JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 12.9.09
DURING THIS YEAR’S Edinburgh Fringe, the Amnesty International Freedom Of Expression Award – given each year to the show that makes the strongest contribution to the cause of free speech and human rights – was won by the Canadian writer Judith Thompson’s magnificent triple monologue about the Iraq War, The Palace Of The End. As one of the judges of the award, I should declare an interest in the show; but I doubt whether anyone who saw it could have denied its power, as a cry of rage against the suffering endured by vulnerable human beings before and during the war.
The last monologue, for example, gives a voice to a wonderful, nameless Iraqi woman, a richly humorous mother and grandmother first tortured by the thugs of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and then kiilled in the war that followed. The second shows the government scientist David Kelly dying by his own hand in the woods on Harrowdown Hill, near his Oxford home, unable to live any longer with the conflict between the demands of the British intelligence establishment, and his own need to speak the truth about Iraq\s alleged weapons of mass destruction. And the first monologue presents a fictionalised version of Private Lynndie England, the woman whose presence in those appalling photographs of American troops torturing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison finally destroyed any possible claim that the west, in this conflict, occupied some kind of moral high ground.
Taken as a whole, Thompson’s great play sums up what is now a common view of the Iraq conflict: that the war was a shocking mistake, undertaken on a false prospectus, and conducted by methods as corrupt and questionable as the motives which inspired it. Nor is it only the Iraq War which is now routinely dismissed by the public in this way. According to a UK opinion poll published this week, 60% of those questioned were definitely opposed to the Iraq War, and only 20% in favour.
But 53% are also definitely opposed to Britain’s current mission in Afghanistan, with as few as 25% expressing positive approval for it; and political analysts at Westminster are now announcing the gradual collapse of cross-party consensus on the war, with the Tories unable to resist the temptation to distance themselves from an increasingly painful and unpopular campaign. Back in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, there was a widespread feeling that the moment had come for a new global order genuinely founded on the principles of the United Nations Charter, and realised by multinational forces – military or humanitarian – acting on a firm basis of international law. But twenty years on, it seems that those dreams are finally rotting away, in the blood and dust of Afghanistan. In Bosnia, perhaps in Sierra Leone, and possibly in Kosovo, some believe that some good was done.
In Rwanda in 1994, though, one of the most horrific genocides of the century went unchallenged, thanks to divisions among the western powers; and by the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003, the George W. Bush administration in Washington – with Tony Blair’s British government yapping eagerly at its heels – was in the grip of hard-line neoconservatives who actively disapproved of the idea of international law or morality, and preferred to fight a no-holds-barred war against anyone designated, rightly or wrongly, as “the enemy”. Contemptuous in practice of the very liberties it claimed to promote, and increasingly yoked to an extreme form of turbo-capitalism which was itself ethically bankrupt, the idea of positive western intervention became completely discredited, both morally and politically. And the heart bleeds, now, for those brave young servicemen and women still trying to live out the ideal of promoting peace and democracy in the sands of Helmand; while politicians at home devalue their every effort with their own craven culture of compromise, opportunism and evasion.
To say all this, though, is not necessarily to draw the firm conclusion that British troops should now come home, stay home, and never venture far beyond our borders again. There are old-school thinkers of both right and left who believe that national sovereignty should trump all other poltiical principles, and that no good ever comes of interfering in the political affairs of other countries; and the advocates of that position are having a field-day now, as they roll out their anecdotes about Britain’s previous imperial failures in Afghanistan.
Yet in a world as fiercely interconnected as our own – where a credit-crunch collapse in Britain’s urban leisure economy can have a substantial effect on the incentives to grow cocaine in the highlands of Colombia, or poppy in the plains of Afghanistan – it’s both reactionary and wrong to imagine that the west can continue to extract profits from such countries, while at the same time washing its hands of the political and social consequences of economic exploitation. National sovereignty matters, of course, particularly in post-colonial times; it is an important symbol of the wish for a new equality among peoples once locked into strict colonial hierarchies.
But the UN Charter itself, and the whole concept of international law, would not exist if there were not values which finally matter even more. If Judith Thompson rages against the Iraq War in her play, she does so not on behalf of Iraq as an invaded nation, but on behalf of suffering humanity, which should have been defended in its right to life and truth, but was instead left to struggle and die. Intervention is a discredited concept now, in other words; and it may remain so, for years to come. But so long as our compassion for human suffering continues to cross borders, there will sometimes be legitimate pressure for our armed forces to do the same, and to act to prevent abuses which we find intolerable. And that will be true whether the suffering takes place somewhere in Europe, or in the villages of Rwanda; or back in Iraq, in the grim chambers of what Saddam’s victims once called The Palace Of The End.