Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tribalism Makes The World Go Round

Excellent news this week as captured soldier Gilad Shalit is released.  Many years ago now, I read Brian Keenan's book about his four years chained to radiators in unlit rooms in Beirut.  Keenan's ordeal has stuck in my mind ever since as the perfect nightmare - seemingly unending captivity and brutality, with the ever-present possibility of sudden execution as a brief final chapter.  The mere thought gives me the shivers even now, so I was delighted to see Shalit emerge from the darkness.

The deal that released the poor kid - and soldier or not, he was only nineteen when he was captured - is a painful one for the Israelis to bear.  If one of the thousand-odd Palestinian prisoners freed had killed one of my loved ones, I'd be beyond enraged to see them liberated too, so I can imagine how badly the news was received in certain parts of that country.

Still, there's much to be pleased about.  A young man, long thought lost, is now free to pick up the pieces of his life; Israel has scored a storming PR victory in the world's press as a bonus and for once in the region, negotiation has paid off where brute force has failed.  Good news all round, right?

Depending on who you read - well, not entirely.

I can't link to Danny Finkelstein's piece in today's Times* but his argument was broadly reflective of much of what I've read on this issue - namely, that this prisoner swap, while a welcome development, both exposes Israel's weakness and shows that Israel has a unique, perhaps religiously-inspired, respect for human life

I hate to be the one to piss on everyone's fireworks here, but this isn't really the case.  I'm ill-qualified to judge the religious argument, but what I will say is this for starters - the idea that this deal reflects weakness in any sense is just insane.

Do I really have to point out that one-thousand-to-one isn't a kick in the arse off the kills-to-casualties ratio from Israel's most recent clashes with its neighbours?  If the deal demonstrates an inflated concern for the wellbeing of fellow Israelis, what does it tell us about the perceived value of Palestinian prisoners?  And can a nation that can confidently expect to kill at least one hundred of its enemies for every loss in any conflict that it chooses to fight really be perceived as weak?

Certainly, it's true that Shalit's status has been a high-profile, emotive issue in his homeland for the duration of his captivity, whereas I'd never heard of US hostage Bowe Bergdahl's long ordeal in Afghanistan until this week.  Recognising this though, I still find it impossible to forget former Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz's response to Hezbollah's kidnap of  two Israeli soldiers at the start of the 2006 Lebanon war:  "If the soldiers are not returned, we will turn Lebanon's clock back twenty years".   He made good on that threat too, to the tune of around a thousand dead civilians for two soldiers.

That war turned out to be more or less a draw, in tactical terms.  Strategically, it was an awful military blunder, a PR catastrophe and a political disaster, as the nation's leaders were forced to explain how, exactly, they had managed to sacrifice a hundred and twenty Israeli soldiers for nothing.  Note well that it was the damage to Israeli interests that enraged the populace, while the smashed rubble of southern Lebanon was an afterthought, at best. 

That's hardly unique to the region - it's perfectly understandable at the spieces level, in fact, if you junk once and for all the idea that people everywhere are humanitarians and accept that they're entirely tribal. 

In the United States, politicians bemoan the disaster of the Iraq War by highlighting the thousands of Americans killed in a needless war that also, by the way, was very hazardous to Iraqis' health.  In the UK, we hear little of anti-war feeling until some British soldiers are killed in a particularly awful and pointless way.  Our best estimate on Afghan casualties for the period 2007-10 is just under ten thousand people, but such a dry statistic can't compete with our visceral reaction to those anguished processions through Wooton Bassett.  Hell, I even take more notice when some kid from just up the road is blown up by an IED than I do for Londoners who meet a similarly sudden end.

And I know I've been banging on about this non-stop recently, but seriously - Nato is currently helping to pound a heavily-populated Libyan city into dust in order to "protect civilians".  The fighting in Syria, where we did not intervene, is estimated to have just passed the three-thousand casualty mark, while the Libyan NTC presently estimate twenty to twenty five thousand deaths.  If the Libyan War winds up killing in excess of fifty thousand people, will the stink and the scandal drive the Coalition from office?  I think not.

Or take the Palestinians themselves.  We've been told for years that some notional Arab street is just boiling with anger over their plight, but the recent uprisings across the Middle East should illustrate quite starkly what real rage looks like.  Violence is one thing when it's happening to someone else on TV, but those old rifles get dug up lightning-quick when soldiers start firing on your neighbours...  And who is riding to the rescue of the Syrians?  Nobody.  Ever thus.

I know that this is a moment of high drama and emotion for the many Dan Finkelstein-style partisans of the internet, but the idea that nation (x) or (y) has a particular respect for human life, one that is vastly different to that of other countries, is patently insane.  Life may be much cheaper in Iran than it is in Australia; dictators may care less than democrats, but when push comes to shove, tribalism and expediency trump all.

If you don't believe me, try asking the next Russian you meet his opinion of the Blitz on London.  I mean, he or she may sympathise, but I imagine that they might have some stories of their own that they'd be just dying to tell you.

*I'll copy his main points into comments tomorrow.  I had a series of other examples I was going to post, but I realised they would've represented shameless nut-picking.

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