Cambridge, United Kingdom – From above, from the commanding positions occupied by leaders, war appears as an instrument. It is a tool that states and political groups use to achieve their aims. War is a broadsword, or even a light, handy rapier, with which enemies are dispatched, interests protected and values served.
For the Syrian opposition, war is the means by which to remove the Assad regime. For the Assad regime, it is the means by which to crush the opposition. Iran and Russia hope that war will maintain their ally Assad in power. The US and its Gulf allies hope to hobble or remove Assad through war. Minorities within Syria are assessing war’s utility in protecting, threatening or furthering their interests.
Viewed from outside, war can appear as evil, or as a tragedy, or as an epic poetry, depending on one’s disposition. Liberals condemn war and try to criminalise those who make war. They decry human rights violations on all sides and threaten trials.
The UN and the international community hope to transform war into something called “peace and stability”. They come up with things such as the Annan plan and conduct diplomacy.
Commentators decry what might have been if leaders had made all the right moves, if only they had seized the opportunities for peace, or for victory.
Others who observe war from outside are little heard from in polite company. For them, mostly – but not exclusively – young men, war is an excitement, an adventure, something to be desired. They may seek to participate directly; more likely they merely fantasise in the company of their computer screens and game controllers. Here, and elsewhere, war offers an escape from meaningless routines, a return to a heroic time when men were warriors, not office workers.
But from the inside, for those who experience it directly, war is a tonne of bricks that collapses on your head. It is a capricious, angry beast that arrives unannounced and lashes out with no rhyme or reason. One night you may be sitting in your kitchen chatting with your family. By the next evening, your mother’s intestines have spilled out on to the floor, her stomach torn open by shrapnel; your sister is raped by militia; your father is nowhere to be seen, carted off by the security forces; and your brother has run away to join the rebels. What will you do now?
In a day, war has made you into an entirely different person, one you do not recognise.
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War is all of these things together and none of them. As an instrument, war may explode in your hands, or achieve results quite other than leadership initially imagined. Certainly, Assad had no idea he would be in the beleaguered position he now is in when he first resorted to the use of force. Those fighting for a Free Syria may instead end up in a new Lebanon.
The international community has a long record of prolonging the very wars it seeks to end. Liberals who make grand speeches about war criminals only go after minor, usually African, ones. Their calls for “humanitarian intervention” and “peace enforcement” all too often lead to yet more war.
Young men who valourise war enough to seek it out often end up its broken victims. If they survive at all, they are unable to speak convincingly enough to warn off the next generation of cannon fodder.
And for those to whom war presented itself as a random disaster? It was not random at all. That shelling that killed your mother and the militia that raped your sister were intended to terrify the population and make them governable again. Rounding up and torturing your father was a way to ensure he would think only of survival for his family and himself, not of “politics”. Your brother joining the rebels? Well, that was an unintended consequence of planned actions.
War is something we try very hard to give meaning to. We try to make it a rational tool. We try to make it a force for good or for evil. We try to find some sense in the sacrifices it demands of us. We refuse the idea that our brothers and sisters die for no reason.
Even in war’s nihilism, we try to find meaning. We imagine war is some kind of heroic compensation for consumer society, to be viewed on the big screen either as news or as a Hollywood blockbuster.
What war is really good at is resisting any consistent meaning we try to find in it. It inverts our purposes. It mocks our high-mindedness. It denies any possibility of adequately answering the question: “Why did our sons and daughters have to die?”
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.