The Islamic State (ISIS) beheads people, which proves that they are evil. Saudi Arabia beheads people, but they are allies of the United States. On March 30, Saudi airstrikes hit a Yemeni refugee camp and killed at least 29 people, mostly civilians. Oh, and whether we know it or not, the U.S. is totally at war with Yemen. But not, like, officially.
We’ve finally gotten word on the Iran nuclear deal (though the officially binding bit will happen at the end of June). Iran hardliners hate America. American hardliners distrust the mysterious, foreign, overly religious dudes who stormed our embassy. (Not like America and Britain ever overthrew the Iranian government or anything. Wait, yes they did.).
Oh, and we need to do something about ISIS. Just like we needed to do something about Bashar Al-Assad. Because they are the enemies of freedom. One of them is. We’ll get it sorted once we figure out who we need to send money, weapons, or training to. Either the president of Syria or ISIS, though, they are definitely the worst people who represent an existential threat to America, or possibly Israel, or at least the Middle East. But they’re bad, and we need to pick a side.
Clear? Good. Let’s go on.
The best policy when it comes to foreign policy is to only be able to remember a year or two in the past – while also remembering 9/11 and the 1979 storming of the American embassy in Iran. Those events matter. But history doesn’t matter. That was the past. And people have been fighting in that region for thousands of years. America has nothing to do with it. They hate us for our…well, you know.
In the scramble to respond to the new Iran deal, we can be sure that nobody will be remembering the victims of the sanctions that were put upon the country. And since we’re barely noticing the Yemen conflict, and the U.S. and its allies part in it, we’re certainly not going to notice the civilian casualties that resulted from new fighting in the region.
Meanwhile in Iran and in Yemen, people are dead who wouldn’t have been otherwise. And their families mourn them. And things are different in some small, but important way. We’ll never know how, but they are.
This insanity – this amnesia and hypocrisy – is brushed over by hawks, because the U.S. is always right, and needs to do what is right, regardless of what they intended to do last month, or what they did 50 years ago to create a current mess.
And tiny aspects of war – like the people who die in it – are never truly explored by people who think that war or even sanctions are a reasonable act. Hawks will often use terms like "self defense" to justify any number of atrocities that invariably happen under the umbrella of war. But that is a fallacy pure and simple. War is not self defense, because that concept does not translate to a national scale. The impossibility of predicting the end result of messing with a foreign country, people, and culture is only one of the many reasons that’s so.
The most important reason war as self defense doesn’t work is simply, well, what would we say to an individual who defended themselves by killing 29 people? The dead Yemeni people are simply a headline from a war torn country. Totally forgettable. What would we do about a serial killer who killed more than two dozen people? That would be a very successful killer, much more so than many famous ones. It is nothing in terms of war news.
Some staggering number of Iraqis died from the U.S. invasion. Maybe a million. But then how many kids died from sanctions beforehand? Arguably, it was half a million. Maybe not. It was some number. Famously, according to Madeleine Albright, it was a justified number. We can barely remember the facts. And shifting body counts (due to the difficulty of pinpointing deaths, especially in another country) make such crimes even easier to dismiss. Half a million children is a blip when it’s not the children of the U.S. We can’t remember that, because it was a long time ago. And we can barely remember the people who died in drone attacks under Obama. (And to be fair, the U.S. government may not know their names anyway, thanks to signature strikes!) It’s just too hard to remember these dead people who must have died for some good reason. Best not to think about it. They’re only numbers anyway.
Here’s a little story: Back in 1998, Bill Clinton bombed a factory in Sudan that was supposedly producing chemical weapons. Some people, including legendary Clinton-hater Christopher Hitchens agreed with suggestions that this was an act of pure show intended to distract the public from the sex scandal bubbling in the Oval Office. Regardless of sex scandal-level of cynical motives, turns out this was a pharmaceutical factory which employed some 300 people. Some sources said thousands of Sudanese died from lack of medicine after the bombing. But regardless of that, one person reportedly died in the factory bombing. One guy. Sometimes I think about that. He may have been a night watchman.
Now that’s a success, killing one person in a bombing, injuring a few more. Sure it was a pharmaceutical factory, and the U.S. refused to come inspect to see if it really made chemical weapons, or was associated with Al-Qaeda in some fashion. But for an act of war, it’s hard to beat only one innocent death. You could call that a win.
One guy. Who cares? One guy and a few thousand dead from sickness. It doesn’t matter. It was war. War casts its pall over every evil act and it says that it wasn’t what it was. That is why war cannot be self defense, or be legitimate in any way. Because war is so much more and so much worse than one individual acting. It always destroys innocents. One individual could, perhaps, blow up a factory. But that’s what we call terrorism. And that’s very bad.
Get it? I don’t. Nothing about war makes sense. Not its arrogance, not its cruelty, its death, its destruction, its amnesia, or its hypocrisy. But it goes on and on. Sometimes it’s big and brutal, and sometimes it’s just one factory and one guy dying. One guy whose death would have been a crime if it hadn’t been perpetuated by a U.S. president. One forgotten guy. Twenty-nine people in Yemen. One million people in Iraq. It’s always worth it to the people lobbing the missiles. Worth it, and forgotten, and then it’s on to the next necessary conflict.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.