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As long as the violence and bloodshed continues in Iraq, there will be those who seek to explain it away or justify it. But seen in the light of its continuing toll on human life, such arguments ring hollow, morally bankrupt and even absurd - "reasons" untouched by human reason.

War's Moral Chaos

Iraq in 2015

by Lily Hamourtziadou
6 July 2015

Today’s news is always old news. The innocent get slaughtered and someone
makes up excuses.
—Charles Simic,“Portable Hell”, The New York Review of Books, 5 Aug 2014.1

1 (Hat-tip to Lynn Dombek, in The Intercept's Summer Reading List).

For millennia, political theorists, historians and philosophers have tried to find and provide a set of ethical principles with which to assess war. From the time of Thucydides writing about the Peloponnesian war in the 5th century BC, to Augustine in the 5th century AD, to Thomas Aquinas in the 13th, to Kant’s Just War Theory, to the 20th century UN Charter defining human rights and establishing international courts to try war criminals, to Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars, war has not ceased and neither have attempts to justify military action, or to declare military action illegal, or immoral. Death and destruction are often justified, if a ‘Just Cause’ is offered. Despite that many wars begin with moral clarity and a conviction (at least declared, if not genuinely held) of the right course of action, before long the ethics become ‘situational’, dependent upon a particular context and evaluated in its light.

The Iraq war back in 2003 started with moral clarity, at least for those who flung their nations along the warpath: terrorism must be fought, the people of Iraq must be liberated and democracy and human rights must prevail. And of course those WMDs Saddam purportedly possessed had to be found and destroyed before he could use them (never mind that an invasion would give him reason to use them). Last year, long after it became clear that none of those moral and political goals had been achieved, and with Iraqis continuing to live in daily terror, including new terrors hardly imaginable 12 years ago, once again action was taken by the international community, to try to achieve those desirable ends. Again with moral clarity, from 8th August 2014 a US-led coalition resumed aerial bombardment of Iraq .

What has happened since?

The first half of 2015 has actually seen a greater number of civilian deaths compared to the second half of 2014. Between January 1st and June 30th around 7,900 civilians have been reported killed in Iraq (from July-December 2014, the civilian death toll was 7,300). As for the victims of ISIS, the executions have continued at the same level of around 3,000 during a six-month period. These are in addition to thousands of other deaths that have occurred among the groups directly engaged in the fighting: Iraqi military, Hashd al-Shaabi and Peshmerga forces, and members of ISIS and other armed opposition groups. The international coalition has so far largely avoided combat losses, operating only from the safety of aircraft flying well above the fighting.

Executions: 2,996 (rate unchanged)
Jan: 542
Feb: 589
Mar: 143
Apr: 900
May: 564
Jun: 258

The most striking change, however, has been in the number of civilians killed by the international coalition. The civilian death toll was 118 from July to December, but from January to June it is now 369.

Coalition: 369 (rate tripled)
Jan: 9
Feb: 82
Mar: 25
Apr: 95
May: 23
Jun: 135

Back in 2006-2007 we thought the situation could not get any worse, as thousands of civilians were being killed every month. What could be worse than the daily loss of life through bombings, air raids and execution-type killings? What could be worse than millions of people living as refugees in camps, hungry and in unsanitary conditions? What could be worse than fearing arrest and torture by your own military? What could be worse than foreign armies conducting air strikes over your cities?

In the past year Iraq is visited by old and new horrors, as people are sold, bought and re-sold, as they perish in refugee camps, as they die in the hands of ISIS extremists, Sunni, Shia, their own government and the international coalition. In the last six months we have witnessed them killed in all manner of hideous ways: beheadings, crucifixions, electrocutions, immolations, drownings, shootings, stonings, hangings and bombings.

The reasons given for their killing? Watching football, practising witchcraft/sorcery, objecting to a religious ruling, being gay, trying to flee, not swearing allegiance, collaborating with security forces and simply being in the wrong place. Those killed were people of all ages, from children to a 70-year-old woman who was burnt alive for refusing to pay ISIS members the money they demanded. Women are routinely being sold and assaulted. The value of a human being is now the value of a packet of cigarettes (ISIS slave markets sell girls for 'as little as a pack of cigarettes', UN envoy says, AFP/The Guardian, June 9, 2015). A year after the international coalition started air strikes in Iraq, not only are civilians still killed at the same rate, but many areas in Anbar, Ninewa and Salahuddin are under ISIS control.

War, violence and cruelty still reign supreme in Iraq. All those involved in it declare some kind of moral justification:

-the people must be liberated
-the terrorists must be killed
-moral order must be restored
-those ‘against Islam’ must die
-the government must be in charge
-peace and stability must be enforced
-the threat must be removed

What is the threat? What the threat is varies according to the ends of each side: the threat to liberty, the threat to democracy, the threat to Islamic values, the threat to humanity; the threat of terrorism, the threat of western imperialism, the threat of human traffickers, the threat of fundamentalism.

The truth is that the threat to life has rarely been greater in Iraq, as evidenced by the rate at which that threat is turned into the reality of death. With all the reasons and justifications we are given, what we actually see in Iraq now is a moral as well as a physical chaos. Neither dignity nor life is respected.

How might this change? No one seems to know, or if they do, their voice is drowned by those with bigger concerns. But it seems certain that it won’t be along the same paths and by the same means that brought us to this broken state of affairs.