I’ve been reading John Howard Yoder’s When War is Unjust over and over again — Laurie Jordan handed it to me when she first found out that I wanted to join the military in college, and told me that, as a practicing Catholic, it was important to understand the relationship of the Catholic Church and modern warfare — only when I did that could I make an informed decision about becoming involved with the military. Yoder was a Mennonite theologian and pacifist who taught ROTC classes on ethical warfare at Notre Dame (how’s that for a background?), and is, in my opinion, brilliant.
Yoder argues that the idea of a “just war” is rooted in medieval ideas of warfare and theology; in a nutshell, it is the basic idea of “fair play” applied on a military scale. You don’t kill civilians, only soldiers; you don’t burn crops or places of worship. War is a limited practice, and ONLY used as a last resort — and regretfully, never gloriously –and in some cases, condones surrender by the winning force if the war cannot be won “fairly.” While this idea is well-known and ostensibly present in our modern day ideas of what war is, it often is not actually practiced — only used as the veneer to justify war, rather than engage in what is truly just war. There’s a lot of nuance to the argument, but that’s the crux of it all.
At this point, it’s no secret that I’ve been an avid supporter of the Middle Eastern revolutions — particularly, the toppling of Mubarak’s thirty-year reign of oppression in Egypt. After living two years in Alexandria, practically losing my eyesight learning Arabic, the countless e-mails I’ve received from many friends really show me that the change is real – and that is a beautiful thing. Nervousness abounds, but no more so I think than in other countries’ elections. The world watches, the world waits, and I do not think that the world will let Egypt turn itself over once more to the businessmen, the army officers, the dictators that have kept her down for so long. And I don’t think that the world will change overnight, but weeks ago, there wasn’t even the hope of that. And that is indeed real. That we are all speculating about what will happen next is incredible — when months ago, we “knew” that Mubarak would be Pharaoh forever.
Everyone’s been describing the revolutions as being interconnected; days ago I read in an Egyptian newspaper (I can’t remember which, and I’ve just spent a good half-hour combing through my internet history to find it) that “the easiest work was done in the beginning” — no one thought Ben Ali would be ousted from power, and it was a genuine miracle that he was. Once this miracle was demonstrated, Egypt followed suit — with quicker results. What we have now has been described as a formula for removing a corrupt dictator, and the Arab world is applying it with vigor.
But what went wrong? What went wrong?
I’ve been asking myself this question over and over in response to the violence that only seems to escalate, and I’ve been asking myself “Do I support this? Do I think there should be an international intervention in Libya?” And I’ve been slapped on the back (metaphorically) and told by others that, there you have it — the US is throwing its hat into the ring. We’re doing it. We’re making a genuine difference in the Middle East. We’ll get the son-of-a-bitch.
Rumi’s put a couple of good reflections up on his blog here, which you should definitely read. While out tending to his daily sheesha habit at Boursa (best hookah in town, believe me), his ma2hawagi Khaled confronts him with an unexpected reaction to Libya:
I was taken aback by his anger. I hadn’t thought people would be happy about the military intervention, but hoped that people would see that for once we were trying to be the good guys. But if anyone in Washington, or Paris, or London ever thought that intervening in Libya was going to win us any friends on the Arab street, they were sorely mistaken. They’re bombing us he had said. You’re bombing us he may as well have said.
I genuinely hate this division between “us” and “them”. Every time I write “we” referring to the UK and/or the US it feels somehow wrong, and I hope I would never write of Arabs as “them” But it seems this gulf persists in many minds, in both East and West. But is it any wonder that Khaled is so quick to anger at seeing Western bombing runs on Arab lands?
The main argument for the bombing seems to be that we have to do something. This suggests that up until now we’ve been doing nothing, which is true if you don’t count drawing the boundaries of Arab countries in the first place, installing an assortment of Kings and helping them to fire on anyone who objected, backing every Israeli invasion, arming the Shah, arming and financing a list of dictators as long as they sent us their oil, invading Iraq and then making Tony Blair the Middle-East poxy sodding peace envoy, to give his job its full title.
This may explain why most Arabs are reluctant to welcome Western backing, and why they might reply to a question from Britain and America that went “Can we just do nothing?” by answering, “Why don’t you give it a go? For about a hundred years. Then we’ll see how we’re getting on and get back to you”.
I pose the question: is this a just war — or merely justified?
Despite the comparisons — the constant metaphors of the domino-effect of Tunisia and Egypt — the revolutions that are following are NOT the result of those revolutions. Or they are the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions gone horribly, horribly wrong; the use of violence in response to a regime already violent immediately destroys the sympathy the revolution had engendered to it.
Before the intervention, the world was on Libya’s side. At least, the American people were on Libya’s side — there was widespread support for the revolutionaries fighting in the cause of democracy. Now, it seems we are against them — we’ve committed to doing something, we ARE doing something, and we’d rather not be. In fact, it seems like the majority of columnists and writers and bloggers out there now hate the Libyan Revolution for getting us involved.
One of the central debates of When War is Unjust is the idea of the “sliding scale”: when your enemy produces violence, when your enemy uses an unjust tactic (carpet-bombing, napalm, chemical weapons, nuclear warfare) that destroys civilian as well as military life, when they summarily execute prisoners or violate the terms of a treaty — do you? In response, are all the rules or treaties suspended, and you are allowed to produce these same tactics to ensure victory against them? The argument, I think, is that never are these things allowed; to be ethical, a war must be always defensive, and the use of violence curtailed by human dignity.
The counter to this is the idea of “realism.” Wars are never “won” in such manners. Modern war is total; every civilian is a combatant. It is impossible to be restrained in modern war, because all people are politicized (politics no longer being the realm of princes and nobles and the clergy, but all people). What then?
You would expect that the “realistic” notion of modern war would be proved by Libya, with civilians taking up arms in response to Qaddafi firing on his own people. How can a revolution expect to succeed without violence in response to violence? Are they supposed to be mowed down like sheep?
But where was the international community then? Why weren’t we intervening when this truly was about the blood of the innocent? When the revolution was more non-violent? Why were we so afraid to tell him to step down? Why didn’t we exert more outside diplomatic influence first — support the rebels materially, cut off relations and trade materially, embargo the frigging Jamahiriyya?
When thugs came out onto the Egyptian streets, the protesters remained. When the army came out and the fly-bys came, they remained. When there were fire hoses and food shortages and bullets fired, they remained. They retreated, they rallied, but they always came back and proved that this was really what they wanted. It was combating violence with peace and it worked.
Violence is not working in Libya.
Why did this revolution turn violent in the first place? And why are we perpetuating it?
Oh right. Oil and extremism.
If this doesn’t work out the way we want it to, there will be more extremism and less oil.
I’m starting to think that, in winning this newborn war, we may have already lost.