The Refugee Crisis and the New Holocaust


The world has suddenly realised that there is a “refugee crisis”. There are more refugees now than at any time since World War II. The number has grown three-fold since the end of 2001. The problem is treated as if it arose just recently, but it has been a long time coming. The pressure has been building and building until it has burst the dams of wilful ignorance.

Death and despair has migrated to the doorsteps of Europe. But tens of millions of people do not simply abandon home and native land for an insecure dangerous future of desperate struggle. The forces that have created this crisis are massive and historic in scale. People are now confronted with a tiny fraction of the horrors that have been visited upon millions and millions in the last 14 years. The refugee crisis is merely a symptom of the far greater and far more brutal reality. This is not just a “current crisis” to last a dozen news cycles, and it will not be resolved by humanitarian support.

The current crisis is similar in magnitude to that of World War II because the events causing it are nearly as epochal and momentous as a World War. Those who leave their homelands now face much greater peril of death than asylum seekers faced 20 years ago, yet despite this their numbers have swollen to the tens of millions.

The crisis has been caused by a new Holocaust, but it is one we refuse to acknowledge. The facts of the mass violence and mass destruction are not hidden. We can see the destruction and death that follows Western intervention, but we have been living in wilful ignorance and denial, just as the Germans denied the obvious fact and nature of German genocide. We don’t want to understand. However, like the Germans under Nazism, our self-serving ignorance is nurtured and magnified by a propaganda discourse that is in our news and entertainment media, and also in our halls of education and the halls of power.

We do not understand the genocidal nature of US-led Western interventions because we do not understand the nature of genocide. We have allowed Zionist and US imperialist elites to dictate that genocide be understood through a lens of Holocaust exceptionalism, Nazi exceptionalism, and Judeocide exceptionalism. But genocide was never meant to be specifically Nazi nor anti-Semitic in nature. The word “genocide” was coined by a Jew, Raphael Lemkin, but was never intended to apply specifically to Jews. It was meant to describe a strategy of deliberately visiting violence and destruction on “nations and peoples” as opposed to visiting it on armies. Lemkin wrote a great deal about genocide against the native people’s of the Americas, but that work went unpublished.

The truth is that there is widespread genocide in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. A new Holocaust is upon us and the refugee numbers are the just tip of a genocidal iceberg. By bombing, invading, destabilising, subverting, Balkanising, sanctioning, corrupting, indebting, debasing, destroying, assassinating, immiserating and even enraging, the US has led “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups….” That is where tens of millions of refugees have come from, but we refuse to see the fact of coordination. We blind ourselves to clear indications of Western agency and intentionality. We twist ourselves in knots to avoid seeing coherence or any pattern in US foreign policy. We are blinded by nonsense from pundits about party-political rhetoric and power struggles in DC, and we ignore the monolithic elephant of coherent imperial strategy that is threatening to crash through the floor and destroy the room altogether.

Westerners don’t want to face the truth of what their governments are doing – particularly NATO governments, and the US government most of all. The millions who died in Iraq were victims of a genocide that was intended to kill Iraqis in such numbers. The victims were not incidental to some other project. The same was true in Korea and Viet Nam, but it is also true in Syria, in Libya, in Yemen, in Somalia, in the DR Congo, and in many other places. The destruction, the death, the misery and the chaos are not “failures” of “ill-advised” policy. This is not even some sort of “Plan-B” where the US creates failed states when it cannot install the regime it wants. This is Plan-A and it is becoming harder and harder to deny the fact.

Wars no longer end. We cannot simply pretend that there is no reason for that. Wars no longer end because instability and conflict are the deliberate means of attacking the people – the means of destroying their nations as such. That is what “genocide” means, and that is why we avoid the knowledge. This knowledge will destroy comforting delusions and reveal the cowardly false critiques of those who think that the US government is “misguided” in its attempts to bring stability. The US doesn’t bring stability, it doesn’t seek to bring stability. It destabilises one country after another. It infects entire regions with a disease of acute or chronic destruction, dysfunction and death.

This is a Neo-Holocaust. It slowly builds and grinds. It is the gradual, frog-boiling way to commit genocide. And, like the dullard masses of a dystopian satire, we keep adjusting every time it presents us with a new “normal”. It is a postmodern, neocolonial Holocaust of mass death and mass deprivation. It rises and falls in intensity, but will not end until the entire world awakes and ends it in revulsion.


There are now more refugees than at any time since World War II. It bears repeating. The numbers have tripled since 9/11 and the launch of what has been labelled the “Global War on Terror” and the “Long War”. The situation has become akin to that in World War II, but we seem to be quite comfortable treating it as if it wasn’t a response to a single phenomenon. In WWII it was self-evident that people were fleeing war and genocide, but we apparently accept the tripling of refugee numbers now as resulting from all sorts of different causes. The only factor we are supposed to perceive as linking these crises appears to be Islamist terrorism, even though in the most prominent cases the terrorism arrives after the Western intervention and conflict.

We can no longer excuse the habit of treating each victim of US/NATO intervention as having separate endogenous sources of conflict. Yes, there are ethnic and religious fissures in countries, and yes there are economic and environmental crises which create instability. But, when the opportunity arises weapons flood into these hotspots. There is always an influx of arms. It is the great constant. But many other thing might also happen, particularly economic destabilisation and “democracy promotion”. There is no single playbook from which the US and its partners are making all their moves. There are major direct interventions, such as the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya, and the creation of South Sudan. There are proxy interventions such as the bombing of Yemen, incursions into DR Congo, and fomenting civil war in Syria. Add into this the continuous covert interventions, economic interventions, destabilisations, sanctions, coups, debt crises then you can see a differentiated complex of systematic genocide that very closely resembles the differentiated complex of systematic genocide initially described by Raphael Lemkin in 1944.

The tempo of violence that exists now does not even match that of the bombing during the Korean War, let alone the enormous scale of violence of World War II. However, the difference is that this violence never ends. It seems destined to continue for eternity and the scale of death continues to creep upwards. I cannot shake the feeling that if Germany had not been at war, Nazi genocide policies would have been enacted at the same slowly accumulating pace. The destruction and the violence are often meted out by enemies of the United States, but I think people are beginning to grasp that to some extent the US is often the creator and sponsor of these enemies. Moreover these enemies are often materially dependent on the US either directly or through allied regimes.

Cumulatively, this has still become an historic era of mass death that in some respects resembles the “hyperexploitation” and socio-economic destruction of “Scramble for Africa” and in other respects resembles German genocide policies in occupied Europe. In future, when people come to add up the human cost of this new Holocaust they won’t be trying to prove their credibility by being conservative. Conservatism in such matters is nothing but purposeful inaccuracy and bias. When they calculate all of the excess mortality that has resulted from military, proxy, covert and economic intervention by the West in the post-9/11 era it will be in the tens of millions. It is already of the same order of magnitude as the Nazi Holocaust, and it is far from over.

We see a drowned boy in on a beach and the suffering strikes home. That is a tragedy, but the obscenity is not in the death of a small child. The obscenity is in the fact that it was an act of murder by Western states. Now try to picture what that obscenity looks like multiplied, and multiplied, and multiplied until the boy, Aylan Kurdi, is just a grain of sand on that beach. It seems almost serene, but that is an illusion. We are socialised to lack what is called “statistical empathy” and that lack makes us irrational. Whenever we face the statistics of human pain and loss we must learn to counter this unnatural detachment by making ourselves face the full individual humanity of victims. The key to understanding the Holocaust is not to obsess about the evil Nazi race hatred and cruel machinery of death, it is to picture a child dying in agony in the dark of a crowded gas chamber and to juxtapose that with the callous indifference of Germans, of French, of English and of many others to the fate of that child at the time.

Without compassion, we are intellectually as well as morally stunted. Understanding the ongoing holocaust means you must picture a burned child dying slowly, crying for help that will never come, in the dark rubble of a shelled home next to the corpses of her mother and father. Now juxtapose that with the callous indifference we are induced to feel until we are told that it is officially a crime committed by villains rather than regrettable collateral damage stemming from benignly intended Western acts. After the fact we care, but at that time of the Judeocide almost every country sent Jewish refugees back to certain death. People reacted with callousness and also vile contempt to Jewish refugees, almost exactly like the British tourists who have recently wished mass death on the “tides of filth” that are ruining their playground on the Greek isle of Kos.

To avoid the truth, we select only certain victims as being worthy and fully human. When it becomes officially correct to feel compassion, we create cartoon villains to blame who, by their very conception, are aberrations and departures from a systemic norm. It might be the Zionist lobby, or Netanyahu or Trump or the Kochs or the military-industrial complex, but it must be something other than business as usual. This thinking is cowardice. It is stupidity. It is self-serving. It is morally and intellectually bankrupt. There is a new Holocaust happening now and it is the logical outcome of US imperialism.

In the final analysis, the refugees are the result of years of conflict, destruction and suffering. The scariest thing is that we are incapable of stopping the progress of this plague because we will not face up to the principles behind it. It has become a one-way street. Areas that are lost to civil strife can never find peace. Cities reduced to rubble can never be rebuilt. Communities that are torn apart can never again knit together. Worse will come and it will not end until the US empire is destroyed. Please let us find a way to do that without another World War.

US Rule in Occupied Earth (or Everything You Need to Know About Genocide, but Never Knew to Ask), Part 1: State of Exception




or direct link to mp3:

[Below is a transcript which is about 95% complete and which contains links to some material that is cited in the commentary]

It would be a vast understatement to say that the word “genocide” is not well understood. In politics, in academia and in normal everyday communication the word is almost exclusively misused and abused.

You might believe that the normal everyday usage (or, sometimes the usage of those with the authority of knowledge) is definitive. What a word means is what meaning is given to it. In most cases I would agree. The usage by ordinary people of a word is where the word usually derives its meaning. Not, however, when that usage contradicts itself. Not when that usage can only misrepresent the actualities that it purports to describe. And not when it is completely divorced from its original meaning.

For example, a recent Buzzfeed article refers several times to the British “attempting” genocide against Aborigines. That makes no sense. Genocide isn’t a single act, like burglary. Genocide either happens, or it doesn’t. We don’t refer to the genocide of Jews in World War II as “attempted genocide”. We don’t even refer to an “attempted genocide” in Rwanda. People have a vague notion that genocide must somehow mean complete extermination, except that they are not consistent in that. Genocide is used in different ways according to political criteria,. This isn’t merely slippage, but it actually requires that people do not have an actual definition of the word. It is a word that has had its meaning suppressed because the concept that the word represents is a dangerous concept. It is a concept which cannot be held on an ideological leash. It will drag the holder into the brambles of radical unorthodoxy rather than let itself be led to the park to chase a frisbee.

Any limit to our vocabulary is a limit to our thinking. Our society, like all others, constrains our vocabularies so that some thoughts are unthinkable. We may live in a pluralistic multinational global culture that is in many ways organic and diverse, but the repression of thought to which I refer is systematic and purposive and it is in the service of power. All languages have words or phrases that others lack, but I am not suggesting that merely lacking the word for a concept is systematic repression. Instead, words like “genocide” or “terrorism” are stripped of stable rational meaning whilst being vested heavily with emotive affect. This is the process that creates an orthodox idiom – which is to say a systematically and coherently circumscribed mode of language and thought.

This meanings are, as I have said, suppressed rather than erased. It would be wrong to view these words simply as “empty signifiers” as if the arbitrary nature of language meant that one could exert one’s will over language with full control. That is a type of vulgar postmodernism – a megalomaniac fantasy such as Karl Rove was indulging when he said: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

Outside of Rove’s self-aggrandising fantasies, you cannot simply assign meanings to words at will. They must fit within a network of intelligibility that is grounded in a history of usage. Instead of simply redefining words what orthodox usage does is to load a word with emotion and political ideology whilst suppressing its basic and fundamental defining characteristics (which may be more or less broad, more or less faceted, and more or less mutable over time). This leads to an unstable and contradictory usage. That isn’t a problem to the orthodox ideologue but rather a great boon. It allows the word to be used differently according to need. Furthermore, because of the emotionality attached people will fight against any attempts to reinstate a stable and comparatively objective usage.

Genocide is exactly such a word. It first appeared in a work called Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in 1944. It’s original meaning cannot be erased because it is part of a network of inter-contextualised signifiers which exist in history. At the same time, though, that meaning is thoroughly obscured. People argue that something is genocide because it is really bad, while other people argue that you can’t call something genocide because it is not bad enough and to label it genocide would be an insult to victims of real genocide.

The meaning of “genocide” has not changed over time because the meaning was suppressed from the beginning. It was always a dangerous notion. People wrongly think that it was purely a response to the German atrocities that Winston Churchill referred to as “a crime without a name”. But Raphael Lemkin, who invented the term genocide, had long been thinking on this topic and what he described was a far broader and more historically significant phenomenon which didn’t merely describe acts of mass murder, but made sense of them. Unfortunately for Lemkin’s future career, once the logic of genocide is grasped it will reveal truths that are unpalatable and unacceptable. In the 1950s Lemkin devoted much of his attention to the genocides of indigenous people in the Americas, particularly North America. Lemkin established a clear intrinsic link between settler-colonialism and genocide and had he lived longer he would inevitably had to have recognised that the link between genocide and all forms of imperialism was nearly as inescapable.

Genocide is not, and never has been, something that you switch on and off. It is not a discrete act. It is not distinct from war and militarism, nor authoritarianism and political oppression. The institutions of genocide that a state creates will not end until they are eradicated. The German genocide in East Africa at the beginning of the 20th century created institutions which would later be instruments of genocide, but were also tools of repression used on political dissidents. Likewise, the institutions of genocide that are deployed in the Middle East and Africa are continuations of genocidal practices from Asia and Latin America, and are already imprinted in the nature of policing in the USA and in the authoritarian rhetoric and policies of David Cameron and the Conservative government in the UK.

Many contemporary thinkers from Sheldon Wolin and Giorgio Agamben to Jeff Halper and Chris Hedges are trying to grapple with the increasingly arbitrary nature of the state, its increasing hostility to humanity, and the increasing precarity of the people. (When I refer to the state here, I am referring to the nexus of governmental and “private” power which exercises effective sovereignty, not to the narrow concept of a governmental state power with formally recognised sovereignty). If we are to understand this situation in a way that will help to end its deadly progress, the greatest single step that we could take at this time is to reacquire the term “genocide”. Lemkin used it to describe the phenomenon that was the driving force behind German occupation policies in Europe. This inevitably also applied to Germany itself, though that was not Lemkin’s focus. For Lemkin the concentration camp was the defining institution of genocide. But Lemkin meant the term broadly. He considered Indian Reservations to be a form of concentration camp and would have most likely conceded that its is the power structure created by the barbed wire enclosures that is more important than the wire itself. For Giorgio Agamben the prevailing logic of the concentration camp is that of the “inclusive exclusion” and he has contended that that is the “biopolitical” paradigm of our age. The term “biopolitical” in its broader sense, refers to the way in which power exerts control over bodies, and I will argue that on a large scale the “biopolitical” becomes the “demostrategic”. At the large-scale demostrategic level, this paradigm of power may express itself in the very phenomenon of genocide that Lemkin first described.

In this series of articles I am going to draw threads together that show the need make appropriate usage of the term genocide as a way of revealing a pattern of destruction and mass violence that is interconnected. It is the millions of deaths in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; it is the permanent dysfunction and instability of Somalia and Libya; it is Plan Colombia; it is Iraq and Afghanistan; it is mass surveillance and it is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement; it is Haiti and its is the political and drug related violence in Mexico; it is the “huge concentration camp” of Gaza and it is al-Sisi’s Egypt. This is the nature of US Rule on the Occupied Earth. It is all of a piece. It is all shaped by genocide. It is all becoming more genocidal.

Sadly, even the best intellectuals seem only to vaguely grasp that the term “genocide” has actual an definitional meaning. In contrast those who are more inclined to be opinionated or generally less inclined to to use cogent thinking are only too happy to forcefully tell people that their usage is not only wrong but offensive and dangerous. It is like the poem by Yeats, which, as it happens, foreshadowed the rise of Nazism,

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

Israel Shamir, for example, has let his anger at the misuse of the term genocide obliterate his mental faculties. He recently wrote that Lemkin coined the word genocide “in order to stress the difference between murdering Jews and killing lesser breeds. The word is quite meaningless otherwise.” He must know at some level that this is untrue, but he writes with thoughtless rage. The effect is to tell his readers not to even think about genocide – “It would be good to ban this word altogether.” That is not going to prevent the misuse of the word. In fact it plays into the hands of those who misuse the term in order the perpetrate aggression and genocide. The way to end the misuse is to treat the word genocide the way you would treat any other. When genocide is asserted we should expect that the usage is justified based on definitional criteria. As it is, telling a readership that already opposes imperialism and Zionism that the word “genocide” has no meaning only makes it easier to exploit the term for propaganda purposes.

“Genocide” is a word that itself exists in a state of exception. People will scream at you for suggesting that it can be weighed or compared in any way with anything else. Even some genocide scholars call it a “sui generis” phenomenon, meaning that they want to say that it cannot be defined, but they reserve the right to label some things as being genocide on the basis that they themselves know what it is when they see it. Moreover, there is a broad intellectual trend to treat genocide as a sacred word which only special experts may employ, because any improper usage would be hyperbole and damaging to one’s credibility.

Sadly this was the case on the radio programme Against the Grain, which is from broadcast Berkeley by KPFA (a storied non-profit radio station which also broadcasts the superb programme Flashpoints).

Against the Grain is aptly named. In a world of growing anti-intellectualism, interviewers and producers C. S. Soong and Sasha Lilley do their work with a depth that is hard to find elsewhere in political analysis. They interview intellectuals with the sole aim of facilitating the transmission of ideas and information. No words are wasted on flattery or extraneous personal detail. Above all, when Soong or Lilley conduct an interview they are very conversant with the material they are discussing. Most impressive to me, though, is that they never assume that the interviewee can’t explain something to the audience. They don’t try to avoid things on the grounds that they might bore or confuse us mere plebs, instead they chop them up with timely interjections so that they are digestible and so that the flow is maintained. In other words, they make it as easy for the audience as possible, but they don’t pander in any way.

Pandering is, of course, the one of the great intellectual plagues of our age. Ideas that came from the realms of marketing and mass entertainment have spread to infect all corners of society. The ideology of using a restricted vocabulary of words and ideas in order to never tax people’s brains by asking them to learn something new is an obvious recipe for disaster. You cannot learn if you are never presented with anything you do not already know. Pandering makes people stupider on the whole, but it also makes substantive change impossible. Pandering is not just about avoiding inflicting the pain of thought on people, it is also about not disturbing ideology. In political activism pandering is rife, and it is always represented as being “tactical” and “realistic”. That is why I appreciate a programme, like Against the Grain, that pulls no punches and tells it like it is.

However, if there is one thing on which people are guaranteed to pander in both intellectual and ideological terms it is the topic of genocide. People mystify it and misuse it. They sneer at the people who dare to suggest that the US or Israel or the UK is committing genocide, because they “know” that anyone making such an accusation is just engaging in political sloganeering. This is supposedly “debasing the coinage” in the words of the late Michael Mandel, showing that even the most admirable people can be very stupid when it comes to this topic.

Equally admirable people show that there is another face to this debased coin, using the term “genocide” to try to raise the alarm on the world’s horrors. A recent example of this was an interview with Professor David Isaacs on the plight of asylum seekers held on Nauru. What he reveals is an alarming and inhumanly cruel situation. It is a situation that cries out for action. But then he says that he is told “don’t use the g-word, the genocide word, … or people will think you are too extreme”. He is thinking exactly the same way that Mandel thinks, but from the other direction. In their construction “genocide” is a type of currency that is to expended when our subjective sense of alarm tells us that something is really really really bad.

For this reason, I was disappointed but not exactly surprised when the subject of the “g-word” was broached on Against the Grain and then treated as some special mystical term whose applicability could only be determined by the most authoritative authorities. This was towards the end of an otherwise excellent interview about the plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamils now, 6 years after the end of the 26 year-long civil war.

What was described by interviewee Anuradha Mittal is a textbook example of genocide. In genocide the killing of the victim population as such is not the end it is the means. When he first coined the term “genocide” Raphaël Lemkin wrote the following:

“Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization by the oppressor’s own nationals.”

In other words, the Sinhalisation of both the Tamil peoples and the land to which they belong is a defining genocidal characteristic. The direct violence of genocide arises because resistance is inevitable. The deprivation of social, cultural, religious, economic, and linguistic capital is itself a form of violence which victims cannot help but resist.

Mittal’s interview reveals that it was persecution and communal violence that initially drove some Tamils into an armed separatist movement. Now in the aftermath of the long bloody civil war she gives details of conditions based on a recently released report that she authored. Once you understand the concept of genocide, what she is describing in every aspect is symptomatic of genocide. Everything she talks about is characteristically genocidal, from the way the hegemonic victor tries to enforce a certain historical narrative through memorials, to the way the land is imprinted with a state, military, religious or linguistic character to alienate it from Tamils. In fact, the most salient and striking genocidal features are not the mass violence, but the unusual things such as having military run tourist resorts in occupied territory. That sort of behaviour only makes sense in the context of genocide.

At one point Mittal quotes Dr Rajani Thiranagama: “Objectivity, the pursuit of truth and critical, honest positions, is crucial for the community, but is a view that could cost many of us our lives. It is undertaken to revitalize a community sinking into a state of oblivion.” In that spirit, it is absolutely essential that genocide be understood for what it is. Without full and frank comprehension it will never end, even if the intensity of direct violence waxes and wanes.

Consider the persecution of Jews under the Reconquista, when Spain and Portugal were conquered by Christians 500 years ago. The persecution arose from a confluence of interests of state-building political elites, religious authorities seeking to increase power, and individuals looking to acquire land and other property sowed seeds of violence that would continue through the ages. The state sought to integrate Jews as “Conversos”, but the state also sought to repudiate that conversion in order to enforce uniformity, exercise religious authority and sieze property. In other words, the Converso’s became the “included exclusion” – the very circumstance to which concentration camp inmates are subjected. From that came the concept of “Crypto-Jews”, leading to the ideological linking of Judaism with occult conspiracy. Additionally the concept of ineradicable and heritable “blood guilt” was used. This not only fuelled future pogroms, but arguably formed a key ideological foundation of all modern racism. In the same manner, until the genocide of the Sri Lankan state is comprehended, exposed and repudiated by consensus, the ideological tools for future genocidal violence will remain intact. Tamil resistance, whether violent or not, will be delegitimised as “terrorism” and this will in turn be used to legitimate violent and deadly repression.

That is why my heart sank so low when the conversation on Against the Grain turned to genocide. There was a general tone shared by Soong and Mittal that was suggestive of the “ultimate crime” which the exchange portrayed as being beyond mere “war crimes”. Then Mittal said that the question of whether genocide had occurred should not be prejudged but should be decided by the “international community”. This makes me want to ask, what does that mean? Is it somehow above your pay grade to weigh the evidence? Is genocide something so controversial that only the high and mighty can pontificate on it? This is anti-intellectualism. Mittal is tacitly stating that we should not think about such things and that the thinking should be left to authorities. And what authorities are these? The term “international community” effectively means the US State Dept. or what Noam Chomsky has labelled as “IntCom”. This is true regardless of the intent of the speaker because if you promote the “international community” then those who control the usage of that term in political discourse get to decide what it entails and your original intent is meaningless.

Things took a turn for the worse when Mittal brought the ICC into the conversation. I don’t know what mania is gripping people at the moment, but every advocate for victims of persecution seems to think that the solution will be found by putting people in the dock at the Hague. I think that this is some sort of woefully misplaced yearning for a corrective patriarchal authority figure, and it poisons our discourse on genocide and on war crimes. People think that wrongs must be righted by the exercise of power in order to grant some psychologically satisfying sense of balance. This is quite divorced from practical realities including that of actually ending today’s atrocities, rather than fixating on a tiny percentage of those that occurred a generation ago. Does anyone actually look at the record of the ICC? There are some informed apologists for the ICC out there, but even they don’t defend it actions thus far as much as they claim that it will do better things in the future. Critics like David Hoile cannot be countered except with speculation about how wonderful the ICC will be at some future point. Hoile is an old Tory who may or may not be in the pay of Sudanese war criminals, but when he (a right-wing white man who was once photographed with a “Hang Nelson Mandela” sticker on his tie) debated the ICC in the pages of New Internationalist, he was far more convincing in suggesting that the ICC was institutionally racist than Angela Mudukuti, who argued that “attempting to undermine its legitimacy with allegations of racism will take the global international criminal justice project no further.” It is well worth looking up that debate for the sheer surrealism of the fact that the young bleeding-heart African woman effectively tells the old hairy white male Tory that he needs to be more trusting of the authorities or he will harm their efforts to run the world in an orderly manner. Whatever one thinks of Hoile, though, he has published a 600 page volume on the ICC which is full of substantive criticisms that stand regardless of his history or motives.

The fact is that if you don’t accept in advance that the ICC is both benevolent and a repository of expertise and authority, it is pretty difficult to see anything good in its patchy record of expensive and unacceptably lengthy proceedings all of which are against Africans. As an instrument of justice it is inefficient, dysfunctional and pathetic beyond belief; as an instrument of neocolonial domination it is very expensive, but probably considered worth the price by the European powers which bankroll its activities; as a propaganda instrument capable of making slaves scream out for more chains and whips, it is clearly priceless beyond measure.

The fact is that many national courts and international bodies can chose to exercise so-called “universal jurisdiction” over cases of genocide anywhere in the world. The ICC is a very silly place into which to channel one’s energies, but are prosecutions in general any better? There are two problems here. … Labelling genocide as a crime has become a very harmful distraction. It is this, more than anything, that has turned the term into one that is so misused for political ends. Genocide is represented as “an act” and the “crime of crimes” that exists in the world of black-and-white morality where its ultimate evil justifies acts of great violence, and makes people feel the glow of self-righteous anger.

People like to call for prosecutions because it is an instant source of gratification. The judicial system becomes a proxy instrument of violence either as combat or retribution. This is appealing to those who are in one way or another impotent. Prosecutors are symbolically taking the role of their antecedents, champions of weak who fought in trials by combat. Sometimes the most fervent advocates of this form of state violence are “pacifists”. The problem seems particularly acute in the US where the punitive impulse runs very deeply. It seems that US citizens are induced to feel acutely threatened and constrained by the domestic or foreign Other and are thus prone to support police, judicial or military state violence.

You might think that it is good that state violence be used against those found guilty of genocide and, to the extent necessary, those merely accused of the crime. That is fine if you call it what it is – retribution. If you consider that to be justice, then your concept of justice is retributive. I know that some would also argue that victims gain a sense satisfaction and closure, but since the vast majority of the victims of mass violence will never have access to this “satisfaction” it is a rather hollow and bitter virtue.

People talk about prosecutions as if they will have practical beneficial ramifications in ending violence. This flies in the face of the historical record. No one is ever prosecuted before they are in one manner or other defeated. In some cases they might be the sacrificial offering by a criminal grouping that consolidates itself by allowing one member to be culled, but more often it is simply a matter of victor’s justice. The accused is defeated by hard power means before they are ever detained. They might be very guilty of heinous crimes, but guilt is in fact incidental to a thoroughly political process.

Meanwhile, the ICC enthusiasts claim to be all about ending impunity. If you actually just step back for a second you will see that the application of international criminal justice in the ICC, ICTY, ICTR and in national courts does absolutely nothing to end impunity. Instead of viewing Charles Taylor and Slobadan Milosevic as villains who deserved punishment, imagine what message their prosecutions sent to the world. It is the same message sent by the deaths of Saddam Hussein and Muammer Ghaddafi, and that message is that the only hope for someone who is targeted by the US is to fight to the death. Making peace and going into exile is not an option. International criminal justice is only victor’s justice against the vanquished and a neocolonial weapon in fighting Third World nationalists.

The only other way that someone responsible for mass violence might be prosecuted is when the real war is won on their home turf. That real war is the intellectual and moral struggle – the fight to expose the means and ends of those who commit mass atrocities and, above all, the fight to vanquish apologetics. Jay Janson, who writes in Dissident Voice and Counter Currents, castigates people like me for not constantly calling for prosecutions of US officials and for not condemning every single citizen of each and every Western state to be a war criminal. He is right though, to point out that we must never stop referring to the crimes of the US “hyper-empire” as crimes. But history shows that the crimes do not end until the regime itself is recognised as criminal. It is not enough to recognise individual acts as crimes or actors as criminals. A majority of US citizens once recognised US interventions in Indochina as war crimes, but it changed nothing because it was constructed as a failing and a failure, not as a success.

Fatuous pundits and lying politicians like to claim that the US relies on “international legitimacy” and that this makes military interventions failures, but if you examine the history of US war crimes and crimes against humanity you can see that they follow the Maoist principle that all power comes from the barrel of a gun. They coerce other countries, including close allies, into treating them as legitimate. The real problems for the US regime that arose from the aggressions against Indochina were a dispersed and pluralistic domestic insurrection, that might have consolidated into a revolution, and a mutinous military. Once they had those problems solved they went back to serial aggression and serial genocide and many millions have died as a result. Therefore, it is necessary to create a consensus that the political establishment is criminal as a whole. Once that fight is won you can choose to try and move forward with prosecutions, as in Argentina, or with a truth and reconciliation process, as in South Africa.

Prosecutions are not a road to change. You can’t expect the corrupt institutions of a corrupt society to take any action that does not make the problem worse. The best that a campaign calling for prosecutions can be is an awareness raising campaign. If you really think that if you mobilise people and push hard enough some top-down bureaucratic judicial body will make a positive difference, then you need to find out what time it really is. We don’t need to lock Bush and Blair in prison, we need to de-legitimise them, disempower them, disempower those who support them, and end the criminal regimes of which they are merely transient components. It is true that if George W. Bush were in prison he wouldn’t be able to charge $100,000 to give a speech for a charity raising money for amputee veterans. But as grotesque and freakish as that is, the Bushes, the Clintons and Tony Blair only get so much money because a whole stratum of society worships power. In a situation that is equally reminiscent of pre-revolutionary France and Nazi Germany, our elites simply do not have any functioning morals. Without coercion they will never even acknowledge a moral component to the exercise of power, but will fawn all the more over those that commit war crimes because that is an exercise of great power.

Continued in Part 2: “Days of Revolt”.

An Open Letter to an IDF Apologist at the BBC


Ironic pic of Orwell at Big Brother Corp

After 10 years as a business reporter, Anthony Reuben is now the BBC News inaugural “Head of Statistics”. True to the spirit of 1984 he seems to take his role as being to remind people of such numerical truths as “2 + 2 = 5 fanatical Islamist terrorist Hamas militants”. In a report on what the statistics tell us about the recent fatalities in Gaza, he highlights the fact that a disproportionate number of young men are being killed. Another BBC report on Gaza casualties is quite shocking, but its impact is diminished by a link to Reuben’s article with the words “If the Israeli attacks have been ‘indiscriminate’, as the UN Human Rights Council says, it is hard to work out why they have killed so many more civilian men than women”

Someone else has already written an email to Reuben which is posted at the Media Lens message board. It covers some of the territory that I have, but I felt that I needed to add a few things in a missive of my own. I got a little bit carried away, but the result is heartfelt…

To Anthony Reuben,

I have to ask, just what sort of statistician are you? Surely one of the fundamental tenets in statistical thought is that correlation does not imply causation, yet without the implicit unsupported claim that a gender imbalance in fatalities indicates IDF discrimination, your article has no purpose.

When I write “no purpose” I really mean “no legitimate purpose”. It is a great propaganda point for Israel to use the deaths of “military aged males” to imply military legitimacy in their violence. Your work certainly goes a long way to helping the IDF promote its narrative. This means that you are helping them, and I hope you realise that you are therefore complicit in their actions.

Need I remind you that Srebrenica was primarily a massacre of “military-aged males” and that those who committed that genocidal act used the same excuse as the IDF? By itself that destroys the tacit premise of your article unless you also consider Srebrenica to be a legitimate military action. The fact is that it is normal that adult male civilians are targeted and murdered at far higher rates than women and children. There are a number of reasons why this is the case, including the psychology of those committing the murders. Military personnel find it easier to kill adult male civilians than others. Additionally, apologists such as yourself find it easier to muddy the waters over war crimes.

You breezily dismiss the issue of gender disparity in war casualties from other conflicts: “There has been some research suggesting that men in general are more likely to die in conflict than women, although no typical ratio is given.” With a flourish of misdirection, which seems to come naturally to the hack and the junk-merchant, you induce the reader to think that nothing of relevance is contained in the paper which you link to. You let people know that you have read it, but it really has nothing to illuminate the issue. However, the paper does establish that although there is a great deal of variation between conflicts, there is undeniable precedent for far greater numbers of male than female civilians being killed directly in conflicts. In other words, if you were half the statistician you claim, you would recognise that a disproportionate death rate amongst Gazan men is no evidence that more armed militants have been killed than Hamas claims, is not evidence that the IDF is practicing discrimination, and is not evidence that the IDF does not target civilians.

Moreover, the paper you cite is in itself too narrow in scope for the purposes of your article. There is relevant historical evidence which is denied by no one. Not one person who knows anything about the subject denies that there is a long standing practice of killing adult male civilians. It seems to be as old as human mass violence, and it is certainly as old as the phenomena we understand as war and genocide. It is a practice which falls under the category now given as “gendercide”. Like mass rape, the tactic of the mass killing of men is not merely aimed at the immediate victims, but is a genocidal tactic aimed at social cohesion. In a patriarchal society and/or one with high numbers of dependent children, the impact of killing a “military age male” – which is to say a “working age male” – is multiplied.

But perhaps the most important propaganda role you are playing is to access that moral and emotional numbness with which we have all been induced to view violence against young men. I have read many accounts of violence, and I will admit that the images that haunt me are those of violence against children. Yet I can also say that those who are close to the violent deaths of men do not view it with the equanimity that our public discourse accords the subject. These are human beings who love and are loved. They feel as much fear, pain, grief and guilt as anyone other human being in their last moments, whether they carry a gun or not. We project on to these dying men a sense that they are agents in their own deaths, as if war were some sort of shoot-out at high noon where every male carries a sixgun. The emphasis on “women and children” is an impulse of armchair humanitarianism by the insipid and the self-righteous.

Perhaps, to understand my point, you could watch and rewatch the video posted here of a young man being murdered by an Israeli sniper. Watch it and ask yourself, “what does my article say about this man’s death”? This is the death of a 20-29 year-old male, so if your article isn’t about this, then what on Earth is it about? I mean that seriously. Your holier-than-thou detached statistical conceits actually say nothing at all about the horrible death of this man except to suggest that somehow it doesn’t really count.

You are also making a big straw man out of the UN accusation of indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force. The real question is the systematic targeting of non-combatants. To date, Israel has targeted 7 UN schools being used as shelters. Fleeing civilians have also been targeted, as have rescue workers and UN personnel. This is based on 3rd party evidence and, quite frankly, only an idiot would give any credence to the IDF’s response to these accusations unless they were subject to cross-examination or were able to provide substantive evidence to back their claims.

But not only do you give unwarranted credence to IDF distortions, you are too lazy, stupid or evil to even check on the veracity of blatant lies. You quote an IDF spokesperson on the subject of Operation Cast Lead: “Hamas and Gaza-based organisations claimed that only 50 combatants were killed, admitting years later the number was between 600-700, a figure nearly identical to the figure claimed by the IDF.” This is a double lie. Firstly, I wouldn’t think it would be too much to expect a BBC reporter to look up what the BBC itself reported about claimed casualties after OCL: “Hamas has said 48 of its fighters were killed. The Popular Resistance Committee says 34 died and Islamic Jihad said it lost 38 men.” Hamas not claiming only 50 combatants killed, it is claiming that only 50 of its combatants were killed. Lie number two, just as easy to sort out by an internet search, is that Hamas or “Gaza-based organisations” have “admitted” to a figure of 600-700. No they haven’t. You are either wilfully being played for a fool, or you are deliberately deceiving your readers.

You also repeat that Israeli claim given exposure by your colleague back in 2009 – that “when militants are brought to hospitals, they are brought in civilian clothing, obscuring terrorist affiliations”. I love this one because you have to be a moron to believe it, but also at least a bit of a racist. There are really two options here, one is that when combat breaks out Gazan militants change into civvies on the rather Pythonesque logic that they will make the evil Zionists pay by seeking matyrdom in mufti [sic]. The other possibility is that these hate-filled fanatic terrorists are so rabid, so irrationally rational, so innately cunning and conniving, that when their comrades are wounded or killed their first response is to give them a change of clothing – presumably remembering to tear, incise and or burn the clothing so that it matches the flesh beneath. Hamas probably has special units of crack combat-tailors giving makeovers to the dead and dying. While they are working I imagine that the legions of Pallywood specialists are digitally altering stock footage and stills so that every rabid mass-murdering terrorist arrives at the morgue with pictures and video of their tender family life of caring for young children and sickly elders.

Your fatuous hypothesis is that the disproportionate fatalities of young males suggests that Israel is only accidentally killing civilians in the legitimate pursuit of “terrorists”, and that the IDF, in fact, is practicing discrimination. This is based on four things – ignorance, stupidity, self-satisfied arrogance and the blatant lies of an IDF spokesperson. By privileging statistical evidence as being of a higher order than mere anecdote you manage to suggest that the evidence of our eyes themselves is somehow suspect. This is vulgar scientism. The fact is that a single anecdote can sometimes destroy a statistical hypothesis. The different sorts of evidence provide different sorts of information, one is not inherently better at revealing an objective truth. Statistical methods are frequently abused to create distorted pictures. Statistics provided by belligerents about their own actions are more or less worthless anyway, but sometimes it is perfectly valid to dismiss a statistical account on the basis that it diverges far too much from the collected reliable anecdotes. For example, US figures on civilian deaths in the second assault on Fallujah are risible. Anyone who actually followed the eyewitness accounts of what was occurring at the time knows that these “statistics” are worthless. We know from accounts of US personnel that dead civilians were simply labelled “insurgents”. It is an old practice, perhaps best known from Indochina where it was referred to as the “mere gook rule”.

The “mere gook rule” was elucidated as being “if it’s Vietnamese and dead, then its VC”. The reasons for this were many and varied. People often cleave to the cliché vision of ambitious officers trying to outdo each other by claiming everything conceivable as a kill. Behind that, however, were far more important systemic causes. We do not talk about such things in polite society, but the fact is that the US war machine systematically targeted civilians on the basis that being in a certain location made you a legitimate target deserving of death. They overtly wanted to attack the civilian population in NLF controlled areas on the basis that they were VC “infrastructure”. But to do so they actually redefined them as being combatants. Hence William Westmoreland, that charming man, was able to confidently proclaim that no civilian had ever been killed in a free-fire zone, because he had defined free-fire zones as places where no people were civilians. So when William Calley described his reason for killing women as being because they had “about a thousand little VC” in them, he was actually just expressing official US doctrine.

I feel that I must point out here, in case there is any confusion, that contrary to what seems to be broadly taken as true at the BBC, powerful officials do not actually define reality. I know that this is hard for you to understand, but just because a US General says that the victims of bombing and shelling were all combatants, including the children, it does not make it true. There is a legal definition of “combatant” and international humanitarian law doesn’t actually rely on an honour system where the perpetrator owns up for any acts of naughtiness (and that includes Israel’s activities in Gaza). The Nuremburg Trials, for example, did not consist of a series of cleverly posed questions designed to trap German leaders into admitting that they had started a war and killed civilians. But while we are on that subject, it is always important to remember that every act of mass violence by the Germans was defined by them as an act of war against the “enemy” who were sometimes defined as being a “terrorist population”.

If a normal conscientious human being wrote an article about the gender and age characteristics of fatalities in Gaza, they might at least mention the very prominent fact that the US is now applying a gender and age specific version of the “mere gook rule”. Perhaps you have been sequestered under a rock for the last few years, but there has been significant mention in the news that the US automatically defines anyone killed in their targeted killings who is a military age male as being a “militant” until proven otherwise. “Militant” is such a great word as well because it gives people the impression of legitimacy, but it does not actually specify that the targets were combatants. A study of Israeli targeted killings some years ago found not only that they killed four times as many bystanders as targets, but also that 50% of the “militants” they targeted weren’t actually part of any armed activities. These militants were community organisers, political organisers and union organisers – you know, “infrastructure”.

To recap, then: a military aged male is not necessarily a combatant, but they are frequently targeted as such. This is known as gendercide. Targeting civilians in this way is often accompanied with official semantic approaches which seek to legitimate the targeting of civilians, but by nature any repudiation of legal definitions is in itself a war crime constituted necessarily of the systematic targeting of civilians.

Given everything we see of IDF personnel murdering helpless civilians, what seem to be targeted attacks on medical and aid workers – including UN personnel – and what seem to be deliberate attacks on UN facilities being used as shelters by displaced people, only an Orwellian freak could possibly go along with the idea that the UNHRC’s accusation of indiscriminate use of force is the real issue. Nor is the systematic targeting of civilians even the worst crime on evidence here. Israel is quite blatantly committing genocide as it is defined in law in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNCG), and under the UN Charter it is guilty of criminal aggression. Genocide is considered an “aggravated crime against humanity” which parties to the UNCG are obliged to act to end, whilst aggression was defined at Nuremburg as the “supreme crime”.

I bet you think you know what the word “genocide” means. I bet that deep down in your guts you know that it was never meant to describe the way Israel treats Palestinians. You probably can’t exactly say what genocide means, but you understand its essence and you know that it is offensive and obscene to cheapen the memory of the dead by debasing the coinage with such politicised accusations. Save your indignant spluttering. The legal definition of genocide is quite clear and taking actions aimed at destroying “in whole or in part” the Palestinian people is genocide by definition. The expectation that genocide should always be manifested as a discreet orgy of violence is a vulgar misapprehension. Genocide is frequently a long process of sporadic, chronic violence in the midst of ongoing persecution. In fact, the slow nature of the Israeli genocide is what makes it so much less ambiguous or uncertain than most other genocides. The rhetoric, the strategic imperatives, the tactic, the doctrines and the policies in this case all align to make this an open-and-shut case with none of the usual difficult issues of intentionality. The Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal not only found Israel guilty of the crime of genocide, but also found several named living Israeli officials guilty of genocide.

I know what you are thinking – you are thinking that the KLWCT is “political” and is motivated by “politics”. Let’s deconstruct that, shall we? In your twisted little world there is nothing “political” about the ICC which is an official body that just happens to spend almost all of its time prosecuting sub-Saharan African leaders who have angered the the US. Are these the worst war criminals in the world? No. Are they the worst war criminals in sub-Saharan Africa? No, not that either, certainly not on the basis of the numbers of victims killed. Apart from one token M-23 guy thrown to the dogs for the sake of appearances, the real crime of these people was that of defying Washington. The ICC, however, is “official”. In your grubby little corner of Oceania this means that it is not “political”. In the same idiom the US is an “honest broker” and John Kerry is a “credible authority”. In the real world, however, despite the involvement of Malaysian political figures, the KLWCT is constituted of independent scholarly and legal experts whose collective interest in the matter of Palestine is purely that of human beings who seek an end to injustice and suffering.

(Have you ever wondered about that? The way in which the pompous organs of the media reverse reality to say that the people who don’t have a vested interest are the suspect “political” voices, but the people who have immense power and money riding on the outcomes of events are considered at least respectable if not authoritative?)

The law may not be perfect, but often the fact that it is a codified standard which can be applied equally to each party is highly illuminating. Admittedly, by the time it reaches a court, international law is generally a selective disproportionate application of what amounts to victor’s justice. But we can independently examine issues in a legal light to get a good view of ethical dimensions of a situation. The question is this, in this instance who is the aggressor and who has the right of self-defence?

Israel claims the right of self-defence but what does Article 51 of the UN Charter actually authorise? “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.” Well, the UNSC has indeed been apprised of this situation and has passed resolutions to restore international peace and security, but Israel will not comply with those resolutions. In order to claim the right of self-defence Israel would first have to relinquish all occupied territories, among other things. And that is a normal established understanding. An occupying force does not have a right to self-defence. Nor is it permissible to blockade a country and then “defend” against their armed resistance to that blockade. If these things were not true then you would have a situation where both sides can claim self-defence with each supposedly defending against the other’s defence.

I know that it is heretical to even think such thoughts, but what if we spent as much time talking about Palestinian rights to self-defence as we do about the non-existent Israeli right to self-defence? When you actually apply international law, Palestinians have every right to use the arms that are available to them in resistance. They are the ones subject to occupation. Israel and its allies have used the statelessness of Palestinians to obfuscate their right to self-defence, but in law you cannot deny rights to individuals on the basis of statelessness which means that they have “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence” until such time as the UNSC restores peace.

That brings me to something that I find almost as upsetting as seeing the bodies of children killed by “the most moral army in the world”. Those who take up arms against Israel are not legally or morally deserving of death. Most of them will have lost loved ones to Israeli violence. Every one of them suffers under the illegal oppression of the occupation. Deciding to fight back with arms is not some irrational fanatical decision. Yet in our media these men are treated as violent irrational ciphers in a way which both draws on and perpetuates a racist conception of Arab men. Nobody ever puts a human face on these fighters. They are tarred with the brush of Islamism, with its heavy freight of misogynistic savagery, but many of them aren’t even Islamists and those that are have not committed the sort of atrocities which Westerners claim come naturally to Islamists. We should at least remember who is and who isn’t killing babies here – that is not too much to ask is it? It is the IDF who are committing atrocities, and those who take up arms against them have the legal right to do so. They also have the right to life. They don’t enjoy dying, as the British used to claim about Arab tribesmen. They don’t eagerly seek martyrdom. Like isn’t “cheap” to them, as Westmoreland said of “Asiatics”. Those tropes are the worst kind of vicious racism. These fighters are human beings, and their deaths are legally and morally acts of murder.

Surely this doesn’t mean that Hamas can just fire thousands of rockets into Israel killing civilians, does it? Well, actually it does. Killing civilians is illegal, but the responsibility and culpability belongs with Israel’s leadership under the current circumstances. At Nuremburg it was adjudicated that Russian partisans could not be criminally responsible for atrocities carried out because they were in turn responding to the war crimes of the aggressor. Some argue that this Nuremburg precedent seems to give carte blanche to members of any attacked group. Perhaps jus in bello law must be equally applied to all parties no matter what, as a principle of equality under the law. But even if you take that position, was Kenneth Roth of HRW right to assiduously condemn Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket fire when he recently discussed war crimes in Gaza? No. Roth is just being a scumbag. He is either acting as a propaganda agent to deliberately build a false equivalence, or he cares more about pandering and sounding “credible” than he cares for truth and justice.

Let me put this into some sort of perspective. It is, quite frankly ridiculous and wildly disproportionate to even suggest that we need to take steps over the supposed illegality of using insufficiently discriminating arms by factions in a besieged population when the harm to civilians is so much less that that caused to the civilians of the besieged population. Gaza’s rockets and mortars have killed 28 civilians in the last 13 years. [And don’t give me any crap about the wondrous “Iron Dome” – it didn’t even exist for most of that time and Theodor Postol has calculated that it does not work. It is a horrendously expensive PR ploy to maintain the deception that there is some sort of parity between Israeli and Palestinian violence.] Not only would it be a de facto abrogation of the Palestinian right to self-defence to restrict the weapons allowed to those that can only reach the enemy when the enemy chooses to come within range. Moreover, it is another point of law that you cannot accuse someone of a crime when you are also guilty of that crime. If Palestinian rockets and mortars are illegal then so are Israeli rockets and mortars – which kill more people. They share exactly the same properties of being inherently indiscriminate, as do air and ground artillery munitions. There is no qualitative difference between these inaccurate primitive rockets and any other explosives used around civilian populations except that they are a lot less deadly than most. This twisted and sick idea shared between Israel an the US that they can effectively exculpate themselves by saying – “yes, we kill more civilians, but we do it more accurately” is appalling.

The point is, though, not to say that Israel can’t accuse militants in Gaza of war crimes, but to say that none of us can. How can we, in countries that have shelled and bombed and killed so many, accuse Palestinian militants of anything? How could anyone from the US claim that Palestinian munitions are insufficiently precise and discriminating when their own government uses depleted uranium, cluster munitions, napalm, fuel-air bombs, white phosphorous, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam. The very idea that any Westerner can level war crimes accusations at an desperately poor and ill-armed besieged people for using the only primitive weapons with which they can reach their attacker is sickening and obscene.

I don’t like the rocket attacks. I don’t think Israeli civilians deserve death. But as Osama Hamdan pointed out, when they stop firing rockets, it doesn’t stop Israel from killing and blockading their people. How long do you sit doing nothing while people are killed and while the land, the little strip of a prison, gets ever closer to becoming irreversibly uninhabitable. (There is the Zionist genocidal intent – a realist’s Eretz Israel with a non-citizen Palestinian helots living in controlled West Bank enclaves, while Gaza is a post-apocalyptic pile of polluted rubble.)

If you have actually read this far, you might be marshalling answers with your little weasel brain. Please don’t bother. To put it politely, this letter is in the spirit of a condemnatory open letter. To put it more honestly, I don’t care what a toxic freak like you has to say in his defence. For forty years the dissident voices of our society have taken on this crippling notion that we should “engage” people in “dialogue”, as if our goal is to show people like you the error of your ways. But even engaging someone like you is to give validity to your insane world-view. What sort of callous freak actually goes out of their way to throw condemnations of IDF actions in Gaza into question? Do you wake up in the morning and think, “I know what the world needs, it needs more geeky smug reasons for not having to feel compassion and the desire to end suffering”?

So, frankly, I don’t care what you have to say for yourself. I just want you to know that you are hated. A person half a world away, who is very well educated about the issues involved, hates you for the simple reason that you are the enemy of humanity and your work promotes the suffering of innocents.

All the best for you and your hack friends in your future self-congratulatory endeavours,

Kieran Kelly


The Obscenities of the Great War




The killing, mutilation and gas poisoning of millions of soldiers on both sides had broken taboos and decisively blunted moral sensitivities. Auschwitz cannot be explained without reference to World War I.” – Yehuda Baueri

World War I brought about great political and strategic changes. We acknowledge the political and strategic links joining World Wars I and II, but we seldom acknowledge the link of trauma that ties the brutalities visited on the combatants of the first war to the systematic mass killings of civilians in the second. The impact of the Great War echoes strongly through the generations, but to understand its impact we need to remind ourselves of the conditions endured by combatants. This was like a holocaust of young men, a multinational holocaust which even enemy states shared in common. It was one of histories great obscenities akin to a genocide or the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, and it sowed the seeds of even greater future suffering.

The factors acting to derange the senses of the front line troops began even before enlistment with unrealistic, romantic and chauvinistic expectations of violence, combat and war;ii masculinity;iii and the martial prowess of their nation.iv As to the Great War itself, they genuinely expected it to be “over by Christmas”.v They, and those who were to remain home, felt that war would cleansevi and unite societyvii – renewing lost values and providing an “escape from modernity”.viii

In training troops were intentionally degraded, brutalised and stripped of individuality.ix Perhaps more importantly their training did next to nothing to prepare them for the realities of the front line, and very little to help them fight or survive.x

On arrival at the front they were confronted with overwhelming noisexi and disorientation in time and space,xii producing an immediate and lasting sense of befuddlement.xiii They had to contend with stench, filth, mud, vermin and, above all, cold.xiv They were constantly fatigued from hard labour at or behind the front line,xv they suffered chronic sleep deprivation exacerbated by the reversal of day/night patterns of activity in the front trenches.xvi They were malnourished in the field, and many had been malnourished in earlier life.xvii They were extremely prone to physical disease and were often treated punitively, cruelly or callously on falling ill.xviii They were starved of any, even basic, strategic informationxix and deprived, by physical realities, of a visual or tactical understanding of their situation – living in what Leed refers to as the “labyrinth”.xx Winter suggests that these factors caused “mental depression and physical sluggishness… from… lack of sleep combined with a total lack of information, which added to the lack of a sense of purpose.”xxi Their lives were expended with what can only be described as great profligacy. In these circumstances the front line soldier inevitably came to see some actions of military superiors and politicians (and by association the “home”) as either gratuitously idiotic or insane,xxii or as intentionally murderous.xxiii

The three greatest factors impacting the combatants’ psyches were the prevalences of fear, immobility and death. Leed emphasises the impact of immobility, contending that it destroyed any sense of identity as an “offensive” soldier.xxiv Psychiatric casualty rates certainly reflect the impact of static warfare.xxv This is most clearly illustrated by the fact that rates were lower during mobile war phases despite higher death and injury rates.xxvi On a more basic level than that of identity, however, soldiers were exposed to danger, provoking fear and adrenal response, and prevented from the active defence that both self-preservative cognition and biochemistry demanded. It is only too reasonable to expect that in these circumstances they would become neurasthenic and, as Aldington hinted, begin to morbidly fear fear itself.xxvii They were also constantly confronted with manifest death, the importance of which is shown by the centrality of encounters with corpses in both memoryxxviii and in the way combatants framed and interpreted the meaning of the war.xxix Killing could prompt guilt (although it should be remembered that only a small minority of infantry soldiers would have killed anyone). The loss of comrades could be a source of grief which, because of the necessarily close bonding of military units, caused “a large vertiginous emotional drain, and… a seemingly endless process of mourning.”xxx Combatants were radically desensitised, losing their normal reactions to both death and decay.xxxi Leed describes an instance where a soldier is blown by a shell onto the rotten stomach of an enemy, causing the excreta and rotten entrails of the corpse to enter his mouth – a single incident that illustrates the violation of profound values which confronted soldiers.xxxii The most damaging aspect of the confrontation with death was the reminder of one’s own mortality. In a war where front line soldiers were only too aware that they had little or no agency in their own self-preservation, each corpse represented the viewer’s own death save for a small sliver of fate or fortune. All agency and the disbursement of death was relegated to technology, the war-machine,xxxiii the soldiers were “unprotected by anything but cloth”.xxxiv They could not physically defend themselves and took refuge in superstitions talismans ritual and spells,xxxv largely abandoning established religion which offered only post-mortem salvation.xxxvi

The above is but a short list of some of the more prominent aspects of the front line that served to alienate and to enact profound psychic changes. These are two faces of the same coin – the war altered combatants but it was a “silent teacher” imparting a “secret which can never be communicated”.xxxvii Walter Benjamin noted that returning soldiers had “grown silent – not richer but poorer in communicable experience.”xxxviii The incommunicability of experience could make home leave unbearable because by itself it could be so intensely alienating.xxxix

The “silence” of the front line soldier was exacerbated by their lack of a military “offensive” identity.xl Soldiers are meant to be killers, shooters, attackers – they are trained as such and people, even today, believe it is their role. This derangement is not merely one affecting the popular imagination and popular culture, but is entrenched even in the scholarship of the subject. Joanna Bourke opens An Intimate History of Killing with the sentence, “The characteristic act of men at war is not dying, it is killing.” However, although she seeks to include the imaginary in constructing the meaning of war to participants, the point is not sustained even by her own selected evidence and although she deals with the fear of death she does not draw a link between it and the interpretation of the act of killing.xli Denis Winter makes the point that “danger was the most crucial trigger of aggression and sustainer of it….” Thus death precedes and shapes the act of killing.xlii Also in his reconstruction of the experience of battle it is fear of death that preconditions the soldier so intensely that its release leads to an immediate sense of euphoria, but also of detachment and unreality, which could change into positive enjoyment.xliii As discussed below this can have seldom been linked to killing in reality, and the sequence would suggest that the killing imaginary, and the narrative conventions of killing, are the product of the fear of death and a way of reclaiming agency after profound feelings of helplessness. Bourke herself cites an example of euphoric sensations and coital associations, identical to those that she suggests are associated with killing, deriving from a situation of danger where there was no remote possibility of the subject killing anyone, nor did he envisage or imagine doing so.xliv Similarly David Grossman is utterly insistent on seeing an erotic aspect to the act of killing when, if the only evidence by which to judge this is that offered by Grossman, there is more to be gleaned about the predispositions of Grossman and Bourke than any true erotic element to killing.xlv

Whether eroticised or not, the fascination with the ground soldier’s lethal agency, their acts of killing, seriously interfere with our ability to understand the soldier’s situation and the long-term effects of immersion in this situation. In fiction it is hard to find an infantry protagonist who does not kill an enemy soldier at some stage. However in reality, most front line soldiers were not killed, and 58 per cent of deaths that did occur were caused by shellfire.xlvi Of the remainder snipers, machine-guns, accident, disease, gas, aircraft and other causes would have accounted for so many that, given the relatively even matching of forces, only a tiny percentage of infantry could have actually killed someone with rifle, bayonet or grenade. The role of the infantry was not to kill but to occupy space. This is a source of cognitive dissonance to the soldier who has been instilled with an “offensive” identity, but also a source of cognitive estrangement from civilians and the values of a “society at war”.xlvii

The front and the home were also polarised in their attitudes towards the enemy. Civilian hatred towards the enemy was frequently a source of bitter anger for those serving at the front.xlviii The front line soldiers tended to lack hatred towards the enemy and often felt identification or even empathy.xlix To Stevenson this arose from the fact that they were all “trapped in a killing machine by pressure from above”.l The hatred of the enemy, and the pro-war patriotism of the home front was a source of bitter alienation in itself,li greatly aggravated by a blithe ignorance of the horrors facing combatants and a frequent expectation that the soldier should conform to preconceptions and be actively desirous of combat.lii The home front’s enthusiasm for slaughter was not simply a matter of estrangement of perceptions and beliefs, it made them part of the “killing machine”, as much a part of the apparatus as the staff officers in the rear lines. Some soldiers felt that civilians were responsible for maliciously and knowingly sending young men to die for their own profit or enjoyment, deceiving them as to the nature of military life and the reality of war.liii To Sassoon war was a “dirty trick” on his generationliv perpetuated by the “callous complacence” of There was not only bitterness but immense disdain directed at the older generation.lvi Remarque writes of their “moral bankruptcy”, his protagonist is “forced to conclude that our generation is more honourable than theirs.”lvii It was strongly felt that those staying behind were profiting from suffering and death of the front line troops, be they “profiteers” or armaments workers.lviii

Even more acute than the anger felt towards elders was that felt towards women.lix Some held that they derived positive enjoyment from young men’s sufferings. Aldington went so far as to write that the news of a son’s death was “almost wholly erotic” to a mother and that “all the dying and wounds… [from] a safe distance… gave [women] a great kick….lx More commonly women were blamed as active recruiters, although not entirely without reason.lxi

Psychologically the world was primed for an unprecedented turn towards genocide. We cannot forget that the experiences of Great War combatants were diverse, but at the same time we would be extremely foolish not to acknowledge the singular historical significance of the unprecedented sharing of such extreme conditions among tens of millions of young men. Never before have so many from so many nations shared so much with each other that they did not share with the rest of humanity. The reactions were also diverse among returned servicemen. An societal embrace of pacifism was a natural reaction, often shared by veterans, but other brutalised men were all too ready to don the uniforms of paramilitary police or fascist militias. The resentment of civilian impunity worked its way into military doctrine. Three early advocates of mass aerial bombardment were Giulio Douhet (Italy), Hugh Trenchard (Britain), and Billy Mitchell (US). Douhet and Trenchard argued against the distinction between civilian and combatant, Mitchell was an advocate of incendiary bombing, and all three argued that mass bombing of urban areas would shorten wars, preventing the horrors of drawn out trench warfare.lxii Thus, even without recourse to Nazi racial theories, it became quite normal in some circles to think that the mass-murder of civilians was a normal and desirable part of warfare. The callousness with which war leaders had used young men in the Great War sowed the seeds of genocidal brutality for the next generation of war leaders. These leaders would lay waste to entire countries and collectively slaughter tens of millions of civilians.

iYehuda Bauer, A History of the Holocaust. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982, pp 58-9, quoted in Eric Markusen and David Kopf, The Holocaust and Strategic Bombing: Genocide and Total War in the Twentieth Century. Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: 1995, p 30.

iiMichael C.C. Adams, The Great Adventure: Male Desire and the Coming of World War I, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, pp 71-2.

iiiIbid p 30.

ivEric J. Leed, No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, p 40; J.G. Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies 1914-1918, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, p 37.

vDenis Winter, Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War, London: Penguin, 1979, p 32.

viMichael C.C. Adams, The Great Adventure: Male Desire and the Coming of World War I, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1990, p 61.

viiLeed, No Man’s Land, pp 44-5.

viiiIbid pp 58-72.

ixWinter, Death’s Men, pp 41-3. The destruction of individuality was also ipso facto the destruction of identity, or more specifically civilian identity, which was, in theory replaced with a less individual identity as a soldier. The problem, as we shall see, is that a soldier identity, as everyone understood it and as the military attempted to instil it, was totally untenable in the conditions of trench warfare (see below).

xIbid pp 36, 39-40.

xiLeed, No Man’s Land, pp 126, 131.

xiiIbid pp 124-5; Winter, Death’s Men, p 101.

xiiiWinter, Death’s Men:, pp 82, 226; Leed, No Man’s Land, p 21.

xivWinter, Death’s Men, pp 95-8.

xvIbid p 86, David Stevenson, 1914-1918:The History of the First World War, London: Penguin 2004, p 185; Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture, pp 76-8.

xviDenis Winter, Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War, London: Penguin, 1979, p 100.

xviiIbid pp 30, 102; Jock Phillips, Nicholas Boyack, and E.P. Malone (eds), The Great Adventure: New Zealand Soldiers Describe the First World War, Wellington: Allen and Unwin, 1988, p 9; Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture…, p 60.

xviiiWinter, Death’s Men, pp 99, 201-2.

xixFuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture…, pp 62-4.

xxLeed, No Man’s Land , pp 77-80.

xxiWinter, Death’s Men, p 100.

xxiiIbid, pp 213; Leed, No Man’s Land, p 99.

xxiiiLeed, No Man’s Land, pp 106-7.

xxivIbid 180-6.

xxvJoanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare, London: Granta, 1999, p 249. See also note 8 above.

xxviStevenson, 1914-1918, p 215.

xxviiWinter, Death’s Men, p 133. Winter paraphrases Aldington as suggesting that men were ‘horribly afraid of seeming afraid’, however it is a reasonable inference to suggest that, given the risk of death or insanity that uncontrolled fear brought, they truly did fear fear. Such safety as there was against shelling required immobility, which required the control of fear. Again there are resonances with Catch-22.

xxviiiIbid p 181.

xxixIbid p 206-8. There is also the strong, if not cliché, narrative convention of the encounter with an enemy corpse prompting a realisation of the humanity of the enemy. For example, Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, London: Vintage, 2005, pp 153-9, wherein the protagonist is also confronted by a protracted death at his own hands.

xxxLeed, No Man’s Land, p 210.

xxxiJoanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, p 77.

xxxiiLeed, No Man’s Land, p 19.

xxxiiiIbid pp 29-33.

xxxivJohn Keegan, The First World War, New York: Vintage, 2000, p 273.

xxxvLeed, No Man’s Land, pp 127-8; Winter, Death’s Men, p 118.

xxxviStevenson, 1914-1918, p 215.

xxxviiCharles Carrington quoted in Leed, No Man’s Land, p 12.

xxxviiiIbid p 209.

xxxixStevenson, 1914-1918, p 212.

xlLeed, No Man’s Land, p 113.

xliBourke, An Intimate History of Killing, pp 1-3.

xliiWinter, Death’s Men, p 216.

xliiiIbid, pp 179-81.

xlivBourke, An Intimate History of Killing, pp 150-1.

xlvDavid Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, New York: Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 1995.

xlviStevenson, 1914-1918, p 184.

xlviiLeed, No Man’s Land, p 110.

xlviiiIbid 106

xlixIbid p 107; in contrast Winter perceives more hatred, or rather ‘dislike’, but suggests that it seems to have been linked to the degree of danger and to have rapidly disappeared in time of truce, (Death’s Men, pp 209-13).

lStevenson, 1914-1918, p 92.

liWinter, Death’s Men, p 167.

liiFuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture…, p 17.

liiiAdams, The Great Adventure, pp 125-133; Leed, No Man’s Land, pp 206-7

livAdams, The Great Adventure, p 133.

lvLeed, No Man’s Land, p 207.

lviIbid p 74.

lviiRemarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, p 9.

lviiiLeed, No Man’s Land, p 206; Adams, The Great Adventure, p 116; Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture…, p 60; Winter, Death’s Men, pp 167-8.

lixAdams, The Great Adventure, p 108.

lxIbid p 128. Women were psychologically mobilised for the war effort and part of this was an effort to consciously indoctrinate them into viewing the death of their loved one’s as a positive sacrifice and a source of satisfaction. It seems unlikely that women were quite so thrilled at losing their sons as Aldington suggests, but the very existence of widespread propaganda to that effect makes Aldington’s viewpoint seem less extreme. See Nicoletta F. Gullace, The Blood of our Sons: Men Women and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002, p 63.

lxiDavid Stevenson, 1914-1918:The History of the First World War, London: Penguin 2004, p 292; Nicoletta F. Gullace, The Blood of our Sons: Men Women and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002, pp 3-4, 53-60, 81-3.

lxiiEric Markusen and David Kopf, TheHolocaustandStrategicBombing:GenocideandTotalWarintheTwentiethCentury, Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: Westview Press, 1995, pp 201-2