The etiquette of war: Impoliteness in the face of mass murder

By Robert Jensen

Published in ZNet · November, 1998

After former president George Bush finished reading from his new book at the Texas Book Festival in Austin on Saturday (Nov. 14), I stood up in the gallery and shouted a question.

Mr. President, I said, the economic sanctions on Iraq begun during your administration are directly responsible for the deaths of as many as 1.5 million innocent Iraqis. Why are you silent on this human tragedy?

As police took me out of the room, someone angrily told me I had been impolite to the former president. I agree—I was impolite, and if given another chance I would be impolite again. Like the other members of the audience who asked similar questions after I was arrested, I believe being impolite in these circumstances is a moral imperative.

I live in a country that pursues policies which each month kill at least 4,500 children under the age of 5 in Iraq—deaths that are a direct result of the sanctions imposed since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, according to UNICEF figures. That means that in the hour that Bush and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft entertained the crowd and basked in their standing ovations at the Texas Capitol, six more children in Iraq died from the effects of malnutrition, lack of medicine and contaminated water.

The fact that the bombs and missiles were not unleashed last week does not change the fact that U.S. policy is not merely impolite, it is a crime and a moral outrage. If being polite means passively standing by while the country in which I live pursues policies that are directly responsible for killing innocent people, then I will not be polite. I will not apologize for the actions of those of us in the anti-war movement who demanded accountability from Bush.

As the Clinton administration geared up last week for a new military attack, local activists decided that Bush’s appearance at the festival should not go unchallenged. Bush was the architect of the massacre that folks in the United States commonly call the Gulf War and of the sanctions that have killed even more innocent people in Iraq than the bombs. We thought Bush’s was an appropriate venue for a protest because of his role in setting up the current “crisis.”

In 1991, Bush violated international law and basic moral principles by blocking a peaceful settlement after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait; by deliberately killing civilians in an indiscriminate bombing campaign; by destroying the electrical, water and sewage-treatment infrastructure of Iraq, ensuring massive civilian suffering and death after the war; and by authorizing the slaughter of retreating soldiers. (For a detailed account of these crimes, check

Bush is a favorite son of Texas and father of the current governor, and I understand why people in Austin greeted him warmly. But was such a greeting warranted? Has Bush earned our respect, or should we expect him to answer for his crimes?

The Clinton administration has picked up where Bush left off, pursuing the same immoral, illegal and ineffective policies. The immorality of the sanctions is obvious; innocent people are being sacrificed at the rate of 250 a day, according to the most recent UNICEF figures. The U.S. Catholic bishops have written to Clinton that the sanctions “are not only in violation of the teaching of the Catholic Church, but they violate the human rights of Iraqi people, because they deprive innocent people from food and medicine, basic elements for normal life.”

The suffering is so great that Dennis Halliday, former United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, resigned in protest this fall and testified on Capitol Hill: “[S]anctions continue to malnourish and kill. … Sanctions destroy the family, undermining women’s social and economic advances and encouraging a brain-drain. Sanctions constitute a serious breach of the United Nations charter on human rights and children’s rights. Sanctions are a counter-productive, bankrupt concept that has led to unacceptable human suffering.”

The U.S. policy violates a number of basic tenets of international law, such as the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition of the use of starvation. And under U.S. law, actions constitute international terrorism if they are intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” and “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” Will Clinton turn himself into the nearest FBI agent as a war criminal and terrorist?

Perhaps the biggest outrage is that the suffering imposed on innocent Iraqis has done nothing to advance real peace. The Iraqi people, living on the edge of survival, have few resources for pressing for constructive, democratic political change within Iraq. In Halliday’s words, “Sanctions are undermining the cultural and educational recovery of Iraq, and will not change its system of governance. Sanctions encourage isolation, alienation and fanaticism.”

But, of course, democratic change is not the goal of U.S. policy in Iraq. As administration officials fumble with a plan for fomenting an overthrow of Hussein’s government, it becomes increasingly clear that Clinton, like Bush before him, is scared of real democracy in Iraq and would prefer another iron-fisted dictator, but preferably one who follows U.S. orders.

Let us not forget that at the conclusion of the 1991 war, the United States allowed Hussein’s forces to use helicopter gunships to put down uprisings. In their book, Bush and Scowcroft offer a pathetic explanation for that decision (see p. 490 of “A World Transformed”), but the real reason is clear: A breakaway Kurdish state in the north and Shi’a [note: some use Shitte; not sure what AP style is] Muslim state in the south would have made it more difficult for the United States to control the region; a dictator of a unified Iraq who supports U.S. policy is much preferred. Governments that might truly represent the people are feared by U.S. policymakers, given that those people sometimes have funny ideas about who should control the resources of their lands.

This should remind of us of the iron law of U.S. policy in the Middle East: Effective control of resources of the Middle East must remain, to the degree possible, solely in U.S. hands with the cooperation of compliant local governments. The flow of oil profits to Western, mainly U.S. and British, banks and corporations—after the local elites have taken their cut and purchased sufficient quantities of U.S. weapons—must not be interrupted. The U.S. is interested in rebellion and democracy, so long as it is the rebellion by the right people following the right orders with the right kind of democracy.

Although the bombers are on the ground for now, it is important to remain focused on the ongoing war against the Iraqi people through the sanctions and the illegal nature of any potential U.S. military aggression. If the United States decides to bomb, the ongoing horror of the sanctions will only be intensified, as will the violations of international law. No matter what the obfuscatory claims of administration officials, the United States has no authority under existing UN Security Council resolutions to unilaterally strike Iraq. If U.S. military violence is unleashed, it will be a direct violation of the UN charter and the basic principles of international law.

The unilateral imposition of force can never bring justice or real peace, but the Clinton administration has made it clear it will not abandon these policies on its own. That means it is the job of U.S. citizens to stand up and say: “Not in my name will you commit these crimes. Not in my name will you drop the bombs. Not in my name will more people die.”

There is a truism about silence: All it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to remain silent. When we stood up in the Texas Capitol gallery, we were loud and impolite. The critical question is not why were we loud, but why are so many so silent?