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Reap the whirlwind

September 16, 2001
By Raffique Shah

“My own feeling was that, in being the first to use it (the atomic bomb), we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Age. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

— US Fleet Admiral WD Leahy, on America’s decision
to use the atomic bomb against Japan in 1945.

“Two motives lead men to war: instinctive hostility and hostile intentions...war is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds; as one side dictates the law to the other, there arises a sort of reciprocal action, which logically, must lead to an extreme.”

— Carl Von Clausewitz (1780-1831),
in his famous book, On War.

THE two quotes I chose to open this week’s column with may appear to be contradictory, and, at first glance, bear little or no relevance to the carnage that was unleashed on America last week. But between them they reflect the opposing sentiments exhibited by different people across the world since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The most poignant characterisation of this conflict of perceptions could be seen in the jubilation in Palestine that was in stark contrast to the tears that flowed outside Buckingham Palace, and elsewhere in the world, as Queen Elizabeth broke tradition to pay respect to victims of the unprecedented attacks.

And yet, in the very contradictions lies America’s dilemma. Before I delve into that, I need add that Leahy was a senior naval officer who had fought from the early days of World War II through its end in the Pacific. He was a trained officer, hence his remark, “I was not taught to make war in that fashion.” As a Sandhurst trained officer, I can identify with that tenet of conducting war. By the time President Truman and his Army Chief of Staff, General Marshall, had decided to go ahead with the nuclear strikes, Japan had already sued for peace.

The Americans had taken Okinawa on April 1, which precipitated the fall of the Koiso Cabinet and the coming to power of the anti-war Admiral Suzuki. Emperor Hirohito had already “begged” Stalin to intercede on its behalf at the Postdam conference in late July, following the “carpet bombing” of Tokyo and many other cities by the Allies. More than eight million Japanese had fled the main cities in anticipation of an invasion. But with Russia eyeing a military thrust to gain ground in the East, the American “hawks”, backed by Churchill, pre-empted such a move by dropping the first bomb on Hiroshima on August 6. Some 80,000 people were killed. Nagasaki followed three days later, with similar human carnage. President Truman, on hearing news of Hiroshima, exultantly exclaimed: “This is the greatest thing in history.”

Captain Basil Liddel Hart, in his authoritative work, History of the Second World War, wrote of the bombings: “But even that frightful stroke, wiping out the city of Hiroshima to demonstrate the overwhelming power of the new weapon, had done no more to hasten the surrender. The surrender was already sure, and there was no need to use such a weapon—under whose shadow the world has lived ever since.”

Liddel Hart, Leahy, and thousands like them, all trained military officers and men, were guided by the general principles of war as taught in military academies around the world. But what they all learnt, and, in the current scenario, the military continues to learn, is that unspeakable acts of violence that accompany war are conceived in the main by politicians—and religious fanatics—who have no compunction about the wanton use of violence. While war is always ugly, politicians make it uglier.

Clausewitz, considered by many as the father of modern warfare, had no such qualms. For him, the end justified the means. Factor in, now, a people who have suffered untold numbers of deaths and destruction of entire cities, even countries, in years of struggle for their sovereignty, against an Israel that, from its inception, was always fully backed by the USA. These people feel justified in using the Clausewitz formula, not the conventions taught to military personnel. Note, too, that they were influenced by the architects of guerrilla warfare—Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Nguyen Giap, Che Guevara. These latter taught how the seemingly powerless people could successfully engage the powerful in irregular warfare.

What happened in America last Tuesday was the unexpected climax of an orgy of violence that Americans have unleashed on hapless, often defenceless, people across the world. In the main, their victims have been poor Third World countries, and more specifically, Arab countries that refused to bow to their will. So that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and Egypt are “friendly” nations, only because they back America, and by extension, Israel. Syria, Libya, Iraq and Iran are “enemies”, not because they spawn “terrorists”, but because they dare to oppose America’s designs in the Middle East.

The main suspect in the recent carnage, Osama bin Laden, is a member of the Saudi elite. He and his Taliban hosts were funded, armed and trained by the Americans during the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Once the Soviets were driven beyond the border in 1988, and the internecine warfare that followed saw the Talibans emerge as the winners. Then it was time for them to train all guns on the Israelis and Americans. And so it came to pass that the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse rode into New York and Washington in its enemies’ own chariots, to wreak terror and carnage against the mightiest nation in the world.

This random destruction of the World Trade Center cannot be condoned by any right-thinking person, and most definitely not by any military person trained in the proper conduct of war. The sight of those magnificent towers being hit by hijacked commercial aircraft, of people jumping to their deaths, of the structures collapsing, will forever remain etched in the memories of the millions who viewed the carnage live on television. And one cannot consider oneself human if one does not weep for those who died, and the many more who suffered the trauma of that apocalyptic attack.

Still, tears for innocent people who suffer as politicians and armies go to war cannot be selective. America, and much of the western world, applauded when we saw television images of “smart bombs” unleashed on Iraq in 1991. That thousands of innocent women and children were killed did not matter. Just as the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were felt for decades after the bombings. America does not have to reap the whirlwind. But it will, unless it changes its might-is-right foreign policy.

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Copyright © Raffique Shah