Around 2000 years ago Seneca the Younger said: “We are mad not only individually but nationally. We check manslaughter and isolated murders, but what of war and the much vaunted crime of slaughtering whole peoples?”
In 1880, General William Tecumseh Sherman said: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.”
In 1970, Edwin Starr sang the powerful antiwar song “War.” The song begins with:
War, h’uh, Yeah!
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothin, uh-huh, uh-huh
War, h’uh, Yeah!
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothin, say it again, y’all
War, h’uh, good god
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothin, listen to me.
Here we are in 2022, and we have apparently learned very little. Why is that? Part of the reason is the selective enforcement of international law since WWII. For example, no US leader was sanctioned or even tried for the blatantly criminal and unwarranted US-led attack on Iraq. The message seemed to be that international law doesn’t apply to nuclear powers.
Russia has now launched a horrific invasion of Ukraine. Unfortunately, this invasion, as with most other conflicts, didn’t need to have happened. There were several times when a reasonable compromise on the part of the US, Ukraine and Russia could have prevented this current crisis. In particular, if the 2015 Minsk II agreement, supported unanimously by the UN Security Council, had been strongly pushed by the US, this agreement probably would have prevented this abominable attack.
This ongoing horrendous Russian invasion of Ukraine isn’t the only current violation of international law, but it’s by far the most widely covered. For example, Saudi Arabia, strongly supported by the US, continues its appalling attack on Yemen. Israel, with US support, continues its illegal and brutal occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territories. The US continues its illegal occupation of parts of Syria and fighting continues in Libya. Morocco continues its illegal occupation of Western Sahara. Fighting also continues in many places on the African continent.
Russia, similar to the US, attacks cities with overwhelming power. The current Russian attack on Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities are unconscionable examples of this type of attack, and these attacks have been rightly widely criticized. However, many reporters and people in the US orbit seem to have forgotten about the destruction caused by similar US attacks, particularly in Iraq and Syria. Fallujah and Mosul were two Iraqi cities destroyed by the US military. In addition, US forces devastated Raqqa in Syria. Reporters also seem to have forgotten about Israeli attacks that devastated Beirut in 1982 and 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09, 2012, 2014 and 2021.
One must also not ever forget the US fire bombing of German and Japanese cities and the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For example, the US fire bombing of Tokyo alone killed over 100,000 people, destroyed over 16 square miles in central Tokyo, and left over one million homeless in just a single night.
Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’ from a devastated Atlanta to Savannah during late 1864 is said to be an early example of the modern total war concept. His army destroyed everything in its path that could be of use to the Confederacy and took whatever supplies it needed as it marched. Of course, one might say that this total war concept had already been widely used in the genocide of American Indians when their villages and food supplies, including the buffalo, were destroyed. Millions of American Indians were brutally slaughtered and not one US president was ever tried for committing war crimes for this genocide.
As if the senselessness of modern warfare is not bad enough, there is the use of unilateral and multilateral sanctions not approved by the UN Security Council. These sanctions constitute a serious violation of international law. Unsurprisingly, these sanctions generally don’t work since their impact hits the population hard, with far lesser impact on the targeted leaders. The US has used this criminal form of economic warfare against many nations whose leaders do not agree to US demands. Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan, Russia and Iran are some of these sanctioned nations.
In an article on Antiwar.com, Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute wrote: “Far from being a humane substitute for war, economic sanctions impose some of the worst impacts of conflict on civilians. Nor have American officials hesitated to accept even heavy collateral casualties. Madeleine Albright is responsible for a string of arrogant and thoughtless comments on foreign policy. Perhaps her most famous gaffe – that is, telling an inconvenient truth – was her response to a question about the death of a half million Iraqi babies due to sanctions: “We think the price is worth it,” she said.”
War usually does not solve problems. As former British politician Tony Benn said: “All war represents a failure of diplomacy.” This is certainly true of the current crisis of this abominable Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, it is not too late for diplomacy. The sooner Ukraine and Russia negotiate painful compromises, the sooner the terrible suffering of the Ukrainian people and the destruction of Ukraine will end. This negotiation will proceed much more quickly if the US doesn’t insist on Ukraine fighting until Ukraine is physically destroyed and Russia is crushed economically.
Perhaps wars will finally end when there are significant consequences for all those who cause conflicts. As long as there is selective enforcement of international law, respect for and compliance with it are undermined and wars will likely continue.
Ron Forthofer is a retired professor of biostatistics, having taught at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. Since my retirement in 1991, I have been an activist for peace and social justice. He was a candidate for Congress and for governor of Colorado for the Green Party.