Wednesday, 15 August 2012

When are humans not human? Libya, Liberalism and the incineration of the armies of the global South

Ever since its inception in the seventeenth century, liberalism has been a wholly hypocritical ideology, based not on the principle of the indivisibility of humanity, as its adherents claim, but on precisely the opposite - endlessly redefined categories of exclusion. The founder of modern Liberalism, John Locke, formulated the principles of England’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, supposedly entrenching the ‘natural rights’ to “life, liberty and property” with which he believed all humans were born. All that is, except Catholics - whose support for the wrong side in the English civil war was to be the pretext for the denial of their basic rights for the next 150 years - and Africans, who, by a simple logical trick, were simply categorised by Locke as not human at all.

Ever since then, Liberalism’s so-called “universal” human rights have been anything but; Locke’s exceptions have become the rule. A century after the ‘Glorious Revolution’, the USA’s founding fathers followed up their victory in the war against English rule by enshrining basic liberal values into their new constitution. This time “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were the human rights to which all were entitled. Following Locke, the continuation of slavery presented no contradiction here – Africans were simply written off as not fully human – only three fifths human, in fact – and thus exempt from the ‘natural rights’ inherent to all men.

In our times, the ideological somersault has been slightly more subtle than the simple demonization of Africans or Catholics. The people now deemed unworthy of even the most basic human right – the right to life – are soldiers. This is the barbaric flipside of all the feigned concern for civilians in Syria and Libya that has been pouring out of the mouths of our politicians and media pundits for the past year.

This focus on civilians is intentionally designed to hide the horrific reality of what has actually been taking place – the systematic strafing and murder of Libyan and Syrian troops in their tens of thousands – troops who have never invaded another country, many of whom have not even been involved in the retaking of rebel cities, and most still in their teens.

Of course, civilians were killed by NATO as well - and not just mistakenly either. Defence Secretary Liam Fox effectively admitted that Gaddafi’s baby grandchildren (all aged between 6 months and 2 years), blown to pieces by NATO in late April last year, were deliberately targeted as part of a strategy to “put psychological pressure on Gadaffi”. But these deaths were at least reported as deaths in the Western media, and briefly caused some controversy. Likewise, the Guardian reported on its front page the news that NATO had deliberately left 61 migrants to die of thirst in the Mediterranean, some of the 1500 civilians estimated to have died there whilst attempting to flee NATO’s war.

Deaths of Libyan soldiers, however, were never reported by Western news corporations as deaths of human beings. At best, there were veiled references to the ‘degrading of Gaddafi’s military capability’ or of ‘Gaddafi’s capacity to attack civilians’. The latter is particularly odious. Soldiers have become, it seems, not human beings - people with lives, feelings and families – but merely the ‘capacity to attack civilians’.

Barely six weeks into the invasion, British officials were already boasting that NATO had killed over 35,000 such human beings (in the usual euphemistic way, of course - “We estimate that [Gaddafi] has around 30 per cent of his ground forces capability remaining,” is how one British official put it, after estimating an initial ‘capability’ of 50,000).

The ideological focus on civilians and no one else does not take much decoding. It is clearly an exclusionary category – civilians are precisely not-soldiers. Therefore the statement “when we bomb Libya, we are going to save civilians” might be a more palatable way of saying “we are going to incinerate all 50,000 members of the Libyan armed forces”, but essentially means exactly the same thing: no soldiers will be spared.

Of course, the massacre of male soldiers also helped to facilitate the slaughter of NATO’s beloved civilians as well, as women and children were left – and remain - even more vulnerable to the rebel army’s rapes and murders after the killing of their husbands and fathers.

We need to challenge this rhetoric about civilian lives, as if no one and nothing else is important. The obsessive focus not only wilfully obscures the massacres of Libyan soldiers, but also justifies the destruction of their economy, infrastructure, telecommunications networks, water supply… once we accept the logic that only civilian lives are important, literally every other possible target becomes fair game.

Of course, when British soldiers get killed, the euphemisms end. When the Taliban “degrade” the British army’s “capacity to attack civilians”, this is not how it appears in the headlines. British soldiers have names, faces, families, and of course, a just cause. Soldiers of the occupying army are always human, no matter what atrocities they have taken part in; Libyan soldiers are never human – even if they have never fired a shot in their life.

In Syria, the redefining of the English language has become even more tortuous. Until recently, the Western press rarely admitted that the SAS-trained and CIA-funded death squads even had weapons, let alone that they were using them to wage war against any and all supporters of Syria’s secular state. Armed men using brutal sectarian violence were instantly whitewashed to become ‘peaceful protesters’ unjustly victimised by the Syrian army. Death figures were reported as if any and all casualties were ‘civilians’ killed by ‘Assad’s forces’. Thus, whilst in Libya, soldiers’ deaths did not ‘count’, in Syria it is even worse – police and soldiers’ deaths are counted – not as victims of the West’s proxies who actually killed them, but as victims of themselves, of the Syrian state. Even the heavily anti-government Syrian Observatory for Human Rights admits that well over 5000 Syrian soldiers and police have been killed by rebels, with massacres of 80-100 at a time not uncommon. But Western reporting tends to lump these deaths together with figures of rebels killed to produce an overall death rate it attributes solely to the Syrian government. Thus are statistics used to demonise the murdered and build support for their killers.

This dehumanisation of soldiers should come as no surprise. British soldiers too – lionised by politicians and media once dead – are treated as thoroughly expendable whilst alive. The institutionalised bullying – and probable murder – at the Deepcut barracks, the lack of effective post-tour emotional support, and the massive presence of former soldiers amongst the growing army of Britain’s homeless are all indicative of a ruling class that treats even its own soldiers with contempt. Many of the RAF crews who carried out the slaughter of the Libyan army actually returned home to find themselves being made redundant. Empire has no loyalty to its servants. Indeed, last year, a judgement by the highest court in the land ruled that British soldiers were in fact officially not human – or at least, not covered by the Human Rights Act – after privates were forced by their superior officers into harsh conditions that eventually killed them.

Despite this shoddy treatment of British soldiers, however, it remains the armies of the global South who are the primary targets of demonization and total destruction. The new ideological focus on civilians is just a new disguise for Liberalism’s age-old racism, with a little twist to make it more politically correct. In the nineteenth century, non-white peoples were portrayed as subhuman. Today’s humanitarian crusaders claim to love those peoples, of course: it’s just their armies – their only source of protection - that they want to destroy. 

An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Morning Star.


  1. Outstanding post! It rankles me to hear “anti-war progressives” adopt the Empire’s rhetoric. They call imperialist attacks “interventions,” whether it is a proxy war, or a direct military assault. They call Libyan and Syrian mass-murderers “rebels.” They call Assad an “evil dictator.” It has always been this way. The phrase “all men are created equal” applies only to the privileged. It does not apply to their victims, since they are not human. This mass-adoption of racist, imperialist rhetoric shows that there are very few genuine humanitarians and anti-war people in Western society. Again, it has always been this way.

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  3. This article makes some excellent points regarding the de-humanisation of soldiers defending their country from imperialist attack and the complicity of liberals in these wars however I feel it to some extent inadvertently plays into the NATO narrative that precautions were taken to minimise civilian casualties... the widespread civilian deaths caused by NATO bombing and their rebel shock troops isn’t addressed.

    The relentless NATO bombing campaign directly killed and maimed thousands of Libyan civilians. If I remember rightly in August 2011 the Libyan government claimed that around one thousand civilians had been killed by the NATO bombing campaign and thousands more injured - this was prior to the attack on Tripoli and the siege and carpet bombing of the densely populated cities of Sirte and Bani Walid.

    Most of the Libyan army were slaughtered within the first few months by NATO. The role of volunteers taking up arms and fighting on the frontline to defend their country from imperialist attack was given no coverage whatsoever in the western media. Many checkpoints in western cities were manned by volunteers made up of men and women both young and old who were protecting their communities. These checkpoints were seen as legitimate targets by NATO.

    The propaganda campaign directed at the Libyan state was effective at manufacturing western public consent including some ‘left’ groups. Also the style of ‘unconventional warfare’ unleashed on the Libyan population led to many liberals taking a passive position – unfortunately the western public are less concerned by imperialist war if western soldiers aren’t at risk of death.

    1. Good points Nasser.Certainly civilian death rates have been whitewashed - most especially by the Human Rights Watch report which reckoned only around 70 civilians had been killed. Rubbish. Thanks for your contribution.