At no point in modern history, or perhaps one could argue any point in recorded human history, has the world not had some state of conflict between one or more groups of people. To have knowledge of history is to know that humanity has an unnerving addiction to violence as a means and an end to and of their goals. It’s ironic that humanity is used synonymously with kindness when our species seems incapable of grasping what that even means in times of war.
Reasons for War
When asked about the origins, or even the existence of, certain wars throughout history, a shocking number of people are unable to give an answer. In today’s climate of historical amnesia this is by no means a surprising phenomenon, but it completely disconnects people from the reasons and context of current wars and rivalries. While some would be able to point at Islamic State, for example, as an enemy, claiming militant Islam to be the reason for disorder, it would be a wrong assumption. Religion, while a brilliant motivator and may be the justification for a minority, is by no means the true reason terrorist organisations like IS exist.
No, ISIS rose to power in the Middle East after the Obama administration pulled out of a shattered Iraq in 2011, leaving a power vacuum that was exploited. US intervention led to their formation, and the US leaving led to their growth as a threat. The US had anticipated this, obviously, as they immediately set themselves the task of ‘liberating’ Syria after the civil war broke out and re-entered Iraq. Saudi Arabia is also known to fund and arm various terror groups, openly promoting their fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretation of Islam to help convert the generations who grew up surrounded by US backed wars. The contradiction that everyone apparently knows but no one seems to care about is that the US, and to a lesser extent European powers like the UK and France, fund and arm Saudi Arabia. That one of the Middle East’s most brutal regimes is the West’s greatest ally is cause enough for concern, but to pledge billions to the people who support the very people we are supposedly fighting in the region raises many questions.
At the least, ISIS’ rise to power was an easy power grab, and at worst it was a planned move to cement America’s presence in the region. Seven years later, the latter is basically undeniable. IS fights to grow in power, using religion as an excuse (similar to the Pope initiating the Crusades to the Holy Land), and the US fights to protect their strategic position and control over resources, using farcical promises of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberation’ as their excuse. In all the chaos one might forget to ask the ordinary civilians what they might want for their own nations.
The core reason wars break out isn’t religion or ideology – these are just concepts to divide the masses – but power and control. Local tyrants and imperialist powers have for centuries acted out of the selfish interests of their own desires, often against public opinion and savagely oppressing those in their path. It is rarely described in those terms today, but nothing has changed, it’s just painted differently.
No Side is Innocent
While it is possible to determine whether a particular side of a conflict is the ‘right’ side, it is naïve to pick one and then assume a higher moral stance because of that allegiance. History has repeatedly proven that no one is free of guilt in war and that all have been complicit in atrocities. Which side you choose only depends on which side of the story you heard.
There is no end to the examples, but two obvious ones, coincidentally both from World War II, are the complex relations and nationalist movements in the Middle East during and after War, and Imperial Japan versus the US.
Middle East in Chaos
The great evil of the 1930’s and 40’s was the rise of fascism and Nazism. Spain’s Franco, Italy’s Mussolini, and Germany’s Hitler were the heads of deadly fascist states during this time, with Germany’s Nazi movement invading and occupying a number of countries, and promoting the horrifying persecution of the Jews. When it came to Israel-Palestine and Iraq’s nationalist movement (against British imperialism), the scene shifts ever so slightly.
Jewish terrorist groups, the Irgun and the Stern Gang, committed a number of atrocities against the Palestinian natives, either in acts of aggression or in retaliation to Palestinian provocation. The Palestinians did not want a Jewish State formed on their land, to the point of some violently opposing the settlement of Jews in the region. Both sides contributed to the escalation of tensions between themselves, and the Jews also turned on the British who they believed were trying to prevent the Zionist’s goals in contradiction to the Balfour Declaration of 1917. (One might point out the Declarations rather silly condition of not oppressing the native population, something that was bound to happen and was promptly ignored.) Abraham Stern (the leader and namesake of the Stern Gang) actually tried to contact Nazi Germany to request aid against the British, whom they were at war with in Europe at the time. Stern viewed Nazi persecution against Jews as a European issue, suggesting that the Jews be transferred to future Israeli settlements and that Germany strike the British out of Palestine to achieve this. He never did get a response, and as Eugene Rogan said in his book, The Arabs: A History:
“He [Stern] clearly miscalculated the genocidal nature of Nazi anti-Semitism.”
The leading Jewish authorities and even the Irgun denounced this attempted deal, seeing an alliance with the Nazis as their limit.
In Iraq, the populace and notable nationalist groups were trying to remove the British from their own country. They had achieved independence in 1930 and had joined the League of Nations, but the British still had a hold over them through unpopular military and monarchist governments. In 1941, Iraq and Britain were at war, and Iraq threw their support behind the Axis Powers.
While later on Iraq joined the other Arab States in their wars against the perceived Jewish threat in Israel-Palestine, Iraq’s alliance with Germany in WWII was not initially based on anti-Semitic tendencies or fascist rule. To the contrary, Iraq viewed any enemy of the British as a strategic ally to achieve their own nationalist goals and rid themselves of their colonial shackles. They failed, and the British held very loose and contentious control until the 1950’s, but this illustrates just how grey history really is, and how different perceptions shape one’s view of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.
Nazi Germany was undeniably an evil entity, but Iraqi independence from British colonial rule is arguably a worthwhile cause. Does this absolve the Nazis? Absolutely not, but it highlights that while Britain was the obvious ‘good guy’ in European affairs, in the Middle East they were the tyrannical imperialists in the eyes of the Arabs. From a neutral standpoint, allying with the Nazis is extremely wrong, but given the context it made sense for Iraq and their interests at the time.
The same with the Jews and Palestinians: each side did questionable things, and depending on which perspective you take there is good and bad. The Jews’ terrorist activities were indeed awful, including bombings and assassinations. The British, while still the colonial power, were on the retreat, and the Palestinians, by the time Israel was officially created in May 1948, counted their dead and displaced in the hundreds of thousands. Today, the number of displaced Palestinians is over four million. The Palestinians, and the surrounding Arab states, have led many wars and opposition against Israel, always ending in Israeli victory. While Israel’s role as a modern colonial power is perhaps in the wrong overall, Palestinian and Arab deficiencies and blunders cannot be overlooked. In a conflict that has lasted over 70 years, no one is innocent.
Japan and the US in WWII
In another World War II arena, America and Japan set the world stage up for the future of war. The widely known events of Japan’s involvement are the bombing of Pearl Harbour and the US nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Undeniably, Imperialist Japan was a threat, but the nuclear bombings have set a dangerous precedent – nations with such weapons hold the power to literally destroy the world. Given the number of nukes in the world, it could be destroyed numerous times over in the event of an all-out war. Some also argue that the nuclear bombings were unnecessary, as Japan would have surrendered with combined US and Russian pressure. The claim is that the US carried out the bombings for two reasons. The first was to prevent Russian influence in the area; the US and the Soviet Union may have been wartime allies, but as soon as one war ended, another started: the Cold War. The second was merely to see if the weapons would work and to prove that the US was the emergent superpower in the new global world we were entering.
The necessity of the nuclear bombings is something that is still debated to this day, but it wasn’t the only weapon the US used against Japan, and Japan’s involvement in the War wasn’t just limited to its forays in the Pacific. The US carried out numerous fire bombings in heavily populated cities like Tokyo, bringing to the world the invention and use of napalm. Napalm, like the nuclear bombs, was indiscriminate: civilian and military personnel were slaughtered in the thousands (this was also used against the Koreans during the Korean War, to equally horrifying effect).
Japan’s growing Empire also included the Korean peninsula and parts of China. Their alliance with Nazi Germany and their own imperialist aspirations wreaked havoc on the people. This included human experimentation in a secret military research mission, known as Unit 731. Their focus was on chemical and biological warfare, leaving many of the thousands of victims diseased and/or killed in the process. Most of their victims were Chinese, but also included the Soviet and Korean POWs.
With Japan’s surrender following the events of August 6, they lost their mainland holdings and their country was subject to heavy regulation by the US. Korea was denied independence when the US and China got involved (a topic I’ve written about previously), and the research carried out by Japan in China was not destroyed but instead absorbed by the US for their own use. Like the Nazi and their collaborators in Operation Paperclip, many of the perpetrators were not tried, evidence was hidden, and it fell under the shadow of the US agencies.
War and conflict is nothing more than the means to achieve strategic or material goals. Autocratic rulers suppress opposition and crush their own people to maintain power, and imperialists take their horrors abroad to expand their spheres of influence. Things like ideology and religion are craftily used as distractions and motivators, but they are never the sole reason for conflict. And, most importantly, no one side carries all the blame or innocence in these conflicts. Whether you side with Israel or Palestine, agree with Iraq’s alliance with Germany in WWII or not, or any other example of conflict, every side of a war is complicit in the atrocities it entails to some extent.
When asked about war, most would probably tell you it’s a terrible affair, but history and current events would argue otherwise. Directly and indirectly, we have all benefited and lost from war, and it is one of the few constants through human history. People go about their day as if the world beyond their country does not exist, oblivious to the truth behind the conflicts. At the beginning, I said it was ironic the humanity was used synonymously with kindness. Perhaps a better comparison is this: civilisation is synonymous with war. But even that is false.
A people at war cannot call themselves civilised. They are barbaric.