• Thursday, September 18, 2014

Shifting Images

The myth of a “just war”

Milia Ali

Israel's current invasion of Gaza as an act of “self defense” has reignited the debate on the concept of a “just war.” The concept is not new; it dates back to the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata (written between 540-300 BCE). The Mahabharata is a mythological text about the war between the Kaurava and Pandava princes. The multilayered narrative contains a dialogue between Krishna (incarnation of god Vishnu) and Pandava prince Arjuna, where Krishna argues that fighting a “just war” against evil forces is a warrior's sacred duty.
In the same vein, the Christian “just war” theory was developed by Saint Augustine (350-430 CE). He asserted that inaction in the face of a grave wrong that could only be stopped by violence would be a sin. Ironically, Islamic jihadist groups like al-Qaeda use a similar rationale for killing and terrorising innocent people who they believe are deviating from the moral tenets of Islam, as perceived by them.
Israel's propaganda machinery is also justifying its current offensive in Gaza as a “just war” to put an end to all wars waged by Palestinian Hamas militants.
Despite all the elegant arguments for a “just war,” the weight of history is clearly against war as an instrument for peace. Even the Mahabharata that propagates the idea of war to annihilate evil, ended in a tragedy where thousands of innocent lives perished and the Kaurava princes were slain. The Pandavas lost all their children in the battle and finally decided to forsake the world, embarking on a journey to heaven. The brutal reality is that war leads to death, homelessness, famine and prolonged psychological trauma. Yet, why is it that leaders prefer hard solutions to soft approaches?
Even today, states justify war presenting the same arguments packaged in different ways: that war is sometimes necessary for a just and “free” society, or for “self defense” (even if the aggression hasn't occurred), or for protecting the innocent against tyrants or outside forces. But is there a realistic scenario where such judgments can be passed objectively? We know that powerful governments invariably manage to drum up a rationale for undertaking military action, whether it's in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine or Palestine.
A classic example of “misplaced intentions” was the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The ostensible objective was preemptory self-defense (based on a fabricated report that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction). To buttress the reasoning for the attack a moral argument was employed, namely that the Iraqis had to be “freed” from the yoke of Saddam Husain's malevolent dictatorship. The devastating results of the invasion are still unfolding. Aside from the sheer loss of human lives, including what is euphemistically branded as collateral damage, Iraq is in a state of grave instability. The recent ascendancy of ISIS has cleft the country apart and plunged it into another round of uncertainty. The sum total is a less safe world with close to a million deaths.
As I write this piece people around the world are appalled and shocked at the bloodbath in Gaza resulting from Israeli air and ground attacks. Israel's long-term objective is to destroy the supply “tunnels” and debilitate Hamas's fighting capacity. But the bombing of densely populated residential suburbs, where Hamas militants reportedly have strongholds, has already resulted in the loss of more than 700 civilian lives. Video footages from the scenes show dead and maimed Palestinians, many of them women and children. Israel's stated excuse of using “precision and surgical attacks” does not work in Gaza where 1.8 million people are trapped in a 360 square kilometer “open-air prison.”
The Israel-Palestine conflict is a long-festering wound with multiple layers of underlying political and moral issues, at the core of which is Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. The current invasion is predicated on “self-defense,” but defense against whom? The Palestinians have no army, no air force and no navy while Hamas is a ragtag fighting force with more bluster than ability. Hamas may have provoked the current crisis by firing rockets but did this warrant such a disproportionate reaction from one of the world's most powerful military forces? More importantly, have all avenues for a peaceful co-existence been exhausted?
History shows that past Israeli invasions may have achieved temporary military gains, but at the heavy cost of radicalising future generations. Even if we were to accept the self-defense argument the question is: will Israel be safer as a result of this carnage against innocent Palestinian civilians? At the end of the day the issue is not about politics or religion or military power -- it is about the basic human rights of the Palestinian people. Unless Israel and the world leaders make decisions based on humane considerations, the situation will foster more unrest, hatred and anger. And how can that make Israel and the rest of the world a safer place?


The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.

Published: 12:00 am Sunday, July 27, 2014

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