argument or build a political campaign against a natural disaster. A war, however, is a different matter.

Read on:

How the world has turned the tsunami rubble into a pulpit, by Mick Hume

(1) A man-made tsunami, Guardian, 11 January 2005

(2) The other tsunami, John Pilger, New Statesman, 10 January 2005

(3) The tsunami victims we don’t count, Boston Globe, 7 January 2005

(4) Get used to the Weather of Mass Destruction, Johann Hari, Independent, 31 December 2004

(5) A man-made tsunami, Guardian, 11 January 2005

(6) The dangers of death toll reporting

(7) A man-made tsunami, Guardian, 11 January 2005

(8) Tsunami hits Iraq, Counterpunch, 31 December 2004

(9) See Opting out on Iraq, by Brendan O’Neill

(10) See Opting out on Iraq, by Brendan O’Neill

(11) Tsunami hits Iraq, Counterpunch, 31 December 2004

(12) Hidden solidarities that span the globe, New Statesman, 17 January 2005

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Topics Politics


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