a read for the amoralists

  1. 1,781 Posts.

    June 12 2003

    In the light of those mass graves, how is it now possible to say this war should not have been fought, asks Pamela Bone.

    Following the fall of Baghdad two months ago, there was some unseemly gloating from the pro-war lobby. I deliberately didn't join in this, in print or in private, even though I had supported the war, because while (in my opinion) war is sometimes necessary it is always horrible, and always represents a failure of the human race.

    Having seen the pictures of suffering and destruction as a result of the war, I didn't feel like gloating. What I could feel was relief that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was accomplished without the predicted 100,000 dead, without the predicted millions of refugees and without the predicted massive environmental damage.

    Relief, too, because - notwithstanding the chaos they are now enduring and the resentment many feel towards the occupying Americans and British - the vast majority of Iraqis were and are glad to have been freed.

    Seeing how badly the war coalition has underestimated the difficulties of the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq, I find it still very hard to feel like gloating.

    But not so hard, apparently, for some on the anti-war side, who have seized on the fact that, so far, no significant evidence of weapons of mass destruction has been found. Does not this prove what they always knew, that they were right.

    Throughout this debate, protesters against the war have claimed the high moral ground. The casual, automatic assumption has been that all right-thinking (meaning left-leaning) people would oppose the war, and if you didn't oppose it you were simply not on the side of right (not one of us).

    This column is not about the ABC, but nowhere was this assumption more apparent than on the national broadcaster. I listen to nothing but the ABC, am grateful for it and do not believe it should be more regulated. But that doesn't mean I can't detect its biases - even when I agree with them, as I do most of the time. I have heard the sneer in the voice, the tempering of anything resembling good news with warnings of what has or might go wrong. Radio National's Australia Talks Back has become a club where like-minded people agree with each other.

    There were, mainly outside Australia, some on the left who thought the war justified, the writer Christopher Hitchens probably being the most notable. Another British columnist, John Lloyd, who resigned from the New Statesman over the magazine's resort to "moralistic anti-Americanism" in its coverage of the war, wondered in print what future there is for the left if it cannot deal honestly with the rise of terrorism and dictators. Australia's own former anti-Vietnam war protester Albert Langer put it more bluntly: since when does the left defend fascism?

    When a fascist regime is being attacked by a right-wing American regime, apparently.

    Yes, much has gone wrong in Iraq. But what's gone right is that Iraqi people are no longer being killed and tortured, Iraqi children are not being thrown in jail and people are free. What's gone right is that the world's cruellest tyrant has gone, apparently from the face of the earth. Why does so little of the left's commentary acknowledge this?

    Of course, if intelligence about Iraq's ability to use weapons of mass destruction was exaggerated to provide legal justification for war, if governments lied, they should be held to account. But even if it turns out that the legal basis for the war was flawed, there was always a strong moral justification.

    Thomas L. Friedman is right. The humanitarian reason was the one on which the war coalition should have relied. Indeed, in not relying on it they probably underestimated their publics. Many people who initially opposed the war simply did not know the extent of the atrocities carried out by Saddam's regime. Now, as the stories of torture and disappearances are told, as the graves of thousands of executed Iraqi people are found, everyone does know.

    It was always possible, before the war, to argue for or against it in good faith. Those who believe the absence of weapons of mass destruction proves the war on Iraq was wrong may have a more proper appreciation of the legality of things than I have. But I do not see, in the light of those mass graves, how it is now possible to say this war should not have been fought.

    It is time the idea that dictators can use the shield of national sovereignty in order to commit atrocities against their own people was overturned. (Isn't this what the left used to lobby for?) And now that there is one less dictator in the world, the United Nations, which failed to find the will to take effective international action against Saddam Hussein, should think very hard on what might be done - hopefully short of war - about assorted tyrants in Zimbabwe and Burma.

    You don't have to be a particularly good person to think that war is bad. Nearly everyone would agree that it is. But as the founder of Medicins Sans Frontieres, Bernard Kouchner (a socialist), said of the action in Iraq, what is worse than war is for the international community to leave in place a dictator who massacres his people.

    Pamela Bone is an associate editor of The Age.
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