Warriors and Terrorists

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One of my favourite actors is the late Sir Peter Ustinov who was not just a thespian, but an outspoken intellectual, journalist, representative for UNICEF and past President of something called the World Federalist Movement (more info about it here).

In his column this week, Eric Margolis quoted one of Ustinov’s more pithy observations: “Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich.”

This is clear to many of us who have sympathy for the world’s dispossessed hordes. Yet, in this new era of stupidity, it behooves me to have to declare yet again that acceptance of Ustinov’s axiom is in no way admission of support for terrorists; if anything, it’s a further disavowment of terrorism, as the quote lumps the tactic in with the great obscenity of civilization: war.

Yet therein lies the unspoken pathology of the present pro-war set: one may offer rhetoric to the effect that war is bad and needs to be avoided, but a current of militaristic fetishism runs deeply through such declarations, borne out through the constant reassertion of the glories of traditional military trappings: uniforms, ballads, flags, worn out slogans and the like.

I believe Ustinov’s quote comes close to revealing the true source of discontentment from which the more virulent of the pro-war croud suffers. If, as Ustinov correctly observes, terrorism and warfare are two sides of the same coin, how truly thin is the disk of metal that separates them?

If one defines terrorism as violent acts deliberately perpetrated upon civilian populations in order to attain political goals (a commonly accepted definition), then traditional warriors certainly qualify. The Nazis were terrorists for establishing death camps and for raining bombs down on London during the Blitz. The Allies were also terrorists for flattening Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even in situations of what modern spin-doctors call “collateral damage”, wherein civilian deaths are incidental to the destruction of military targets, the defence is disingenuous, since if civilian death are expected, then they are de facto targets and hence are victims of terrorism, especially when the goal of the operation is as much psychological as military, eg. “shock and awe”. (In legal cliche, “intent follows the bullet”.)

What then is the difference between “warriors” and “terrorists”? The difference is in the trappings. We of the “civilized” world dress up our “warriors” in uniforms that are fetishized by fashionistas and undersexed young women. We march our soldiers out to standard drumbeats and to the strains of military marching bands. We wave flags that somehow (God only knows how) have attained the status of personages, to the extent that in many armies the only right action after losing one’s flag to the enemy is to kill oneself. All these trappings, you must admit, are frail and feeble and desperately transparent in their attempt to distract us from the true task of their bearers: to kill other people. How in God’s good name did the word “warrior” take on a positive connotation in our culture? A warrior is someone who makes war, kills people, destroys property, causes suffering and mayhem. Yet every society seeks to grant such individuals –criminals in any other context– the shimmer of honour, or else we would all slide into guilty, self-hating despair.

Terrorists, by virtue of being the warriors of the poor (and I use the word “warrior” in its true, unglorified meaning), have no such trappings under which to hide their shame. It is this thin and artificial veil that separates suicide bombers from B2 bombers. And it is the thinness of this veil that makes many of the hawks of the West uncomfortable: to honestly consider the motivations of terrorists is to compel onself to honestly consider the motivations of the military actions of one’s own cultures and countries, and for many that is an unpalatable prospect. For the truly unsettled, to see oneself in the actions of one’s enemy is a painful exercise akin to psychotherapy; only the strong and centred can survive it.

To be a “peace-keeper” is an honourable trade. To “police” a zone, prevent crime, protect the weak and provide a psychologically buttressing presence are worthy activities for those who seek to make the carrying of assault weapons their main trade. But to make war against the innocent who have not harmed or threatened you, whether traditionally under a flag and wearing drab olive, or asymmetrically while dressed in civilian garb, is not something to be proud of. For those who argue that it is nonetheless necessary, at least have the guts to admit that it is murder, and stop hiding behind the unconvincing veneer of honour, religion and tradition.