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Serbo Journal

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Humanitarian wars

Q: What do you call a platoon of heavily armed US marines in armoured personnel carriers on the Kosovo-Macedonian border?

A: Anything you want - until they get air support. As jokes go, it had a limited shelf life. The era of "humanitarian interventions" started just after the first Gulf war in 1991, when allied forces created the "safe haven" to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq, and seemed to end after the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. Certainly the chaos into which Iraq has now descended has lessened the enthusiasm for interventions in places such as Darfur.

It was not a particularly glorious story, anyway, given the failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina and the mess that was made of the interventions in Somalia and Kosovo. One clear lesson is that such interventions cannot be conducted on a zero-casualties basis.

As Max Hastings has argued, armies are killing machines. To send them into conflict zones and expect them not to react to the situation in which they find themselves is to misunderstand their nature and purpose. When well-meaning liberals use phrases like "effective intervention" or "the responsibility to protect", what they are actually talking about is the deployment of forces of potentially overwhelming physical violence.

A regular criticism of the "humanitarian interventions" that took place during the 1990s was that western powers were unwilling to commit sufficient numbers of troops or to give them a sufficiently robust mandate to do their jobs. Kofi Annan's comment that the Dutch soldiers in Srebrenicia were mandated only to "deter attacks" on the enclave rather than to actually defend it was more than a point of legal semantics. UN troops proved utterly incapable of protecting Muslims from "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia. Nato was equally useless in stopping 250,000 Serbs and Roma from being driven from their homes in Kosovo. This was not because of personal cowardice by individual soldiers but because of the context in which they were forced to operate, for which the ultimate responsibility lay with politicians.

Although humanitarian aid workers have a rather fluffy image, a surprising number actually have military backgrounds. We also share the same experiences: of being lonely and scared in a foreign country, hearing and seeing gun and bomb attacks and their bloody, immediate aftermath, and dealing with the grief of losing colleagues and friends. I remain haunted by the television image of familiar faces staggering from the rubble of the UN headquarters in Baghdad where five of my former colleagues from Kosovo were killed.

I kept a diary when I lived in Afghanistan, and an entry from two years ago recalls a drinking session with a group of "security consultants" from a company called Global Risk, two of whom were murdered a couple of weeks later. I remember shaking with rage when I read a comment by Michael Moore about a similar killing. "Those are not 'contractors' in Iraq," he wrote. "They are not there to fix a roof or to pour concrete in a driveway. They are MERCENARIES and SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE. They are there for the money, and the money is very good if you live long enough to spend it."

But I still find myself agreeing more with George Monbiot than either Ruth Dudley Edwards or Niall Stanage when he, Monbiot, points to the fairly obvious parallels between the British occupation of Ireland and the US invasion of Iraq. We at least have some choice about the situation that we have placed ourselves in; the local civilian population never has any.

I remember once, in Strabane, seeing British soldiers taunt a man whose son had been killed in an explosion a few hours earlier that "one of your own cunts got it today". The fact that so few soldiers were ever prosecuted for killing civilians in Northern Ireland massively alienated large sections of the Catholic population, who had initially welcomed the army as "protectors", and was one of the biggest single factors that caused people to join the IRA. Impunity turns "international peacekeepers" into "occupying armies" and sows dragon's teeth of resistance, from Derry to Croke Park and from Haditha to Basra canal.

The last 150 years have seen attempts to codify the "rules of war" into international treaties such as the Geneva convention. These are also reflected in the disciplinary codes of most modern armies. Where these provisions are violated, offenders must be held to account. Where their superior officers create a culture in which such violations are tolerated, this should be treated even more seriously. Where politicians give the impression that some of the rules do not really apply any more they should also be put in the dock.

  1. Blogger Neil Craig | 8:35 AM |  

    Having said on oath at Milosevic's "trial" that there was no link between NATO & the KLA & elsewhere that there was & that the war was "technically" illegal Wesley Clark would, in any decent society, be on trial for war crimes & perjury, among other things.

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