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End of Innocence

Publication Date : 28-08-2014


Enemy civilians, often regarded as saboteurs in disguise, are never worth nearly as much as one’s own immaculately innocent civilians. So we behold recent TV clips of jubilant Israeli civilians, if there are real civilians in ultra-militarised Israel, celebrating the deaths and mutilations of entire Gazan families. The mitigating pity is that due to tightly controlled Israeli media they imagine that every single Gaza casualty is a highly trained Hamas fanatic.

Meanwhile, the biggest factor generating Palestinian resistance is instead the systematic maltreatment Palestinians experience daily, even when not under bombardment. Not all civilians stay civilians when they are under nonstop assault.

Yet everywhere we look the distinction between soldier and civilian, between combatant and noncombatant, grows ever more porous, ever more arbitrary, ever more irrelevant. Protection of civilians in war always has been piously insisted upon and at the same time carelessly violated by powerful and often democratic states.

The absolutely appalling term ‘enemy noncombatant” entered the growing Orwellian vocabulary after 9/11 at the ruthless behest of Bush’s obliging legal counsel.  No surprise there.  Elites, especially in a war-like climate, reckon with good reason they can do anything they want and lie freely about it, at least for a good long spell. After all, where are the penalties for doing so?

Camouflage terms such as “collateral damage” were conjured to conceal crimes that increasingly refined technological weapons inevitably inflict. If we actually look at their effects, and not their public relations brochures, the real purpose of boasted “precision-guided” devices, from missiles to lasers to aerial drones, is to enable civilian killings under the guise of selective targeting. Furthermore, armed conflict since the Second World War shifted from inter-state wars towards civil wars and counterinsurgency campaigns where civilians are entirely fair game. 

The Field Manual has not been invented that can help, let alone compel, soldiers to distinguish civilians from guerrillas. The gruesome wisdom out in the field is  better safe than sorry. Too bad for you if you get in the way of the military or the police.

Why it’s traditional. For settler-colonial societies in their early phases, like the US, Australia, and Israel, civilians were anything but innocent because rubbing out the native populations was precisely the point of conquest. In the late 18th and the 19th centuries, every native American woman and child was deemed a breeding threat, and many of storybook heroes actually massacred their way across the continent, sea to shining sea. 

 Frankly, the only realistic reason not to play hell with civilians is when it happens to be a waste of resources compared to other vicious uses. Superpowers always want to reserve the right to decide who is a civilian, before or after they arrest or attack them abroad and, as displayed today in Ferguson, Missouri, increasingly at home.

These travesties do overturn small but important legal efforts to corral murderous mentalities. In the Second World War, more than half of casualties were civilians; most were deliberately targeted. Nazi Germany craved “living space” in the East so the swift way to achieve it was both obvious and ghastly. For Hitler’s opponents, if their bombsights weren’t accurate as advertised, then easily struck metropolises had to be bombed to white ash.

Strategy adjusts to suit the lethal devices available and the moral justifications predictably follow suit. So suddenly there was no better way to demoralise the enemy than slaughter his family on the home front ~ except it never works. Kill or maim our loved ones and do you really think we will seek peace with you? Not even many military leaders believe that childish bullying nonsense. But plenty of well-paid pundits do.

The grim reaper tally is clear: incinerate Dresden even if it is not a military asset, obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki even if the Japanese signal surrender, make the “rubble bounce “ in Korea in the 1950s, destroy the city of Ben Tre in Vietnam to “save” it, Fallujah must fall. Over 70 per cent of deaths in Iraq since 2003 are civilian and the percentage in Afghanistan may be higher.

All this violence is disastrously counter-productive if the aim of occupying forces really was to win support and bring about peace. The only reliable military goal is domination, perfectly satisfied to rule outwardly compliant people seething to revolt at first opportunity. Some peace.

Gaza spurred accusations that Israel was engaged in “Hitler-like fascism”, as the Turkish Prime Minister said. Palestinian spokespersons decried holocaust-like behaviour.  To which an indignant letter by some 400 Israel policy supporters last month retorted: “The Holocaust was the deliberate, systematic mass murder of six million innocent Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. By contrast, Israel is acting in legitimate self-defence against Hamas terrorism. Israel has no interest in harming innocent civilians, and indeed has done its utmost to avoid civilian casualties, whereas Hamas deliberately targets Israeli civilians. Any comparison between Israel and the Nazis outrageously distorts Israel’s actions and trivialises the enormity and nature of the Holocaust.”

It’s always a clue to watch certain people dismiss five million other deaths in the Nazi mass murder campaign. What trivialises the Holocaust is invoking it to excuse Israeli state injustice. Elites count on “empathy fatigue” to set in, though it really is fatigue with evident powerlessness to stop heinous acts. 

 The trouble is that it isn’t so hard to stoke the outrage against civilian deaths, against heedless authorities, against environmental crimes, against bankers and speculators who loot vastly more than every mugger in the world can dream of.  The elites are the one doing the stoking. Today, if you don’t follow their orders you are the enemy.  So we are all potentially enemy noncombatants. None of us are innocent. Be very aware of it, but don’t get used to it.

(The writers are freelance journalists and researchers)


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