Realpolitik: The Morality of Mass Murder

It seems that we are going to war again, and the thought of it fills me with horror.

Call me a “peacenik” or a pacifist, but I believe that war is always wrong. It is sometimes unavoidable, justifiable – because it is possible to justify and rationalize almost anything if you try hard enough – and, in rare instances, perhaps even necessary. But it is always unethical, a breakdown of civilization… a failure of humanity.

A US Navy Tomahawk cruise missile launch

A US Navy Tomahawk cruise missile launch

War is murder. It really is that simple. For all of the marketing bumf that Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, RSK-MIG, Washington and Moscow publish about “smart” weapons and “surgical strikes,” wars kill people. Real people. People with friends, families, hopes and dreams. The choice of war is the choice to kill – and to deprive those whom we kill of their own choices. It is the ultimate expression of power and control over another human being.

It can be a simple-enough decision for those people who inhabit a universe of moral absolutes. Henry Kissinger infamously justified the Nixon administration’s saturation bombing of Cambodia between 1969 and 1973 on the grounds that the United States government had a moral obligation to murder 150,000 Cambodians, destabilize the government in Phnom Penh and bring the genocidal Khmer Rouge to power – which murdered millions more – in order to “protect American lives.” The calculus was simple: American servicemen’s lives had a far greater absolute value than the lives of Cambodians.

Think about that for a minute.

The justification for war in a universe of moral absolutes is ultimately predicated on an assumed hierarchy. Even the moral relativism of realpolitik – we do this because we can – is based on a hierarchy of absolutes – we should do this because our interests outweigh yours. It rests on the belief that some people, societies and states are better than others and thus have a moral justification – indeed, an obligation – to defend themselves from the existential threats posed by inferiors. Yet these absolutes are relative. America is more civilized. Islamic jihadists are more godly. The life of an Israeli civilian is worth more than the lives of a hundred Palestinians. And so it goes.

I recognize that wars are sometimes unavoidable, or even necessary. Fascism, the expansion of the genocidal Nazi regime in Europe and Japanese imperialism in the Pacific left the Allies with very few options in 1939 and 1941. Germany attacked Poland and France; Japan attacked the United States and the overseas European empires in Asia. I cannot even contemplate the horrors that might have been if Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo had been allowed to get away with it.

The ruins of Dresden, 1945.

The ruins of Dresden, 1945.

Yet that does not mean that the incineration of civilians at Dresden or Hiroshima or Nagasaki were good things, moral things. Eighty-five million people were killed between 1939 and 1945; more than two thirds of them were civilians. Of the 25 million soldiers, sailors and airmen who died the vast majority were conscripts compelled to fight. A butcher’s bill like this can never be a good thing, no matter what the final outcome of the war.

And if Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo could not have been allowed to get away with their murderous designs, remember that we – the liberal democracies of the West – had allowed them to get away with them for a decade. Italy subjugated Libya and Ethiopia with little more than anemic finger-wagging from Washington, London, Paris and Ottawa. Japan gutted Manchuria and raped Nanking while the West expressed its disapproval. The legitimate, democratically-elected government of the Republic of Spain begged Franklin Roosevelt, Stanley Baldwin, and Léon Blum for help when Falangist generals launched a coup d’état in the summer of 1936. Even when the generals’ Fascist friends in Italy and Germany brazenly jumped in to help overthrow the fledgling Spanish democracy, massacring hundreds of thousands and bombing Guernica in the process, the great democracies looked the other way and passed laws that forbade intervention.

The deaths of 85 million people – one person in 25 then alive – became necessary, unavoidable because we – the governments of Britain, France, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand… and the voters who supported them – made it so. We armed Japan and favoured the militarist faction to create a counter-balance to Imperial Russian ambitions; we allowed the exhausted armistice of 1918 to become the Allies’ vindictive victory central to Hitler’s dolchstosslegende; we reasoned that the bother of standing up to Italy was greater than the lives of Libyans and Ethiopians; we accepted the realpolitik calculus that supporting socialists, communists and other revolutionaries was too high a price to pay for opposing the spread of Fascism in Spain and China; we appeased Hitler and sold out Czechoslovakia, Austria and the rest of Europe.

"Collateral damage" of a US cruise missile strike on Iraq, 2003.

“Collateral damage” of a US cruise missile strike on Iraq, 2003.

And here we are again. The Tomahawk cruise missiles are being readied in their silos, and Americans and their allies are being prepped by Washington to accept the moral rectitude of the destruction that they will soon rain down on the people of Syria. The target is the tyrant of Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, whose homicidal efforts to extinguish his political opposition have claimed the lives of 100,000 people since March 2011. Yet the “collateral damage” caused by the warheads will add to the butcher’s bill.

Barack Obama wants us to believe that launching missiles is the right thing for us to do – that it is morally justifiable, necessary, and unavoidable. An argument could be made that the deaths caused by an American attack are a small, necessary price to be paid for stopping Assad’s campaign of mass murder, but no one from Washington to Moscow really believes that it will either harm the tyrant personally or significantly alter the course of the Syrian conflict.

There have two and a half years of handwringing and pious pronouncements about our “concern” for “the situation in Syria.” There might have been an opportunity long ago to intervene and stop the bloodshed, but the smart money now says that it has long passed. The realpolitik exigencies of the “Great Game” that superpowers have been playing, and continue to play in the Middle East ensured that intervention was never an option. Assad is the heir to almost a century of Euro-American imperial intrigues and machinations that have stretched from the Khyber Pass to the Suez Canal. He is in power because his father had been in power. Hafez al-Assad stayed in power because sometimes the Soviet Union needed him to maintain a toehold in the region and sometimes the United States needed him to act against the PLO or to balance out its often-unruly ally Israel.

President Nixon and Assad, pere, smiling in Damascus, 1974.

President Nixon and Assad, pere, smiling in Damascus, 1974.

As with so many other on-again-off-again frenemies of the US (think: Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Hosni Mubarak), Assad is in power because, if we didn’t exactly put him there, the tangled web of American and other superpower actions in the Middle East created the conditions for his power. The bloody mess that is Syria today is as much our doing as anyone’s; it is difficult to see what moral high ground we might reasonably take.

And now, it appears that the raw materials with which Assad’s regime produced its chemical weapons were supplied by the West.

Yet, amidst all the violence and bloodshed, it seems that the prospect of mass-murder committed by the United States has become morally right due to Assad’s reported use of poison gas against his opponents. President Obama is clear about how he sees the morality of bombing Syrians. Assad’s gas attack “is an assault on human dignity,” he said in a speech Saturday, disingenuously implying that the carnage that will inevitably follow the launch of American cruise missiles will somehow be a defence of human dignity.

Remember: Obama will not launch cruise missiles with the intention of ending the civil war, or even of unseating Assad. But to teach him and the world a lesson. “Today I’m asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are united as one nation,” the president intoned. It will not prevent the gas attack that has already happened, or even to protect Syrians from attack, but to prevent the “escalating use of chemical weapons or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm. In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.”

Indeed. But it is worth noting that the United States maintains the world’s largest remaining stockpile of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, with more than 5,000 tonnes of chemical weapons still in its arsenal at last report in 2010. With this in mind, it is difficult to see the United States’s coming attack on Syria as necessary. I can only see it as naked, cynical realpolitik with a spoonful of moralistic sugar to make imperial domination digestible to the people who really matter – us.

The bloodbath will continue after the missiles fall – that much is certain. It will go on until Assad is defeated by his opponents, which is unlikely, or Assad defeats his opponents, which is also unlikely, or until everyone in Syria is either dead and exhausted. The United States, in all our moral righteousness, will merely have contributed to the carnage.

So what is to be done? What is the answer to the problem of a murderous tyrant who is massacring his own people while we all look on in horror? I don’t know. I only know that the answer is not more killing… not this.