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Chilcot, Iraq and the Culture of War


"Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?" asked Albert Einstein in a letter he wrote to Sigmund Freud in 1932. The report of The Chilcot Inquiry into responsibility for the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, is a grim reminder of Einstein's still-unanswered question.

While many commentators have focussed their attention on the pivotal role played by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Chilcot Inquiry has presented us with a far more disturbing, much more wide-ranging, and more deeply troubling portrait of institutional failures and responsibility.

In the course of its seven years of work, the inquiry called 129 witnesses. Its report criticizes the UK's Joint Intelligence Committee (which concluded that Saddam Hussein could not be removed without an invasion) and the secret intelligence service MI6. Although the report points out multiple failures on the part of the cabinet to hold "substantive discussion of the policy" over the course of 26 meetings, ministers nonetheless exercised their collective responsibility by taking the decision to invade Iraq on 17 March 2003, and parliament voted in favour the following day. In the background, like a spectre, is the brooding failure of US policy and planning that led to an invasion called by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield "a light footprint."

Ultimately it is a portrait of a Culture of War.

Just over 72 hours before the report's release, 250 Iraqi civilians were blown apart in the lastest devastating bombing in the heart of Baghdad - joining the estimated 500,000 killed in war-related causes since the joint US/UK invasion in 2003. "The country has not had a day of real peace since then," said BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen reporting amidst the wreckage and mourners in Baghdad. "Plenty of Iraqis have made up their minds that the invasion and occupation pushed them into an agony without an end."

The flickering images of young Iraqis picking by hand among the ashes of the blast for human remains are an almost unbearable reminder - if one could possibly be needed - of the dark harvest of our recidivist addiction to war.

The Culture of War

"The culture of war has been an integral part of human culture from early in human evolution," says David Adams, author of The History of the Culture of War. "Every aspect of human culture has been profoundly influenced by it, including family structure, the upbringing and education of children, distinctions between men and women, the invention and maintenance of the state, the invention and maintenance of exploitation and racim, and the resultant economic systems including international trade and globalization."

As Einstein prophetically told Freud, "This issue has come to mean a matter of life and death for civilization as we know it; nevertheless, for all the zeal displayed, every attempt at its solution has ended in a lamentable breakdown."

"A valuable contribution"

Whatever it's detractors may say, The Chilcot Inquiry has done us a service by making it uncontestably clear that the decision to go to war was not an aberrant moment, inexplicably interrupting a long-standing tradition of global peace, economic justice and respect for human rights. Rather, it was the continuation of a violent and self-destructive global habit to which we are collectively addicted. Indeed, we glorify extreme violence, are entertained by it, and invest huge resources in preparing and planning for it.

There is a particularly chilling moment in Section 6 of the Chilcot report which points out that the the Ministry of Defence was examining military options from as early as April 2002. By December of that year, the report states, "the deployment of 3 Command Brigade was identified as a way to make a valuable contribution in the initial stages of a land campaign if transit [for UK ground forces] through Turkey was refused. The operational risks were not explicitly assessed."

This questionable perception of "value" on the part of both the UK and US military planners and their political masters is one of the key issues at the heart of the catastrophe they masterminded. As negotiations at the United Nations failed to produce sufficient Security Council support for military action, a relentless war logic assumed the ascendency.

The report quotes Tony Blair's own memoirs from March 2003. He had written to President Bush, saying more time was needed to secure the support of Chile and Mexico:

"It [the proposal for tests/more time] was indeed a hard sell to George. His system was completely against it. His military were, not unreasonably, fearing that delay gave the enemy time - and time could mean a tougher struggle and more lives lost. This was also troubling to my military. We had all sort of contingency plans in place . . . There was both UK and US intelligence warning us of the risks."

"A military timetable should not be allowed to dictate a diplomatic timetable"

The increasing professional and political pressure that was applied for the war option provides the background to one of the most telling of the inquiry's recommendations: "A military timetable should not be allowed to dictate a diplomatic timetable." The report goes on to state that "it is therefore important to guard against overstating what military action might achieve and against any tendency to play down the risks."

If we look at the report's exhaustive analysis against the larger backdrop of humanity's global priorities, we see the full consequences of overstating what military action can achieve. Many of our nations, at least their leaders, -- as well as many who seek to change the social order -- appear to have much greater confidence in the war option, than in diplomacy, peace work, and the other vital purposes of the United Nations.

"The world spends almost twice as much on weapons in one day than the United Nations spends for our global mission of peace, human rights and development in one year." Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon told the United Nations in 2012.

Within two years of his assessment, according to a 2015 report by the Institute for Economics and Peace, total expenditure on international conflicts had reached more than $14 trillion (£8.9 trillion) a year. The spending amounts to 13% of global GDP and is roughly the combined value of the economies of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, Spain and Brazil.

The most senior voice to be raised on this question most recently was that of Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union. Speaking at a conference this year to mark the 30th anniversary of the Reykjavik meeting between the former Soviet president and his US counterpart, Ronald Reagan, in 1986, he warned that invasions have brought no real solutions to problems, and only resulted in eroding international law and establishing a "cult of force."

"Problems and conflicts of the last two decades that could well be solved through peaceful political and diplomatic ways," he said, "were dealt with through the use of military force. That was the case in former Yugoslavia, in Iraq, in Libya, and Syria,"

But the culture of war is far more than a question of failed diplomacy, and spending on weaponry. It rests on underlying assumptions about human nature, the governance of society, and the alternatives we believe are open to us at this or any other critical juncture in history.

Is war inevitable?

We have inherited a belief that war is an indelible trait of our species. Some argue that

we have inherited it from our animal ancestors. Others believe it is, and always has been, in our genes. There is also the ultitarian view, sometimes mistakenly described as Darwinian, that aggressive behaviour is evolution's preferred tool for selection and survival.

So pervasive are these beliefs - and so devastating are their consequences -- that UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, invited 20 of the world's leading scientists in the fields of genetics, biology, animal behaviour, anthropology, sociology and psychology from 13 countries to examine them. They met in Seville in 1986 and their conclusions, subsequently adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO, said there was no evidence to sustantiate any of these claims.

The notion that our species is genetically, biologically, instinctually, or pre-determined in any other way to choose war is "scientifically inaccurate" they said. "It is a product of culture." They drew their report to an end with these words:

"We conclude that biology does not condemn humanity to war, and that humanity can be freed from the bondage of biological pessimism. Just as 'wars begin in the minds of men', peace also begins in our minds. The same species who invented war is capable of inventing peace. The responsibility lies with each of us."

Is the tide turning?

There is some evidence - still inconclusive - that the tide may be turning. "If we go back to the beginning of the 20th Century," argues David Adams who took part in the meeting of scientists in Seville, "there was very little consciousness that war must be abolished. Really the idea, the consciousness, that we must abolish the institution of war is something that grew during the 20th Century. Now as we enter the 21st Century I would say it is possible that a majority of people in the world really believe it is time to abolish war."

No matter how dreadful the track record of humanity has been over the last 130 years, there have been developments unprecedented in our history. We now have the United Nations (71 peace-keeping missions since 1948); the International Red Cross (active in war zones worldwide, including the protection of civilians and prisoners of war); the Geneva Conventions (the treaties of the rules of war); a growing body of international law including the prevention of genocide, torture and crimes against humanity; and the International Criminal Court for the prosecution of war crimes.

None of that was there before.

Is Chilcot another sign of the times? Whatever you may think about the conduct and report of the Chilcot inquiry, you are unlikely to find many other invasions and conquests in history where the apparent victors have been held up to scrutiny by a publicly-funded, independent civilian inquiry. It called an extraordinary number of civil, political and military figures to give testimony, forced secret documents into the open, and twice summoned the political war-leader of the attack and military occupation to appear before it.

Speaking at the formal launch of the report, Sir John Chilcot said, "Above all, the lesson is that all aspects of any intervention need to be calculated, debated and challenged with the utmost rigour."

That rigour is needed now as never before, especially given the fact, pointed out by Mihkail Gorbachev, that the Iraq debacle is only one in a litany of disastrous acts of worship to the "cult of violence".

It's not just war

Now, thankfully, it is not just war, but violence of all kinds - racial, inter-communal, inter-gender, domestic and self-harming - that is coming under rigorous scrutiny.

There is now a body of thought that holds, to the surprise of many, that violence has, in fact, been on a long trajectory of decline. Professor Stephen Pinker, in his monumental The Better Angels of our Nature, argues that human beings are becoming less violent and more altruistic. His exhaustive statistical analysis demonstrates that far fewer of us die in war and violent attacks (as a proportion of the world's population) than did our ancestors. Critics question this. John Gray, the political philosopher says, "Rather than war declining, the difference between peace and war has been fatally blurred."

Chilcot has given us a glimpse into that deadly blurring. The invasion of Iraq was the work of minds mesmerized as if by a wargame. Ultimately they dragged entire nations into their own myth-making, lies and lethal, self-generated momentum. In the end, they were tragically impervious to the fact that 15 million people in over 800 cities came out onto the streets urging them to come to their senses. It was the largest global protest ever to take place.

Faced with the continuing human toll - individual, societal and global - of our resort to violence in all its forms, the World Health Organization, in 2002, commissioned a investigation into violence as a public health issue. In his foreword to the World Report on Violence and Health, Nelson Mandela, wrote:

"The twentieth century will be remembered as a century marked by violence. It burdens us with its legacy of mass destruction, of violence inflicted on a scale never seen and never possible before in human history.

This suffering is a legacy that reproduces itself, as new generations learn from the violence of generations past, as victims learn from victimizers, and as the social conditions that nurture violence are allowed to continue. No country, no city, no community is immune. But neither are we powerless against it.

Violence thrives in the absence of democracy, respect for human rights and good governance. We often talk about how a ''culture of violence'' can take root.

Many who live with violence day in and day out assume that it is an intrinsic part of the human condition. But this is not so. Violence can be prevented. Violent cultures can be turned around.

Safety and security don't just happen: they are the result of collective consensus and public investment.

We owe our children - the most vulnerable citizens in any society - a life free from violence and fear. In order to ensure this, we must be tireless in our efforts not only to attain peace, justice and prosperity for countries, but also for communities and members of the same family. We must address the roots of violence."

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