“Humanitarian” and “War” are Contradictions in terms

Oxymoron of the day- “Humanitarian war in Syria”

Also Published on Common Dreams

By  Digby  (progressive political blogger Heather Parton) from the blog Hullabaloo.

I would argue that when I see 400 children subjected to gas, over 1,400 innocent civilians dying senselessly . . . the moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing.” — President Obama earlier today

That’s very compelling. This article in Jacobin Magazine by Greg Shupak explains why humanitarian war is a contradiction in terms:


(Image: NYT/Brian Stauffer)

Liberal interventionists thought they had this one. Their doctrine had seemingly triumphed in Libya. Not only were the usual suspects, the Christopher Hitchenses, the Bernard-Henri Levys, peddling the notion that NATO could be a global constabulary for the enforcement of human rights, but more careful commentators like Juan Cole and Gilbert Achcar had also backed Western intervention. If NATO’s war in Libya has now lost some of its initial luster, it is primarily because the murder of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans brought worldwide attention to the nature of the forces the war unleashed and to the chaotic state in which Libyans now find themselves.

But the shine was, from the start, an illusion, as Maximilian Forte proves in his important new book, Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa. Forte thoroughly chronicles NATO’s bombing of Libya and the crimes against humanity for which NATO is responsible. The author takes us on a tour of Sirte after it had been subject to intense NATO bombardment by chronicling journalists’ impressions of the city in October 2011. Reporters observed, “Nothing could survive in here for very long,” that the city was “reduced to rubble, a ghost town filled with the stench of death and where bodies litter the streets,” that it was a place “almost without an intact building,” whose infrastructure “simply ceased to exist,” and resembled “Ypres in 1915, or Grozny in 1995,” or postwar “Leningrad, Gaza or Beirut.”

Forte describes numerous NATO operations which, he argues, rose to the level of war crimes. For example, he discusses a NATO strike on a farming compound in the town of Majer on 8 August 2011. A Human Rights Watch investigation concluded that NATO fired on the compound twice, the second time killing 34 civilians who had come to look for survivors —a tactic familiar to those who follow US drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen—and found no evidence that the target had been used for military purposes. In its examination of five sites where NATO caused civilian casualties, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) found that at four of those sites NATO’s characterization of the targets as “‘command and control nodes’ or ‘troop staging areas’ was not reflected in evidence at the scene and witness testimony.” In view of these and other killings of civilians by NATO, Palestinian lawyer Raji Sourani remarks that the Independent Civil Society Mission to Libya of which he was a part has “reason to think that there were some war crimes perpetrated” by NATO. Through this method, Forte shows the fundamental contradiction of humanitarian wars: they kill people to ensure that people are not killed.

If people want to make a moral argument for military intervention they have to reckon with this in some way. And as far as I can tell the only way to do that is to say you hope you don’t kill quite as many people as the “bad guys” would have killed if you didn’t intervene. That’s not good enough.

Moreover, you have to reckon with the obvious fact that these humanitarian wars are almost always underwritten by people with other motives that are not quite so high-minded, something which the president actually gets to when he talks about “credibility” although he ties it into the humanitarian case in a way that isn’t quite honest. The “credibility”on the line is far more about US machismo than it is about the need to enforce norms about chemical weapons. Obviously. 

All of this adds up to humanitarian war not being a particularly moral decisions except in a rather preening sense of self-regard and presumed nobility on the part of those who need to believe they alone have both the power and the will to “help”. It’s horrible to feel impotent in the face of violence so it’s a natural impulse to feel that someone must step in and stop it. But modern warfare is so powerfully violent (and our attention span so short) that it is almost inevitable that military force will, at best, end up solving nothing. In fact, it almost always makes thing worse.

I do have to ask people, well, if in fact you are outraged by the slaughter of innocent people, well, what are you doing about it?” — President Obama earlier today

If we really want to help the Syrian people perhaps we should spend the billions we plan to spend for military action on helping the refugees. After all, whether we bomb Syria or not, it looks as though they aren’t going to be going home any time soon. If we want to “do something” there is definitely something to do besides hurl explosives.

Obviously, I used this analysis of Libya to make a larger point in the context of Syria. But you should read the whole article (and presumably, the book, which I’ve just ordered)for the specific analysis of the Libyan intervention and why our intervention may end up being instrumental in creating a whole new environment for ongoing “interventions” in Africa. It’s the sort of insight that can’t help but make you cynical about the whole operation — after all, military powers need battlefields on which to fight. And they’re always looking for new ones.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

6 thoughts on ““Humanitarian” and “War” are Contradictions in terms

  1. Most ordinary people ( the vast majority of the planet) do not want or condone war in any way shape or form. So who does want war? It is the corrupt Elite again, who would sacrifice human life in order to further their own ends, ie , the accumulation of more wealth. People everywhere need to shout out with one voice, and say ” NO MORE WAR!”. The demand for weapons of war would become less and less, and the warmongerers and weapons manufacturers would have to sing a different song. The law of nature “Adapt and survive”, must be followed by all.


    • Any intervention in Syria will result in many more than 400 innocent children’s deaths. As a minimum. It could lead to WWIII. How many innocent men , women and children would die in those circumstances?


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