Were I to meet Norman Geras, I get the feeling that, overall, I would quite like him. He seems a reasonable person. In fact, based on Jonathan Derbyshire’s description of him as the “Sage of Didsbury”, he probably only lives a short hop across the Mersey from me. Perhaps we have met? Perhaps we both saw Fahrenheit 9/11 together in the UGC Cinema at Parrs Wood? Or perhaps not.
Of course, were we to meet, we would probably argue a lot over Iraq. Norman is in the pro-war camp, and made some interesting points in his post a couple of weeks ago entitled “The Four Wars for Iraq” (I know this is far from topical now, but I have been very busy recently with work, childcare and Christmas shopping, and there are a few points I would like to make).
The gist of the post, apart from separating the conflict into four distinct wars (which I don’t really agree with, but can’t be bothered arguing about) is that many in the anti-war fraternity seem to blame everything that is wrong in Iraq on the Americans and the Coalition, including the actions of insurgents and terrorists, and that this is unfair. You would think this didn’t really need to be said; that clearly the actions of al-Zarqawi and the other hostage-takers and head-hackers are there own responsibility and should not directly be blamed on the Coalition, but perhaps I am wrong. One criticism of the anti-war movement has always been that they seem happier to criticise Bush than Saddam, as if Bush were the real dictator. Of course, there is nothing worse than someone on your side of the argument making a stupid point, and I wince when I hear people say jokingly “We need regime change in Washington” as if Bush is a worse person than Saddam. But I think there are two reasons why the anti-war camp acts as it does. One is that they do not criticise the murders perpetrated by the insurgents that much because what is there to say? Murders are wrong. Full stop. There is not much scope for argument, you would think. Secondly, the reason the Coalition comes in for such criticism in the west is that it is our Governments that have committed themselves to the invasion; it is understandable, therefore, to criticise your own Government and its allies for a war being fought in your name. This does not mean you like the Baath party and admire Saddam. It is wrong to have a pop at much of the anti-war camp for blaming all the problem in Iraq on the Coalition; but for those people who do blame the Coalition for everything, Geras is right to criticise.
If Geras had left it at that then I think any reasonable person would agree with him; unfortunately he wants to go a little further. He criticises what he calls “all-or-nothing” thinking with regards apportioning responsibility for the problems in Iraq, yet in effect he tries to do just that. He tries to effectively chop the conflict up into four wars, and then suggests you can ascribes 100% blame to one side for each individual event. Therefore, although he does blame the Coalition for the “lack of post-invasion planning, the brutalities at Abu Ghraib”, the Coalition gets a free pass (in Geras’s article at least) for anything ugly which may have been a result of the War as a whole, but where the actual crime such as the murder of a hostage was the action of forces opposed to the Coalition. Geras starts by saying things are more complex, that the Coalition cannot be held wholly responsible for everything that has gone wrong in the war and its aftermath, but seems to end up by saying that it is very simple; and that the brutal actions of the insurgents are entirely the fault of the insurgents, and are divorced from the actions of the coalition. By way of analogy, he says “Adolf Hitler was responsible for many terrible crimes during the Second World War. But the fire bombing of Dresden?” But can actions really be so separated from their consequences? Sure, Hitler and the Luftwaffe did not drop the bombs themselves on Dresden, and Bomber Harris and the RAF must take ultimate responsibility for this action, but did Hitler bear no responsibility at all? Were the seeds for Dresden not sown in the decision in September 1940 to launch the Blitz, and deliberately target the civilian population of London. Or do the roots not lie further back, in the invasions of Poland and Czechoslovakia, the anschluss with Austria, the desire for lebensraum. I don’t think we can let Hitler off the hook over Dresden, and I don’t think we can let the Coalition off scot free either.
Of course, traditionally people have played fast and loose with responsibility during conflicts, and have twisted things according to their own politics. This is something that has long fascinated me. When the IRA planted bombs in British cities, they said it was not their fault but the fault of the British Government. The British suggested that the blame lay solely with the people who themselves planted the bombs. But when we were the ones with the bombs, and were dropping them over Serbia in 1999, this all changed, and it wasn’t our fault; it was the fault of Milosevic. We always want to have it both ways, to suit our own needs. The masters of this are the Israelis and Palestinians, who both seem to think the blame lies 100% on the other side. I have my own ideas on the whole Palestinian situation which I won’t go into now, suffice to say that I support the right of the Israeli state to exist, and for the Palestinians to have a homeland; that I abhor the actions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but I also am sickened by much that the Israeli security forces get up to. But when you hear Israeli and Palestinian spokesmen on TV I find it hard to believe they are talking about the same conflict. Their statements of fact are diametrically opposed, and they feel that one action cannot possibly beget another.
A fictional analogy now. I am a Manchester City fan, and let’s say I decide to go to the Manchester derby, but to sit in the United end. Before going I speak to my friends and tell them that I intend to sing Munich songs throughout the game, and cheer any (unlikely) City goal; I am advised against this action, but go ahead and do it anyway. What would happen? Well, I may escape with my life, but probably not all my teeth, or indeed with many of my limbs intact. I would be battered, I expect; seriously assaulted. And who would be responsible? Ultimately, and legally, my attackers would be at fault. There would be no justification for their actions, and the offenders would probably turn out to be common or garden thugs, used to meting out summary justice on a Friday Night to anyone who looked at their pint funny. But somehow, I feel, I would have to bear some responsibility for their actions, if I carried out a stupid and ill-considered act, in the face of the warnings of my friends. I may not be wholly, or even primarily, responsible for my predicament; but to some extent I would have to shoulder some of the blame. By the same token, surely the Coalition must take some responsibility for a situation they instigated.
On the other hand, I wonder? If, as Geras seems to be suggesting, Hitler bears no responsibility for Dresden, or the Coalition for the insurgency, then surely the opponents of the war cannot be associated with whatever atrocities Saddam’s regime would have inflicted on the Iraqi population if they hadn’t been toppled by the United States and its allies? The moral guilt tripping by some pro-war commentators is therefore faulty. As I have said previously, my main concern when opposing the war was that I knew I was also opposing the most obvious means of deposing a tyrant. Had I known before the war what I know now, that I am in the clear and that Saddam’s crimes and criminal intent cannot be held against me, then I would have argued against the war even more strongly than I did at the time.