by George Kassimeris

Birmingham Post, UK
June 24, 2006, Saturday
First Edition

The torture and murder of two marines in Iraq this week has
highlighted the depths to which warring factions can plummet. But
George Kassimeris, who has just written a new book on the subject,
believes that warfare and barbarity will always go hand in hand

"What does the earth look like in the places where people commit
atrocities?" wondered American writer Robert Kaplan while researching
his book on the Balkans and its people.

"Is there a bad smell", he asked, "a genius loci, something about
the landscape that might incriminate?"

It is probably tempting to think that yes, in places whose names
have become synonymous with the atrocities of our times and where
hundreds of thousands have lost their lives, a permanent ghastly
darkness coupled with a dull smell of damp and rot does exist.

This is not true, of course. Take Rwanda, for example.

Rwanda is universally described as spectacular to behold. A beautiful
country full of eucalyptus trees and brilliant green tea plantations
but also a country which went through the horrific trauma of neighbour
killing neighbour.

All told, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in fewer than a
hundred days.

What happened in Rwanda in 1994 was a shameful passage in 20th
century history but it was not an isolated incident of aberrant
behaviour. Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, East Timor, Darfur, Kenya,
Algeria, Cambodia, Chechnya - the list could go on and on - have all
witnessed indiscriminate waves of killing of the most horrifying kind.

What drives ordinary people to hatred, genocide, inhumanity and evil?

What turns friends and neighbours against each other with such
savagery? What turns fresh-faced boys into killers of people who have
done them no harm? Where does such barbarity come from?

The characteristic act of men at war is not killing: it is killing by
committing shocking and unspeakable atrocities, when circumstances
permit. If there were any doubts about man's capacity for savagery
and inhumanity to man in times of war, the 20th century's excessive
violence, barbarism and genocide put them to rest.

>>From the bloodshed of the Western Front to the massacres of the
Armenians, from Stalin's camps to the rape of Nanjing, from the
butchery of Bosnia to the slow motion genocide of Darfur, men and
women of all creeds and colours exhibited a staggering appetite for
death and destruction. That said, barbarity in warfare is hardly an
exclusively 20th-century phenomenon.

True, the last century will go down in history as one of the most
gruesome and murderous centuries but the exercise of indiscriminate
terror, ethnic cleansing, genocide and rape as war-making tools has
been used for millennia.

The romance of warfare, however, should never be underestimated.

"Three thousand years", the classicist Bernard Knox once commented,
"have not changed the human condition: we are still lovers of the
will to violence." Why is war so seductive?

One of the many reasons why Apocalypse Now is remembered when dozen
other war movies, from The Boys in Company C to Go Tell the Spartans,
are pretty much forgotten is that it embraces the full emotional range
of the phenomenon and dares to admit something that less ambiguous
works cannot allow themselves to countenance: seen from a certain
angle, war can be intoxicating and exciting.

Colonel Kilgore's dawn helicopter raid and his notorious line about
remembering the smell of napalm - "smelled like Victory" -says a
great deal more about the emotional texture of war and the condition
of men in war than the mesmeric appeal of technologies of killing.

How people explain and justify war does not necessarily account for
why they wage it.

Despite the uncertainty, the fear of death and the catastrophe of
defeat, warfare has always attracted people. No matter how many times
the nature of the argument about the use and value of warfare has
changed over the centuries war fascinates men more than it repels them.

When Alexander the Great took a copy of the Iliad with him on campaign,
it was not because it served as a cautionary reminder of the bitterness
and folly of war. Homer describes the grief and lamentation of mothers
and fathers, comrades and lovers' but the Iliad as a whole celebrates
heroism rather than horror and violence.

But the question that needs to be asked is this: can warfare be
anything else than barbaric? Much historical evidence shows that there
is not much in recent history to prove that it can. The kind of dark
barbarity that defined much of the world before the creation of the
nation-state, has to a large degree characterised the world that
came after.

The remarkable thing, however, is that it was only towards the end of
the 20th century that people in the West began to understand a basic
fact that Sri Lankans, Haitians, Liberians, Afghans, Chechnyans,
Cambodians, Angolans and many others have long known all too well:
that warfare prosecuted according to recognised laws of war has been
the exception not the rule.

For centuries we have debated the morality of going to war and the
manner in which it is fought, but international conventions are not
sufficient in themselves to make warriors adhere to the rules.

People have continued to commit war atrocities, refusing to distinguish
between combatants and noncombatants, legitimate and illegitimate
targets and civilised and barbarous treatment of prisoners and of
the wounded.

In the light of this it is not difficult to explain why the ratio of
military to civilian casualties since the First World War has risen
so dramatically that civilian casualties now constitute the majority -
an astonishing and depressing 90 percent - of those killed, mutilated,
raped and uprooted even when they presented no conceivable threat to
the military adversaries.

What is even more depressing is the fact that a large number of them
are children.

So is it pointless to imagine a world where people are not hounded
from their homes, starved to the death, tortured or massacred?

A world where dignity prevails among warriors who choose to fight each
other? What human history has taught us and continues to teach us is
that for as long as there is war and human conflict, there will always
be people - psychopaths and conformists, fanatics and opportunists,
adventurers and moral cowards - willing to commit atrocities in
exchange for a little power and privilege.

And once you choose to look at the violence in this way, and notice
that so much of it occurs in the familiar environment of everyday life,
it no longer seems mindless, chaotic or medieval.

There is a level on which violence has no reason or purpose -
it exists to gratify itself. Nothing illustrates that point better
than the atrocities taking place in Iraq from both the Americans and
the insurgents.

The killings of innocent Iraqis in Haditha by American soldiers and
the tortured bodies of US marines found dumped near Baghdad only
few days ago are two of the most recent but many examples which tell
us exactly the same things the Abu Ghraib photographs told us: that
across the bleak landscape of the 21st century, in an age when sadism
and torture have become themselves addictive forms of entertainment,
it will take a long, long time before somebody comes up with a coherent
plan for dealing with human nastiness.

George Kassimeris is a Senior Research Fellow in Conflict Studies at
Wolverhampton University. His book The Barbarisation of Warfare has
just been published by Hurst.

GRAPHIC: Skulls lie on display at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial in
Rwanda. The memorial occupies a former Catholic Church where about
5,500 people died during the April 1994 genocide after seeking refuge
in the church' The front cover of the book by George Kassimeris -The
Barbarisation of Warfare.