You Know What it Means So Why Are You Bullshitting?

By David Paxton @canyouflybobby

Did you just say something along the lines of this?

How can it be antisemitic when Palestinians are Semites?

or,

Saying one group of Semites is treating another group of Semites appallingly is not Antisemitism.

In short, have you used the ‘semite’ part of ‘Antisemitism’ to refer to all Semites and therefore discredit the word ‘antisemitism’ as normally understood and the accusation behind its use?

If so you have done something which you might believe to be insightful and clever but is, in fact, facile and ignorant. Here is why:

It was coined over 130 years ago in Germany by people specifically discussing Judenhass. In these discussions  ‘Jew’ and ‘Semite’ were considered synonyms. It quickly became understood to mean only that and is widely accepted in common parlance to mean the hatred of Jews and nobody else.

Therefore ‘antisemitism’ is a misnomer, that’s no big deal. Greenland isn’t green and the woods in one’s golf bag are not made of wood. But if you refuse to pass somebody their golf club for this reason you wouldn’t just be fired as a caddy, you would be universally considered a dick. ‘Antisemitism’ is a word that has stuck and is commonly accepted to mean something quite specific, namely Jew hatred. If you can find any regular use of ‘antisemitism’ to mean literally, anti the Semitic languages or its speakers, you might be able to make a case for the invention of a clearer term. I suggest you can’t so there is no need.

So what difference does it make that, when broken down into its constituent parts of ‘anti’, ‘Semite’ and ‘ism’, it has a different meaning? Especially when everyone knows what it denotes? Calling a stick of rhubarb an ‘aircraft carrier’ doesn’t mean you can eat an aircraft carrier or land a plane on a stick of rhubarb.

If you honestly think ‘antisemitism’ doesn’t make sense and this bothers you then simply swap it in your head for ‘anti-Jew’ or ‘Jew-hatred’ and continue the discussion. The disparity between its accepted use and its literal formulation is of no consequence and is entirely irrelevant to any discussion where it is being used.

But you already know this, surely, so why did you attempt to make it mean something other than its universally understood meaning? What purpose does your pseudo-clever interruption serve? That is a serious question and it is worth searching within yourself for an answer.

We all say stupid things due to ignorance so don’t feel too ashamed if that is what occurred. However, you have been told now and so lack the excuse of ignorance. If your mistake is repeated again it is not from ignorance but from malign intent, likely from a desire to mask your hatred and exculpate yourself or others of the offence of antisemitism by denying it exists. Be in no doubt that if you choose to do this you are an unmentionable, a four letter word, a dissembler, a liar and someone to be vilified or ignored.

You’re welcome.

The Verkrappt

Revisiting an old bit from Normblog, here is a visual representation of Norm’s useful and amusing, Algorithm for the verkrappt. His definition of ‘verkrappt’ is below.

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From March 16, 2013

Verkrappt, adj

From time to time, usually after I have used it in a post, I receive an email enquiry about the meaning of the word ‘verkrappt’ – as in ‘verkrappt section‘ of the Western left or ‘algorithm for the verkrappt‘. The person making the enquiry has Googled the word but found no definition of it. As a public service on this March Saturday, I here give my answer to that query.

I invented the word and you may take its meaning from its sound. You might like to think of ‘cramped’ or ‘crapped out’ or both. It is possible that the prefix ‘ver…’ came to me unconsciously because of the way it echoes the Yiddish ‘farkakte‘. This suggestion was made to me a few days ago by a Twitter follower/followee, but certainly I didn’t have the association clearly in mind at the time. In any case, that is the full history, so far as I know it.

“Anti Judaism” by David Nirenberg. Book review by Oscar Clarke

The History of thinking about Judaism

Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, Nirenberg, David. Norton, 610pp.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in his post-war Portrait of the Anti-Semite, came to the conclusion (borrowing a phrase from Voltaire) that if the Jew did not exist then the anti-Semite would have to invent him. This “existentialist” interpretation earned the scorn of Hannah Arendt, who did not deign to linger upon his argument, summarily dismissing it as “fashionable nonsense,” before returning to her more serious reflections upon the sickness which had nearly destroyed Europe. And perhaps she was right. Perhaps a more serious, sober, fact-based study of this curious hatred was in order. Then again, one such study, produced in the late 1960s by Norman Cohn, would be treated, in the preface Arendt produced for later editions of her Origins of Totalitarianism, to just the same scorn – not even worthy of mention in the main text, Arendt scolded Cohn for the asininity of his Warrant for Genocide in a footnote.

Might it be possible, though, that fashionable as Sartre’s ideas may have been, they may yet have contained at least a grain of insight? His essay is, at least, occasionally still read today, even if it pales in insignificance beside Arendt’s weighty, learned tome. David Nirenberg’s new history of anti-Judaism, majestically subtitled “The Western Tradition,” documents three-thousand years of (predominantly western, though there is a chapter on the Islamic East) obsessiveness regarding the “chosen” people. The effort to oppose and overcome the perils of Judaism, argues Nirenberg, has been the greatest task in the western intellectual tradition. From Matthew to Marx, Jewish questions have exerted such a strain upon the western mind that, regardless of the actual existence of those who practice it, the striving for emancipation from Judaism has been the primary preoccupation of our history.

Nirenberg’s history starts in Hellenised Egypt, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is where it should have started. For whilst there was much early anti-Jewish persecution during this period, I am not convinced that it was here that the tradition of thinking in terms of, and in opposition to, Judaism really got started. His central argument being that Judaism has occupied a vaunted position in western history – the struggle against it having been at the forefront of every idea which has espoused some version of universal destiny – his history should, I believe, have started with early Christianity: on the Road to Damascus, to be precise.

He gets to this in the second chapter. Paul’s vision of Christ, who accuses him – “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest” (I’m using the King James Version; Nirenberg uses the New International Version, which, aesthetically, is a shame) – and his subsequent conversion, is, on the one hand, a symbolic example by which successive generations of Jews might be convinced to convert. But those successive generations would not have become such a special case in the Christian mind-set, Nirenberg argues, had Paul severed completely his relationship to Judaism. Instead, he chose to see Christ as the culmination of Jewish scripture. He:

desire[d] to understand Jesus’s gospel as the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham… Had Paul dreamed of abandoning Hebrew scripture or condemning it as false, “Judaism” might indeed have become no more important to ancient Christians than any other of the myriad ethnic identities they were capable of ignoring as spiritually insignificant, such as Scythians. But he did not. Instead… he taught his followers a new way to unlock the meaning of scripture and its promises. Paul was a pedagogue, his letters primers for the practice of reading he was advocating. In them we can see the principals of a new science of scriptural interpretation – exegesis, hermeneutics – being built on a foundation of questions about the believer’s relationship to “Judaism.”

Paul’s new science can be summarised by a line from his second letter to the Corinthians: “For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” While the literal Jews read scripture in order to establish and follow God’s law, thus becoming arrogant in their worldly wisdom, Paul instructs the new Christians to follow the spirit of Christ, by which they might be brought closer to God, and to salvation:

And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. (1 Cor. 4-5)

What Nirenberg demonstrates is that Paul begat, for Christianity, the tradition of interpreting scripture in terms of opposition to Judaism. By the time of the composition of the gospels, this opposition had become scornful. Human (read: Jewish) wisdom was an insult to heaven: “I thank thee, oh Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and has revealed them unto babes.”

After the apostolic century, Nirenberg draws the reader’s attention to troubles faced by the early church in attempting to reach a consensus about exactly what should be considered Christian orthodoxy. Christians today know the “New Testament” confidently but,

There was no such confidence among the early Christians, no agreement about what constituted Christian scripture or how it should be read. From its very first moments, the Jesus movement was marked by a struggle between “true teaching” and “false.”

In trying to decide upon what merited inclusion in the new canon, it was inevitable, following the intellectual example of Paul, that anxiety about which texts were suitably Christian and which might in fact be a little too Jewish would arise. Equally, for early Christians, interpreting Paul meant trying to grasp the difference between Jewish and Christian readings of scripture. In all of this, as Nirenberg points out, “the penalty for a wrong choice was high: nothing less than eternal damnation.” In something of an alternative history of the early Church, Nirenberg then takes us methodically through the efforts of Justin Martyr, Eusebius, Augustine and just about every one of the early church fathers to overcome carnal Judaism.

Fast-forward to the Middle Ages and not a great deal had changed. Though the Christian canon, by this point, was very firmly established, insecurity among Christians about the influence that Judaizing ideas could have upon their faith abounded. From Gilbert Dahan’s study of anti-Jewish polemic in the Middle Ages, we learn that Christian authorities were regularly advising against dialogue with Jews. Here is Peter of Blois on the subject:

Let no one dispute with a heretic or a Jew unless it is to have his wits sharpened. Actually, it is because of illicit and unwise discussions that the insiduous growth of heresies has become so widespread and rampant.

In France, the Council of Bouges went as far, in 1276, as to ban Jews from small towns to counter the influence that their ideas were having upon “simple,” rural Christians. Years earlier, Joachim of Fiore had warned that, under the influence of “the enemies of the cross… those without strong characters may be subject to a ruination of their faith.” The epigraph with which Nirenberg choses to introduce his chapter on medieval Europe points to the ubiquity of this feeling:

What do you think the devil can accomplish through the Jews… almost all educated and most adept at trickery… so secretive in their deceptions that they display a remarkable appearance of being truthful. (Ramon Marti, The Dagger of the Faith)

It is in this atmosphere of insecurity that we find the first rumblings against princely power, not because the wealth of the sovereign offended the lowly peasants, but because the materialism of rulers was associated with Jewish carnality. To the intensely apocalyptic medieval mind, this world was only a prelude to the glorious heavenly kingdom to come: “And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” To delight in the pleasures of this world was not only to miss its point – a spiritual journey, nothing more – but to behave like a Jew.

But what about the post-Christian world? In the era of Enlightenment universalism we might imagine that Jewish questions became somewhat irrelevant. Not so, argues Nirenberg. The new moral philosophers may have introduced some new ideas about human destiny but, as exemplified in the work of Immanuel Kant, one of the old ideas – thinking in terms of opposition to Judaism – stuck around.

Kant rejected the empiricism of the British philosophers Hume and Locke. He rebelled, in his most famous work, The Critique of Pure Reason, against their idea that reason could be subject to the laws of nature, for that would make reason a slave to necessity; freewill an illusion; man a mere slave. The world of spirit transcends the carnal world – this is Kant’s primary contention. And it was also St. Paul’s primary contention. This might seem tenuous ground upon which to portray Kant as a secular figure in the grand Christian tradition of counterposing Christian spirituality and Jewish carnality. However, Nirenberg is perceptive enough to notice that Kant chose a familiar hero with which to demonstrate the ascendency of the spirit over nature. In Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone, Kant makes of Jesus a Kantian:

A rebel against Jewish materialism, a revolutionary who “opened the doors of freedom to all who, like him, choose to die to everything that holds them fettered to earthly life to the detriment of morality.”

After Kant came Fichte. Once a Jacobin, Fichte gave up on France during Napoleon’s Prussian campaign. He became a staunch nationalist, but he gave to nationalism something new, borrowed from his Jacobean days – this was an idea of universal history, which he never gave up on. Like Kant’s universal reason, Fichte’s universal history defined itself in opposition to Judaism. Fichte laid out his picture of history in his Characteristics of the Present Age. The first of the ages, the “original state of human innocence,”

[Nirenberg’s summary] was all too quickly succeeded by a long ice age of blind faith and obedience, which ran from the beginning of recorded history until the Enlightenment. The third and present age was one of “completed sinfulness,” in which men’s souls are entirely ruled by materialism and self-interest… [but] a new people being born will make the coming age the real age of reason.

This age of reason was to be also an age of love, as he explained later in his Addresses to the German Nation, for all of history had been “a long-running war between love and self-interest.” Only a people with a true and pure nationalistic love could truly bring about Fichte’s age of reason. This was a German characteristic, and it certainly was not a French one. Unsurprisingly, it was by comparison to the materialistic and egoistic Jews that Fichte condemned the French as a people incapable of “having a national character.” In the words of one of Fichte’s followers, which I take from Paul Rose’s work on revolutionary anti-Semitism in nineteenth century Germany, German liberation will be one: “not only from the Napoleonic conquest of 1806, meaning simply from a political exterior situation, but also from our spiritual inner slavery… from the bondage of Egypt.”

Nirenberg devotes many pages to the complicated figure of Hegel. The most famous of the philosophers of universal destiny – for whom the end of philosophy and, indeed, history had already arrived – Hegel considered Judaism a dead religion; a stage in the dialectical unfolding of the spirit whose time had passed. And yet, as Nirenberg demonstrates, Judaism had not died for Hegel himself; in fact, it was the tool with which he critiqued the philosophy of Kant.

Hegelian dialectics treats the history of philosophy as a quest towards the absolute, or truth. This truth is arrived at through the reconciliation (or synthesis) of opposing ideas. But these ideas must participate in some small way in the absolute (the real). The downfall of Kant’s philosophy – like all dualist philosophies – was that it opposed itself from the real so that no reconciliation (and therefore no progress) could be achieved. In other words, Kant’s was a phony philosophy. Divorcing itself completely from empiricism, Kant’s idealism was, for Hegel, to be equated with Abraham and Noah’s decision to turn to a vast abstract power (reason instead of God) and oppose it to the world. Kant opposed thought to reality: a “Jewish principal.”

Nirenberg is discussing a young Hegel, and acknowledges that he altered some of his ideas later in life, but whether or not Hegel was anti-Semitic is unimportant. What his ideas demonstrate is that the Western penchant for thinking in terms of opposition to Judaism is extremely malleable. The Jews, having been derided for their carnality and materialism throughout the Christian centuries (a theme adopted by Kant) are, for Hegel, the first people to reject the world in favour of an abstraction (which is the reason why Jewish philosophies – such as Kant’s – cannot participate in the journey toward the absolute). Indeed, Heine, citing his early master Hegel, labelled the Jews “the people of the spirit.”

Heine himself, once he relinquished his Hegelianism, and his Christianity – to which he briefly converted – had some interesting thoughts on the place of Judaism in the human drama. Having struggled to come to terms with being Jewish, he came, later in life, to embrace his origins, and began to write passionately about what Judaism had given to the world:

Moses created a nation that was to defy the centuries – a great, eternal, holy people, the people of God, which could serve as the model for all humanity. If all pride of ancestry were not a silly paradox in a champion of the revolution… [I] could well be proud… of those martyrs of Israel who gave the world a God and a morality.

Précis: Judaism, in spite of Hegel’s contention that in turning away from the world and the real it had no role in the attainment of the absolute (and was a dead religion), gave to humanity the idea of universal destiny.

Heine was proud of this, but it seems to me as though this might have been – to the western mind (the subject of Nirenberg’s study) – Judaism’s original sin. For, above all else, it is the philosophers of universal destiny who have turned opposition to Judaism into a principle. For the Jews, as the originators of this idea, naturally assumed the role of primary adversaries to all variations upon it. Whatever has been advanced as the answer to the salvation of humanity, the Jews have been found to be proposing the opposite. Paul Berman, who writes for the New Republic, gave an interview a few years ago in which he offered this summary of the role of Judaism in the western psyche:

The unstated assumption is always the same. To wit: the universal system for man’s happiness has already arrived (namely, Christianity, or else Enlightenment anti-Christianity; the Westphalian state system, or else the post-modern system of international institutions; racial theory, or else the anti-racist doctrine in a certain interpretation). And the universal system for man’s happiness would right now have achieved perfection – were it not for the Jews. The Jews are always standing in the way. The higher one’s opinion of oneself, the more one detests the Jews.

In his only reflection upon attitudes towards the modern Jewish state, Nirenberg writes,

We live in an age in which millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of “Israel.”

Might European animosity towards Israel be the latest chapter in the western tradition of opposing Judaism to the moral imperatives of mankind? This is a question for another book, but it should be depressingly unsurprising to readers of Nirenberg’s history that we might have to ask it.

There is just one glaring omission in Nirenberg’s study, and that is the counter-revolutionary movement which started in France (and Russia) and produced the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Whilst there is a section on Edmund Burke, who looked at Robespierre and Danton, and only saw the Jewish financiers who must have been orchestrating the revolution in the background, that is where Nirenberg’s discussion of counter-revolution ends.

I find this odd because the counter-revolutionary movement provides such an excellent example of his thesis. They looked at every aspect of the modern world – the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, industrialisation, the advent of capitalism, and the advent of communism – and the critique which they developed for every despised development turned out to be a critique of Judaism. This is what Norman Cohn noticed, pointing out that “regardless of the real situation of Jews in society” Judaism was the explanation provided for its ills. It is what Sartre noticed, too. In short, it is what Nirenberg’s book is all about. So he is entitled to his criticisms – reserved for the epilogue – of Hannah Arendt’s proposition that anti-Jewish ideas must have some basis in reality; and that the Jews must assume partial responsibility for their greatest tragedy. He has compiled a three-thousand yearlong dossier of evidence to the contrary.

Depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and Freedom of Religion

This is a cross post from Dead White Male by Allan Gilmour (@allanglmr) The original article is here.

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Following the attacks in Paris made on the Charlie Hebdo staff, there has been a clear need to restate and reaffirm the need and importance of freedom of speech: the freedom to question, parody, and puncture any ideology is an essential part of democracy and a healthy society. However, some questioned the wisdom of publishing (or even re-publishing) the images of Muhammad on the Charlie Hebdo covers (for example, Jonathan Freedland and Joseph Harker of the Guardian) because they thought it would cause needless offence to a very large number of Muslims – maybe even the “vast majority of Muslims around the world”. But to argue that the cartoons shouldn’t be re-published because they might offend a large number of people is to simply reinforce a religious taboo; it’s an argument to make blasphemy an acceptable restriction on free speech. This makes it more difficult for those who are not offended to express themselves as Maajid Nawaz found when he went onto Twitter to say that he didn’t find one of the Jesus and Mo cartoons offensive. He was expressing an opinion about his own faith and for this he received death threats. If it becomes normal in the media, and in public life in general to take blasphemy seriously, then this will in fact restrict the freedom of Muslims to express their faith as happened with Nawaz. For anyone who might think there is a need to be sensitive to the feelings of Muslims that are against depictions of Muhammad because of the general prohibition of it in Islam, and who do not want to offend a large number of these Muslims by reproducing the pictures in question, they should remember another principle; one that is inextricably linked to free speech – freedom of religion. Respecting this prohibition is insensitive to the diversity of opinion and practice in Islam. Not only that, it fosters the conditions in which an idea is immune from being challenged by anyone – especially other Muslims. A tradition of depicting the prophet in some Islamic art does exist. For some Muslims it is part of their worship. They should be allowed to create and admire these images without fear of censorship or fear of violence. A prohibition which silences critics, or anyone who wants to break any of these taboos for whatever reason, is only helping one group of Muslims force their interpretation on the rest of the Muslim population and everybody else. By taking the demands and actions of one group of Muslims seriously (and taking it as the general opinion of all Muslims) narrows the definition of Islam and makes it harder for others to express their thoughts on it and to practice it how they wish. It smothers diversity within the religion and any dissenting voices. The prohibition of the depiction of Muhammad is open to interpretation for those that want to follow it. Whether this interpretation is correct or not (and that goes for any rule that a religion sets out), it does not need to be followed by everybody. Even if it were undeniable that scripture prohibited depiction, that would not mean that people have to follow it. And even if the majority of Muslims find it offensive as is claimed, it still does not mean all Muslims or anyone else must observe it. With freedom of religion comes the right to interpret your religion as you want to and to practice it in the way you want to. This means you don’t have to follow all the rules that you don’t think are important, and nobody should be able to make you. Whether it is extremists, conservative Muslims, or anyone else who thinks that nobody should be depicting Muhammad, they are all damaging the diversity of practice in Islam and making it harder for other Muslims to express their faith in different ways. For Muslims who want to be able to discuss, develop, and express their faith without limits to doing so, there needs to be a commitment to freedom of religion and ultimately freedom of speech.

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“What About Fallujah?”

by David Paxton

What do you have to say about Fallujah, let’s talk about Fallujah, what do you have to say about Fallujah? Since you care so much on the Left… What have we done in Fallujah Nick? WHAT HAVE WE DONE? Have you even bothered to find out?

-Yasmin Alibhai Brown

When they say ‘Fallujah’ they refer to the Second Battle of Fallujah from Nov/Dec 2004. For commentators with an engrained anti-American perspective it is almost impossible to write about any combat, anywhere, without name checking Fallujah. Usually it comes in handy as whataboutary, ‘you think X are bad guys? Yeah? Well what about Fallujah?’. For them it proves we are no better than our enemies, it proves what the Coalition did in Iraq was evil, it is the unarguable catchall to show just how sick we are as people and how sophisticated in their self-criticism those that deploy it are.

A classic of this type can be seen in this show (04:00-04:30) with Nick Cohen cross-examined by Yasmin Alibhai Brown and Iain Dale. Although in this, like the Douglas Murray one, Dale generally sits back and laughs while Alibhai Brown is humiliated. It really is worth watching in full just for giggles. For now though watch the specified section and examine the moral outrage. The word ‘Fallujah’ is nothing less than an accusation to be spat at people, you can positively feel the indignant anger.

To further demonstrate the contempt many have for the actions in Fallujah you can look to its common inclusion in a list, such as: ‘what about Abu GhraibHaditha, Fallujah?’ These lists come out in people’s comments daily. There are countless examples, try googling the three together and you’ll see.

It is in strange company there as both of the other two were out of policy. The abuses in Abu Ghraib were indeed disgusting, though barely comparable to the systematic barbarism Saddam’s goons undertook as official policy there. However, they were admitted as wrong and 11 of the perpetrators were convicted. Everyone’s favourite villain Donald Rumsfeld said of the scandal:

They are human beings. They were in U.S. custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn’t do that. That was wrong.

To those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of U.S. armed forces, I offer my deepest apology. It was un-American. And it was inconsistent with the values of our nation.

The killings at Haditha were also out of policy. It could certainly be said that the legal follow up was not to a standard one would hope for, but illegal killings by soldiers are notoriously hard to prove. The action was however condemned and very much appears to be an exception.

With these two incidences, does one choose to claim them as an indictment of officially malign U.S. policy and morality or does one use it to show that such behaviour is not the norm, not the intention and not condoned? When making a moral comparison is it not strange to compare an action by the U.S. but condemned by the U.S. with an action by the enemy which is in policy and actively encouraged? I say it is and yet it so often occurs.

So why is Fallujah included? What is it about this three syllable word that has transformed it into a four letter one? Beyond the fact that a U.S. led coalition were victorious in the battle? It is very hard to ascertain as it is rarely spelt out by those that use it. The word has just seemed to pass without fight or enquiry into the debit column in the ledger of morality. But surely something terrible must have happened for it to be casually included in lists of criminal atrocities? If there was something I am yet to find out what it is.

I suggest a mistake has been made by the people unwilling to contradict those that use it, so that it has now been commonly and unthinkingly accepted as a stain on the record of the Allies. Even in that Nick Cohen exchange he readily concedes that it is legitimate to say ‘a plague on all your houses’ regarding it. Fallujah is asserted as a wrong and very little counter argument is ever provided. It seems to be accepted with a shrug that says ‘you might be onto something there but look at the wider picture…” This is a mistake and it will take some effort to restore some sanity regarding it.

We can take for granted that those who use Fallujah as a pejorative were against the invasion of Iraq. Fine. Accepting however that the invasion occurred and once it had there was a responsibility to try and do the best possible by Iraq, the first question is ‘should anything have been done in Fallujah at all?’

Before the Second Battle, Fallujah’s defences had been handed over, on request by the Iraqi government, to local Iraqi forces. In the proceeding months they had utterly failed in their task and according to U.S. intelligence a takfiri gang, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had taken de facto control of the city. His forces numbered up to 5,000 (probably closer to 3,000-4,000) and were mostly foreign fighters. This group was the direct predecessor of ISIS.

Their control of the region was not only to be considered a current and increasing disaster for the inhabitants but it was also beginning to be the home base for wider Islamist and Baathist disruptions. I posit that to leave these people in place would not only be immoral but tactically insane. After taking the city Coalition troops found torture rooms, IED factories and a calendar for video beheadings. Both the inhabitants of the city of Fallujah and the new Iraq as a whole required their removal if there was to be any chance at all at a better future. Unless you disagree with this the requirement for action to rid the city of this force is overwhelming.

As I am yet to hear any serious argument that when confronted with the situation as it was at the end of 2004 Fallujah should have been left to rot, we can begin to look at what actually happened.

Indulge me in a thought experiment:

Imagine a city with up to 300,000 civilian inhabitants. Inside there are un-uniformed enemy fighters that need to be removed but are hard to distinguish from the civilian population. They have had substantial preparation time and have set up IEDs and ambush points on all routes into the city.

Now imagine you control a military force with almost unimaginable might. You are charged with removing the enemy force inside. You have it within your power to obliterate the entire city without losing any of your own forces and the costs will amount to little more than jet fuel and bombs.

I propose that in this scenario the number of civilian deaths incurred says a great deal about your morality as a leader and as a society. Let us try and estimate a number for them.

Try these:

1: You’re Gengis Kahn born again. I would suggest the civilian deaths would number fairly close to 300,000. Perhaps some will be allowed to live for slavery and rape purposes. Sound reasonable?

2: You’re of the moral level of ISIS. About the same.

3: You’re an Assad Jr. or a Saddam. You’d kill as many as necessary and probably a few more and you’d surely use poisoned gas and barrel bombs no? Assad Senior was faced with a similar number of Islamist combatants in a city with a similar population in Hama in 1982. He managed to kill between 20-40,000 civilians. In his own country.

4: You’re a modern Russian. Perhaps the best comparison is the Battle of Grozny. There the Russians faced a similar problem with similar numbers. But the civilian dead were never reliably counted and the corpses merely stuffed into unmarked, mass graves. It was certainly in the thousands, most probably in the 10s of 1000s. What would you have done in a totally foreign, Arab city?

5: You’re part of an evil corporate American empire that simply doesn’t care about Iraqi lives at all and are comparable in morality to others mentioned but have to make some effort for the cameras. What, 10,000 dead? Minimum?

Well, according to the Red Cross, who I have no reason to suspect are good friends of Dick Cheney and George Bush, 800 civilians died. And it is by no means clear that all were killed by the allies. 800 out of 300,000. 1,500 insurgents were captured and 1,200 – 1,500 were killed.

800 civilian deaths is 800 we can wish had not occurred. 800 deaths is though, by many orders of magnitude, a smaller number than if the equivalent action had been taken by our enemies or more tellingly by the moral actors the apologists and anti-Americans pretend exist in the U.S. Still the question, ‘how many fewer could it still have been?’, should be asked.  I suggest not very many. Not realistically, not without massively increased risk to allied forces and not when compared to any other combat of similar nature. I contend this is a remarkably low figure.

The allies surrounded the city and painstakingly passed through their lines up to 90% of the entire population. Thus leaving perhaps 30,000 in pockets in the city. The insurgents knowing that civilians were good cover for them (it seems the insurgents had a higher understanding of their enemy’s care for civilians than the moral equivalence monkeys do), prevented as many leaving as they could. It was only after this was complete that the U.S. Marines began systematically moving through the city at great risk to themselves. In total the Coalition forces lost 107 killed and over 650 wounded. Overwhelmingly from the U.S.M.C.

A colleague of mine told me of a lecture he attended when in the British Army, given by a WW2 veteran on the subject of fighting through Western Europe. The veteran spoke of the orders to protect civilian housing and of the restraint they were ordered to show. He said however, that no matter who you are, when you lose a good friend the previous day going house to house, the urge to ignore the orders, sit back at a distance and shell and machine gun the target building to the ground is overwhelming. I mention this to suggest the coordinated, controlled and relatively restrained actions of the U.S. Marines go against every sensible instinct of self-protection and speaks to an enormous degree of professionalism. Professionalism in this case being the reflection of Coalition command’s intention to do the least damage practical and to show the highest care and attention to civilian lives.

Combat is ugly and messy. The results rarely perfect. Once such a grim undertaking as clearing Fallujah of insurgents is deemed necessary it must be judged on its merits, with relevant comparisons to relevant examples. It can’t be judged against a bland pacifism or with no counter-factual beyond an assumption of zero deaths. Sam Harris’ ‘perfect weapon‘ thought experiment is important here and worth the read. Yes 800 civilian deaths is 800 deaths but if the perfect weapon existed the number would have been zero. Do you think we could say the same if those that we are compared to undertook the mission?

A note on chemical weapons:

The example of Fallujah is oft heard in comparisons of illegal warfare with specific reference given to chemical weapons. This week it was mentioned in a very confused piece by Owen Jones where he wrote:

But the Assad regime does not flaunt its cruelty. It does not make videos with Hollywood effects – slo-mo, closeups, haunting music, the aftermath in high definition. Instead, it adopts the same regretful tone of western powers, like when the US dropped flesh-burning white phosphorus over Falluja. We regret any civilian casualties (or “collateral damage”, as the west prefers). We do not target civilians, unlike our opponents – and so on. The scale of death may be far greater, but the claimed intentions are different: unlike our opponents, we do not aim to kill civilians, they say, so we retain our moral superiority.

I think he is being sneaky here. Even if he honestly means to simply compare the tone, he is wrong. I read nothing regretful in the U.S. admitting the use of WP. Nor should they had to have been. If there is any regret it is simply because it contradicts earlier reports. The U.S. denied it killed civilians with it so its use here is irrelevant. It strongly whiffs of an attempt to tar them with the same atrocity brush he uses against Assad.

I quoted more than required by Jones there because as a side note I want you to look at his final use of ‘they say’. I think he is hinting at a claim he isn’t actually willing to make. Yes Owen, all things being equal, not aiming to kill civilians makes you morally superior to those intending to kill them. Argue this case explicitly or don’t at all. As I say, sneaky.

But other’s apart from the Orwell of Our Generation use the WP incident and usually in more brazen terms. It was repeated many times during the debate about striking the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons in order to show that we are no better than they and have no high ground from which to launch our strikes. This form of masochism is worth little even with solid examples. Fallujah is not a solid example.

White Phosphorus is not a chemical weapon. When not used as a smoke screen it can be used as an incendiary weapon. This is not illegal. The U.S. used it in Fallujah in highly specific attacks to push the enemy out of cover due to the heat and then kill them with high explosive shells. The very nature of the tactic requires highly specific and accurate use of artillery fire. At worst, some claim that the generation of heat when the WP meets moisture is a chemical weapon because this amounts to toxicity. But it isn’t asphyxiating, it is burning. This may be a small distinction for some. But the distinction remains. It was effective and it was legal.

In the interest of fairness I recommend George Monboit’s article from the time, I don’t agree with it but it is worth a read and he is more responsible there than many. He also provides reasons why the execrable Italian documentary on Fallujah, which still appears to be at the root of so many feelings about Fallujah, can be dismissed.

The use of incendiary weapons against civilians is illegal. However, seeing that it was used in areas cleared of civilians and no credible evidence of it causing civilian deaths has been presented, I suggest this charge can also be dismissed. Its use in combination with HE rounds was highly effective. That’s why it was used, both sparingly and deliberately. And as much as this may offend those of the Pansy Left, killing the insurgents was the point of the exercise and of benefit to the the vast majority of civilians who remained unharmed. To do so efficiently is a moral act.

So what is the actual complaint? If it is that the U.S. used chemical weapons it is false. If it is that it used incendiary weapons against civilians, it is false or at least entirely unproven.

If it is that that the deaths of 800 civilians from a population of 300,000 is an example of callousness, incompetence, bloodthirstyness, or a lack of care comparable with our enemies or reasonable expectations, then the complainant is ahistoric, ignorant and frankly, silly.

There are tradeoffs in military operations. Risk to property, risk to civilians, risk to your own forces, effectiveness in dealing with the enemy. Each army and society has to make rules and undertake the training to reflect their own operational and moral priorities. Some like Monboit won’t be happy unless the risk to civilians is non-existent and all of that risk is placed on our armed forces. This is not realistic and at some point becomes its own form of immorality. Regardless of how much moral wrangling is done around the legality. I look at the decisions of the Coalition in the Second Battle of Fallujah and see a set of moral tradeoffs that put us in stark and favourable contrast to those who apologists seek to compare us to. Even if one accepts the worst versions of accounts from the most unreliable of sources, the Coalition still comes out on top in any reasonable moral comparison.

We can’t allow this military action to be used as rhetoric against our society or our armed forces. I won’t because I don’t think it merely not a crime, I think it a startling military undertaking which clearly indicates our moral superiority over those we fight.
As an isolated action it should be mentioned with pride and placed firmly in the credit column of the moral ledger. And yes, I am comfortable expressing moral superiority.

What about Fallujah? Good question, what about it?