Does this sound familiar? A war in the Middle East launched for obscure reasons. The justification changing constantly according to what ministers think can “sell” it to the people at any particular time. Disregarding the United Nations. Bombing people in order to protect them. Being surprised when such brutality does not win the hearts and minds of those who have lived through it. A “villainous” policy, “so appalling that human language can hardly describe it”, one that “will take us many years to live down.”
Well, all of this comes not from Iraq 2007, but from Suez 1956. The person skewering British foreign policy is Labour politician Nye Bevan, not… (oh wait, there are no politicians with the principles to make such a speech in 2007). The speech was reproduced the other day in the Guardian as part of a series on great speeches.
What struck me was the sheer circularity of events. Fifty years ago it was Britain trying to ride roughshod over the Middle East and suffering an all-too-predicable backlash. Now it’s America, with Britain providing additional cannon fodder. Does nobody read history? Or are they just so arrogant they believe that it will be different this time?
As a matter of fact, reading history is not even the real issue. You didn’t even have to know much history to know that the government was lying in 2003, just as it lied in the 1950s. Millions of people knew it. The only people who didn’t, it seems, were future Democratic Presidential candidates.
For when all is said and done, whether the war was about oil or WMD or Niger yellow-cake, it was clear that it was wrong. I’ll let Nye take it from here:
I resent most bitterly this unconcern for the lives of innocent men and women. It may be that the dead in Port Said are 100, 200 or 300. If it is only one, we had no business to take it.
Now there’s a sentiment that you won’t hear from a politician in 2007. These days they dismiss not even hundreds of deaths but hundreds of thousands of deaths with a shrug. Yet Bevan’s position is really one of basic humanity. He continues:
Do honourable members begin to realise how this is going to revolt the world when it passes into the imagination of men and women everywhere that we … ourselves set the example. We ourselves conscript our boys and put guns and aeroplanes in their hands and say, “Bomb there.” Really, this is so appalling that human language can hardly describe it. And for what? The government resorted to epic weapons for squalid and trivial ends.
Poor Nye. Suez pales in comparison to the squalour and triviality with which infinitely more destructive weapons have been deployed during the past six years of the “War on Terror.” Before Guantanamo, before CIA rendition flights, before Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, the architects of this war would have been well served by reading another Bevan observation:
The social furniture of modern society is so complicated and fragile that it cannot support the jackboot. We cannot run the processes of modern society by attempting to impose our will upon nations by armed force. If we have not learned that, we have learned nothing.
Fifty years later, millions of people around the world have learned Nye Bevan’s lesson, and opposed the war in Iraq from the moment it first started to be marketed. There are millions more who haven’t learned a thing, however — they swallowed the nonsense about “weapons of mass destruction” whole, cheered on the tanks as they performed their video-game war heroics on CNN, and grew all misty-eyed at made-for-TV moments like the toppling of Saddam’s statue and the dramatic rescue of Jessica Lynch. They are what Bevan in 1956 called “the unthinking and unreflective who still react to traditional values, who still think that we can solve all these problems in the old ways.”
I remember all the talk after September 11 about how the world would never be the same again. Then a few weeks later, America bombed Afhganistan, set up Guantanamo Bay, started torturing, bombing, killing. Business as usual. Its leaders only knew the ways of the jackboot, what Bevan even half a century ago was calling “the old ways.” We know there are better ways, more effective ways, more humane ways. How long before we have the courage and the numbers to force those in power to use them?