David Aaronovitch's Iraq omission

Why does the pro-war left gloss over the issue of Iraqi civilian deaths?

I like David Aaronovitch. He is one of our country's leading liberal voices, a brilliant, intelligent and passionate writer and a nice man. He and I agree on a lot. (You can watch us here debating together at the Cambridge Union in defence of political correctness -- our side won!) But he is wrong about Iraq. He always has been.

I hesitate before taking a pot shot at Aaronovitch because I did so only a few weeks ago, in a column on torture (and he emailed to point out that he had been the first to flag up the Jack Bauer angle). Nonetheless, in the language of the playground, "he started it", so I'll respond.

In his column in the Times on Tuesday, Aaronovitch ridicules those of us who opposed the war, calls the Iraqi elections a "bloody miracle" and deplores seven years of "goddamned" discussion of WMDs, legality, and so on. Time to move on, says Aaro.

Let me begin by highlighting some points on which he and I agree.

1) It is both miraculous and inspiring that Iraq is able to conduct multiparty parliamentary elections seven years on from the fall of Saddam Hussein.

2) Torture was indeed much, much worse and more widespread under Saddam Hussein than it is in Iraq today.

3) There has never been a proper debate about what would have happened to Iraq if Saddam Hussein had been left in power in 2003. What were the alternatives, if any?

But in Aaronovitch's column, entitled "Iraq has moved forward. It's time we did, too", there is a glaring omission. How many Iraqis died in order to build this new Mesopotamian democracy, what he calls "one of the most hopeful changes in recent times"? Or, to rephrase the question, how many Iraqis were unable to vote in these historic elections because they'd been killed in the period since March 2003?

He does make one passing reference to the death and destruction inflicted by the invaders and the insurgents in Iraq:

In the first place it has made it almost impossible to discuss the Iraqis themselves, to consult them or listen to them. They have become ghosts, invoked as (implausible) casualty figures, or seen on TV briefly lamenting a death or maiming.

"Ghosts" is an interesting choice of word. But I'm confused. Does he think casualty figures are not important, or that they are all "implausible"? Does he, like General Tommy Franks, not "do bodycounts"? Or can he tell us how many Iraqis he thinks have been killed in the violence unleashed by our illegal (yes, David, illegal) invasion in 2003? If not, how can he expect us to "move on"? How can we do a proper audit of the war?

Nobody knows for sure how many Iraqis died, or were killed, as a result of the invasion, but there are several different, credible and respected estimates, ranging from 100,000 to a million-plus.

There's Iraq Body Count:

95,593 to 104,291

There's the calculation by Associated Press:

more than 110,600

There's the Lancet survey:

601,027 violent deaths out of 654,965 excess deaths

There's the ORB survey:

1,033,000

Which one does Aaronovitch agree with? Any of them? None of them?

On a side note, I smiled to see Aaronovitch smear those of us in the "anti-war brigade" as "Shortists". But, of course, Clare Short did not oppose the Iraq war. She voted for it, and stayed in the cabinet, resigning only after the invasion had occurred.

He could have called us "Cookists" or "Denhamists", but he chose not to. Perhaps because it is much more difficult to dismiss Robin Cook and John Denham as naive peaceniks, Islamist appeasers or Saddam apologists than it is to dismiss Clare Short, George Galloway, Tony Benn or the rest of the usual suspects. I'm just wondering . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.