In 1899, Great Britain launched a war in South Africa, ostensibly to defend imperial pride and protect the rights of British citizens living in the Boer republics. Not coincidentally, these republics were gold-rich lands, and the series of skirmishes leading to this war had been engineered by none other than Cecil Rhodes, the 19th century version of the corporate gangsters with whom we have become so familiar in the past years in the 21st century.
The British struggled to win the war against the Boer commandos, and the imperial forces adopted a scorched earth strategy, burning farms and rounding up Afrikaner women and children, together with their servants, into concentration camps, where disease ran rampant and death rates were appallingly high.
The leader of the liberal party, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, launched this scathing critique of his own country’s military policy: “What is that policy? That now that we have got the men we had been fighting against down, we should punish them as severely as possible, devastate their country, burn their homes, break up their instruments of agriculture...It is that we should sweep the women and children into camps in some of which the death-rate has risen so high as 430 in the thousand ... Yesterday I asked the leader of the House of Commons when the information [about the conduct of the war] would be afforded, of which we are so sadly in want. My request was refused. Mr Balfour treated us with a short disquisition on the nature of war. A phrase often used is that ‘war is war’, but when one comes to ask about it one is told that no war is going on, that it is not war”.
“When is a war not a war?” Campbell-Bannerman asked, and then provided his own answer, one which became a famous critique of the conduct of Britain’s imperial wars: “When it is carried on by methods of barbarism”.
It might be temping to think such methods are those of a bygone era, in which the empire from which the U.S. fought to gain its independence reigned over a quarter of the globe’s territory and population against the will of most of that population, using a strategy of divide and rule where possible, and brute force where necessary. To disabuse ourselves of this notion, we need only turn to the opinion page of the New York Times of 14 April, wherein Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel wrote a piece titled, “Gitmo is Killing Me”.
You haven’t heard of Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel? That would be a sure sign that the policy of abduction and disappearance to Guantanamo Bay, the imperial prison of the United States, is working from the standpoint of our terrorist intelligence agencies, supported as they are by the executive, enabled by the military, and given comfort by our spineless Congress.
Al Hasan Moqbel and other prisoners (at least forty, perhaps substantially more) are currently on hunger strike against their detention and treatment at Guantanamo Bay. Contrary to popular opinion, many people held at Guantanamo are by no stretch of the imagination—even allowing for the extraordinary elasticity our thug of a President brings to the national security scene—“terrorists”. But to release them would be an admission of failure by the U.S. government, which is criminally unwilling to make amends for the wrongs it has committed against its prisoners.
In Guantanamo for eleven years and three months, Al Hasan Moqbel writes, “I could have been home years ago—no one seriously thinks I am a threat—but still I am here. Years ago the military said I was a ‘guard’ for Osama bin Laden, but this was nonsense, like something out of the American movies I used to watch. They don’t even seem to believe it anymore. But they don’t seem to care how long I sit here, either”. Whether Al Hasan Moqbel himself is innocent or guilty is not something we can judge, given that he has been denied a trial and has not been charged. Whether he is innocent or guilty, he has, in the course of being abducted, disappeared, tortured, and denied trial, become the victim of crimes.
You can read the full article to understand why Al Hasan Moqbel was taken to Guantanamo Bay. You can also read his graphic description of the violence committed against him as he and his fellow detainees embarked on a campaign of passive resistance—the only kind of resistance available to them given the complacency of the American public and the indifference of their home countries and people around the world.
“A team from the Extreme Reaction Force, a squad of eight military police officers in riot gear, burst in. They tied my hands and feet to the bed. They forcibly inserted an IV into my hand. I spent 26 hours in this state, tied to the bed. During this time I was not permitted to go to the toilet. They inserted a catheter, which was painful, degrading and unnecessary. I was not even permitted to pray”.
“I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone”. His description goes on.
He writes, “I do not want to die here, but until President Obama and Yemen’s president do something, that is what I risk every day”.
Truly, the United States has adopted methods of barbarism, methods which were used by the British government against suffragettes and Irish Republicans to break even their passive resistance when they were imprisoned in the course of their struggle for their rights. But I disagree with Campbell-Bannerman’s century-old assertion that war is not war when such barbaric methods are used.
In fact, the use of such methods is precisely what war is about, particularly when it is a war like those waged by the U.S. in every year of the twenty-first century, using the full complement of terrorist methods to fight an undefined enemy across the entire world. It was so in the Second World War when the U.S. rounded up Japanese-Americans and sent them to camps in some of the most desolate parts of our nation. It was so when the Japanese military sacked Nanking. It was so when the Germans bombed London by night, and when the British reciprocated by fire-bombing Dresden. It was so when the Nazis and their accomplices rounded up the Jews of Europe for mass murder, and it was so when the U.S. unleashed a Holocaust of another kind on Japanese cities in the form of the atomic bomb.
War is precisely about the use of such methods of barbarism. What is so appalling in the case of our shameful prison in Guantanamo is that we, as a nation, possess the legal and security apparatus to try the people our government took there, determine their innocence or guilt, and then either mete out a sentence or give them speedy release and recompense. We had the capacity to do this speedily. We have the capacity to learn from our immoral and counterproductive conduct of our war of terror.
And yet, what amount to rogue and terrorist elements within our executive and our intelligence agencies in particular, with the collusion of Congress and the silent blessing of the public, have decided to press on in prosecuting this terrible war which has not only failed to make us safe, but has actually worked to imperil us further, has claimed the lives of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of people in other parts of the world, and has suborned our collective conscience.
Al Hasan Moqbel’s letter should be a reproach to all of us.