It turns out they were wrong, those people who told us that the only outcome to the Syrian genocide was a political solution. It turns out that there were two military solutions after all. One was to arm the secular moderate opposition to the fascist Assad, who were asking for a few MANPADS to down the helicopters barrel bombing their schools, hospitals and market places. The other was to wring our hands and let Assad, Putin and Iran kill half a million people.
War, what is it good for? Edwin Starr asked that question in 1970 as the Vietnam war was entering its final phase. His answer was “absolutely nothing”.
Of course, no decent person, no sane, rational human being would chose war over more peaceful means to achieve political ends. And yet, as a last resort, war can be a liberating, humanising course of action, and has been.
War came too late for millions of Jews, Slavs, Roma and LGBT people in early 1940s Europe. By the time the Vietnamese had, in the teeth of United Nations opposition, invaded to remove Pol Pot in Cambodia, 1.7 million people were dead. In 1994, about 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis lost their lives too, while an international community, forged in the post second world war consensus, wrung its hands, or in the case of the French authorities, actively colluded in the genocide. The true horror of all those events was uncovered in weeks, months or years. This genocide in Syria was witnessed, live, on Twitter.
War is a very, very last resort.
But there comes a time when the crimes of some regimes are so evil and perpetrated with such fortitude, that they cannot be stopped by wishful thinking, by diplomatic persuasion, by political action or by economic sanction.
There comes a point beyond which such crimes can only be stopped by the application of armed and deadly force: ‘by any means necessary’, you might say.
So, what is war good for? It is what stopped the holocaust. Who would dare say otherwise?
What is it good for? Saving a nascent democracy in Sierra Leone. Tens of thousands of teenagers and young adults in that country still have all their arms and legs only because a British prime minister had the courage to ignore both the taunts of “imperialist” and the deadly negligence of the UN and others, and send troops to stop thugs from cutting off the limbs of eight year-olds and help free its people. During Tony Blair’s last visit as Prime Minister there in June 2006 he was still being received with rapturous gratitude.
War. Saving a million Kosovan Muslims from genocidal Stalinist maniacs. That same brave British prime minister stood against the world, including the US, and cajoled and argued for military action to save these people. Eventually, a reluctant Bill Clinton was shamed into committing military force. There are no taunts of ‘imperialist war monger’ from Kosovans today. But there is a statue of Blair in their country and many, many young men named ‘Tonibler’ after him.
War. What was it good for? Stopping Bashar al-Assad massacring hundreds of thousands of his own people, that’s what.
It is nearly 14 years since a million people marched the streets of London in opposition to a war that was about to start. They said theirs was an humanitarian concern about loss of life. Where have they been for the last six years? The Stop the War Coalition stops no wars but, through their collective silence, implicitly endorsed this one.
War kills a lot of people, it is true. There is a high price for military action, paid, in the main by innocent non-combatants. But they often pay the price for military inaction too. We will never know the price of inaction against Saddam Hussein in March 2003 because, thankfully, he was removed.
But there is no excuse today. We know the price of our inaction in Syria; it has been all over Twitter in minutes. That price is too high.
The world has watched while half a million almost defenceless people were slaughtered in Syria and millions displaced. Our government watched it happen and the British Labour Party watched with them.
It was shameful and it was not done in my name. No one can claim they didn’t know. No one. Not Ed Miliband, who ordered his members of parliament to vote for Assad’s war. Not Barack Obama, who used Labour’s shameful action as an excuse for inaction. No one.
The human cost of inaction should weigh heavy on their shoulders.
Ian McKenzie was a special adviser to John Prescott from 2001 to 2004. He tweets at @Ian_McKenzie
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