Paradoxes of a war and limits of preconceived ideas

In every war there are unexpected events or phenomena. Often, in fact, the entire course of the war and its outcome run contrary to predictions that were considered a given. The Iraq war has been filled with these and it is worth commenting on the most illogical of them, even though there are only slim hopes of learning anything from them. The Iraq war seemed to confirm an impression created approximately 12 years ago in the same region during the Gulf War, as it was called then. For the first time, the war was visible to millions of people on the world’s television screens. A triumph for the media, but one that also showed up its limits. What after all, were we seeing? For hours on end, a few explosions on a dark background, a few tanks moving to the right and left, injured people suffering, some screaming, images that become tiring with repetition, incapable of providing any real information about the course of the war and perhaps even giving wrong information. Television gave the impression of a war with many victims, although there were actually relatively few as wars go, far fewer than the number of victims of the regime itself or the embargo imposed (because of the regime) but because the images gave the impression of a people fanatically devoted to their country, their religion and their regime, determined to repel the foreign invaders and the democracy they were bringing. Then suddenly we saw scenes of celebration (were these the same people?) at being liberated from this brutal dictatorship. Information of such doubtful usefulness has a disproportionate cost – not the huge outlay expended on television coverage by television networks both large and small (CNN alone spent $1 million a day) which after all, they can expect to reap at some point – but the risks to the people who worked to bring this futile information to the world, naturally as volunteers toward a preordained death since they were staying at the center of a city destined to be the focus of a battle. The war in Iraq has not yet provided an answer to the question as to whether democracy is a product that can be imported into a country in the supply convoys of a foreign army that has invaded the country to liberate it. In the beginning, the impression was that patriotic and religious reflexes would be stronger than any political goals of creating a democratic form of government. In the end, that impression was clearly mistaken. So one wonders just how universal are certain principles which we in the so-called Western world consider to be the foundations of our culture. Do concepts like freedom, social and sexual equality, human rights and respect for minorities only exist under certain conditions or, once acquired even by a sector of humanity, are they values that hold for everyone, even only as a goal? This question is of practical significance – can we accept the nice (in principle) ideas of a foreign power with an invasion force to protect human rights and establish or restore democracy? The surprise of the war was the realization of the limits of military technology. Before the war began, incredible stories were being told about the miraculous capabilities in this sector – not only electronic ears and eyes that can record the most secret conversation or find the best-concealed refuge, but «smart» missiles that can enter the most well-guarded places, hunt out people wherever they are, even separate the good from the bad. So the war was heralded as the launch of a wonderful display of military inventions. Reality was something quite different. Of course, the immense killing power of the bombardment from land, sea and air was confirmed, as was the missiles’ capability of traveling toward a predetermined target and exploding around it. But the possibility for error was high, with huge repercussions, both in human lives and sometimes in social and political costs. Above all, it was clear that no technical means, no matter how smart or deadly, can replace the old, traditional, established part played by the human factor (even if motorized or protected by a tank) in the final confrontation and the victory, which can only be the occupation of enemy’s defense by a few infantrymen. This is especially true when the enemy is determined to turn the battle to his own advantage in a street battle (as well as having on his side a god who cheats a bit by promising privileged treatment for those who die as «martyrs»). Another conclusion – this time a pleasant one – to be drawn from the war in Iraq is that even the worst fears are sometimes disproved. At the risk of sounding cynical in the face of some of the images of the victims shown to us, it could be said that the two warring sides displayed a tendency toward self-restraint that led to a (relative) «humanity» in the war – no weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological or nuclear weapons were used. One could draw a parallel with World War II, with its blind destruction of entire cities, obviously deliberately aimed at the mass destruction of tens and hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians, such as in Rotterdam, Belgrade or Dresden. Here this did not happen. In the end there were very few victims – and so in a way the war was not total war. This relative self-restraint was probably not due to the fear of reprisals as, at least on the American side, there was no such fear – the risk that American cities would be bombed was, of course, non-existent. Apparently what played a decisive role was the new dimension that has now been added to wars – communication. On the one hand, the ability of television to broadcast live images and on the other (this has to be recognized) increased sensitivity around the world have made every warring power sit back and consider whether an action might result in much harsher images than public opinion can withstand. That is particularly true when the public in question functions within a democratic environment, where it is possible to influence the outcome of the next elections. But the self-restraint of one’s rival – always temporary – can often exercise its own restraining effect. This latter statement is perhaps the most hopeful. Until, at least, we arrive at the point where the appropriate international organizations are able to avert wars and solve conflicts without resorting to cannibalistic methods.