Truth, a Casualty of War
In order to avoid violent conflict, we must address honestly the real causes,
proposes IRFAN CHOWDHURY.
Since the beginning of time, humankind has been unable to live without war. Reason, justification or purpose becomes insignificant with the passage of time and the memory of brutality gets lost amid fresh disasters. With the need to survive and to live in the present, most of us fail to find time to reflect, let alone to analyse history's lessons. Learnt history is forgotten as soon as we graduate from high school. Scholars and enlightened elders pass on their wisdom, but most of us are focussed on the demands of daily life.
But individuals have moments which are etched so deep in memory that they resurface and resonate with whatever issues they face for the rest of their lives. Watching the movie Gandhi in 1982 was such an event. Although I barely understood English and had no knowledge of the history, the acting and the sequence of events felt convincing. The man appeared powerful, determined, sincere and kind. His dogged pursuit of his goal through ahimsa (the avoidance of violence) charmed an impressionable kid.
Gandhi's leadership in the struggle for Indian independence was a watershed in the development of nonviolent struggle. With the backdrop of violent and destructive wars (World War I and II), he pioneered strategies to usurp a centuries-old tyrant through nonviolent action. His ability to organise campaigns toward long-term goals was that of a leader with a cause. He was shrewd, tireless and efficient, remaining unshakably determined to understand complex and diverse Indian society. He became a social visionary successful in uniting and leading nonviolent, effective mass actions not achieved by other equally nationalist and popular leaders such as Subhas Chandra Bose with violent rebellion.
His ultimate goal, independence for an undivided India, remained unachieved, but many adopted his non-violent tactics, notably Martin Luther King, in the struggle to win civil rights for African Americans. Ironically, not only were Gandhi and King assassinated, but subsequent world leaders paid little heed to their non-violent approach, initiating wars across the world. While we do not have the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Korean War or the Iraq-Iran War, we have ceaseless Israel-Palestine conflict, and the ongoing War on Terror.
Wars close to home since the assassination of Gandhi include our liberation war, the separatist movement of Indian North-East States, Khalistan movements, the Jammu and Kashmir independence struggle, and the Tamil movement in Sri Lanka, with the loss of thousands of innocent lives. Continued fighting, insurgency and counterinsurgency maintain the casualties, and words fail to describe the atrocities; other causes lead to violence, such as the Naxalite attempts to redistribute lands to the dispossessed.
As conflict continues, more people become discontented, which leads to further terrorism. Hatred for other races and communities, ambition to achieve independence, anger against corrupt systems and poverty are just some of the issues leading people to adopt violence. No country is safe from violence; at its zenith it produced suicide bombers who claimed countless lives.
If we are concerned about war and its debilitating effects on humanity's future, we need to think deeply about it. We need to learn about the causes, the atrocities, the huge costs, the propaganda, the nature of terrorism, the issue of just or necessary wars, and especially, what can foster peace.
Consider, for example, the proposition that religion is the most common reason for war. There have been wars to establish religious supremacy but which religion promotes war? To the contrary, all religions preach peaceful co-existence. We know that current conflicts involve Muslims, but can we honestly say that Islam instigated these wars? How can killing human beings be tagged as religious?
But some historical problems tied to religion are not going to go away. The plight of Palestinians is one such problem. The conflict is a primary reason for implacable acrimony towards the US among Muslim nations. It should be evident by now that until and unless world leadership convincingly demonstrates a fair deal for Palestinians, this undiminishing conflict will continue to provide pretexts for militant jihadi groups for terrorist acts. This is as simple a truth as you will ever discover.
Linking this truth with the lies of George W Bush's almost unilateral attack against Iraq, premised on myths such as Iraq's possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction and his need to save the rest of the world from them, one starts to see a clear recipe for long, bitter wars. One can see underlying reasons for the eagerness to start and run wars; the business models of these wars are the work of many intelligent brains, factoring in profits (oil, employment, building and construction, research and development, the sale of arms and ammunition, and territorial gains) and losses (civilian and military casualties, the misery of ordinary people and refugees) -- and these models obviously convince them that profit outweighs loss. In other words, the reasons for modern wars are not necessarily the defence of sovereignty or winning autonomy. The economic reasons behind wars are increasingly conspicuous.
Other peculiar but deliberate events coincide -- a book, a cartoon, a film -- sparking extreme reactions to confirm the beliefs of prejudiced Westerners: someone always gains from Muslim madness. These outbursts take innocent lives, cost the livelihood of many and turn prosperous countries into arid wastelands, creating thousands of refugees, but the truth gets hazy. The recent killings of western forces by local Afghan trainees epitomises the level of mistrust between the West and its perceived missions in occupied zones. Many Muslims consider the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers as an wily inside job, in cahoots with Israel, to create a favourable milieu in which to bolster hatred against Islam and to attack unyielding Islamic nations.
But the scene is murkier than that. Western aid is frequently sought, for example to support the Arab Spring. Pakistan swings between 'support' and 'attack' modes in its alliance with the West. All western countries now have citizens with ties in Islamic countries. Some of these citizens, albeit a minority, have been involved in masterminding attacks against western targets. The War on Terror, rather than culling terrorism and violence as promised by George W, continues to breed more terrorism, unhappiness and destruction. Yet we are told relentlessly that these wars are achieving peace, prosperity and democratic governance, and that they reflect the desire of the people.
Oppressors are global. Let's consider something closer to home. In spite of the prolonged derision that followed the savagery of 1971 and a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Mukti Bahini, the Pakistani leadership, or more appropriately its army, is repeating the same ferocious brutalities against Balochistan, to quell its separatist flames. A nationalist streak in Balochistan has been repeatedly suppressed by state-sponsored violence. Military response has led to great hardship among the Baloch, but it has also precipitated counter-violence against peaceful non-Baloch settlers. The army has clearly preferred this bloodshed when it is also fighting a brutal insurgency in tribal areas against extremist militants, in order to fulfil its role in the War on Terror. Soldiers are obviously predisposed to think that force is the answer to all (political) problems.
Invasion, occupation, death squads, economic warfare (collective punishment through economic strangulation), missile attacks in civilian areas by unmanned drones (terrorising entire populations), the killing of civilians and resistance fighters merely encourage more anarchy. Most frustratingly, these strategies appear to have ignored lessons from the past, such as the Vietnam War or more pertinently in the context of the War on Terror, the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. If the British during their reign or the Russians during the 80s could not tame the tribal elements in that country, what makes the strategists believe that they can achieve it this time round?
Curiously, these wars are being sponsored during a time of supposedly economic and financial doom and gloom when nations are cutting back on public expenditure. While governments struggle to feed their poor, they can afford billions on arms purchases. Global military spending has been rising in recent years. All major nations are spending heavily on defence, arms and combat weaponries.
Key details from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)'s recent military expenditure trends summary:
* World military expenditure in 2010 is estimated to have reached $1.63 trillion at 2010 prices.
* This represents a 1.3% increase in real terms over 2008 and a 50% increase since 2001.
* This corresponds to 2.6% of world gross domestic product (GDP), or approximately $236 for each person in the world.
* The USA, with its massive spending budget, is the principal determinant of the current world trend, and its military expenditure now accounts for just under half of world spending, at 41% of the total.
* SIPRI has commented in the past on the increasing concentration of military expenditure, i.e. that a small number of countries spend the largest sums; this trend carries on into 2010 spending.
* The 15 countries with the highest spending account for over 81% of the total.
* The USA's 41% is distantly followed by China (8.2% of world share), Russia (4.1%), UK and France (both 3.6%).
Even if you consider the budgets of smaller nations such as Bangladesh, you will find that they spend more on Defence than they do on education, health or infrastructure. What is more, serving in the forces is often recognised as an esteemed career choice since it offers a permanent secure job with power, even if there are catches involved.
So is it human nature? Are we programmed to fight and not to tolerate others? I find this hard to believe or to accept. Even assuming we were programmed, human nature has gone through much evolution and many learning processes, accumulating knowledge and innovative solutions to complex problems which must influence our inherent nature. In an age of nuclear armed strategic alliances, where a conflict between member states can translate to a conflict between all members of different (nuclear armed) coalitions, only a fool would not realise that mankind must eliminate war or war will eventually eliminate most of mankind.
On the other hand, what is achieved by violence? If the rage is against the rich, the West or Israel, they will not be changed by bomb blasts in public places. If violent movements fail to achieve results, why should people risk their lives to kill people who have not directly harmed them? And whose responsibility is it to ensure that such outrage does not happen? Governments and policymakers know that it is easy to urge poor, marginalised people to fight -- but we have seen so many wars, do we not know how to stop them?
Perhaps the answer remains in TRUTH. If we know or at least try to address the real reasons, we may be able to avoid wars; this was evident with the events leading to our liberation war. Just imagine, if only Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was not robbed of his chance to form a government in 1971, if the West Pakistanis were genuine, we might not have had the war. In independent Bangladesh, imagine the situation if we had truthful dictators or politicians, however oxymoronic that proposition may be, rather than those whose electoral promises are perpetually broken.
In the vocabulary of the War on Terror, the official reason for Australia's involvement in Afghanistan is given by its present Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, in this article for the Sydney Morning Herald in July:
Australia is engaged in a vital mission in Afghanistan. We are there because our national security is at stake. This is why our commitment to the mission remains steadfast. Our objective is clear: to combat the threat of international terrorism, to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a training ground for terrorists launching attacks against us and our allies.
Supposing Australia is threatened by terrorists being trained in Afghanistan, there are no simple, ready solutions to terrorist activities. There is no panacea for terrorism. Importantly, as Ms Gilliard would know by now, counterterror (bombing, drone attacks) is not the answer, and in fact, it can be counterproductive. Although the whole world knows why allies such as Britain and Australia are involved in the War on Terror, their politicians, even today, lack the courage to say it. They prefer to talk incessant UNTRUTH to justify their wars.
I started with my admiration for Gandhi -- I want to end by quoting another of my (literary) idols, George Orwell. Similar to Gandhi, Orwell protested physically (he fought in the Spanish Civil war) and through his writing against LIEs. His satirical pieces against fascists, torturers and dictators gained the attention of ordinary people, perhaps fulfilling his aim. In his essay, “Why I Write”, he explained
"...In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer. First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc. By the end of 1935 I had still failed to reach a firm decision...
What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, 'I am going to produce a work of art'. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing..."
In the context of never- ending violence, I realise Gandhi and Orwell fought to seek and establish the truth. The sad part in all of this is that, in our quest to attack others, to conquer others, simply to extend our dominance, we twist, hide, muddle, and obfuscate the truth.
Irfan Chowdhury is a Canberra based opinion writer.