January 07, 2007

Reflections on a theme of Slavoj Zizek: Does a War of Aggression matter as much as a War against one's own people?

Slavoj Zizek is an interesting and sometimes baffling intellectual figure- I don't claim to understand much of what he writes so won't comment on most of it- however he has written a recent and relatively clear article for the New York Times which attempts to discuss the application of the international court to the case of Saddam Hussein. Let me begin this discussion by saying that I don't want to deal with questions of jurisdiction- probably I would have preferred that Saddam be tried in the Hague however I acknowledge that there were reasons for letting the Iraqis try him themselves. But Professor Zizek does not deal exclusively with that issue.

He makes an interesting point- well worth making- that the West has a tendency to try and cover its tracks. Unfortunately he uses the example of Timothy Garton Ash- he accuses Garton Ash of listing dictators to be sent to the Hague and only including those that would not embarrass the West, forgetting that Garton Ash himself listed Pinochet. But there is a point there and its useful to remember in the context of Iraq that Saddam was not allowed at his trial to open up the question of Western aid to himself.

But Professor Zizek then goes on to make what I consider to be a rather more odd claim that the the court ignored

this greatest crime of Saddam Hussein: his never-ending attempt to topple the Iranian government

Professor Zizek's syntax is rather confused at this point but above that sentence there is the semblance of an argument for such a claim,

they systematically omitted what was undoubtedly his greatest crime in terms of human suffering and of violating international justice: his invasion of Iran.

It is probably true that the greatest numbers of deaths resulting from a single act of Saddam's were the deaths that resulted from his declaration of war upon Iran. That is something I am perfectly willing to accept- but was it a crime comparable to the crime of gassing his own people at Halabja.

Professor Zizek is wrong I think to conclude it is. Since the 17th Century and the publication of the Prince de Rohan's treatise on international relations and the ways that states have interests which direct them to do various things, we all have accepted that countries have interests. We all accept that occasionally those interests require wars to defend them, sometimes we perceive states go to war to protect those interests. In some sense we all accept that war is a neccessary part of having a nation state- it isn't a part of a nation state's activity that we like- but it is a part of a nation state's activity that proceeds directly from its definition as a nation. We may disagree with a war, but few of us disagree with the concept of wars.

However what almost all of us do disagree with is the idea of indiscriminate violence upon subjects of a country who pose no existential threat to that country's government. The Kurds at Halabja were neither numerous nor technologically efficient nor organised enough to constitute an army in a civil war- they were butchered as civilians. (There is an interesting question about civilians killed in war here- we tend to think of them as casualties or incidental deaths to the main object- there are occasions (see below) when we don't but I haven't codified when we do and when we don't- the overall distinction stands I think.)

Proffessor Zizek's equation is interesting because it throws light on something we all tend to do. Ennumerate Hitler's crimes and the Holocaust comes up much higher than the crime of starting the second world war though the latter killed more people than the former. Similarly with Saddam we turn to his atrocities against his own people before numbering the deaths in the Iran Iraq war. Slavoj Zizek is often provocative and often wrong- I tend to think here that he is wrong- I have a post to write at some point about the false comparison of deaths in war to deaths in peace (look at Henry V for an example of a discourse on the responsibility of a ruler for the deaths of the men in his army- Henry argues that that responsibility is based on whether a ruler purposed their deaths or not when he purposed the war). The provocation is interesting though- perhaps we should think more about crimes of aggression as well as crimes against a ruler's own people.

Professor Zizek gives this a sinister construction- I disagree with him there- as I hope I've made clear its a fairly universal supposition- but it is an interesting one and needs evaluating even though personally (and this is not a worked out position) I come down on the conventional side.


Matthew Sinclair said...

Your main point is interesting although, perhaps, difficult to politically sustain in an age as relentlessly utilitarian as our own. I think we'll find Slavoj Zizek's equivalence has great popular resonance even though you are right to point out that he is wrong.

What about Mao, how does he fit in? Is he an example of victors history, ethno-centrism or a certain amount of benefit of the doubt with regards the uncertainty of responsibility for the Great Leap Forward?

Gracchi said...

Matt I've been thinking about what you say. I just wrote a response on Mao and realised that I don't really know enough about him. So I'm going to pass on that.

Its interesting about the point you make about Zizek the fascinating thing though is that generally we do make a point of saying that the Second World War killed x million Jews, Stalin killed z million Russians in the Gulag- but we don't say that Hitler and Stalin killed asd many in their wars so I wonder if we need to be quite so pessimistic. There is an argument that balances deaths in war against deaths from murder and argues moral equivolence between Bush and Saddam that needs to be dealt with but apart from that case I can't think of many cases of the Zizek point being used.