12 November 2005

Remembering not to forget

By Andrew Boswell

This weekend the horrors of war are "remembered" in countrywide events honouring the deaths of countless young men in two world wars. I read with interest recently that members of the Movement for the Abolition of War had engaged with the Royal British Legion in a positive and fruitful correspondence. Traditionally, on opposing sides of an abstract battle for hearts and minds, these peace activists and these old soldiers had found some common ground and mutual respect - in the words of Ian Townsend, RBL General Secretary "war is a catastrophic event and there are no more ardent peacemakers than those who have experienced it".

Nowhere do we see this inevitable catastrophic nature of war being played out more clearly than in the on-going war in Iraq. This, we were told, was a War which would be fought and won decisively with precision missiles: technology would give us "a clean war" over in a few weeks. The "brilliant military thinking" of one Donald Rumsfeld would give us a 21st century war, designed and programmed for efficiency, quick execution and minimal pain. The now infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech from President Bush was part of the game plan - the finale to a luminously performed short, sharp war.

Of course, the reality is that an increasing insurgency plays out against the bizarre political machinations of elections and constitution writing which everybody knows is not quite the 'democracy' it is meant to be. It is clear to any observer that there has been no end to the War; the real peace building and nation building has yet to even start.

The war seems endless - most British people have switched off - somewhere over "there" horrid things are happening, but we only need worry about our next shopping trip to the latest mall, and what we are going to do for Christmas. In all honesty, we are in a state of forgetfulness, not remembrance.

Yet, this war is on-going and about to take the 100th British soldier's life, having already taken 2000 US military lives - before the huge toll in physical and psychological injury.

But, remember, modern wars kill many more civilians than combatants, and Iraq in no exception. Throughout Iraq, the civilian population suffers tragedy and disaster each and every day.

The greatest call of remembrance, today, is to embrace the suffering of those innocents caught up in Iraq. How many families, men, women and children, are there in that country trying to continue some semblance of normal life against the daily backdrop of violence, holding the grief of those they have lost?

All wars hit desperate points at which humanity's utter uselessness is revealed vividly. In Vietnam, it was when US commander in charge of the destruction of Ben Tre (actually a city of 300,000) said "We had to destroy the village in order to save the village."

Move on 40 years to another city, another country - Fallujah - also 300,000 - scene of the saddest, gruesome and least accurately reported, "salvation" of the Iraq war.

In April 2003, 13 civilians on an unarmed demonstration were killed by US gunfire; two more, two days later. So started the immense hatred and resistance to the occupation within the Sunni triangle.

The US assault of the city in April 2004 led to the deaths of 731 civilians according to the local hospital director. Then in November 2004, a year ago this week, following a siege in which the city's water, power and food supplies were cut off, and eight weeks of aerial bombardment, there was another massive US assault. The city's main hospital was selected as the first target - 36,000 of the city's 50,000 homes were destroyed, along with 60 schools and 65 mosques and shrines - a third of the population has not returned. 700 bodies were recovered from the rubble in 9 out of the city's 27 neighbourhoods: 550 were women and children.

Alleging that these assaults have broken international law: ie are war crimes, the Italian State broadcaster, RAI, screened this week a documentary "Fallujah: the Hidden Massacre". This charges that US warplanes illegally dropped white phosphorous incendiary bombs - an "outlawed" chemical weapon, similar to napalm - on civilian populations. A former American soldier who fought at Fallujah says "Phosphorus burns bodies, in fact, it melts the flesh all the way down to the bone. I saw the burned bodies of women and children." On Wednesday, the group Physicians for Social Responsibility called for an inquiry.

Recent assaults in other resistance towns - Tal-Afar, Haditha, Husaybah - have resulted in civilian devastation.

As we remember the catastrophic destruction of the past, we must not forget recent and on-going catastrophes.