by David Denborough
As these words are being written, the machinery of war is being prepared. Warships, weapons, and military personnel are beginning to encircle Iraq. Meanwhile, voices from the USA, England, and Australia are attempting to shape the opinion of people in those nations and abroad so that this imminent war will be endorsed, accepted, even seen as desirable.
It seems a time in history when ordinary Australians, such as myself, have a responsibility to determine whether we wish to sanction this upcoming war, whether we are willing for it to occur ‘in our names’. It seems we have responsibilities to inform ourselves about the issues involved, to talk with those we trust and respect, to consult widely and to come to our own decisions. As our elected government is encouraging us to believe that it is a time for war, it seems a critical moment for us to actively participate in this democracy.
It also appears as if this participation is taking place. People in different parts of Australia and around the world are meeting, talking, thinking, writing, and trying to play some part in contributing to different ways of understanding recent events, and to propose different responses other than further acts of aggression and violence. Here, in Australia, we are also in the midst of coming to terms with the recent bombing in Bali and this has resulted in new forms of collective grieving and remorse, as well as a heightened determination to do what we can to prevent further acts of terror.
Times of crisis are times of contribution. Personally, whenever war is imminent, a sadness descends. I can never quite believe that it is happening until someone starts dropping the bombs and the coded words for loss of life begin to be spoken. I know that if I cannot find some way, some small way, of contributing to an alternative direction, then that familiar sadness will begin to accompany me everywhere.
Here, I have tried to write a short piece as one small contribution to conversations on this issue. Having consulted as widely as have been able, and after considerable thought and discussion, I have tried to articulate here a number of reasons why I (and many others) wish to prevent Australia’s participation in a war against Iraq. I have tried to clarify why I wish to be a part of a movement to prevent Australia supporting a military strike on Iraq – a military strike that appears imminent.
I’d certainly welcome any correspondence on these matters, particularly from other Australians. And I’d love to know of the different contributions around these issues that are taking place in your family, community, workplace. They need not be large contributions; in fact, sometimes it is the smallest, most local contribution that sparks the greatest hope.
I wish to prevent Australia’s participation in a war against Iraq because:
- The war being proposed is of a ‘pre-emptive’ or ‘aggressive’ nature – in other words, it will be a war declared on a country that has not declared war upon us. While the Iraqi regime may pose an ongoing threat to elements of its own population, and in the future could pose a wider threat if circumstances were to enable this, I believe that to give sanction to (and participate in) the bombing and invasion of a sovereign nation, that has not attacked nor declared war upon us, is a far greater threat to world peace and relationships between peoples.
- Involving Australia in such a war would endanger the lives of young Australian service men and women. A quick review of our history as a nation is enough to demonstrate that Australia has sent enough of our young men to wars on behalf of, and in support of, other nations. Our soldiers have fought in 19 such wars and as a result 62,000 Australians were lost in WWI, 40,000 in WWII, 339 in the Korean War and 520 in Vietnam. In my view, this is not a time to risk the lives of further young Australians.
- The type of war being forecast would in likelihood result in significant Iraqi civilian deaths as well as the deaths of thousands of Iraqi military personnel. Such destruction of life is not justifiable.
- Such a war would further devastate a country that is already in a terrible state. A decade of Anglo-American bombing (1,800 bombs have been dropped on Iraq since the ‘end’ of the 1990 Gulf war) and economic sanctions have reduced Iraq to one of the poorest societies on Earth. A nation that once had a high level of literacy and an advanced health care system is now devastated. According to UN figures of 2001, some 60% of the population have no regular access to clean water and UNICEF has estimated that the number of small children who have died due to the effects of the blockade at 500,000. How can we in good faith support the bombing of a nation of people who already struggling in relation to basic health and education?
- Most Australians know very little about Iraq, its history, its people, and its contributions to global culture. Few Australians realise that Iraq was once known as Babylon, home of the legendary hanging gardens, or that the ‘three wise men’ referred to in the Christian Bible were probably from Baghdad. Before declaring war on a country, I feel it is at least our responsibility as a people to know whom and what we are declaring war upon. We do not know this now.
- The reasons we are being given for supporting such a war do not add up. There are four different reasons that are being used as arguments to support this proposed war:
- Firstly, that the Iraqi regime possesses weapons of mass destruction and that these pose a grave danger to Australia’s allies and therefore to ourselves.
- Secondly, that a change of regime in Iraq will greatly benefit the Iraqi people, the Middle East, and the broader world and that a war is the only way to bring this regime change.
- Thirdly, that a war on Iraq is necessary to further the ‘war on terrorism’.
- Fourthly, that in order to guarantee our safety as a nation, we need to align ourselves strongly with the USA. We need to ensure that if we are threatened, the US will come to our aid and therefore we need to support them by participating in a war against Iraq.
Here I will try to respond to each of these arguments separately.
Weapons of mass destruction
Most of us would agree that the possession of weapons of mass destruction by any state is a cause of great concern. At present, the following states are known to possess nuclear weapons – the USA, Britain, China, India, Pakistan, France, Russia, and Israel. I am less clear about the countries which have chemical and/or biological weapons, because governments are less open about such matters. I completely agree that we all ought to be working towards the removal of all weapons of mass destruction. In the case of Iraq, it is clear that there was a time that that nation did have nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs.
We are now hearing greatly divergent reports as to whether Iraq is currently in possession of weapons of mass destruction, and/or whether Iraq currently has programs to develop such weapons. Having read what is available in the public domain, in my opinion (and it is an opinion) the most convincing and thorough information about current Iraqi capabilities are provided by Scott Ritter, the former UN Weapons Inspector. In the book, War on Iraq (Ritter & Pitt 2002), Ritter maintains that Iraq does not currently have operational weapons of mass destruction as the programs for these were thoroughly and successfully dismantled by the weapons inspector teams from 1991-1998, and nor could Iraq develop such weapons quickly or without this being noticed by the constant surveillance that Iraq is currently under. While Ritter maintains that vigilance is required in relation to ensuring that Iraq does not re-develop their weapons of mass destruction, he is clear and convincing (to me at least) in making the case that a war is not necessary to ensure this. Instead, he suggests that a re-entry of weapons inspectors would be the logical course of action.
Australia is not in possession of weapons of mass destruction but at present does allow US ships that are carrying nuclear weapons into Australian waters and ports. Australia also sells uranium that may be used in the creation of weapons of mass destruction. Australia also hosts a number of US bases that are intimately involved in the planning and operations of American weapons of mass destruction. As we maintain a vigilance towards Iraq not re-developing weapons of mass destruction, perhaps this is also a time in which Australia can play a part in questioning our own participation in the creation, planning, and coordination of weapons of mass destruction.
It is commonly acknowledged that the regime headed by Saddam Hussein has been responsible for gross human rights violations within Iraq and the deaths of many thousands of Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Shi’a Muslims. The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 is also understood by many as an act of gross injustice (this is, however, a more complex matter due to the histories of the region and the fact that Kuwait was a part of Iraq prior to 1922). Few people would disagree that the regime of Saddam Hussein has been and continues to be an oppressive, authoritarian, and violent regime.
Is it the role of Australia to support and participate in a war to bring about a change of regime in Iraq? Does being a ‘democratic’ country give us the right to declare war on ‘non-democratic’ countries? I don’t believe so. While I don’t think there is anything wrong with Australia wishing to foster democratic ideals and processes in Iraq, to try to depose with military force the regime of another country violates the very principles which are supposedly being fought for. To wage war, to bomb and then invade a country for the reason of toppling the country’s regime seems a very unlikely method by which to foster democracy.
What is it that the US is envisaging when it talks about a regime change in Iraq? The majority of Iraqis are Shi’a Muslims (60%) – the same religious grouping as Iran, which is viewed by the American government as a centre of ‘anti-American Islamic fundamentalism’. The second largest grouping are Kurds (23%). The third grouping, which makes up the current regime, are Sunnis (17%). Saddam Hussein and his secular Sunni regime have conducted a long campaign against the Shi’a Muslims in Iraq. While the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would obviously result in a ‘regime change’, what the change would be is not openly discussed. Perhaps one of the reasons this is so is because it is highly unlikely that the US would enable a Shi’a Muslim majority to attain power in Iraq as this would mean that Shi’a Muslim representatives controlled two fifths of the world’s oil reserves (Iran and Iraq). I don’t mean to imply that there would be anything wrong with Shi’a Muslim representatives being in power in Iraq, and I don’t mean to suggest that if there was a democracy in Iraq that everyone would vote according to cultural or religious groupings. What I do mean to question is whether at this moment in history it is likely that the US, Britain, and Australian governments will enable a genuine democracy to form in Iraq. Supposedly, the US, Australia, and Britain have some plan as to what a regime would look like after Hussein, but it seems unlikely to me that this will be a democracy as we understand the term.
While there is no doubt that the current regime in Iraq is oppressive and violent, if we see ourselves as justified to bomb and invade sovereign countries because we have decided that there ought to be a regime change, this seems to me very worrying and frightening. It also seems to undermine one of the basic principles of ‘democracy’, which is respect for other nation states and for the sovereignty of other peoples.
War on terrorism
Since September 11th, responding to ‘terrorism’ has quite rightly become a key priority for Australia, as it has become for many countries around the globe. The recent Bali bombing has highlighted, in a tragic way, the urgency of addressing and preventing further acts of terror. We have been told that taking military action against Iraq will somehow reduce the risks of future terrorism, but is this true?
Immediately after September 11th the key focus on addressing terrorism was on Al Qaeda – the organisation led by Osama Bin Laden and linked to a range of recent terrorist acts. Although there is no firm evidence yet available, there are also suspicions that Al Qaeda was linked to the Bali bombing (via Jemaah Islamiah). By all accounts, it seems that Al Qaeda poses a significant threat which needs to be responded to. Pursuing Al Qaeda was the justification given for the bombing of Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taliban regime.
How does the imminent war on Iraq fit with this picture? Despite the comments made by some US leaders, there seems to be no evidence whatsoever linking Iraq with the events of September 11th, the Bali bombing, or Al Qaeda. This is not surprising because Saddam Hussein is a secular dictator who has spent the last thirty years crushing Islamic fundamentalism. There are current Iraqi laws that provide for an immediate death sentence for prosletysing in the name of Wahabbism (Osama Bin Laden’s religion). Far from being allied, Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein view each other with considerable enmity and as direct opponents.
This is not to say that Iraq has never been involved in terrorism. Iraqi terrorists have been used in relation to Iran, Syria, and Iraqi opposition members overseas, but in terms of posing a threat, through links with Al Qaeda, to Australia, or the US for that matter, this seems highly improbable.
It seems agreed by most Australians, particularly after the Bali bombing, that we must respond to the issue of terrorism in apprehending those responsible for the recent acts of terror, and in reducing the likelihood of further attacks. But surely we ought to focus our efforts, resources, and personnel on our own regional security issues, on pursuing Al Qaeda (especially if they are found to be linked to the Bali bombing), and on engaging meaningfully with our neighbouring countries, rather than waging war on Iraq, a secular Arab regime. I simply cannot see how Australia’s participation in a war with Iraq at this time will contribute to reducing the threat of terrorism; in fact, it could quite easily increase the risk of further de-stabilising the Middle East and inflaming radical Islamic fundamentalism, while weakening our moral authority in our own region.
Being a good ally to the US
A further reason being offered by some commentators here in Australia is that we must support a US-led war on Iraq in order to ensure US support if our security is threatened in the future. While depending upon the US as a ‘big brother’ type figure may seem reassuring, we believe that to simply support US foreign policy (especially if this policy includes war) for this reason is to do an injustice to ourselves, to our relationship with the US, and to the rest of the world. To declare war on another country, to sanction the killing of thousands of people in another land, for the reason of shoring up support for ourselves in a possible future conflict is an act of corruption.
Besides, if as it would appear, Al Qaeda poses a significant threat to the US, to Australia, and to other nations, then there are other ways in which we can be good allies not only to the US but also to our Asian neighbours and to the rest of the world. It seems that a group like Al Qaeda is more likely to be dismantled through careful intelligence and diligent police work – rather than through military force. As a nation, there are many roles that we can play including information gathering, intelligence, and police work.
It also seems likely that altering the conditions that are generating anti-western sentiment throughout the Arab world would be constructive in reducing the ability of groups like Al Qaeda to recruit new members. Our nation could contribute to rigorous debate around these issues. Particularly, we could investigate the possible links between state terrorism (the violence, militarism, and inequity perpetuated by governments) and the terrorist acts of non-state groups and ways of preventing both forms of terror. We could endeavour to try to contribute in constructive ways to seeking a solution to the current crisis in Israel/Palestine. And we could seek to ensure that in our government’s responses to these issues, every person’s life is valued in the same way, regardless of their country, culture, or religion.
Supporting the US in a war on Iraq is not the only option for our ongoing security – in fact, in many ways it may reduce our future safety. There are many other ways in which Australia can act to try to protect ourselves and other nations from further violence and conflict. We can look to the actions of one of our nearest neighbours, New Zealand, who are seeking to take a moral and independent approach to this issue, and we can show our solidarity and support to the hundreds of thousands of people in the US who are doing what they can to prevent this imminent war.
- Such a war is likely to make Australia less safe, not more safe. By participating in an unjustified war against an Arab, and largely Muslim country, Australia will likely become a target for retaliatory violent actions by terrorist groups.
- As a country aligned with ‘European/Western/American’ interests in terms of foreign policy and trade policy, we have a responsibility to know more about the history of British/US trade and military action in the Middle East – especially in relation to the region’s vast oil reserves. It doesn’t seem as if there has been sufficient informed public debate about the effects and implications of these recent histories. Prior to any decision about engaging in another war in the Middle East, surely the Australian public first of all needs to be aware of and debate these broader histories and their implications in the present.
- As a nation, Australia is only now beginning to come to terms with the history and ongoing effects of dispossession, supremacy, and violence enacted by white Australians in relation to the traditional owners of this land (Aboriginal peoples). While this issue may not at first appear relevant to the question of supporting a war on Iraq, I believe that they are linked. To support and participate in a war declared upon a country that has not threatened us, nor attacked us, is to return to the sort of righteous, misinformed action that we as a nation have tried so hard to move away from. We have learned so much about the devastation caused by past reckless actions. We have learnt enough, I hope, to know that it is wrong to declare war and invade a nation that has not declared war on us.
- Finally, I sincerely believe that this historical moment offers an opportunity to us as Australians, to develop our own ethical principles with which we wish to participate in world events. Australia has a proud history in relation to participating in creating alternative structures to mediate between nations. Rather than simply following the US and/or Britain into yet another war, this may be a time when we can carve out our own uniquely Australian response to what is a complex and difficult time. Just as we have created our own ways of responding to the trauma and grief of the Bali bombing, so too we can find our own ways to link with others to counter the challenge posed by acts of terrorism.
This piece of writing is one small contribution made in the hope of averting Australian involvement in a war on Iraq. In these worrying times, we all have contributions to make – from talking with friends and family, keeping informed, sharing writings with others, participating in local events, writing to newspapers, calling radio stations, reaching out and making links to Arab and Muslim neighbours/colleagues …
I look forward to hearing your reflections on this writing. More significantly, however, I look forward to hearing about your contributions, whether they be talking with your children, writing a letter or email to a friend, or letting your local representative know that this is an issue that is meaningful to you.
Knowing that we are all taking small steps at times like this is what offers a sense of hope. I am imagining you as you read these words, and your (imagined) company is sustaining me.
Ritter, S. & Rivers Pitt, W. 2002. War on Iraq: What team Bush doesn’t want you to know. London: Profile Books.
1. If you are interested, I have recently written and recorded a song (A song for Australia) as a response to the Bali bombing. It can be downloaded from this website.
2. UN Report on the Current Humanitarian Situation in Iraq, March 1999
3. UNICEF, Iraq Survey shows Humanitarian Emergency, 12 August 1999
4. Australian naval ships have been actively involved in the blockade of Iraq without the general public having any appreciation of the effects of this blockade on the lives of the Iraqi people.
5. As one would expect, there have been many attempts by those who are advocating a war on Iraq to negate Scott Ritter’s perspective. While I have read many attempts to discredit his character, I have come across nothing that to my mind refutes the detailed information he provides, nor that undermines his thoughtful analysis on this topic.