Wednesday, July 30, 2014

There Are No Good Wars

Gaza, January 2009
There is no such thing as a good war. Debates have been carried on for centuries regarding the justness or otherwise of the declaration and the prosecution of war, but every war has inevitably left devastated nations and convulsions of misery in its wake.

The notion of war is loaded and complex. It is tinged with elements of heroism and cruelty, of nobility and barbarism, of honour and depravity, of idealism and cynicism. Acts of war are always enacted upon an other, be that other an individual, a tribe or a nation. Inherent in such acts is a conviction regarding the truth and the righteousness of one’s own position and the error and worthlessness of that held by the other.

Yet no one group can ever be entirely aligned with the true and the good regardless of the delusional rhetoric that springs from all sides in justification for acts of war.

The process of civilisation has tempered the views of every nation regarding the nature and purpose of war. It has generated castes and institutions that willingly and consciously concern themselves with developing an ethos to guide those who would take on the role of warrior or protector of their people. This has been understood as necessary to ensure the safety and security of those within the community who are not in a position to protect themselves from the organised actions of hostile forces intent on destroying the peace for whatever reason.

Even as a purely pragmatic response to the historic experience of war and its consequences, the organisation of warrior castes and their associated institutions has enabled the cultivation of disciplined readiness, the capacity for skilled negotiation and, in its failure, a preparedness to engage wilful and belligerent opponents skilfully, decisively and fairly. Such institutions were developed during periods when warfare was engaged face-to-face, warrior-to-warrior, field-to-field. One acted and reacted in the field of battle and the effects of one’s skill and fortune - or lack thereof - were immediately visible and irrevocable.

Gaza, November 2012
Everything has now changed. Rules of engagement may be formulated and invoked, but acts of war as we have come to know them in the present age are planned and executed at a distance by men who have never seen the living face of war and its monstrous consequences. The clash of sabre on sabre has been muted for centuries.

The booming of artillery and the crackling of bullets have pierced and sundered the past twenty decades. The slow dance of aerial engagement that once tested the reflexes and determination of young pilots during the so-called Great War has been replaced by infernal powers that thunderously impel silicon-guided missiles to their well-mapped targets. And this is all done at a safe distance by those with the hardware and the know-how.

But who truly knows the consequences of such acts apart from those unfortunates in the line of fire, and those heroic individuals who witness and document the human reality of what is otherwise counted in the ledger of contemporary history as anonymous casualties and collateral damage?

The men who flew Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the sweetly named Little Boy into the lives of the people of Hiroshima, witnessed - albeit at a distance - the immensity of their action. So too did the crew of the Bockscar that delivered its terrible cargo Fat Man to the unsuspecting women and children of Nagasaki three days later.

In the present disregard of such direct witnessing, F-16 fighter jets, remotely controlled missiles, pilot-less drones and distant tanks deliver their lethal loads out of sight and often out of mind of those who direct these deadly forces.

In this new perversion of warfare that has shaken and shattered the nations of the earth over the past two centuries, it is ever the innocents who have suffered most grievously. The true warrior has always lived with the knowledge that his chosen role may cost him his life. But the great majority of lives taken in contemporary acts of war are those of innocents.

The largely forgotten millions who were herded into the killing camps of the Nazis, the hundreds of thousands who were flayed and ashed in the fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo and in the atomic sackings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 500,000 children of Iraq whose young lives were taken by the silent and covert consequences of twelve years of crippling sanctions that kept a despot in power and a people exhausted, the hundreds of thousands of lives that have been squandered in the Iraqi misadventure driven by George Bush and Tony Blair, the thousands of families in Afghanistan and Pakistan who continue to grieve the loss of their loved ones from past volleys of air-strikes, and the thousands of women and children blown apart in Gaza from Operation Cast Lead in 2008/2009 to Operation Protective Edge at the present time are all tragic witnesses to the fact that it has all gone horribly wrong.

Gaza, July 2014
Rule by force can never succeed. People can never be bludgeoned into peace. How long does it take to learn that no one is entirely right, that no one is entirely wrong? How long will it take before the cultivation of wisdom and sensitivity to the needs of those one aspires to represent become high values in those who would lead their people? How long must we wait before the principles of fairness, compassionate advocacy, reasoned and reasonable negotiation and the acceptance of difference become the keystones of political office and enlightened governance?

The times ahead will require precisely these attributes. 

The work has barely begun in the task of saving what yet can be saved and of putting aside those entrenched practices that darken further an already darkening future. The earth and her people have for too long now been lashed by cruel assaults of increasing violence, power and destructiveness. Where will it end?

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
July 2014


1. Slouching Towards Gaza

Two days after Christmas in 2008, the isolated and densely populated city of Gaza was visited by volley upon volley of deadly missile and mortar fire. The intense bombardment of one of the most densely populated places on earth continued unabated for a period of three weeks. By the end of the assault, over 1,400 Palestinians had been killed and more than 5,000 wounded, many seriously. Between three and four hundred of the dead were children. A total of 13 Israelis were killed during the same time, four of them by the action of their own troops.

Slouching Towards Gaza offers both an audio presentation carrying the reflections from a number of informed commentators and a substantive essay in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of that tragic event.

2. Lines from the Edge of Darkness

We who live in regions of relative stability and prosperity in the so-called developed world and who are free of the uncertainty and the unpredictability that are part of daily life in war zones will occasionally be startled out of our false sense of security and certainty. Such occasions though generally rare, will often have a transformative effect on our lives. Yet we seem to maintain our sense of privileged steadiness in the face of a constant stream of disturbing images and reports that fill the electronic and print media. Such images remind us daily of the reality of ongoing wars, the horror of terror attacks, and the despair of vast numbers of families and individuals who have left everything in order to seek refuge from violence and danger, from ruined streets and houses, from bombs and bullets.

Lines from the Edge of Darkness offers a selection of thirteen original poems written over the past two decades reflecting on war and its consequences.