Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for July 31st, 2009

Imagine a young IT “geek” in an operations room at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.  Since he was a little kid he has been slaying thousands of nasty characters in simulation war games on his home computer. But now the characters are real human beings, and most of them are not nasty.  Some of them are women and children. They just happen to live in southern Afghanistan or the northwest region of Pakistan. They have lost their lives or seen their houses destroyed by missile attacks from pilotless “drones” operated by the CIA. Every week since September 2008 reports of civilian casualties in such US drone attacks have been widely reported but they have not been condemned in the Western media with the same indignation that similar indiscriminate military actions by non-Western armies are.

In an earlier post (“Killing Civilians”, 29 May 2009) I pointed out the morally important distinction in warfare between combatants and non-combatants. Non-combatants are those who neither produce nor possess the means to inflict injury on others. Just rules of military engagement not only prohibit the targeting of non-combatants but also expect professional soldiers to bear risks in war that should not be imposed on non-combatants.

The deployment of drones, high-altitude aerial bombing and cruise missiles launched from offshore warships has changed the nature of warfare. The US and its allies can now fight wars with minimal face-to-face combat. In his book The New Western Way of War, Martin Shaw dubs this style of combat “risk transfer” war: the deliberate and systematic transfer of the risks in warfare from Western military personnel to local soldiers and local civilian populations. Such risk-transfer is a blatant rejection of  just-war principles. In their strategic planning, the risk to U.S soldiers is weighted more heavily than to all others, including local non-combatants.

The hypocrisy and double standards practised by US and European governments when it comes to charges of “war crimes” and the dismantling of civil liberties in the so-called “war on terror” is one of the biggest obstacles to securing human rights around the world. When many Third World peace activists and human rights advocates challenge their own governments’ sanctioning of torture or indiscriminate methods of warfare, the response they receive is either outright denial or the excuse, “If the Americans, Brits and Israelis can do this, why are we being condemned?”

I wonder how many Christians in the US and Britain write to their political representatives or their national newspapers on this issue? It would certainly make talk of “mission partnership” with Third World Christians, most of whom are too powerless to confront their own governments, more than an empty slogan.

The traditional notion of winning a war was fairly clear: defeating an enemy on the battlefield and forcing it to accept political terms. But what does victory mean in a war on terror? Will this kind of war ever end? Fighting a diffuse, loose-knit collection of cells like al-Qa’ida is very different from fighting a territorially demarcated, insurgent army like the Tamil Tigers. (The Sri Lankan government has hailed its military victory over the Tigers as a significant breakthrough in the global “war on terror” but this is simply self-serving hype).

Terrorism will continue as long as human life continues on the planet earth. The myth that we can make our societies “completely safe” is to make national security an idol; and, as we saw in the last blog post, all idols demand innocent humans as propitiating sacrifices.  We can, however, reduce the risk of terrorism to such a level that it will not significantly affect the daily lives of citizens, preoccupy their thoughts, and provoke fear. This will involve better intelligence-gathering, and winning the trust and confidence of local populations by responding to their grievances rather than embittering them further. Pursuing the goal of eliminating terrorism by harassing and even killing innocent lives in order to reduce the short-term risk to national leaders will only result in more terrorism.

Victory  will come not when Washington and its allies kill or capture all terrorists or potential terrorists but when the ideology the terrorists espouse is discredited, when their tactics are seen to have failed, and when they come to find other paths to the goals they pursue. At that point, hopefully, even the terrorists will realise that their violence is futile.

Every year, far more people die as a result of road accidents, easily preventable diseases or severe climatic events caused by global warming, than as casualties of terrorism.  Why, then, do these not merit the massive funding that is poured into high-tech weaponry and “national security”?



July 2009