The anti-war movement in the UK, rightly, is using the phrase ‘Don’t bomb Syria’ on its placards. From what I can see, just looking at news reports and the like, the phrase is not being used so widely by outlets and political figures calling for bombing. They are more likely to use ‘air strikes on Syria’, or in more specific terms, air strikes on IS in Syria’, though ‘bombing Syria’ frequently crops up on broadcast during less guarded conversation.
Thinking about each of these phrases in turn: an air strike is bombs dropped from the air, or, more likely, launched from the air with great force. But the term invites us to think the operation more precise than generic bombing. Most people know that bombs are not precise.
Granted, bombs receive adjectives that makes their effect seem less harmful: precision bombing, surgical bombing. If one does get to the point of imagining what bomb shrapnel slicing and burning through human flesh might feel like, or what the shrieks of agony and fear might sound like, one may be still inclined to think that these precision bombs, these surgical bombs -our bombs- have this effect only as far as is necessary given the task at hand, and that our bombs manage to pick out only the designated targets.
Such was the understanding contained in the wording of the UK government’s parliamentary motion in proposing ‘airstrikes, exclusively against ISIL in Syria’. ‘Exclusively’. As if there were bombs that could negotiate their way through densely populated areas and pick out only those identified as ISIL by infallible information systems. Even if we do get to the point of acknowledging that innocent people will be killed by such ‘moderate’ bombs, our imagination is still limited, and perhaps tranquilised, by this idea that the effects will not be as bad as horror inflicted by more dreadful, ‘extremist’ bombs, which kill even more indiscriminately. After all, if they kill civilians, it is for the greater evil. Whereas if we do it, whatever it is, it is always for the greater good.
To his credit, the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn emphasised in interviews that the bombing of Raqqa and other places will kill ‘people like you and me’. But it takes a lot, more than could be mustered in the House of Commons last night, to overcome the idea that whoever is killed by such bombs are not like you and me at all. The overall picture of the Middle East presented in the UK and other Western countries is informed by all manner of racist stereotype. People living there are amalgamated into a threatening and strange collective under the sway of ‘Islam’. They are presented as being used to getting blown to bits and dying violently in any case. So our bombs, even if they do kill innocents, may not kill as many innocents than if they exploded in London or Birmingham.
If, somehow, people in Britain had access to English-language 24 hour news channels and internet pages bearing headlines speaking of ‘bombing Britain’, or ‘airstrikes on Britain’, or even ‘airstrikes on the evil criminals in Britain’, it would not take people too long to feel that what was hanging in the balance, but discarded as irrelevant, was the lives of ordinary people living in Britain. They would feel the bombs had their name on it. They would see the claims of those proposing to use these bombs for limited, precise and surgical purposes, those who claimed they were dropping them for the noblest of reasons, as murdering psychopaths who held their lives in contempt.
Moreover, if such bombing did happen, do we imagine that those British people who felt under attack, those who witnessed the scenes of destruction and death themselves, those who saw the images of carnage and heard the screams of agony, would show gratitude – for the fact that they were not bombed even more, for the fact that there were intense discussions held over whether it was the right thing to do, for the fact that it was all being done in the name of some honourable tradition?
Do we imagine none of them would be given to retaliation? Yet MP after MP yesterday advocated airstrikes on Syria as a means of keeping the streets of Britain safe. The imperial arrogance of the British establishment is matched only by its stupidity. Or perhaps its callousness.
Last night, Hilary Benn, the UK Shadow Foreign Secretary, gave a speech in the Commons, in favour of bombing Syria, that made Guardian journalists cream themselves.’Something special’, purred one. There are fulsome effusions throughout the UK media this morning, Benn held aloft as some kind of worldly statesman, borne by gratitude and relief that someone had finally given something that at least sounded like a good reason to drop bombs that would kill people like you and me. When your military has helped lay waste to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya in less than a decade and a half, when your government supplies weapons to the most brutal theocracy on earth, it’s hard to reach the right mix of bloodlust and high-mindedness to crank up the war machine proper.
Benn’s reference to the Spanish Civil War in this regard was a crafty touch. It was designed to send thousands of bellowing Orwell-worshippers out into the night, bent on hunting out the ‘fascism’ lurking behind the rib cage of anyone who suspects reproducing Guernica-like scenes in Syria may be the wrong thing to do. Against this cod-internationalist warmongering, let’s bear in mind that those in Spain who are most strongly opposed to bombing Syria are precisely the same people who uphold the memory of the Spanish Republic and the fight against Franco’s fascist putschists. On the other hand, those strongest in support of the war are in fact the political heirs of Franco, those who want to see the corpses of Franco’s political enemies kept in their unmarked mass graves and forgotten.