Saving Civilians:  Why the West Cannot “Win” in the Middle East, Part I Iraq

Dear Virtual Editor,

A reminder that the purpose of these posts is to advocate for reducing civilian casualties in war. An important means of achieving that is for Western nations to end military action in the Middle East and devote their considerable resources to humanitarian efforts. The US, of course, would not end civilian casualties. But it would reduce them and reduce the level of western moral hypocrisy as well. Who knows, it might even win some “hearts and minds,” something warfare has yet to accomplish.

The need to reclaim some sense of morality is not the only argument for getting out militarily.  Another is the reality that the West cannot “win” the Middle East wars. Today, we focus on Iraq.  We will examine Afghanistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and perhaps others in future posts.


The Morality of Killing Civilians

One reason this matter is important is the moral failure to address advances in weapons technology.  No weapons should be used against civilians; certainly not weapons that shield the users from the horror of their actions.  Beheadings and burnings are no less horrible when they originate from 10,000 feet in the air.

In respect of killing civilians, the Western world began to lose its moral compass in World War I. Earlier wars were brutal, to be sure. Many civilians were killed or displaced, but there was at least a semblance of rules regarding civilians. WWI marked a massive forward leap in weapons technology that enabled civilians to be killed on a scale never before known. That presented the moral question:  Shall a weapon be employed simply because it can be? Shall advanced weaponry be used to kill civilians? Unfortunately, the answer to both questions has been a resounding yes.

In WWI, German Zeppelins killed civilians. France bombed villages in Morocco. Giant German guns bombarded Paris from a distance of 70 miles. In the next war, the Blitz of London killed 13,000 civilians. The Allied firebombing of German cities killed more than a half million in a day.  Contrary to popular belief, the incineration of another half million in Japan did not appreciably hasten the end of WWII.  Even if it had, the bombings would represent a callous sacrifice of the lives of women and children to save soldiers. Today, air strikes and drones continue to kill thousands of civilians and make millions homeless.  Making war on civilians, especially from the air, is completely acceptable these days, but it is important to remember that this was not always so.

Though propaganda works hard to keep this reality from public discussion, there have always been those who recognize it.  Here are a few examples.  A modern French diplomat:  Another cause for the return of barbarism … has been the growing gap between the progress of science and technology and the absence of comparable progress in the ethical realm.  A current historian, on WWII in the Pacific:  The pressures of war, technological imperatives, and disregard for civilians all contributed to decision makers not really caring about civilians.  A WWII bomber crewman:  Always in the back of my mind was the bombing of civilians…civilians were always killed…I never saw at close quarters the death and destruction delivered by a bombing attack.

Still blind or unconcerned about the issue are political and military leaders who continue to play geopolitical games and struggle over “spheres of influence” in other people’s lands.

If you doubt that the western campaign in the Middle East is about these games, then what is the justification?  Exactly why is it imperative that “we” defeat ISIS?   What does defeating ISIS mean?  Given the mess made so far, it surely does not mean that all civilians in western countries will be completely safe from attack in the near future.  In fact, without doubt, more of them would be safe if the West changed course.  You will not find these two realities discussed in today’s discourse about “winning the war on terror” and  “keeping us safe.”  In absolute terms, there is no winning, and there is no keeping us safe. The sane and moral policy goal is harm reduction.

The Futility of Military Action

 In the U.S. and some other Western countries, moral and ethical pleas on behalf of families in war zones as well as calls to preserve fundamental principles of justice appear to be falling on the deaf ears of a nation of cowards.  In a recent survey, two-thirds of Americans approved of torturing terror suspects.   So, understanding that many are unaccustomed to examining matters in depth greater than a tweet, let’s consider that value-free reason to change course in the Middle East:  The West Cannot Win. Once again, the origin of the reason for that lies in the legacy of WWI.  Too many colonial and Cold War chickens have come home to roost.

As we look at key countries in the Middle East, the reasons western military action must fail will become apparent.  First, the borders of the “countries” were drawn by Western colonial powers in the 20th century without regard for ethnic, cultural, religious or language differences among the inhabitants.  Second, the inhabitants of the “countries” have for centuries been sorting out their differences, often violently, while at the same time uniting to resist foreign invaders. Third, since Western nations created the “countries”, they have formed alliances and played them off against one another in an ongoing geopolitical struggle for influence— and resources.  The big losers from these developments have been ordinary families.

Iraq is a good example of the reason guns will never fix the mistakes of colonialism.  The Allies after WWI, mainly the US, UK, and France, had an opportunity to abandon imperialism and conduct international relations in a better way. Instead, they created artificial countries based on factors such as who had contributed most to the war effort, location of resources like oil, and the pre-war competition among imperialist winners and losers.

One of the artificial countries was Iraq, or rather Mesopotamia. Contrary to the beliefs of radical Christians, their God did not create heaven and earth 6,000 years ago.  Mesopotamia had existed for about 40,000 years before its British rulers named it Iraq.

A conflict in the area, of which westerners are now belatedly becoming aware, was the question of the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad, who died in the Christian year 632 A.D.  He was followed by what are known as the four rightly guided caliphs, the last of whom was Ali, Muhammad’s cousin.  His supporters became the Shi’ites.  Islam in Mesopotamia fought two civil wars between 658 and 685. The faction that looked to the line from the four rightly divided caliphs became what we know today as the Sunnis in 661 and the area was divided into those two sects in 680.

That conflict has yet to be settled. Aside from its effect on the continuing post-colonial struggle for power and resources in other people’s lands, its outcome is no business of the West.

Flash forward a few more centuries. Off and on for 400 years between 1500 and 1900, Baghdad was a leading world cultural center, despite enduring invasions by Mongols, the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the Russians, and the Ottomans again.  From 1831-1914, the Ottomans governed Baghdad directly.

The critical period is 1900-1950, when the British, pardon the pun, screwed things up royally:

1912—Brits gain oil concession from the Turks.

1913—Brits and Turks dictate boundary with Kuwait.

1914-1918—WWI Ottoman Turks out.

1920—League of Nations gives Iraq/Palestine “mandate” to Brits. (The democratic principles in Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points were never thought to apply to Africa).

1921-1926—Brits create “Iraq” by supporting Kurdish and Arab rebellions and combining the Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. In 1921, Brits install a Hashemite Saudi client ruler and dictate boundary with Saudi Arabia.

1927—Oil discovered near Kirkuk. Pipeline to Mediterranean begun.

1932—Iraq independence….. with continuing British military presence.

1941—Brits invade. Didn’t like ruler. Concerned for wartime oil supply.

1948—Iraq joins fight against Israeli expulsion of Palestinians.

With no small amount of Western help, the situation in Iraq and the region had gone downhill ever since.

1953—US CIA overthrows Iranian government and installs Shah.

1979—Iranian revolution creates Shi’ite theocracy next door to Iraq, which has Shi’ite majority, but ruled by Sunni regime.

1980—Iraq starts war w/Iran

1981—Israel attacks Iraqi nuclear research center near Baghdad

1988—Iran/Iraq cease-fire. Iraq reasserts claims to Kuwait.

1990—Iraq invades Kuwait. UN OK’s US intervention.

2003-2011—US re-invades.  Expects to be greeted as liberators. Doesn’t happen. US dismantles Sunni forces and institutions, installs Shi’ite regime that promises not to mistreat Sunnis but does.

2013—Rise of radical, nominally Sunni group, Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State in Levant (ISIL). (An offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, whose growth fed off the US invasion).  Group seizes 90% of Anbar province; works to bait West into another invasion; commits atrocities; establishes order and civil institutions in occupied territory




The results of a century of Western meddling:

1. Death and displacement for civilians.  One easily discernable truth about wars is that every effort is made to count military casualties precisely.  The number of dead civilians is only estimated.  Given the massive rise in civilian casualties in recent years, however, that may be changing. There are now reputable organizations able to come much closer to documenting the toll on families like yours.Approximately 3,000 civilians died on 11 Sept 2001 in an event that had nothing to do with Iraq. Here are the results of U.S. revenge in Iraq— not Saudi Arabia, home of the attackers.

In contrast, a peer reviewed study by several universities published in 2013 put civilian deaths in Iraq 2003-2011 at 500,000.  Of these, 60% were deaths above the normal mortality rate attributable to violence; the remainder to collapse of infrastructure, including sanitation, and other causes directly related to the war.

Iraq Body Count (IBC) is an independent public database only of civilian deaths reported by the media. Its studies are also peer reviewed, and its totals have been criticized from both the political left and right.  IBC put the total of non-combatants killed during the same period at more than 112,000.  Not surprisingly, it found also that 70% of the reviving children had symptoms related to trauma.

Another project of independent journalists counts 450 civilian deaths in the first year of the recent campaign against ISIS, 100 of them children.  The US admits some of this, but the propaganda machine continues to speak soothingly about a “precision” campaign.

These figures, of course, do not include civilians killed and maimed by the current crop of designated enemies of the West in the region. But “He started it” or “He’s worse than I am” is a poor argument in a playground dispute. Such excuses ring particularly hollow when innocent lives are being destroyed.

Numbers are sterile.  Try to imagine your son, your daughter, your parents, your grandparents. Try again.

2. Further intermittent attacks on civilians in the US, Europe, and elsewhere in Africa. Lacking jet aircraft, attackers employ guns and explosives.

3. Fearful westerners hand over civil liberties; oppress Muslims generally.

4. The cycle of revenge continues on all sides.  Violence fails to offer the prospect of victory, security, or anything other than additional bouts of elaborately justified violence.

Iraq is Exhibit 1 that innocent civilians are dying in a conflict the West cannot win. Afghanistan is the next piece of evidence.



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