War costs

On an Australian autumn day, the human reality of war intrudes only by stealth. At a demonstration, the sound of an air raid siren evokes the terror of those who wait for bombs to fall. In a riverbank exhibition, photographs of love and tenderness hint at all that war destroys.

These understated images provide a clearer criterion than the daily commentary, celebration of boys’ toys and the images of smiling troops to measure the war against Iraq. The air raid siren, with its reminder of the unequal balance of destructive power available to the two sides, suggested that the invasion would end in the occupation of Iraq and the removal from power of Saddam Hussein.

It also reminds us of the human cost of war, which not only maims and kills people but also poisons relationships. The reality of war is neither clean nor liberating. It is about the destruction of lives and human goods, sometimes by design, sometimes by implication, and sometimes by mistake. War inspires in opposing forces an equal determination to kill and destroy in the most effective available ways. It also tears the delicate net of relationships and decent behaviour that shapes a civil society. The loss of the past in the looting of the museum and library of Baghdad will make this war long memorable.

Once war began, it became certain that many Iraqis would not experience as liberation the arrival of the invading army. Why should anyone have expected otherwise? If the capture of Baghdad is to be remembered in the Arab world as an event of liberation and not of colonisation, much that war has destroyed will need to be repaired.

The photographs of human intimacy, too, measure the arguments that supported going to war. Each new bombing of women and children has made more incredible the humanitarian argument in favour of war. If we and our children were offered the peace and liberation that we have brought to the people of Iraq, would we ever have accepted the offer as humane? Of such arguments the Roman historian Tacitus’ mordant comment still seems apposite at the war’s end: ‘They make a desert and they call it peace.’

We are now told that the outcome vindicates the war. It vindicates what no-one doubted, the power of superior military force. But it will also be used to vindicate the use of war for other strategic goals. And that loss of moral sensitivity diminishes and threatens us all.

The siren, and the images of family life made precarious by war, offer a standard for our own response to what is done in our name in Iraq. The choice has been between coarseness and compassion. Coarse responses are a commonplace of war. Australian business leaders and government have expressed concern that they might be excluded from profiting from the rebuilding of what we have destroyed. And for all of us who write about war on either side, there is Ignazione Silone’s warning of half a century ago: ‘Only by the sacrifice of intellectual honesty is it possible to identify the cause of truth with that of an army.’

One photograph in the exhibition reminds us that this war, too, will come to an end. In the photo, children play exuberantly in a destroyed Beirut stadium, swinging high on a swing made out of tangled steel beams. In the midst of destruction, it is through compassion and not through war that such life is nurtured.



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