Judging the war

As a jury member on Channel 4's 'War on Trial', I was hoping to hear clear arguments for and against the West's war on terrorism. No such luck.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

When Channel 4 decided to broadcast War on Trial, a televised ‘trial’ of the West’s war on terrorism, and I was invited to be a member of the studio jury, I was hoping to hear clear arguments for and against attacking Afghanistan.

No such luck. The programme did little more than highlight the confusion surrounding the debate.

If any confirmation were needed that the old political labels of left and right no longer apply, it was provided by the programme’s panellists. The prosecution, criticising the war on terrorism, paired off Peter Oborne, political editor of the right-wing Spectator magazine, with feminist Germaine Greer. The defence, defending the war on terrorism, consisted of left-leaning UK Independent columnist David Aaronovitch and assistant editor of The Times Rosemary Righter.

Greer kicked off by telling us that ‘terrorism exists to induce terror’, before claiming that ‘America is like a man smashed in a face with a glass, who instead of seeking medical attention is trying to blow up the pub. We have been locked into a cycle of atrocity’. Such arguments, which seem to apply ideas of child abuse theory to international politics, are a cornerstone of today’s anti-war rhetoric.

Meanwhile, Aaronovitch’s response to Greer summed up how tentative the pro-war argument is. ‘I’m not certain’, he confessed, ‘and I’m not going to pretend that I am. I simply think that Germaine doesn’t get it, and I sometimes wonder if I do.’ Hardly a confident moral justification of war.

Members of the 250-strong jury whooped and clapped whenever anything was said that had an air of moral fortitude – usually a variation on either ‘Bombing civilians is wrong’ or ‘Terrorists are wrong and terrorism needs to be stopped’. Anything more ambiguous than that was met with awkward claps and muttering.

In the absence of coherent arguments, the discussion quickly descended into backbiting and spats. The first witness called, anti-war Labour MP George Galloway, wasted no time in telling Aaronovitch, ‘You were a hardline communist before you shaved your beard off because it was tickling Tony’s backside’.

‘Well, let’s talk about what you are George Galloway’, responded Aaronovitch – before describing how Galloway spent Christmas 1999 with Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz. ‘I have never spent Christmas with a mass murderer!’ spat Aaronovitch. ‘But you’re in bed with George W Bush!’ retorted Galloway.

The catty tone continued when foreign office minister Ben Bradshaw was called as a witness. Instead of discussing Afghanistan, Aaronovitch and Bradshaw reminisced about what a fool Germaine Greer had made of herself on a programme about the bombing of Yugoslavia a few years ago. It might have been entertaining – but it shed little light on the current war.

Things became a bit clearer when Air Marshal Sir Tim Garden, a former UK assistant chief of defence staff, was questioned by Peter Oborne. Citing the recent comment by current chief of defence staff Admiral Sir Michael Boyce that the war on terrorism is a war of ideas analogous to the Cold War (1), Oborne asked Garden a few basic questions. ‘Why are we bombing? What are we bombing? You can’t bomb an idea, can you? Do we know where bin Laden is? Do we even know that he’s in Afghanistan?’

‘We’re fairly sure’, replied Garden sheepishly, his rectitude seeming to suggest that the war is motivated more by domestic concerns in the West than by practical objectives in the East.

Roger Riddell, international director of Christian Aid, spoke about the appalling conditions in Afghanistan – explaining that Afghan people are now eating grass and cattle fodder, which means that Afghan cattle are eating nothing at all. Aaronovitch prodded Riddell this way and that to try to pin the blame for such conditions on the Taliban, but Riddell protested that his was an independent charity.

James Rubin, former US assistant secretary of state, was brought on to praise the Bush administration for its handling of the war so far. Pressed by the prosecution about the fairness of bombing such a ravaged country, Rubin explained unashamedly that ‘one of the issues the allies are having trouble with is trying to identify locations that aren’t already destroyed’. He clearly saw this as an interesting practical problem rather than a reason not to bomb.

The prosecution and the defence were given the chance to sum up before the jury voted. Summing up for the prosecution, Oborne spluttered apoplectically, shook his fists, and looked as though he was on the verge of a heart attack. ‘This war is between the Old and New Testament!’ he bellowed. ‘Mr Blair and Mr Bush are Christians. They might ask how Christ would have acted!’

Rosemary Righter, summing up for the defence, was calmer but no less sensational. ‘If you vote against using force, you should hope for all our sakes that nobody listens to you, because if they did and bin Laden struck again, we in this room would have blood on our hands. It could be the blood of somebody you know. It could be yours.’

The vote itself was no less confusing than some of the debate. The televised version of the programme that went out later made it all look crystal clear, with a screen caption explaining the prosecution’s lengthy charge: ‘The war is misguided with no clear strategy or end. It exacerbates tensions between the West and the Muslim world, compounds the humanitarian crisis and plays into the hands of the terrorist.’

But in practical terms, and without the benefit of screen captions, the jury was basically being asked to press a ‘Yes’ button if it was against the war and a ‘No’ button if it was for the war. I heard more than one fellow jury member mumble, ‘I think I pressed the wrong one’.

The final result was that 49 percent of the jury thought the war ‘guilty’ and 51 percent thought the war ‘not guilty’. Presenter Jon Snow concluded level-headedly that ‘our audience are clearly deeply divided on this most complex of conflicts. Clear, then, that if the government is to sustain support for military action, the public will want to see early results coming through.’

But an atmosphere of confusion continued to hang over the jury after filming was over. ‘Did any of you change your mind during the programme?’ inquired Snow jovially. Somebody asked Peter Oborne what he had meant by a ‘war between Old and New Testament’. Oborne explained that he was comparing the Old Testament dictum of ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ with the New Testament values of forgiveness. ‘Ahhh’, hummed 250 people, none the wiser.

The fact that War on Trial marked the launch of a Channel 4 ‘War Without End?’ season suggests that programmers will use the present situation to generate broadcast material for a long time to come. But if War on Trial is anything to go by, we are unlikely to gain many insights into the political situation from our screens.

War on trial was broadcast on Channel 4 on Saturday 27 October 2001.

Read on:

More to it than anti-war, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issues: After 11 September

(1) See Military ready for four-year war, Guardian, 27 October 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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