Friday 11 April 2003

The obscenity of bickering over death and torture

by Adrian Hamilton

"Next to a battle lost," said the Duke of Wellington upon surveying the carnage of Waterloo, "the greatest misery is a battle gained." No such qualms from his successors this side of the Atlantic, one fears.

Hardly has the blood dried on the body of the latest casualty in the continued fighting than the airwaves, and the printing presses, have been hot with cries of a war vindicated and opponents made to eat crow. You would have thought that the Iraqi people, who have now suffered three major wars within a generation, deserved better than to become the battleground for Western argument.

But no, the shaken inhabitants of Baghdad are being called on to stream out on the streets to prove the pro-war lobby right, to show that this was a war of liberation, while anti-war commentators have hung on to every sign of continued resistance as proof that war is a disaster. The Arabs wanted the Iraqis to show more of a fight against Western might, the supporters of war wanted less of a fight to show that the Iraqis willed the invasion. One day the press devotes whole pages to the discovery of hundreds of bodies in an Iraqi barracks, allegedly the victims of Saddam's secret police. The next day the story disappears when the bodies are found to be soldiers from the Iran-Iraq war, a time when Saddam was our "son of a bitch". Who cares for the embarrassments of yesterday when they are no use as propaganda today?

This is obscenity. Are we to hope that the prisons contain multitudes of tortured so the proponents of war can say: look, we have proof that Saddam was a tyrant? Are we to wish for more civilian deaths so that some MP who opposes the war can declare that it was a catastrophe? Are we really to say, as one pro-war enthusiast did recently, that the number of Iraqi soldiers killed doesn't matter, "because they were probably the same people who massacred the Kurds".

No, in war it is not the party fanatics or the brutalisers who die, it's 18-year-old conscripts who think they are defending the country. The hard men switch sides and become stalwarts of the new regime. And no, not everybody is dancing in the streets – not because they still have a gun behind their heads or because they're against the invasion or any other reason that suits the armchair commentators back home. But because war is a curse, the worse for being the creation of man. For every mother mourning the loss of a relative who disappeared under Saddam's tyranny there is now one frantically searching and praying that her son was not one of those killed by the might of Western armour fighting a poorly equipped, badly trained army. We can say what we like about what this proves or doesn't. But then we can afford to. It's not our country, and we're not caught in the firing line.

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