NOVEMBER is never a happy month. It commemorates the end of the First World War, during which about 40 million people fell casualty to conflicts they had not started. About 20m died — half were military combatants and the other half civilians. This month, the victors and the vanquished commemorated the fallen in pious acts of collective remembrance. None of them dared recall the petty reason — the neutrality of Belgium — why their countries had fought in the first place.
November is also the anniversary of the commencement of the Nuremberg trials, when, after the Second World War, the Allies put Nazi Germany on trial. On Nov 20, 1945, R.H. Jackson, chief counsel for the prosecuting Allies, presented this justification to the tribunal: “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilisation cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”
Yet, civilisation has survived and then repeated the same follies. The copybook of recent history is bulging with mini-wars, scarred battlegrounds, uncounted corpses, and now haunting images of starving Yemeni children too weak to cough, too young to die.
Leaders are expected to have strong stomachs. Queen Elizabeth I boasted having “the heart and stomach of a king”. She spoke for kings and presidents. President Barack Obama felt no queasiness watching live from Washington the capture and assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. His successor Donald Trump though is more finicky. He refuses to listen to an audiotape of the vivisection of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi within the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Trump prefers Khashoggi’s screams to be drowned by the lullaby of oil wells pumping petrodollars into his country’s armament economy.
Future generations will wonder why we condone brutality.
Humanists have criticised President Trump for not censuring the Saudi leadership for suspected complicity in Khashoggi’s elimination. They should read the statistics of the strong-arm relationship between the overdeveloped United States and the overrich Arabs. Between 2009 and 2016, the US supplied $65 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia. As if that was not gluttony enough, in May 2017 Trump inked sale agreements worth $110bn more.
Can Saudi Arabia sustain such outlays? According to a Congressional Service report (2018), it is anticipated that by 2025 (when Trump’s successor or his successor’s successor is president), Saudi Arabia’s recurring expenditure will equal its anticipated revenues at SAR 1.13 trillion. Its government reserves will have halved from their present levels to SAR 271bn, and its debt doubled to SAR 854bn.
Its affluent neighbour UAE has a sedentary army of 50,000, protected by 5,000 US forces. The UAE was persuaded by the US to buy 80 F16 aircraft with advanced air missiles at a price of $8bn. Only last year these needed to be improved at the cost of another $6bn.
“Men who are in charge of such edged tools,” President Woodrow Wilson once said, “… grow very impatient if they are not permitted to use them.” And they have done, though not always with the success expected. President Richard Nixon, heading the world’s biggest superpower, bemoaned its impotence: “Never has so much military economic, and diplomatic power been used as ineffectively as in Vietnam.” Had he lived, he would have added Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and now Yemen.
Shouldn’t these conflicts be upgraded to wars? Shouldn’t murders, violence and assassinations perpetrated during them come under the definition of ‘war crimes’ and attract punishment? Or do these atrocities have the shelf life of a sandwich? In the 1970s, the United Nations resolved that ‘there is no period of limitation for war crimes and crimes against humanity”. Such a carte blanche mandate would imply that one could go as far back as the fringes of revenge. Will there ever be a second Nuremberg, though, where individuals are held accountable for sins committed by them in the name of the state?
At Nuremberg, the Allies thought they would shock the Nazi defendants by showing them films of concentration camps at Auschwitz and Belsen, taken after their skeletal inmates had been rescued by US and Allied forces. Reacting to the smugness shown by the unrepentant Nazis, one observer realised that “their guilt, in contrast to all criminal guilt, oversteps and shatters any and all legal systems [.] We are simply not equipped to deal, on a human, political level, with a guilt that is beyond crime”.
Future generations will wonder why we ordinary citizens condone brutality which “explodes the limits of the law”. Or are we like Goering at Nuremberg and Trump with the Khashoggi tapes comfortable ducking below the bar of personal guilt? It is for each of us to answer. Meanwhile, the dying and the dead queue for justice, for action against those who act with brazen impunity confident of Teflon immunity.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2018