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Only a collective push for peace will prevent atrocities in spheres of war

By Gary Brown - posted Wednesday, 26 May 2004

The growing scandal surrounding American and British maltreatment, in some cases amounting to torture, of Iraqi prisoners has attracted predictable (and justified) howls of outrage from many quarters, while the damage it has done to the credibility and image of the West in the Muslim world can hardly be overstated.

I do not propose to rehash all that but rather to take it as read. While it is true that to the stigma of brutality this affair adds the reek of hypocrisy - the West, after all, claims to be the global exemplar of human rights - at a deeper level it tells everyone something often forgotten about war and large scale armed conflict in the modern world.

From the Napoleonic wars through the US Civil War, the first and second World Wars up to the present time, the potential scale, destructive potential and lethality of war escalated at a terrifying rate. Technological developments meant that by the 1960s we had arrived at a situation where it was possible that war could literally destroy civilisation.


Parallel to this deadly evolution has been the drive to establish norms of conduct through international law. The various Geneva and Hague Conventions, for example, sought to moderate and limit war, to restrict the sphere in which lethal force could "legitimately" be used. Certain abhorrent weapons (chemical weapons, "dum-dum" bullets and recently, landmines) were not to be used in any circumstances. Civilians were not to deliberately targetted, prisoners were to be humanely treated.

What has been the outcome? The Confederacy's Andersonville POW camp produced corpses and walking skeletons in abundance. The British invented the concentration camp during the Boer War. World War I saw the wholesale use of chemcials weapons and the Armenian genocide committed by Turkey. World War II saw the Holocaust, the outrageous treatment and murder of POWs by the Germans and Japanese, ever-escalating bombing of cities (British, German and Japanese), culminating in the destruction of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The horrors of Indochina, of Afghanistan under the Soviet heel, and now the apparently large scale maltreatment of Iraqis by the coalition are simply more recent entries on the list.

It is a mistake to believe that the Iraqi prisoner affair is an aberration, an isolated incident perpetrated by a few out-of-control thugs. But is also wrong to overtax the West with failure to observe its own ethical standards. The sad fact is that war creates conditions in which all participants are capable of being divorced from their social and ethical roots. In a sense, war is that condition wherein standards are suspended, or seen as irrelevant, where ordinary people commit what would be crimes anywhere else on a routine basis. Is it any wonder, then, that some go further than others, so that where one shoots a prisoner someone else orders the death of thousands of innocents? When standards are abandoned there are no limits, save those imposed by the deadly logic of the battlefield.

The coalition's failure to abide by the rules governing the treatment of POWs simply shows that Western troops are not immune to the pressures of armed conflict (it is, of course, absurd to suggest that Iraq is in any sense at peace today). I possess a video of the bridge of USS Vincennes recorded during the time it shot down an Iranian passenger airliner in the late '80s. Contrary to everything their instruments and radars were telling them, the bridge crew convinced itself that the ship was about to be attacked by an Iranian fighter aircraft. When they later discovered their error, they were horrified. Their government, of course, took refuge in predictable evasions and excuses to escape culpability. Those on the airliner died because those on Vincennes were seized by a collective delusion created by the environment, de facto war, they were in.

The problem thus is not hypocrisy, it is armed conflict itself. Do not look for restraint and ethical responsibility in large-scale conflict, except insofar as the military or political conditions demand it, because the very environment is hostile to it. Anyone, be they Western liberals, Chinese authoritarians, Islamic believers - yes, even Australians - is capable of the most appalling acts if the conditions are right.

Here is a huge obstacle faced by the advocates of international law, especially as applied to armed conflict. Yet with war now so devastatingly lethal, it is more necessary than ever that restraints be placed on it before it destroys us all. This can be achieved in one way only. As I have said, restraint is possible if military or political conditions demand it. The task thus is to create conditions in which restraint in war is an advantage in war. Because war is still a political act, political means can be used to this end.


This is really why those who break the rules must be condemned, and why their governments must be made to feel real political costs. Today's perpetrators happen to be the British and Americans but, whoever may do such things, they cannot be tolerated. This is, if you like, humanitarianism, but writ large because what we are trying to restrain threatens not just our ethical values but in the long run our civilisation or even our existence.

It is nearly 60 years since the last great war, and about 40 since our last near squeak (the Cuban missile crisis). Today the world is better armed than ever; weapons of mass destruction are easier to build or obtain; there is a terribly dangerous gap between those who prosper and those who suffer. Resentment and hatred have been building for generations. The longer any explosion is delayed, the more violent it is likely to be. If we in the West think only of defending what is ours, sooner or later we will lose it all. Worse still, the destruction inherent in this loss will mean that our enemies, whoever they may be at the time, will gain little or nothing while paying a terrible price.

There had better be a better way. We can begin by seeking to moderate the increasingly lawless nature of conflict (indeed we must) but we cannot achieve even that much in isolation. One backhanded consequence of globalisation is that we all must now cooperate globally, even at the cost of some traditional sovereignty, if we are have any long-term security on this planet. Teaching this lesson to governments and their populations, who by and large cling to sovereignty like a security blanket (pardon pun), is the challenge for the coming political generations.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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