Publisher's Note — April 12, 2018, 5:29 pm

Humanitarian Wars

“I’ve often found myself doing battle with ‘humanitarian’ propaganda, sometimes promoted by nice, respectable people who strongly support military interventions, justified (in their view) because they would save hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on April 3, 2018. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Every once in a while, you come across a book that has an overwhelming impact on your life. When I was young, Albert Camus’s The Plague was such a book.  During senior year in my suburban Chicago high school, the metaphorical story of the “occupation” of Oran by a deadly pestilence shook me so much that I can still remember walking back and forth in the little garden of a house in Bretignolles-sur-Mer, France, where I was vacationing before starting my freshman year at college, furiously scribbling on large sheets of paper, pouring out my devotion to the thoughts and principles of the indefatigable Doctor Rieux and his friend Tarrou, and declaring my dedication to the idealism of the journalist Rambert.  Never would I give in to evil, to Nazism, to the occupier’s cruelty, I vowed. Never would I lose sight of the obligation to protect mankind from brutality.

It’s easy to have such self-confidence at the age of eighteen.  Obviously, as life goes on, things get complicated, just as the motivations of politicians and nations do in times of war.

A long career in journalism has made me aware of another powerful “evil” that clouds issues and confounds even the most honorable people.  Instead of fighting against the sort of evil Camus portrays, I’ve often found myself doing battle with “humanitarian” propaganda, sometimes promoted by nice, respectable people who strongly support military interventions, justified (in their view) because they would save hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.  At a certain point, I began to specialize in the subject and to oppose the received ideas about various atrocities, ideas that were shouted over television networks and in front-page headlines.  Having gained some expertise in Chicago from the cynical omissions made by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office and the Chicago police in the case of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy (I reported how they hid their collective failure to halt Gacy’s murder spree earlier), in 1992 I revealed the origins of the fabricated story about the murders of babies in Kuwait by Iraqi soldiers before the first Gulf War.  Similarly, in 1999 I questioned the false “genocide” project supposedly directed against the Serbs in Kosovo; and in 2002-2003 I challenged the fictional atomicbomb program allegedly under development in Baghdad.  Not exactly what I’d imagined during my noble outbursts in Bretignolles, but honest journalism is not for yes-men.

Now I’ve discovered another overwhelming book – this one fiercely critical of the pretexts for “humanitarian” war – whose protagonist is a sort of contemporary Doctor Rieux.  A former president of Doctors without Borders, Rony Brauman has produced, in his Guerres humanitaires? Mensonges et intox (“Humanitarian Wars?  Lies and Propaganda”) – a conversation with Régis Meyran – an essential text for understanding how much the principle of a “just war” against an absolute evil, a principle that his colleague Bernard Kouchner and the public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy support, has been twisted and deformed: “What’s striking when you look closely at the wars in Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya is the power propaganda can have, provided that it takes root in a favorable intellectual matrix… ‘Alternative facts’ have become a subject of general mockery following the assertions of Trump’s presidential counsellor, but people forget that such ‘facts’ reigned supreme in the Libyan War.”  Given the unsupported claim that Gaddafi’s forces bombarded the civilian population in Tripoli – a “crime” particularly exaggerated by Al-Jazeera and Lévy – and the “systematic and generalized attacks” against civilians, attacks never verified at the time, there is reason to believe Brauman’s declaration that “Libya is our very own [i.e. France’s] Iraq War.” Today, with Nicolas Sarkozy under indictment for allegedly accepting financial contributions to his 2007 presidential campaign from Gaddafi, we once again have good reason to call into question the pious arguments of 2011 in favor of overthrowing the Libyan dictator.

All the same, it’s less useful to condemn this or that unscrupulous politician – the two Bushes, Tony Blair, Sarkozy, the Clinton couple, Obama – than to dig deeper and arrive at an understanding that the ideology of humanitarian intervention is not intrinsically virtuous anywhere, including in Syria.   The fact that Hitler should have been stopped in 1933 or 1936 or 1938 – or that the United Nations, backed up by a Franco-American alliance, should have been able to prevent the genocide in Rwanda – is no excuse for the intellectual corruption that leads so quickly to an accusation of crimes against humanity, followed by military violence.  According to Brauman, “This reductio ad Hitlerum has more to do with the rhetoric of moral intimidation than with rational argument.”

It’s as if Doctor Rieux had appeared in the garden in Bretignolles, grabbed me by the collar, and said, “Take it slow, young man.  The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ applies to the protection of truth as well as to the protection of the innocent.”

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

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