Good v Evil need not apply

Why is it so hard to cast the war on Afghanistan as a moral tale?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

For the second week running, I found myself watching BBC1’s Sunday War Report. Chaired by John Humphrys, veteran of Radio 4’s Today programme, this seems like the BBC’s latest attempt at information-populism, combining breaking news with interviews with feature reports with Peter Snow (famous for his election-time swingometers) gabbling breathlessly through an electronic presentation of what troops/planes/bombs are where in Afghanistan.

It’s all good fun. And every now and then, you learn something. On 21 October, a discussion about the possibility of chemical warfare yielded up this insight into the current crisis: that, while the West has for some time been prepared for large-scale terrorist attacks – including those of a biological variety – they never believed that, morally, somebody would do anything like this. 11 September revealed that morally, people were capable of this kind of murder – and that apparently changes everything about what we expect from the future.

Like many others, I am against this war. While I understand that many Americans feel the need to retaliate for 11 September, our governments have their own agenda. Bombing Afghanistan will solve nothing – and it will have destructive consequences that will reverberate more widely. I also believe that wars are about politics: that they never fall into the black-and-white categories of Good and Bad into which they have often been placed. But the fact that, this time round, everybody – from the top downwards – is finding it so hard to lay down the moral line raises some interesting questions.

Since President George W Bush and UK prime minister Tony Blair first mentioned the word ‘evil’ in relation to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, there has been a strong moral dimension to the debate about What We Do Next. At first, it seemed more clear-cut than ever. Of all the people, regimes and organisations that Western leaders have historically described as ‘evil’, the hijackers who flew their planes into the World Trade Centre and Pentagon seem most likely to fit the bill. From what we have seen of him, Osama bin Laden seems an ideal candidate for Satanisation.

Yet what this conflict has exposed is the extent to which moral judgements – of anybody, of anything – no longer seem to make sense.

We know that the murder of nearly 6000 people on 11 September was Bad. But by the same token, there is an increasingly vocal group arguing that the allied action in Afghanistan is Just As Bad – involving the killing of Afghan civilians. The action has been described as ‘another terrorist attack’, as though there is no difference between the nihilistic actions of a small group of crazed terrorists, and the planned response of the most powerful nation states in the world.

And even among those who support the allied response, there is little sense that it is Good. In this whole post-11 September mess, the only people we can view, wholeheartedly, as Good are the rescue services who put their lives on the line to save the victims of the World Trade Centre attack, and the passengers aboard the Pittsburgh jet, who brought the plane down to save others from dying.

People in the West do not view the Taliban, or bin Laden, or his al-Qaeda organisation, as Good. But we view our own political elites, fighting against them, with more than a hint of suspicion. What’s in it for them, we want to know, as they make deals with regimes like Pakistan and Iran? If they have no quarrel with the Afghan people, why are they bombing them? If they believe in their war, why are they dropping food; and if they believe in the need to give food, why won’t they let up the air campaign and allow the food convoys in?

Yet at the same time, you might think that the nature of the attack that prompted this war should make it easy to sell as a battle of Good v Evil. If we believe that these attacks are linked to bin Laden, and that the Taliban is sheltering him – thus implicating its nation state in the whole business – what’s wrong with going for it? At least, isn’t this war more defensible than those self-interested conflicts of the past – the Gulf, the Falklands, Vietnam, even the First and Second World Wars – all of which began with much more enthusiastic support?

Ah – but there’s the rub. Whatever people thought at the time of these previous wars, the modern mind – or at least my generation, people born around the mid-1970s – find these conflicts pretty indefensible, too. These past wars are all viewed differently to each other – but all are viewed with some misgivings. Put them all together and it seems that, when it comes to the war on Afghanistan, the only comparison we have is a generally negative one. We can only see it cynically, as one more shitty military adventure in a century of shitty war games.

Take the Gulf War of 1991. At the time, hardly anybody objected to the West intervening in Iraq. What criticisms there were tended to be of conduct of the war – the use of bombs not sanctions, the use of inaccurate bombs that killed civilians, rather than smart bombs that hit only their targets. But now, most discussions about the Gulf Warfocus on its negative consequences: the deaths and immiseration of the Iraqi people. We do not look back to a glorious war so much as to a pretty nasty mess, in which the West does not come out shining.

Or look at the Falklands War, former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s self-interested military adventure in 1982. At the time, this was a moment of great tub-thumping jingoism, national pride, patriotism – and it did wonders for Thatcher. Now, on the rare occasions when the Falklands War is mentioned, it is so linked with its discredited author that Thatcher’s Good War is seen as another cynical example of How the West Was Bad.

Vietnam. What we know about that, today, is the line laid down by those who protested against it. We see it as a brutal, bloody, meaningless conflict, with a massive death toll on both sides, and long-term damaging implications both for the Vietnamese and for the American veterans, many of whom apparently remain deeply traumatised by the experience. Hard to believe, now, that those who dodged the draft were reviled, and that those who fought were revered – conscientious objectors, after all, is the stuff a US president has been made of. Okay, so the opposition was motivated less by feelings for the slaughtered Vietnamese people than by the body-bags containing America’s youth – but whatever this conflict was, it certainly wasn’t Good.

We understand the First World War through the heart-rending verse of poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon – a pointless, bloody carnage that went on and on and on, sacrificing people’s fathers, brothers and sons with impunity. At the time, young men were signing up in their droves to fight for their country. From what we know now, we cannot imagine why they ever did such a thing.

Amid all this historical moral gore, just about the only conflict we can still view with some sense of certainty, as a Good War, is the Second World War. The extermination of millions of Jews, and the indisputable dangers posed by fascism, means that this conflict still looms large in our sense of moral right. So much, in fact, that whenever today’s political elites want to justify their grubby contemporary wars, they routinely compare their enemies with the leaders of the Third Reich, and their battle as the moral equivalent of the fight against fascism.

But our attitude to the Second World War is not the unquestioned support and pride held during the war, and immediately after. We know about Britain’s appeasement of Germany, we know that it kept the plight of the Jews under wraps. We have many qualms about dropping the atom bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima; we even worry about taking over 100,000 lives in flattening Dresden, not to mention what the allies did to the rest of Germany.

And every time today’s politicians do draw their tawdry comparisons with the wars of today, it weakens the Second World War as an example. To take a recent, grotesque example – when government chief whip hauled Labour MP Paul Marsden over the coals for his anti-war stance, and likened his action to those who appeased Hitler, this caused widespread outrage. Most people know that the current messy conflict bears hardly any comparison to the Second World War. But such illegitimate comparisons not only add uncertainty to the West’s war on Afghanistan – they fog what was once a clear-cut image of the Second World War.

It should be no surprise that the war on terrorism carries no sense of moral certainty – because even the moral certainties of the past have been relativised. We can no more see Good and Bad in the conflicts of the past than we can see it in the war we are waging today. If this was just a consequence of a more enlightened historical understanding – if we had finally realised that past wars were not Good, or Bad, but fought for often questionable political purposes – that might represent a step forward.

But our moral relativism today is based on something altogether more depressing. It is based on a sense, not that previous conflicts involved bad decisions and wrong motivations, but that there is no right thing to do. And if we have no sense of moral right – only a sense that everything anybody does is equally morally suspect – where does that leave us?

To go back to the BBC War Report, it cannot be the case that the main barrier to acts of vicious terrorism in the past, whether using aeroplanes or anthrax, was the morality of individuals. We know that the world contains destructive people, mad people, vicious people to whom human life is worthless. We know that from the massacre of schoolchildren by a madman in Dunblane in 1996, from the Oklahoma bombing of 1995, from the man who, just a few weeks ago, was responsible for the deaths of six people on a Greyhound bus. We know that some individuals have no sense of the most basic distinction between good and bad and right and wrong, and we know that society has to deal with these people.

But to do that, we have to trust to the reality – that most people are not like that. That most people, at home or abroad, whatever their religion, race or income, do not commit acts of mindless destruction. And we used to know that the only way of keeping the Bad people at bay was to organise a society around the sense of its own moral Good, which had enough faith in the actions and motivations of its leaders and its majority to be able to isolate and punish those who crossed the line.

Now, however, much of that faith is gone. So unsure is today’s society about the moral goodness of its leaders that a military retaliation by the USA for the worst terrorist attacks it has ever seen can be called ‘another act of terrorism’, that every action the US military takes has to be accompanied with a defensive propaganda trick, from dropping food parcels to allegations that the Taliban is inventing the number of Afghan casualties.

Worse, so unsure are people about their fellow men that increasingly, things are being organised on the basis that everybody should be treated as a potential terrorist, or other exception to the norm. From clampdowns on security to restrictions on liberty, from the widespread paranoia generated by the anthrax scare to the twitching of airline staff whenever they see a passenger in a dodgy t-shirt, there is a growing sense that everybody is suspect, everybody is a potential danger.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, if we see potential Bad everywhere, how will we know what to do about Bad when it really happens? And how easily can we live with ourselves, if we lose our sense of what is Good?

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Topics Politics


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