Anti-war, compassion and humanity: What we can learn from Tony Benn today?

In 1998, Labour MP Tony Benn took to the House of Commons to make a fervent anti-war speech, which resonates clearly to this day. With ongoing conflict in the Middle East and the fallout of war persisting, perhaps it is time to reflect on the past to advise our steps forwards. 

On 17 February 1998, Parliament was debating whether to join US forces and order a bombing raid on Iraq. That day, MPs voted to take action. Code-named Operation Desert Fox, this decision by Parliament led to the UK’s four-day bombing tirade on Iraqi targets alongside the US, in December of that year. 

An attempt to quell the power of repressive dictator Saddam Hussein, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair justified these actions by suggesting it would ensure “peace and stability in another part of the world” for which he felt profoundly responsible. 

“For the safety and stability of the region and of the wider world, [Hussein] cannot be allowed to do so. If he will not, through reason and diplomacy, abandon his weapons of mass destruction programme it must be degraded and diminished by military force.”

Hussein’s regime was riddled with atrocities, leading to the death of an estimated 250,000 from torture and murder. But the tragic consequences of western military intervention in the Middle East has exacerbated tension, leading to further unnecessary deaths of civilians as the West sought oil riches under the guise of global peace and stability.

In 2006, London School of Economics analysed UNICEF figures which found that there was a sharp rise in child mortality rates in Iraq from 1991 onwards, noting that there were between 380,00 and 480,00 excess child deaths between 1991 and 1998. Marking an astounding loss of life even pre the 2003 Iraq war, perhaps we should have listened to Tony Benn all along. 

The speech 

Persistently taking a strong opposition to the use of force in Iraq, Tony Benn incited humanity and compassion that day in Parliament:

“Aren’t Arabs terrified? Aren’t Iraqis terrified? Don’t Arab and Iraqi women weep when their children die? Does bombing strengthen their determination? What fools we are to live in a generation for which war is a computer game for our children and just an interesting little Channel Four news item.

Every Member of Parliament tonight who votes for the Government motion will be consciously and deliberately accepting responsibility for the deaths of innocent people if the war begins, as I fear it will. Now that’s for their decision to take. But this is a quite unique debate. In my parliamentary experience, where we are asked to share responsibility for a decision we won’t really be taking, with consequences for people who have no part to play in the brutality of the regime which we are dealing with.

And I finish with this: on 24 October 1945—the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup will remember—the United Nations charter was passed. And the words of that charter are etched into my mind and move me even as I think of them. “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our life-time has caused untold suffering to mankind”. That was the pledge of that generation to this generation, and it would be the greatest betrayal of all if we voted to abandon the charter, and take unilateral action and pretend that we were doing it in the name of the international community. And I shall vote against the motion for the reasons that I have given the house.”

What did it mean at the time? 

Facilitating war in the Middle East throughout the late 21st century, the UK had sold arms to both sides of the conflict during the protracted Iran-Iraq war in the 80s, coupled with a heavy oil-based economic interest in the Middle East. The British policy eventually rebounded as Iraq invaded Kuwait and the Gulf War ensued, leading to scandal concerning the prior sale of arms. 

Ten months following Benn’s speech, on 16 December 1998, Operation Desert Fox was enacted after the Baghdad government refused UN weapons inspectors, killing over 1,400 people. Even the naming of the operations incites some form of fantasy warfare, as Benn notes the way that warfare has become a child’s game. 

With rising tension following on from 9/11 and the introduction of then-president Bush’s ‘War on Terror’, by the time the Iraq war broke out in 2003, Hussein’s menacing and oppressive regime needed replacement. Not only did the West desire the denuclearisation of Iraq, but also to set a more promising path for the Arab Middle East; or, in reality, ensuring the security and stability for Western oil interest. 

Had the intention of the war been met, the world may be a better place. But with the war seeded with conceit from the West, David Frum states: “We were ignorant, arrogant, and unprepared, and we unleashed human suffering that did no good for anyone: not for Americans, not for Iraqis, not for the region.”

Rife with a typical Western thieving and colonial attitude, the suffering instigated by such intervention was founded upon greed, misinformation and a false pretence of humanity.

What can we learn from it now?

There is a lot that could be learnt from Benn’s speech, especially in the context of modern warfare. 

From Trump’s airstrike on Iran which saw the assassination of Qasem Soleimani at the beginning of this year, to Cameron’s controversial Syrian airstrikes in 2015 (conveniently categorized under the truly oxymoronic “pre-emptive self-defence”), to the ongoing horrors of the Yemeni civil war; conflict is rife in the Middle East and the West has only exacerbated this with its hegemonic influence.

As modern warfare develops with a distinct inhuman face, the impassive acts of drone strikes mark our movement away from humanity. The parameters of modern warfare remove the face and thus the ethics and morality that Benn so desperately tried to unearth within Parliament that day in 1998.

Aren’t Arabs terrified? Aren’t Iraqis terrified? Don’t Arab and Iraqi women weep when their children die?

Marking the age-old contention between security and rights, now, more than ever, we must consider Benn’s appeal to the humanity of it all. Without this call to our inner compassion, rights will continue to be neglected and diminished and our victims will remain the intrinsic other.

The day following Operation Desert Fox, Benn again appealed to Parliament: “There are many people in this world, and I am one of them, who believe that what was done yesterday is deeply immoral and contrary to an ethical foreign policy, of which we boast”.

To this day, it is estimated that there have been 461,000 war-related deaths in Iraq since 2003.

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