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.”

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note August 7, 2019, 3:14 pm

Censorship

“Nor would I leave to Emmanuel Macron and Mark Zuckerberg, both of them politicians first and foremost, the job of regulating anything that has to do with words or language.”

Publisher's Note July 12, 2019, 10:47 am

American Greatness

Publisher's Note June 10, 2019, 12:05 pm

My French Side

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2019

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Secrets and Lies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Post
Seeking Asylum·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Out of sight on Leros, the island of the damned

Post
Poem for Harm·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

Article
Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Article
Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.
—Chaucer

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today