In The Media OP-ED

Maurice Smith: Where does 21st-century warfare leave our moral compass?

Written by Staff

HERALD SCOTLAND — Eleven people were killed and 18 wounded in a Saudi-led coalition air strike on a Yemen hospital run by the French charity Medecins Sans Frontieres this week. Having transmitted those bare facts, the 24/7 news machine shrugged and moved on, wading through the latest distraction fodder from the Rio Olympics, and the rest.

As civilians die in Yemen, the rest of us eat cake and enjoy the circus. Life, and even death, can seem strangely atomised in the information age,

The brutality of conflict is nothing new. We are currently celebrating the centenary of the first great industrialised war, when men were mown down by machines on an epic scale in the battlefields of France. Now communications technology means we are immediately aware of its impact and scale, wherever we are in the world. That heightened awareness should accentuate our understanding of the moral implications of one far-off country dropping bombs on another.

For 17 months now, a Saudi-led coalition of nine Arab countries has been bombing Yemen repeatedly, pounding the capital Sana’a and other parts of the country with the best Western weaponry petro-dollars can buy. They include weapons produced in the UK, including the US-owned Raytheon factory in Fife.

The Pathway IV missile, whose laser guidance is made at Glenrothes, has been put to significant use in Yemen, where 3,200 civilians have been killed and 5,700 injured – more than half during air strikes since the conflict began, according to the United Nations. The respected US-based monitoring group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), found recently that a large number of targets appear to be economic rather than military: businesses, offices, factories and so on.

The Saudis’ war on Yemen is about much more than quelling unrest and defeating the Houthi militia, who took over that troubled country early last year after more than a decade of unrest. This is a microcosm of a worsening regional conflict involving feudalism, religious sectarianism, revolution and grudges dating back many years. Even the briefest study of the history of Yemen will tell you a little about its complexity and the country’s tortured relationships with its neighbours in the Persian Gulf region. The British were there or thereabouts for decades. And our involvement did not cease with the end of our imperial “protectorate” in 1967, when troops finally withdrew from Aden.

To some, the current Yemeni conflict is effectively a proxy war against Al-Quaeda, or terrorism in general. But this is no campaign of forensically-targeted drone strikes against murderous insurgents. A recent HRW report highlighted an apparently deliberate strategy of destruction involving civilian targets. Researchers examined 13 sites which were attacked during the first year of conflict, to last February, including factories, warehouses, a farm and two power stations. Their conclusions indicate worrying evidence of targeted attacks that were anything but military.

“These strikes killed 130 civilians and injured 171 more,” said the HRW report. “The facilities hit by air strikes produced, stored or distributed goods for the civilian population including food, medicine, and electricity – items that even before the war were in short supply in Yemen, which is among the poorest countries in the Middle East.” When HRW examined six of the sites in detail, it found the US produced or supplied four of the types of munitions identified, and the UK two.

The Sana’a chamber of commerce says the coalition hit nearly 200 business sites during the period, and provided a list of 59 specific sites to HRW. This sort of evidence is important, as the aim of HRW’s research is to highlight the plight of civilians in conflict, but also to help identify if any war crimes are being committed.

In this context, a war crime can be identified if there is verifiable evidence civilian targets are being targeted specifically by attacking forces. Often it will be claimed such locations are being used in some way for military activity. HRW appears to be persuaded that, at least in the case of the specific incidents it has examined, this has not been the case. The coalition may indeed be acting illegally.

The real war is all about the rival powers Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Middle East is aligning increasingly along Islam’s sectarian divide. Iran is accused of backing the Houthis, just as it is suspected of covert activity in Palestine and overt support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Assad regime in Syria. The Saudis are involved just as much on the Sunni side across the region.

The difference is that the West continues to arm Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. We bridle at the activities of Sunni-led Islamic State, yet we back their co-religionists elsewhere. In June 2015, points out HRW, a US military spokesman confirmed the country was helping the Gulf coalition with “intelligence support and intelligence sharing, targeting assistance, advisory support, and logistical support, to include aerial refuelling with up to two tanker sorties a day.” That is a lot of re-fuelling, indicating very significant involvement.

Last May, the US acknowledged it had deployed troops in Yemen in a combat role against Al-Quaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).? The United Kingdom is “providing technical support, precision-guided weapons and exchanging information with the Saudi Arabian armed forces,” according to the Ministry of Defence.?

Aye, war is a dirty business indeed. But while it is going on, perhaps we should be igniting a moral debate about its rights and wrongs. Fresh from Chilcot and the warped logic of intervention in Iraq more than a decade ago, and on the brink of launching a multi-billion commitment to the new Trident, how are we to align our supposed yearning for peace and freedom with the harsh realities of arming the Saudi war machine with our latest weaponry? The missile system we sold to them for use in Yemen is also destined for the Royal Air Force. Is this not time for a renewed moral debate, before the next crisis arrives, with all its urgent and familiar calls for intervention?

What is our moral imperative when it comes to modern warfare, and our dealings in weapons of mass destruction? A large part of any argument for the defence industry is the employment it creates, and the leading-edge technology it requires so manufacturers can stay ahead of competitors.

We were not always so squeamish about the outcomes of an equation that says bombs plus bullets equals work and money. In 1991, when the first awakenings of 24-hour news brought us those “smart bombs”, cruise missiles supposedly flown down narrow chimneys in Baghdad, the former weapons firm Ferranti welcomed journalists into its Edinburgh factory to show off the technology behind the guidance systems. Accurate killing machines, made in Scotland!

Scottish bombs, Scottish jobs. The terrifying power of today’s weaponry, and the remote-control game-play behind innovations like the lethal drone, should surely raise our moral compass a little higher than the raw economic of death and destruction.