The left is getting itself tied up in knots about the Just War and the propriety of bombing Afghanistan. I suspect some are intimidated by laptop bombardiers and kindred bully boys handing out white feathers and snarling about “collaborators” and being “soft on fascism.” A recent issue of The Nation carried earnest efforts by Richard Falk and an editorial writer to mark out “the relevant frameworks of moral, legal and religious restraint” to be applied to the lethal business of attacking Afghans.
I felt sorry for Falk as he clambered through his moral obstacle course. This business of trying to define a just war against Afghanistan is what C. Wright Mills used to call crackpot realism. War, as the United States has been fighting it in Iraq and Yugoslavia, consists mostly of bombing, intended to terrify the population and destroy the fabric of tolerable social existence.
Remember too that bombs mostly miss their targets. Col. John Warden, who planned the air campaign in Iraq, said afterwards that dropping dumb bombs “is like shooting skeet; 499 out of 500 pellets may miss the target, but that’s irrelevant.” There will always be shattered hospitals and wrecked old folks’ homes, just as there will always be Defense Department flacks saying that the destruction “cannot be independently verified” or that the hospitals or old folks’ homes were actually sanctuaries for enemy forces or for “command and control.”
How many bombing campaigns do we have to go through in a decade to recognize all the usual landmarks? What’s unusual about the latest onslaught is that it is being leveled at a country where, on numerous estimates from reputable organizations, around 7.5 million people were, before September 11, at risk of starving to death. On September 16 New York Times Islamabad correspondent John Burns reported that the United States “demanded elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan’s civilian population.”
In early October the UN’s World Food Program was able to resume shipments at a lower level, then the bombing began and everything stopped once more, amid fierce outcry from relief agencies that the United States was placing millions at risk, with winter just around the corner. On October 15 UN special rapporteur Jean Ziegler said the food airdrops by the same military force dropping bombs undermined the credibility of humanitarian aid. “As special rapporteur I must condemn with the last ounce of energy this operation called snowdropping [the air drops of food packages]; it is totally catastrophic for humanitarian aid.” Oxfam reckons that before September 11, 400,000 were on the edge of starvation, 5.5 million “extremely vulnerable” and the balance of the overall 7.5 million at great risk. Once it starts snowing, 540,000 will be cut off from the food convoys that should have been getting them provisions for the winter.
So, by the time Falk was inscribing the protocols of what a just war might be, the United States was already engineering civilian deaths on an immense scale. Not, to be sure, the ghastly instant entombment of September 11, what Noam Chomsky has called “the most devastating instant human toll of any crime in history, outside of war,” but death on the installment plan: malnutrition, infant mortality, disease, premature death for the old and so on. The numbers will climb and climb, and there won’t be any “independent verification” such as the Pentagon demands.
Let’s not be pettifogging and dwell on the point that nothing resembling proof of bin Laden’s responsibility for the September 11 attack has yet been put forward either by the United States or its subordinate in Downing Street. Let’s accept that the supreme strategist of the September 11 terror is Osama bin Laden. He’s the Enemy. So what have been the Enemy’s objectives? He desires the widest possible war: to kill Americans on American soil, to destroy the symbols of US military power, to engage the United States in a holy war.
The first two objectives the Enemy could accomplish by itself; the third required the cooperation of the United States. Bush fell into the trap, and Falk, The Nation and some on the left have jumped in after him.
There can be no “limited war with limited objectives” when the bombing sets match atop tinder from Pakistan and Kashmir to Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jerusalem. “Limited war” is a far less realistic prospect than to regard September 11 as a crime, to pursue its perpetrators to justice in an international court, using all relevant police and intelligence agencies here and abroad.
The left should be for peace, which in no way means ignoring the demands of either side. Bin Laden calls for: an end to sanctions on Iraq; US troops out of Saudi Arabia; justice for Palestinians. The left says aye to those, though we want a two-state solution whereas bin Laden wants to drive Jews along with secular and Christian Palestinians into the sea. The US government calls for a dismantling of the Terror Network, and the left says aye to that too. Of course we oppose networks of people who wage war on civilians, as Seth Bardacke remarked to his dad after September 11. What the American people should have learned from September 11 is that bombing civilians is wrong. As Doug Lummis then wrote in Japan: “Fully grasping the total criminality and horror of those attacks can be used to grasp the equal criminality and horror of similar acts in the past. This understanding can provide a solid ground for opposing all similar acts (including state terrorism) in the future.”
So we’re pretty close to supporting demands on both sides, but we know these demands are not going to be achieved by war. What is this war about? On Bush’s side it’s about the defense of the American Empire; on the other, an attempt to challenge that in the name of theocratic fundamentalist Islam. On that issue the left is against both sides. We don’t want anyone to kill or die in the name of the American Empire, for the “war on terror” to be cashed in blood in Colombia or anywhere else, or for anyone to kill or die in the name of Islamic fundamentalism. Go to the UN, proceed on the basis that September 11 was a crime. Bring the perpetrators to justice by legal means.