Monday, August 06, 2007 

Iraq, Hiroshima and the pro-war left.

It's interesting to note that just a day after another high-profile Iraq war supporter has took to wearing sackcloth and ashes, one of the few remaining defenders of the war has moved on from justifying the on-going disaster there to even greater rhetorical flights of fancy, taking the opportunity that the anniversary of the dropping of the first atom bomb provides to reappraise the long-prevailing view that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were crimes. Just as Oliver Kamm has never convinced anyone other than himself that he's right, his piece for the Grauniad isn't likely to change any minds.

At least with Hiroshima and Nagasaki we have the benefit of historical hindsight, the numerous sources that the last 60 years have provided us with and the on-going suffering still continuing from which to make a judgment as to its righteousness. However much we debate whether the hundreds of thousands sacrificed in the two blasts were preferable to the possibility of millions more deaths on both sides, or indeed the similarly horrific firebombing of both Japanese and German cities, such as the March the 9th 1945 attack on Tokyo which quite possibly killed more than the numbers who died at Hiroshima, it nearly always comes down to a war of numbers, as the CiF debate shows; mention the atomic bombs, and you get Nanking and the entire brutal invasion of China back in return. It has to be said they have a point: while Germany has been exemplary in coming to terms with those twelve years of fascism, some in Japan continue to engage in denial and apologism over the numerous crimes committed by the military. It isn't too much to perhaps link the unashamed slaughter, torture and atrocities committed in China, meticulously documented and photographed, summary beheadings and all, with the new vogue for both the grunts working at Abu Ghraib and the insurgents to record and revel in their own depravity. War and crimes do of course go together like love and marriage, and the second world war, with the Holocaust, the Wehrmacht's assault on Russia and the eventual Soviet revenge after the hell of Stalingrad was only what many would argue was the inevitable conclusion of both a total war footing and the dehumanising ever-present propaganda, but this was on a scale never before reached and will hopefully never be reached again.

Kamm's article on Hiroshima is only part of the malaise currently afflicting those referred to as the pro-war left, the "muscular liberals" and many other less than complimentary epithets. Johann Hari, formerly a proud member of the squad has in the last few weeks been causing major ructions after he reviewed Nick Cohen's book-length polemic on the failings of the left, and treated it with a disdain that few would have thought he previously would have shown. A flurry of replies from others sympathetic to the cause followed, with Harry's Place, the online home of the pro-war left removing a post after the possible involvement of Suue, Grabbit and Runne was invoked. Hari himself was one of the first of the gang to recant his support; as he points out in his opening, others such as David Aaronovitch and Norman Geras have also reluctantly admitted that they were wrong. Only Christopher Hitchens, Kamm and Cohen himself are among those sticking to their initial guns.

I suspect many of us who were anti-war would never have been opposed to the conflict if we had believed that the intentions of the "coalition of the willing" had been as pure as the pro-war left either decided they were. The thing was, the history both of Iraq, of occupations, the region and of total displays of power all pointed towards a potential for the situation now on the ground. Everyone could agree that Saddam was a mass-murderer who needed to be overthrown; where we differed was over how and when it could be achieved. The pro-war left never cared much for the weapons of mass destruction argument, except in the same way as both the US and UK cared for it, as a fig-leaf. While the motives behind the invasion are still not much clearer now, the passion displayed behind the pro-war intellectual argument was, as Hari writes, down to the suffering of the Iraqi people and Saddam's "fascism". Never mind that much of this was down, not to Saddam and his torture chambers, but instead to the crippling sanctions that impoverished most of those outside of Saddam's favoured circle, and the in-effect non-stop war from the sky, which cruelly but successfully contained his aspirations, this was the liberal interventionism which Blair had preached from his pulpit in Chicago, and to some it did indeed for a while become a sort of religion. While much of it has petered out as the blood has been spilt in Iraq, you can still see the embers of it burning in the demands for action on Darfur.

Even if the pro-war left had ignored the previous 12 years of policy on Iraq, they still ought to have seen, both in the US boasts about how "shock and awe" was about to descend on Baghdad, and in the vigour and vulgarity of the media support in the States for war, with pro-war protests organised by media companies just how this was going to end. Hari points out how every misdemanour committed by Saddam and then apologised for or minimised by the anti-war movement was seized upon by the muscular liberals, yet when these same atrocities or offences were committed either by the United States, in using chemical weapons in Fallujah and in the widespread use of torture, the pro-war lobby was either silent, or just as apologetic themselves. The nadir came when rather than recognising that the between 1 and 2 million that marched in London on Feburary 15th were a mass movement which represented the whole of British society, they instead continued to bleat about how the left was prostituting itself either to the Muslim organisations which shared none of their values which were signed up to the Stop the War coalition, or to either the unreformed communists or Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers' Party which also made up the bulk of those behind the coalition. They have always been more comfortable in attacking the left for its supposed dalliances and mistakes rather than extracting the hefty rafters from their own eyes. Even Hari himself can't pass up the opportunity to have a dig at Lenin's Tomb, with a spectacularly disingenuous and ill-informed attack.

Despite all the venom that has passed between the commentators who consider themselves on the left who supported the war and those against, I don't think many of us ever doubted the purity of their motives in doing so. Like with the politicians who pushed it through themselves, it was their methods of doing so that have rankled most. Again, like the politicians, those who did support it have also found themselves majorly discredited, Hitchens perhaps becoming the worst off. What was once a brilliant mind has become ever more sodden with the booze and fags, with his latest rant against religion, although a throwback to his younger days, still a very pale imitation of his former self. Cohen, once considered one of the best left-wing writers on where New Labour had gone wrong, finds himself increasingly detested and according to Private Eye had his column half swiped and given over to an ex-Express hack when he refused to give over some of it to writing about celebrities. Not that he's used the space left any better: he recently declared that the likes of Abu Qutada must be deported back to their home countries regardless of any conditions about the possibility of torture and ill-treatment. Kamm of course has always been a joke, a founder of a hedge fund obsessed with Noam Chomsky, pretending to be left-wing while writing most for the Murdoch press, yet even he seems to be descending into self-parody.

Will we in 56 years' time be having the same debate about Iraq that we're now having about Hiroshima? Most of those mentioned above will very likely by then be dead, and I'm not holding out any hopes that I'll be here either. How that debate will then be framed very much still matters now on what happens next. The war, both on ideological and military terms, is still far from over.

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