2000s >> 2003 >> no-1190-october-2003

Capitalism, war and atrocity

The various enquiries into the events leading up to the Iraq war keep showing up more of the dubious ways the government tried to get voters’ support for a war which was launched in defiance of their own international law and the United Nations. But however much Blair’s back is to the wall, he can (and does) always make the excuse that even if the actions of Britain and America are not justified in any other way, the regime of Saddam Hussein was so terrible that no one can be sorry that Bush and Blair sent their armies in and threw him out. Almost all wars can be justified by pointing out how bad the other side is. All capitalist governments do unpleasant things: that is the inescapable nature of capitalism. So whenever two capitalist powers go to war, each can make a strong case against the other, by alleging how shocked they are about all the repulsive things the enemy has done.

When hostility ripens into open warfare, each side’s ruling class does even more terrible things to the other side, destroying its towns and slaughtering its people. This gives both belligerent countries even more propaganda points to make. Before long, each side is claiming that it only started fighting in the first place because (in some miraculous way) it could see what barbarous actions its enemies were going to be guilty of in the war. In other words, the propaganda of each hostile country claims that it only went to war because of the atrocities committed during the war on the other side.

The truth, however, is exactly the opposite. It is not the atrocities which lead to war; it is the war which leads to the atrocities. What happens, over and over again, is that a government, reacting to the pressures inseparable from capitalist (and other private-property) societies, treats some of its citizens very badly. Then the government gets into a war against other states; only to realize that its previous ill-treatment of this or that minority has simply provided a ready-made fifth column for the enemy. In other words, if the enemy should make a successful attack on the home territory, there are many citizens of the home country who would almost certainly prefer the enemy to win, and therefore might well engage in sabotage or guerrilla attacks on the home forces. If the war begins to go badly, the government and its supporters become terrified that they will loseand will therefore be killed (either by the enemy or by knives in the back) or at least driven into poverty and exile: terrified of such an impending fate, they turn on those whom they have previously ill-treated, and murder them.

Armenian massacres
The massacre of the Armenians, in Turkey in 1915, came about in this way. The Armenians lived in eastern Anatolia, close to the Turkish centre of the Ottoman Empire, and often showed rebellious tendencies. There were demands for independence. In addition the Turks were Muslims, and the Armenians Christians, which gave an excuse for more villainy: nothing is so bad that religion will not make it worse. The Turks treated the “disloyal” Armenians very badly, to the extent of killing many thousands of them in the 1890s. Then in 1914 the first World War broke out, and Turkey joined in on the side of Germany.
The Russians advanced into eastern Anatolia, and were helped by many Armenians, wanting revenge against the Turks; and on top of that, numbers of British and Australian troops invaded Gallipoli, in north-western Turkey, in April 1915 (after a naval attack in February). With the country being invaded, the Armenians were obviously a danger to the Turkish authorities, and action was taken to nullify that danger. Many of the Armenian men were massacred, and the women and children were sent on forced marches to the deserts of what are now Syria and Iraq, robbed, raped, harassed and injured continuously, and most of them died. Estimates of the number who perished vary; the Armenians say 1,500,000 or more, the Turks say “only” 600,000. Many accounts of the massacre treat it in isolation, as if it was merely the result of Turkish (and Muslim) wickedness; in fact it started almost on the exact day in April 1915 that the Allies landed at Gallipoli. Presumably this separation of the two events is to maintain the fiction that the war was because of the atrocity, rather than that the atrocity was because of the war.

Second World War
Another horror of the same kind was what is now called the Holocaust. The Germans were treated very badly after the first World War. For many years they were execrated as pariahs who were solely responsible for the war; a continuing blockade caused much suffering, and the demand for “reparations” caused runaway inflation, so people who had worked hard for years to make small savings saw them reduced to nothing. The Nazi party gained popularity by offering someone else to blame: the Jews, who were in a minority in many countries, not having their own state, and who therefore were ideal scapegoats. Hitler was in power from 1933, and began the regular and open ill-treatment of the Jews; in 1935 the Nuremberg Laws made the German Jews second-class citizens, e.g. closing the professions to them.

Anti-semitism was not particularly frowned on in Britain at the time, and two years after the infamous Nuremberg Laws, in 1937, Churchill said that “he hoped Great Britain would have a man like Hitler in times of peril” (quoted in the Times obituary of Leni Riefenstahl, 11 September) . Besides that, Poland at the same time, under the anti-semitic regime of the dictator Pilsudski and his successor Smigly-Rydz, treated the Jews even worse (and even joined in Hitler’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938); yet Britain actually declared war in 1939 in order (it claimed) to defend this totalitarian anti-semitic state. For some time Germany seemed to be winning the war, conquering much of Poland in 1939, then Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France in 1940, and Greece and Yugoslavia in 1941; but in June 1941 Hitler invaded Russia, and after early successes, his armies became bogged down, at the same time as America entered the war in December 1941. It became clear that Germany was in for a long and potentially disastrous struggle against many powerful enemies, in which large numbers of Jews, not only in Germany but also in the conquered countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, would not surprisingly be hoping for a German defeat.

The next step could have been forecast: the Wannsee Conference (in Berlin) of leading Nazis, in January 1942, decided on the “Final Solution” – the murder of the entire Jewish people. Probably six million Jews perished, as well as the same number of other people whom the Nazis claimed to think were inferior. This monstrous crime, carried out in the years 1942-5, is now often given as the reason for Britain’s declaration of war in September 1939. In fact it was the other way round; the conflicting interests, arising inevitably out of capitalism, of a number of European and world powers, led to the war: and the war led to the atrocity.

The third case of this kind is of course Iraq. The various conflicts in which Iraq has been involved recently, arising from the inexorable conditions of capitalism, such as the desire of each particular country’s ruling class to make the most profits from oil, and its efforts to extend the territory over which it rules, have lasted for no less than twenty of the last twenty-three years. The war against Iran raged from 1980 to 1988. Then Saddam Hussein’s attempt to conquer Kuwait in 1991 led to the first Gulf War, which ended with the first President Bush leaving Saddam in power, for fear that his overthrow would lead to a much greater role in the Middle East for Iran, which the US regarded as a greater threat than Iraq. But the war and the deaths resumed in a slightly different form, by means of continuous air patrols over Iraq territory and by economic sanctions, which UNICEF thought had brought about the deaths of nearly half a million Iraqi children under five.

All these hostilities, including this second Gulf War of 1991 to 2003, however much they might be blamed on the then Iraqi leadership, resulted in those leaders having the same mindset which has been discussed above: the fear of disaster for their regime, and death for themselves. This frame of mind leads automatically to atrocious behaviour from rulers, and Saddam Hussein has been no exception: jailing opponents, a ubiquitous secret police, the torture and murder of suspects.

Saddam Hussein has been just as bad as many other rulers across the world (including many with whom Britain and America are allied). But for Blair now to claim that he went to war because of this behaviour is putting the cart before the horse with a vengeance. The horrendous regime of Saddam Hussein was a by-product of the two Gulf Wars of 1991-2003, not the other way round. If you want to have done with barbarous dictators like Saddam Hussein, it’s a waste of time to go to war: others will spring up everywhere. Get rid of capitalism, the fertile soil which produces endless numbers of dictators and atrocities.

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