Notes From the Margins…


  • September 14, 2011
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Are the Taliban cowards?  Yes,  according to  Hilary Clinton, who condemned what she called yesterday’s ‘cowardly’ attacks on the American Embassy and NATO compound in the heart of Kabul by the members of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network.   According to the online Dictionary.Com the adjective ‘cowardly’ can either mean’lacking courage; contemptibly timid’ or ‘characteristic of or befitting a coward; despicably mean, covert, or unprincipled: a cowardly attack on a weak, defenseless man.’

Not much of this seems relevant to what  Reuters called ‘  the longest and most audacious militant attack on the Afghan capital in the decade since the Taliban were ousted from power’.  11 civilians and at least 4 members of the Afghan security services died before  the last of the six Taliban was killed after a twenty-hour series of gunbattles.    Reuters describes how

“The insurgents had holed up in a multi-storey building still under construction and launched their attack early on Tuesday afternoon, firing rockets towards the U.S. and other embassies and the headquarters of NATO-led foreign forces. Three suicide bombers also targeted police buildings in other parts of the city, but the embassy district assault was the most spectacular. Afghan security forces backed by NATO and Afghan attack helicopters fought floor-by-floor in the 13-storey building, which the insurgents appeared to have booby trapped. One or two fighters held out overnight. “

Whatever else could be said about such  mayhem, it was not the work of  ‘timid’ people.  The attacks were certainly ‘mean and covert’, and depending on your view of the Taliban they may even be considered ‘despicably mean’ and ‘unprincipled’, though an assault on the symbol of US power cannot hardly be regarded as an attack on a ‘defenceless’ target.

From the Taliban’s point of view the attacks were a brilliant success.   Clinton  knows this perfectly well of course.  On the one hand her accusations of cowardice belong to a propaganda ritual, which Western governments habitually engage in.  But it also echoes a heroic fantasy image of  war that goes back to Homer and the Charge of the Light Brigade,  of manly warriors engaging in open combat on the battlefield.

This concept of warfare  has long been rendered anachronistic by the advent of modern technological warfare, and twentieth century innovations such as  strategic bombing, guerilla warfare, the technique’ of terrorism and ‘asymmetric warfare’ against civilian ‘soft targets’ – and also by the various tributaries of counterinsurgency and  ‘counter-terrorism’ which also target civilians.

Despite all this, Western governments find it difficult to abandon the notion that ‘our’ violence is inherently virtuous by comparison with ‘non-state actors’ such as the Taliban.  Thus in May this year,  Michelle Obama called   the execution of Osama bin Laden as ‘heroic action’ carried out by ‘  a small group of brave men, dropped by helicopter, half a world away in the dead of night … into unknown danger inside the lair of the most sought after man in the world’.

The Navy Seals who killed Osama bin Laden were essentially a hit squad, whose heroism  consisted of executing an unarmed man in his pyjamas when they could have arrested him.  The question of whether they were  ‘brave’ and the suicidal Taliban raid on Kabul was ‘cowardly’ is clearly a matter of subjective interpretation rather than an objective description of their actions.

The same could be said of David Cameron’s speech earlier  this month in which he listed the British pilots ‘ flying sorties night after night in the skies over Libya’ as another example of the heroism and sacrifice of the ‘people who make our country great.’

These sorties are virtually risk-free , since Libya has no air force, radar or aerial defence system worthy of the name, and their victims have included significant numbers of civilians.    NATO’s role in Libya is  a reprise of the Kosovo war, which consisted almost entirely of bombing raids conducted from 20,000 feet against Serbian cities and ‘infrastructure’ without the presence of a single soldier on the ground, and which resulted in precisely zero NATO combat casualties.

The rhetoric of  ‘our brave armed forces’ is even more questionable regarding the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in Pakistan and other places.     Yet these operators can also be  ‘brave’    according to the US military.  As long ago as  2007 the US Army Times reported that

“Soldiers who operate unmanned aerial vehicles now are eligible for award of the Aviation Badge, Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal…’if they are physically located on the aircraft (system) during the cited period, and all criteria for the decorations have been met.’ The Distinguished Flying Cross is a prestigious decoration that ranks just behind the Silver Star as a valor medal. It is awarded for heroism or extraordinary achievement. The Air Medal is awarded for heroism, outstanding achievement or meritorious service. ”

Given that location on the ‘aircraft system’ means sitting in front a computer screen thousands of miles from the ‘battlefield’ and firing a missile at a target that does not know it is being targeted, such activity might seem somewhat less than heroic.

Needless to say the targets of these ‘battles’ often have a very different perspective.  The AFP News Agency contains the following report on a series of drone attacks carried out against the Haqqani network in Pakistan earlier this month, in which

“The Taliban claimed that ’14 innocent Pakistani civilians were martyred in the cowardly drone raids’, and that a house, a car, and an Islamic school were also completely destroyed in the drone strikes besides farming crops destroyed and livestock killed including goats and chickens.”

If governments are  not the only ones to invoke notions of a ‘fair fight’, nor are they unique in depicting even the most horrific acts of violence by their own side as brave and heroic.   Last night I watched an al-Qaeda propaganda video on al-Jazeera, celebrating the suicide attacks on three hotels in the Jordanian capital Amman in 2005.

The video described how ‘three lions left their dens’ to carry out these attacks, which killed 56 civilians, including guests at a wedding reception.  The question of whether these ‘lions’ were cowardly or brave is to some extent irrelevant to any moral judgement of their actions, except to their immediate supporters.

The fact that someone is ‘brave’ enough to blow themselves up in a birdmarket in Baghdad, or fly a plane into a skyscraper in order to kill civilians does not in itself validate such actions.   But that does not mean that a pilot who obeys orders to drop a bomb on an unguarded and defenceless city as part of his day’s work, should be hailed for his bravery and spirit of service.

This does not mean that ‘our’ soldiers are not brave.   In Iraq and Afghanistan Western soldiers have been killed and suffered horrific injuries, and many soldiers have shown physical and mental courage and self-sacrifice.  The same could be said of insurgents in Fallujah – and of the Taliban.   But individual acts of bravery do not in themselves make these wars moral or virtuous.

This rhetoric  of bravery and cowardice is  likely to become even more redundant in the coming century, with the development of autonomous robots by the US military and other countries.    So perhaps we should stop using this kind of redundant language now.

And  instead of clinging onto an image of virtuous Homeric warfare and a ‘fair fight’ we might do better to seek ways to prevent wars from happening and avoid an activity that remains, as it always has been,  brutal, savage, and essentially barbaric, regardless of whether its protagonists are cowardly or brave.













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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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