Documentary Round-Up Pt. 3: The War in Iraq and the KJB

The War You Don’t See (2011):

 Message: 5/5
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 4/5
Cinematography: 4/5

Back when I was spewing venom about the obsequious media response to the prospective war in Libya, a friend recommended this documentary to me, and I finally got around to seeing it a couple weeks ago.  It’s made by John Pilger, a veteran English documentarian who has made a business of unmasking the powers that be for more than three decades (though this is the first film of his that I’ve seen).  Indeed, with his track record, it’s surprising that he was able to get any higher-ups to sit down and consent to an interview with him.  Many of them don’t come off looking very good at all, and Pilger has no hesitation in contradicting them to their faces when they try to BS their way through awkward questions.  Of course, being English, he’s still too polite to go for the kill and elicit the kind of angry outburst that Ferguson gets in Inside Job.  Also, the film appears to be on a considerably lower budget than Inside Job, and so isn’t quite as cinematically flawless; but it does pretty well considering.

The theme of this movie is the pervasive failure of the Western media (of course Pilger’s chief focus is on the British media, but the sins he uncovers there look like petty quibbles next to what many American networks are routinely guilty of) to offer a really honest and transparent account of Western military engagements.  Too often, they simply act as the public relations arm of the government, disseminating to the masses the official statements–often enough bald lies–of White House or Downing Street.  The official account is rarely subjected to any serious scrutiny, and independent reporting that calls it into question or unearths inconvenient facts is usually swept under the rug and not allowed to make it to press.

Unsurprisingly, Pilger devotes particularly blistering criticism to the way the major news sources handled the lead-up to the Iraq War, repeating without qualification the false information government sources fed them and tripping over themselves to flatter national leaders.  Once the war started, he shows how the media practice of “embedding”–getting military permission to have reporters stationed with certain units–meant that those reporters by and large only got to see what the military wanted them to see, and when they saw something different, they generally felt pressure not to report it so as not to lose their “embed” status.  The result is that viewers generally only get to see the war from the perspective of their own triumphant troops, not from the standpoint of the civilians who are suffering.  Pilger discusses how, even though civilian casualties are mentioned in the media, they are often understated and are given only as statistics–viewers are never invited to share the pain of the victims and their families.  And he cites one arresting statistic of his own–in WWI, civilians accounted for less than 30% of all casualties, in WWII around 50%, in Vietnam around 70%, and in the Iraq War over 90%!  All this time I had supposed that, however bad civilian casualty rates were now, at least we were getting better and better at minimizing them.  Apparently not, and no wonder, when a single US GI death brings as much public outcry as the deaths of 100 civilians.  

Pilger also looks at warped media coverage on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and this is in Britain, where I always thought they were remarkably pro-Palestinian!); and gives some interesting attention to the Wikileaks issue (including an interview with Julian Assange).

 

So why does this happen?  Here is where I thought Pilger’s film could’ve done rather more.  A lot of the answer that seems to come up in his interviews with people is that it’s the embedding phenomenon–in Washington and London as much as in the field.  To get a lot of information, reporters need to gain the favor of government officials, who will supply them with information.  But this means that they are limited to sharing the information that those officials want them to know and to pass on.  If they should ever do research on their own account that contradicts the official story, they’ll immediately be threatened with losing their special access.  And so the pressure to conform is tremendous.  

However, there’s another, deeper problem that emerges when Pilger is interviewing some particularly defensive media executives, which is a confusion about what it is that the news media are supposed to do–a false ideal of democracy.  Defending themselves against Pilger’s question, a couple of execs insist that they never told viewers that such-and-such official report was true, they simply passed it on as it was, and left it up to the viewer to decide about the truth of it.  Their job, they insist, is simply to be a conduit for facts and opinions that come to their attention; it is then up to ordinary citizens to decide what to make of these facts and opinions that are passed along to them.  Our society is frightened to death of elitism and paternalism, and idolizes least-common-denominator democracy; so the news media insist they must not take any responsibility for interpreting, investigating, and cross-examining information–that is the citizen’s job.  But of course, this ignores the fact that most ordinary citizens simply do not have the time and the means to properly investigate government claims and media reports–they must opt either to assume a perenially skeptical posture (as I do), or to presume that what the authorities tells them is usually true (which most still seem to do).  They rely on media to sort through things for them and get to the truth of the matter.  But the media (at least as represented by some of the people Pilger is interviewing) is busy trying to shove this responsibility off onto the government, which is hardly the most impartial source.  Pilger presses them a bit on this point, but not as strongly as he could have.

I also would’ve liked to see him talk about how part of the problem is the instinctive patriotism and war-lust that seems to so easily seduce all people, modern Western reporters as much as anyone.  So many of the people he talks to admit to just having gotten caught up in the excitement of it all and not wanting to ask any hard questions.

 

Needless to say, an illuminating, challenging, disturbing and sobering film all round.  Now I’m going to have to go check out some of Pilger’s other work.

 

 

KJB (2011): The Book that Changed the World

 Message: N/A
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 4.5/5
Cinematography: 4/5

Now for something completely different!  This is not a strict documentary at all, but a hybrid docu-drama, with a generous sampling of live action mixed throughout the documentary interviews and narration.  Although it’s very politically-charged in its own way, the politics in question happened four hundred years ago, so it doesn’t seem quite as controversial anymore–however, there’s still plenty of controversy to go around, at least for Presbyterians whose identity is dependent on a certain narration of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. 

This docu-drama, made in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, invites the viewer to experience the complex political and religious milieu of the late 16th and early 17th century in which the King James emerged.  By doing this, rather than simply focusing narrowly on the production of the translation, its merits, and its reception, the filmmakers succeed in recreating the original wonder and drama of the King James Bible, helping viewers to really feel what a monumental accomplishment it was.  In this, they are helped in no small way by the booming and melodramatic presence of John Rhys-Davies as narrator and presenter, roaming around old buildings and libraries and rapturously inhaling from the pages of archaic manuscripts.  The best scene of all is when Rhys-Davies, to demonstrate the auditory qualities of the translation, thunders forth favorite passages from a pulpit in an old stone church.  

But it was perhaps King James himself who stole the stage.  Although a no-name actor on a very rushed and under-budgeted production schedule, he (see, I still don’t even know his name) does a fine job of bringing this brilliant and enigmatic monarch to life.  The scene where he brazenly mocks both the reactionary Anglican clerics and the over-scrupulous Puritan protesters at Hampton Court is almost worth the price of the film (at least for me, though I know most people aren’t doing their dissertation on Anglican-Puritan disputes).  The film offers a much more sympathetic (and from what I can gather, historically accurate) take on King James than we–at any rate we in Presbyterian circles–have generally been exposed to.  (I grew up in a church where the pastor would not even call it the “King James Version” lest he show any respect to the monarch that commissioned it, always referring to it obliquely as the “Authorized Version.”)  He comes across as a incredibly educated and theologically aware ruler, headstrong and defensive but deeply conscious of his duty to his subjects and to Christ’s kingdom, as well as politically savvy.  In particular, I was surprised to learn in the film how closely he was involved with the commissioning and oversight of the translation, which I had always assumed simply bore his name because he was the king who officially signed off on it.

 

There are only two weaknesses in this film, that account for my giving it four rather than five stars.  The first I have already mentioned–this was filmed on quite a low budget, and so one should not expect the “drama” part to be top-quality, and it’s not.  That said, it’s much better than one might expect–the costumes, acting, sets etc. are all respectable and there are few if any moments that make you wince at their corny-ness.  A bit more irritating at times is Rhys-Davies’s melodrama–indeed, if it were anyone else but Rhys-Davies, it might be intolerable, but we expect no less of him, and he has the ethos to back it up most of the time.  But occasionally, it is a bit over the top.   

Nonetheless, I highly recommend this film to anyone–Christian or not–who wants to learn about this most remarkable contribution to our cultural heritage and this fascinating period in history.



Reactions to the Assassination: An Attempt at Some Elucidations

(I posted a version of this on Facebook, as a follow-up to a flurry of discussion there yesterday; but here it is without all the links and references to comments from my Facebook interlocutors that I had interspersed.)

My initial reaction to the bin Laden news yesterday, justly perceived as somewhat flippant (“So we managed to assassinate an old man on dialysis sitting at home, along with a few of his family members. The Greatest Nation on Earth never ceases to impress me”), was, more than anything, an expression that I really just didn’t think this deserved the status of obsessive headline news and discussion, that we all ought to chill and get back to our daily lives.  However, I found myself quickly entangled in half-a-dozen threads of discussion about it, and attempting to field all manner of objections to my patriotism, sense of justice, and theological competence.  As everyone and their grandma has now weighed in on the news from their blog and/or Facebook/Twitter soapboxes, and as the discussion doesn’t appear likely to die down any time soon, I figured I might as well try to sort through the tangle a bit for those who, like me, feel that the discussion is in danger of degenerating into chaos.   

At first it appear that there are roughly three positions–(1) “MWUHAHAHA!  We killed him!  Rock on USA!”; (2) “Settle down, let’s rejoice in the execution of justice, but without undue pride, giddiness, or vindictiveness”; (3) “Um, shouldn’t we be like God and not rejoice in the death of a sinner, but wish rather that he should turn from his ways and live?”  (Most Christians I’ve seen in the discussion, for the record, seem to be happily in some version of (2), though there are certainly some who sound disturbingly like (1), and a few others, including myself, who have said something like (3).) However, on reflection, it appears to be a bit more complicated than that, and I’m realizing that it’s somewhat sterile to carry out the debate simply in terms of “Should we be happy or not?”  So I’m trying to parse out more carefully the issues at stake, and it seems that there are at least eight different points that are being made by various people who want to qualify in some way our exuberance.  

  1. First, are simple concerns over due process.  Did we violate international law?  Were we appropriate in our violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty?  If we were in fact intending to kill rather than capture him, as appears to be the case (I have read at least one article purporting to directly quote an administration official that it was), was this appropriate?  Shouldn’t we instead have gotten him tried before the World Court or whatever?  
  2. Second, some are calling for sobriety in view of the cost of getting us to this point–we should see this as a Pyrrhic victory.  Ten years of war, a million killed, more than a trillion dollars spent.  Not to mention (and this relates somewhat to point 1) the fact that we only obtained the information to kill bin Laden by wickedly torturing dozens of people.  In view of all these matters, many have suggested, our celebration should be tempered at best.  (Matheson called attention to this angle in his comment on my previous post.)
  3. Likewise, some are calling for sobriety in view of the future cost of this action.  If this action offered little direct military or security gains (as appears to be the case), won’t it be, in practical terms, a net loss for us, inviting a further violent backlash among bin Laden’s followers?  (This has been the most frequent concern stated in mainstream media sources.)
  4. Among Christians in particular, one is likely to hear concern that we not put an overly Americanist spin on this accomplishment.  Let’s have none of these “USA! USA! USA!” chants, or act like this is somehow vindication that we are the greatest nation on earth and God’s gift to the world.  We’re still a corrupt nation, and inasmuch as this is a victory, we should see it as a victory for peace and humankind, not for us merely, the great US of A.  (A helpful instance of this perspective is provided by my friend Robin Harris, and to an extent, by Doug Wilson.)
  5. On a related note, some have called for us to use this as an opportunity to be mindful of our own sins, realizing that we as a nation deserve divine judgment every bit as much as bin Laden.  In such circumstances, crowing too triumphantly about bin Laden’s death–whether as our triumph or as God’s triumph, is a bit like dancing around with a golf club in a lightning storm.  (Robin’s post is particularly helpful in this regard, though for some reason, it appears to be the point of Doug Wilson’s post to dampen such sentiments, suggesting that this leads to an unhealthy moral equivalence.  However, I’m with Paul on this one, who had no hesitation in calling himself “the chief of sinners” even when he clearly was not.)
  6. Again, related to the two previous points, some will point out that, while we may justly give thanks for the punishment of bin Laden as God’s enemy, we should not take pleasure in a personal revenge–“Well, we sure gave him what was coming to him!”  Needless to say, the revenge mindset is the norm for natural man, and it is not surprising that a great number of reactions to the news have used that revenge rhetoric.  

Thus far, all six of these are more calls for sobriety and temperance amid celebration, than they are claims that any kind of celebration is unjustified.  The final two, while still allowing that there may well be some form thankfulness or rejoicing that is appropriate, seek to go considerably deeper in theologically attenuating that rejoicing.

7. First, the weaker claim is that while retributive justice (and that is precisely what the assassination was) is ultimately necessary and appropriate, it is not something to be gloried in, it is not, in any sense, a sign of “greatness.”  Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” puts it well: “For man’s grim Justice goes its way, / And will not swerve aside: / It slays the weak, it slays the strong, / It has a deadly stride: / With iron heel it slays the strong, / The monstrous parricide!”  In other words, perhaps it was necessary and just that we killed bin Laden, but such justice is a rather grim business, and not something that calles for dancing in the streets. (This was one of the initial points I made in the Facebook discussion that developed.)

8. The stronger claim goes further and suggests that in principle, retributive justice is not something that humans ought to pursue.  Since Christ has taught us to pray for the forgiveness and redemption of our enemies, we ought to seek that at all costs, not just as individuals, but in our public and political life as well.  This is not pacifism–it acknowledges that if an enemy is actively threatening the lives of innocents and there is no other option but to fight and kill him, then that is appropriate.  But it refuses to engage in purely punitive action–killing someone merely because he has done something wrong, when either immediate protection of innocents is not in view, or could be accomplished by means other than killing, is not an option after Christ, who has taken the full burden of retributive justice on himself.  Gandalf is worth quoting here: “Many that live deserve death.  And many that die deserve life.  Can you give it to them?  Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment” (though this could be taken as a statement of the softer point (7) above).  (This was what one friend on Facebook accused me of saying, what another friend defended me as saying, and which I subsequently admitted to holding, to the consternation of many.)  

 

I hope this helps elucidate–the exercise, at any rate, certainly elucidated things for me.

 

On Facebook, some asked for further clarification about my own view on retributive justice.   So I add a couple remarks, which should be taken as somewhat provisional.  (By the way, for those interested, a discussion last year on this blog, about similar issues, and also arising originally out of a Facebook spat, can be found here.)  

I am concerned on all eight of the counts listed above, which seems to put me beyond most people I have interacted with, most of whom are unwilling to go beyond (7) at most. Of course, this is perhaps simply a symptom of the circles from which most of my friends and interlocutors hail.  It is certainly my impression that in many other sectors of the church, especially outside of the US, (8) would be non-controversial.  And of course, the line between (7) and (8) is not all that clear-cut, after all.  One might well say (at any rate, I might well say–whether this is coherent or not is another matter), that Christians are to seek to overcome and oppose expressions of retributive justice, without thereby saying that any expression thereof is wrong in the sense of sinful.  It is rather immature, regrettable (though still affirmed as an indirect expression of God’s righteous judgment), something we should try to leave behind, rather than confidently affirming.  This position does not, of course, rule out just war–it simply confines just war to acts of ongoing defence, rather than as a “redress of a wrong suffered,” which many forms of just war theory affirm.  In short, if you come upon someone in the act of killing your mama, you can stop them, even if that means killing them.  But if you come upon someone who did kill your mama three years ago, you love them and forgive them (which isn’t entirely passive, mind you–perhaps they’re seriously messed up, and need to be institutionalized; perhaps even restrained for a time).  

This, I think we will all grant, is how we should act as Christian individuals.  The question is whether it also applies to states.  Most are inclined to say it does not.  I continue to ask “Why the double standard?” and as yet, still feel that any satisfactory answer is lacking.  90% of the answer appears to consist in a citation of Romans 13, which I have been convinced after thorough study does not in fact make the claim that people say it does–viz., that the civil authority is supposed to act as God’s direct instrument of retributive justice, such that any failure of it to do so is a dereliction of duty.  On the contrary, Romans 13, in context, appears to teach that the civil authority, outside of Christ, functions as an indirect instrument which God uses to exercise retribution, but which he does not command to do so (e.g., note how Assyria is used as such a tool, but then actually punished for it), and which, when in the hands of Christians, he does not want to do so.  And inasmuch as Romans 13 might be read in the traditional way, it is sufficiently ambiguous that it is irresponsible to rest so much weight on it, in contravention of other Scriptures.   

 

But, the point here is not to open up a lengthy discussion or debate about that passage–for those interested, a smattering of thoughts relevant to my studies on the passage can be found here, and if I ever have time to finish the book, a great deal more will be forthcoming.  


Bin Laden is Dead: The Speech Obama Could Have Given

Obama’s speech last night about the assassination of bin Laden offered, on the whole, much to be appreciated.  Certainly, it avoided the excessive martyrology and jingoistic Americanism that has characterized other Presidential speeches.  And certainly, it was far better than many of the lamentably vengeful and nationalistic sentiments that it seems to have called forth from so many citizens.  But, if I may be so bold, what would Jesus say?  What might Obama’s speech have looked like if he’d really had courage and conviction?  I can’t really claim to know the right answer to that.  But here, at any rate, is what I might have wished for: 

My fellow Americans, after ten years and a million lives lost, I can announce to you today the death of Osama bin Laden, the man our country has long pursued as its arch-enemy.  It is not my purpose here to rejoice in this death or any death, but rather to recall with sadness all the deaths on that September day and on the bloody trail we have since pursued.  For all the harm he has done us, we did not, for our part, wish death on bin Laden; even our enemies deserve our sympathy.  Vengeance should not be sweet; the path of vengeance is the road to perdition.  Today, our forces closed in on bin Laden with the intention of capturing him and bringing him to due justice*; unfortunately, he was killed in the resulting firefight, as were members of his family around us.  

Nonetheless, we will not fail to thank God for bringing to an end the life of this man who was an enemy to both God and man, whose death, perhaps, can help make the world a more peaceful place.  Justice is not sweet, but it is better than injustice.  Today, we renew our commitment to pursue peace, to pledge to the world that we desire neither power nor vengeance, but freedom and peace.  We hope that the death of bin Laden will mark, in many ways, the end of this long and bloody path we have trodden for the past ten years, that his followers will see the vanity and tragedy of wickedness, and may be reconciled to us, and we to them. 

I exhort you, my fellow Americans, to renounce hate this day, rather than indulging in it, to thank God for his justice, and pray for his peace.  Rather than getting caught up in the triumph of this day, I ask you to express your patriotism in a more practical way, to remember today the plight of your fellow citizens who suffer this day–the tens of thousands whose lives have been shattered by tornadoes this past week, and the tens of thousands whose lives are about to be shattered by floods in the coming weeks–and the tens of millions who suffer each day in loneliness and poverty.  Let us seek to show the world by our actions that life is stronger than death, that love is stronger than hate, that light is stronger than darkness.  

 

*Unfortunately, I doubt whether this was true.  It should’ve been true, but perhaps was not.


Libyan Hypocrisies

Has anyone else noticed the odd double-standard that has characterized the media’s reporting on Libya, and even more so the politicians’ spin on events there?  

When the rebels tell chilling stories about how Gaddafi is mercilessly killing civilians, they are presented as hard fact–or rather soft, stretchy fact, that can be inflated like a balloon from “scores” to “hundreds” to “thousands.”  But when the Libyan government alleges that coalition bombs are killing civilians, these are immediately qualified with “these reports cannot be verified”; the media then hastens to raise doubts about these “allegations,” and ends by dismissing them as propaganda.

When people rose up and demonstrated against Gaddafi, no doubts were raised about their sincerity or their motives, or their numbers.  We were encouraged to believe that they were merely the tip of the iceberg, a few of untold masses who were ready to rise up and be rid of him.  But when people have taken to the streets demonstrating in favor of Gaddafi, we are first encouraged to think that they have merely been bribed, and when this argument stops working, we are reminded that there are hundreds of thousands more that did not take to the streets, and we can only assume that it is because they hate Gaddafi and are too afraid to say so.  

When the Arab League calls for a no-fly zone and invites the UN to intervene, we are told that this is absolutely crucial, that the Arab League is very important and lends legitimacy to the whole operation, that without the Arab League’s request for action, action would probably not be taken.  But as soon as the Arab League says, “Whoa, wait a minute!” and calls for a halt of coalition attacks, everyone is hastening to explain why the Arab League is unimportant, can’t be taken seriously, and can be safely ignored.

When Gaddafi makes absurd speeches and accusations, as he is wont to do, we are told that he is a lunatic and should not be listened to or believed.  But when he makes a fiery speech about how the rebels will be shown “no mercy,” but will be hunted “house to house,” then immediately these words are trumpeted far and wide, and we are urged to take them literally and with absolute seriousness, as proof that hundreds of thousands will die if we don’t intervene right away.  Worst of all, in almost every report, speech, and opinion column, a crucial caveat of Gaddafi’ threat is left out–those who continue to resist will be shown no mercy; those who surrender will be shown amnesty.  

In other words, it was precisely not civilians that he was threatening to kill, but armed rebels who continued to resist by arms.  And this is a very different matter.  Most countries reserve the right to kill armed rebels within their borders seeking to overthrow the government–that doesn’t make it right, of course, but we cannot simply call it “genocide,” as some of the more sensationalist attacks on Gaddafi have.  Indeed, many countries reserve the right to kill armed rebels within their borders who are seeking merely to secede and mind their own affairs, leaving the main government entirely alone.  Pat Buchanan pointed out the hypocrisy quite brilliantly in an editorial yesterday, 

 

Indeed, Gadhafi has asked of Obama, “If you found them taking over American cities by force of arms, what would you do?”

Well, when the South fired on Fort Sumter, killing no one, Abraham Lincoln blockaded every Southern port, sent Gen. Sherman to burn Atlanta and pillage Georgia and South Carolina, and Gen. Sheridan to ravage the Shenandoah. He locked up editors and shut down legislatures and fought a four-year war of reconquest that killed 620,000 Americans — a few more than have died in Gadhafi’s four-week war.

Good thing we didn’t have an “international community” back then.

The Royal Navy would have been bombarding Lincoln’s America.

Of course, it may well be that Gaddafi would’ve killed civilians anyway…certainly such an assault would have entailed many civilian deaths, intended or not.  Quite possibly, his promises of amnesty could not be trusted. Perhaps he was not merely out to vanquish rebels, but to indulge in a bloodthirsty taste for massacre.  Perhaps peace negotiations were not an option, because he was hell-bent on wanton destruction.  But if so, this should be argued for, not merely assumed.  One of the Western media’s favorite tactics is to demonize our enemies–to paint them as irrational, bestial, possessed of no shred of human feeling.  This tactic obviates any need for dialogue or diplomacy–any calls for such can be dismissed as absurd, because, “Such people simply cannot be reasoned with.”  We know a priori that they are bestial, and so are entitled to treat them as such, and to assume the worst of all their actions.  

 

As Christians, however, we are called to believe that love is stronger than hate, that no one is past redemption; rather than making our enemy sub-human, separated from us by an unbridgeable chasm, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of the murderer and the oppressor, because Christ made himself one of us when we were murderers and oppressors.

 

And this, by the way, is why I am so distressed at what is happening.  I have been a bit taken aback in the last couple days to find that my vociferous opposition to the intervention is shared by many of the arch-conservatives back home that I almost never see eye-to-eye with.  But while they may rant against the war because Obama started it, and everything he does is evil, or because it was “unconstitutional” or, worst of all (but most frequent of all), because it is not clear to them how it “serves American interests,” that is not why we must oppose it.  I’m all for helping the oppressed, not American interests.  But will this help the oppressed?  Not if it is founded on deception, as it seems to be.  Not if it shows no love of enemy, no interest in reconciliation.  Not if it is has no clear objectives or victory strategy.  In short, we must oppose it because it has given no clear evidence of being in any way a just war.  I hope in a post this weekend to analyze the conflict rigorously in terms of traditional just war criteria, to show just how seriously it falls short.

 

(Thanks to Nick Needham for the Buchanan link; and here are a few more for thought-provoking further reading: http://www.newvision.co.ug/D/8/12/749765http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/22/libya-conflict-aimshttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/world/africa/22tripoli.html?_r=1&hphttp://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/22/libya-no-fly-zone-united-nationshttp://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20110321-libya-west-narrative-democracy)

 

 


Bombs over Benghazi

I concluded my post on Thursday by reflecting that we had no right to blame God for the deaths of tens of thousands in Japan’s tsunami as long as we went around screwing up the world in manifest acts of evil on our own account.  Alas, I had no idea those words would prove so immediately relevant.  On Friday, following a frenetic month-long media blitz to convince us that Gaddafi was an evil war criminal exterminating his own people and must be stopped, the US, Britain, and France achieved their ambition–a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire or else our militaries would act to impose a “no-fly zone” in Libya to prevent airstrikes on civilians.  The cease-fire was immediately announced, but somehow two days later here we are not merely having established a no-fly zone, but having proceeded immediately to bombing soldiers, convoys, and according to many reports, plenty of civilians of our own. 

How on earth could we be pulled into this madness again so easily?  With the bitter taste of the Great Iraq Deception and its disastrous effects still in the mouths of the UK and US public, with the memory of the shameless propaganda that led up to it and our shameful capitulation to it still so fresh, how could we possibly let this happen again?  Back then, I was young and stupid, and I bought the warmongering hook, line, and sinker…now I know it what it must’ve felt like for the few who kept their senses back then and watched as the godlessness unfolded around them–angry, confused, helpless.

 

I had hoped that the one good effect of this disaster in Japan would be that the 24/7 media propaganda bombardment about Libya would let up, our focus would shift temporarily to a clear-cut humanitarian disaster, and we would then be able to reassess the Libyan situation with fresh eyes, and ears that were not deafened by the warmongering shouts.  But amazingly, even with whole cities leveled and a historic nuclear disaster, the distraction of Japan managed to last less than a week.  Within a few days, the Western leaders had regrouped from the public-relations setback and managed to force Libya back onto centre-stage, supplanting a massive humanitarian disaster unfolding in broad daylight in desperate need of aid resources with one as yet almost entirely undocumented.  

In the days and weeks leading up to the UN decision, all we heard about, it seemed, was a “no-fly zone” that would be established–patrolling Libya’s airspace, and bombing its airfields if necessary.  I wondered how this was going to do anything more than drag out the conflict a few extra days, since most of Libya’s strength lay in its ground forces, and apparently the Western leaders thought so too.  The “no-fly zone,” it seems, was a red herring all along; the resolution surreptitiously inserted the ominous “by all means necessary” clause and within 24 hours, the action escalated beyond a no-fly zone to full-scale war, and infliction of mass casualties–bombing convoys, etc.

Even the Arab League, which had lobbied so strongly for intervention, was appalled, with its president Amr Moussa immediately denouncing the violence that had been unleashed, saying, “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.”  If even one of the leaders calling for an attack was as taken aback at the scale of it as I was, this suggests deliberate deception of Western citizens by their leaders about what was being contemplated.  

It’s sadly ironic that this intervention is being done in the name of freedom and democracy, when a crucial pillar of democracy is the ability of citizens to take part in key decision-making, such as the declaration of war, and that democratic process has been entirely bypassed in this situation.  We have effectively declared war on Libya, and yet the American people were in no way consulted, nor the British.  This decision was made by politicians and diplomats behind closed doors, and authorized by a body that cannot boast a shred of democratic election.  Who are the real dictators in this story?

 

Perhaps the story we’ve been hearing is all true, perhaps a slaughter of epic proportions would’ve unfolded if we haven’t intervened, perhaps this is all urgently necessary, and has been carefully and wisely considered (certainly I appreciate that for once the US was dragging its heels rather than pounding the war-drum, at least until late last week).  But I just cannot feel confident that we are the shining white knights of this story. While avoiding conspiracy theory explanations (although this is one situation where such explanations are disturbingly plausible), I want to raise a few pointed questions about the official narrative:  

 

 1. Is Gaddafi really a brutal dictator, hated by his people?

While I’m not wanting to suggest that Gaddafi is Santa Clause or anything, he hardly seems to be a murderous fiend like many of the dictators we’ve seen in the 20th century.  Such fiends, for one thing, rarely manage to stay in power for 43 years.  Such fiends rarely govern countries with the highest literacy rates and per capita incomes, and the lowest poverty rates in their region, as Gaddafi does.  Libya, for all its unfreedoms, is certainly not quite the dystopia that it’s been painted as.  And the fact that thousands of Libyans have been spontaneously showing their support for the regime in the last month, and even now many are tweeting their support for Gaddafi, testifies to the fact that many, at least, consider him a good leader.  Indeed, in recent years, the Western powers had warmed up to Gaddafi, acknowledging that the worst of his human rights abuses were well behind him.  All that seems forgotten now, and the media has painted this as a situation of universal opposition to a bloodthirsty tyrant, who is clinging to power only by brute force, with the aid of mercenaries and the secret police.  But the facts on the ground simply don’t seem to bear that out.  If he was that bad, one would have expected the protests to become more and more insistent and universal, gathering momentum until the regime crumbled, as in Egypt and Tunisia.  Instead, resistance has seemed to center on a specific group of armed rebels, rather than mass civilian protests.  What we seem clearly to have here is a situation of genuine internal division over what’s best for Libya–Gaddafi or the rebels–not a situation of a lone tyrant massacring innocent protesters.  And if it is the former, rather than the latter, outside intervention is much more dangerous, both morally and practically.  

 

2. How much was he really murdering civilians?

The claim that Gaddafi was targeting and killing civilians has been repeated over and over, more and more shrilly and dramatically, until we’ve heard rhetoric like “Gaddafi is exterminating his own people.”  But the evidence for it has remained quite slim indeed.  Very little has even been brought forward, much less verified.  The key allegation that the West has made has centered on Gaddafi’s use of aircraft to bomb the opposition–even this is not clearly an attack on “civilians,” since the opposition are very much armed.  But Russian sources contested even this claim, insisting that they had no evidence for the airstrikes alleged.  The International Institute for Strategic Studies have acknowledged that Gaddafi is in fact probably taking careful pains not to kill civilians.  He may well be–don’t get me wrong.  I’d just like to see some much more careful and objective documentation.  

 

3. Why intervene in Libya, specfically?

Let’s assume the worst–a tyrannical regime, determined to cling to power, massacring unarmed civilians.  Hm…you mean like the one in Bahrain, where they’ve called in military assistance from neighboring countries to use against their own people?  Or the one in Yemen, where they massacred dozens of unarmed protesters on Friday?  What’s so different about those two countries, that they get off scot-free, and Libya becomes the focus of a non-stop international outcry, followed by a bombing campaign?  The main difference seems to be that Bahrain and Yemen are crucial US allies, while Gaddafi has been a thorn in the West’s side for years (and not always as the bad guy, either).  

Or how about the massacres going on in the Ivory Coast over the past couple weeks?  Or did you even know they happened?  For whatever reason, the Western media doesn’t care about the Ivory Coast.  And that’s because Western leaders don’t care about the Ivory Coast.  Or to push it back, how about the Congo or Rwanda?  Millions of innocent civilians were raped and murdered, and we stood by and did nothing, and did our best to turn a blind eye to it all?  If all we care about is really protecting civilians, how come only civilians on top of oil fields owned by US enemies seem valuable enough to protect?  Again, perhaps this is necessary, but I’d like a clear explanation of why such a double-standard is appropriate.

 

 4. What’s up with this cease-fire?

Is it just me or did the Libyans not immediately acquiesce to the international demand for a cease-fire?  There were reports Saturday morning that they’d violated it–that an opposition plane had been shot down over Benghazi or something.  But if they announced a cease-fire, isn’t it worth taking a couple days and doing some careful observation and investigation to see if they’re keeping their word?  As it was, the bombing plans simply went right ahead as if they’d just decided to give the UN the finger.  Then, this evening, another cease-fire was announced.  Without any pause whatsoever to see if it was for real, to see if Gaddafi was going to make good on it, we continued bombing.  This seems to me a direct violation of the laws of war.  If someone raises the white flag, you quit shooting.  If they then then grab a hand grenade and start to lob it at you anyway, that’s another matter, but you have a duty to at least give them a chance.

 

5. Do the rebels even want help?

I’ve read some articles, and some tweets coming out of Libya, suggesting that even those in the rebellion, even those who hate the regime, want the West to stay out of it.  Either they don’t trust the West (who can blame them?) or else they just want to do it on their own.  Presumably they feel like a losing basketball team, that would rather lose if they can’t miraculously win on their own, rather than having a thug go into the opposing team’s locker room at half-time and break all their shins.  There may be situations where intervention is ethically justified even when unasked for, but they are few and fraught with political and practical dangers.  

 

6. So why might this be happening?

All of this just doesn’t add up.  One doesn’t have to be a cynic or a conspiracy theorist to suspect ulterior motives from Sarkozy, Cameron, Obama, et. al.  So what might they be?  Three suggest themselves–here they are in order from most cynical to least cynical: a) Oil.  Whatever you think about Iraq, one can’t deny that oil seems to be awfully mixed up in a lot of the Western military and diplomatic aggression over recent decades.  Libya is a huge oil producer, and Gaddafi’s policies keep a lot of the oil money within the country, through the National Oil Corporation.  That’s part of the reason for the very low poverty in Libya.  But it’s also a reason for ExxonMobil, BP, Total, and the politicians they have in their pockets to really dislike Gaddafi.  I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.  b) Quelling Arab protests.  It has been jolly inconvenient for Washington in recent months that Arabs throughout the Middle East have decided to start listening to all our rhetoric about freedom and democracy and have employed it against leaders who were loyal allies of Washington, however brutal they might’ve been to their own people.  Caught between a rock and a hard place, the West has been unable to intervene to prop up ailing dictator-allies.  How does Libya help?  Well, if the West can be seen coming in on the side of rebels to take down a dictator, suddenly all the freedom-fighting ceases to be an anti-Western gesture, as it has been in several cases.  The Arab citizens can’t think of their rebellions as knocking down Western puppets–they’ll be afraid they’re just going to be used as Western puppets themselves.  Takes some of the wind out of their sails.  c) Declining popularity.  This is the most likely part of the explanation, though it may well not be the whole explanation.  Military intervention, especially against supposed tyrants, is a guaranteed way to shift public attention away from problems at home and to make maligned leaders look tough, decisive, and morally passionate.  David Cameron, who has been under more fire than any of the major leaders in recent months as Britain has suffered from devastating (though perhaps necessary) budget cuts, was in a similar position to Margaret Thatcher on the eve of the Falklands War.  He may have recalled just how much that war helped her popularity and helped her push through her economic agenda, and decided that another war might be just the trick.  Obama, too, would be merely one in a long line of American presidents who have used foreign military adventures to distract from economic malaise at home and reverse declining approval ratings (Andrew Bacevich has been particularly keen on identifying this pattern in his books).  It can only be hoped that this ill-conceived crusade will backfire and bring public ire down on these snakes.  I can certainly attest that it has destroyed my respect for both Cameron and Obama, both of whom I’ve many times attempted to defend against their detractors.  

 

I may be proved wrong in all this.  It may well be that this intervention is completely necessary, completely well-intentioned, and completely effective.  Indeed, I pray that I will be proved wrong.  But the signs sure don’t look good so far.

(Note: I’ll try to edit this post later and insert some links to a few of the stories I’ve been reading.  For now, this article by Owen Jones is well-worth looking at, as are this discussion on CNN and this article from the BBC).