Please Pull the Baby out of the Fire: The Fallacy of Protecting Children from Armed Conflict

The title, ‘pull the baby out of the fire’, comes from an 18th century English satirist named Mandeville. In The Fable of the Bees, Mandeville explains the nature of Virtue and Vice with a story. The story goes like this.


In the decade before 1996, 2 million children were killed and at least 6 million maimed by war, and up to 14 million children lost their homes and are now living as refugees in foreign lands or displaced persons in their own countries. That’s in one decade. The staggering numbers of children whose hearts and minds have been damaged or whose young lives have ended in violent conflict in our lifetime attests to the really astonishing absence of good soldiers in this world, and the lack of commitment of resources for soldiers to do the only thing that would give them legitimacy in the eyes of children: to protect them from harm. I still imagine, as I did when I was a child, that there is a place for soldiers in the scheme of things. To defend freedom and stand up to aggression. But there is precious little of that kind of soldiering going on in the world, despite what the leaders of the New World Order would have us believe.

Back in 1924 the English journalist-philosopher G.K. Chesterton was able affirm the warrior’s virtues without irony, suggesting that “there is not, as pacifists and prigs imagine, the least inconsistency between loving men and fighting them, if we fight them fairly and for a good cause.” Ten years earlier on the eve of World War One the German General Helmuth von Moltke, who was famous for ordering the slaughter of whole towns, had written, “Perpetual peace is a dream, and not even a beautiful dream, and War is an integral part of God’s ordering of the universe. In War, man’s noblest virtues come into play: courage and renunciation, fidelity to duty and a readiness for sacrifice that does not stop short of offering up life itself. Without War the world would be swamped in materialism.” The general and the writer shared the common, pejorative understanding of pacifism. Pacifists had a horror of conflict of any kind. They had a one-sided emphasis on cooperation, kindness and turning the other cheek, or the suppression of the urge to fight on moral grounds. It is of vital importance for us to grasp the difference between this popular, simplistic notion of pacifism, which has not changed much since Chesterton’s time, and the contemporary movement for conflict transformation. Conflict transformation is a proactive form of social and political action, accepting the inevitability of conflict, but affirming and insisting that conflict need not lead to bloodshed.

In Von Moltke’s and Chesterton’s world, 95 per cent of the casualties, dead or wounded, of the “war to end all wars” were soldiers. The Kaiser’s army and the armies of his enemies did slaughter civilian men, women and children in great numbers, but the vast majority of the dead were enlisted men. By World War Two, half of all casualties were civilians, due to both technological advances in weapons delivery and the corrosion of the old rules of war as “a fair fight among men for a good cause.”

Today, the ratio of WWI has been inverted. Over 90 per cent of the casualties of war are non-combatants, and as many as one third of these are children under 18. Children comprise more than half of the millions of refugees and internally displaced people in the world today, driven from home by fear.

So what good are our soldiers, if they can’t or won’t protect children from guns and bombs and these infernal landmines? No damn good at all, it seems.

But it’s not their fault. We know that. Our armies are full of men and women who think they’re the good guys, who think that they can, somehow, protect children from harm while doing their jobs. They are wrong. They can’t. If they are lucky, they can become disillusioned soldiers and walk away from the business of war, the dirty child-killing job that it inevitably is under the current world order.

There are legal and institutional roadblocks to protecting children in war, which are systemic elements that lead to their suffering. This is the focus of most of the worthy efforts of the international movement on behalf of war-effected children, to pull kids out of the line of fire and provide care. Behind these proximate causes of children’s suffering, however, are the primary causes, the ultimate explanations—the conceptual roadblocks, the cultural habits, the political habits and indeed the primal drives that impair our collective vision.

I have chosen a rather macabre image—“Please pull the baby out of the fire”. It comes from a 18th century English satirist named Mandeville. In The Fable of the Bees, Mandeville explains the nature of Virtue and Vice with a story. The story goes like this. A baby is playing close to an open fire. She stumbles and falls in. You are a guest in the house. You snatch the baby from the flames. Why? Mandeville suggests that our impulse to rescue may not be based on compassion, but on self-interest. One may pull the baby out of the fire in order to avoid condemnation, and perhaps to be praised for saving a child’s life. “Private vice,” says Mandeville, “is public virtue.” To protect children from the fire or to change the rules about fires, may not be what the child-saver wants, or cares to consider—the immediate concern is to appear to be good. I take Mandeville’s hardboiled view as a challenge. In our efforts to protect children from war we may be working in this gray moral territory where, although we are all naturally concerned to be perceived as kind to children, our ruling elites, corporations and governments consider war-making to be a legitimate, useful and often profitable option. This, the pragmatic option to make war, to vote for war, to profit from war, is our vice, which we mask with the easy public virtue of our sentiments, by loudly deploring the suffering of the innocent victims of war.

One of the principal American architects of the ideology that drives the Western military-industrial complex, George F. Kennan, articulated in 1948 the Cold War dogma of containment. He also knew well, and promoted, the hidden agenda of US militarism that still drives our war machines today, to make the world safe for American economic appetites. With the so-called War on Terrorism, this vision is again in the ascendancy but never really stopped since ’46. To maintain the wealth and economic hegemony of America and its allies, “we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming…” The idea was, and continues to be, to ‘talk the talk’—but not to actually generate political will for “unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization…”

In Von Moltke’s moral universe, armed conflict keeps us from wallowing in materialism. In Kennan’s, it protects the God-given right of the wealthy minority world to control the earth’s resources and the labour of the mass of humanity. Take your pick—they are both right, in a way. Of course war does invigorate the body politic, it’s good for the economy, and it can provide an intensity of personal life experience that makes peacetime seem dull. Of course our military might does protect the materialistic, resource-glutted Western way of life. Von Moltke is talking about how to generate the social pathology of wartime patriotism, and Kennan explains why clever leaders try to maintain it as a constant force in political life. We must respond to this cynical logic with another kind of realism.

Was Mandeville wrong about us? No, we do act for selfish reasons. But we have the potential for compassion. Through a compassionate attitude to the earth, other species and other people, the most selfish perspective becomes the most altruistic. These are my brothers and sisters, my children, the earth is my body, and the rivers are the veins of my life blood. I propose that it is not idealistic to struggle against armed conflict itself. This is not sentimentality or daydreaming. It is the most rational, sane, and coldly realistic point of view—to look at the current efforts to protect children from the ravages of war and to see the perversity of it, the lie at the heart of it, the collective self-deception that makes it somehow obscene to speak of protecting children from war.

As if war could be conducted in a way that would only harm adults who have no emotional ties to children. We know, for example, that threats and violence to caregivers are as traumatic to children as threats and violence to their own person. So for war to avoid harming children, it would have to carefully target only those adults who have no deep caring relationships with any children. This is absurd, and this is the dilemma we must face.

When we speak of how war harms children, we often talk of moral outrage. Graça Machel’s landmark UN report uses this term , alongside the notion of a moral vacuum that exists in communities where atrocities are committed against children. I submit to you that the logical response to the moral vacuum, and the outcome of genuine moral outrage, is to seek to prevent the atrocities. But the atrocities have become part of the nature of war itself. There are no clean wars, despite propaganda to the contrary. Children were harmed in despicable ways recently in Afghanistan, in Palestine, in the Gulf War and in the NATO bombing of Serbia, just as they are brutalized without the screen of public relations bafflegab by combatants on all sides in dirty little wars around the world, every day. Cry havoc, and let loose the dogs of war.

I have young children of my own, and I feel that I owe it to them to be honest about this. I like to think that I am in touch with the feelings that I have had about these issues since I was quite young, perhaps twelve years old. I feel the same way about war now that I did then, and the insight that many twelve-year-olds achieve about the obscenity of war should be respected.

Remember the notion of doublethink from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four? War is Peace. It is truly Orwellian to hear adults bemoan the impact of war on children without seriously questioning the legitimacy of the violence itself, unless it is perpetrated by enemies like Bin Laden or Saddam or Milosovitch who can be demonized. Then we can respond to that illegitimate violence with God on our side — War is Peace. That’s what the spin doctors said about the bombing of Serbia — Humanitarian aggression. Or in the case of the bombing of Afghanistan, war is a manhunt, without the inconvenient burden of international law and due process. Don’t misunderstand me. Perhaps all of us share to desire bring Bin Laden to justice, but we must never accept the argument that the end justified the means, that all other avenues were exhausted. Clearly they were not.

Gestures to mask the political commitment to business-as-usual are often transparent, yet they have undeniable power to soften public opinion. The notion of military humanitarianism, so dear to the mainstream media, is the kind of concept for which the PR genius Goebbels coined the term, the “big lie” (like “there are no death camps”). The average American believes that they helped and protected Afghan civilians while the so-called war on terrorism laid waste Afghani homelands. In fact the food rations dropped in Afghanistan by US planes contained insufficient food, and the wrong kind of food, to assist the population they claimed to serve. Worse, the packets are the same yellow colour as the cluster bombs so generously scattered from the air, thus ensuring that unwitting peasant children have been blown up by cute yellow bomblets while scavenging for the dubious gifts of peanut butter and jam from America.

Much ink has been spilled and worthy efforts launched in recent years to protect and assist war-affected children. In conflict situations, children’s spaces—schools, education, health care facilities, vaccination campaigns, recreation/play facilities—need to be protected as much as possible as zones of peace. Diplomatic, economic, and/or military responses against violations of that principle should be enforced. The rehabilitation of communities needs to be supported as soon as possible (water supply, housing, schools, agriculture, health centres). The longer this takes, the more negative long-term impact on children’s physical and emotional health. Psychosocial assistance using creative arts, play and nature-based approaches are particularly effective to reduce trauma symptoms and enhance resilience in children.

However, the principle roadblock to serving the needs of war-affected children is the lack of political will to renounce war as a political tool. The numbers of war-affected children, and their needs, are increasing, because there is no serious attempt being made to actively promote an anti-war agenda. One UN agency claims to have an anti-war agenda. Unfortunately, if you read this agenda, you will see that it has no anti-war teeth. “Children need be victims of war only if there is no will to prevent it.” A worthy sentiment, but it is ambiguous. It perpetuates the myth of effective protection. Do we need political will to protect children, or to prevent war? Of course we must struggle to assist war-affected children; but our efforts to protect them are doomed to fail.

Children have a right not to be lied to. We should be honest, if indeed
we think that war is always an option, a political option, or in Carl von Clausewitz’ famous phrase, an extension of politics by other means. That seems to be the message that we convey in our efforts to claim safe haven for kids, zones of peace, amidst the status quo of war. The irony is that all signatories to the UN Charter explicitly renounce, “in good faith”, the option of making war—“the threat or use of force in their international relations”.

A colleague who specializes in helping people who have survived war trauma tells me that people who have experienced armed conflict are the largest community of people in the world. If you look at all the armed conflicts in our lifetime, including civil wars and state terrorism, past and current, you can see that he is probably right. So war, the experience of war is part of our common human experience, a dark and painful part of what it is to be human. It is not helpful to tell children that acts of war are inhuman, and that we reclaim our humanity in our renunciation of war. We must take ownership of the violence and cruelty in our human nature. We do no favours to our children if we do not take responsibility for war, if we constantly blame the demons like Pol Pot and Bin Laden and Idi Amin and Hitler. We will be doomed to repeat our mistakes, and our children will despise us for it.

By the same token, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. It is dynamic, and as William Blake said in his Proverbs of Hell, “without contraries there can be no progression.” But we can distinguish between violent and non-violent conflict, and teach our children to accept personal and institutional limits to prevent the escalation of conflict past the threshold of violence. In this respect, I think both the peace movement and the military educators of the world could benefit from exposure to the works of Blake and other poets who have understood better than the rest of us how to channel aggression through acts of imaginative courage. Mars, god of war, will not be denied, but this very human potentiality does not require violence in order to be fulfilled. Rather, we need dynamic tension and forward movement—action leading to decisive results—and this can be achieved through non-violent interactions between adversaries, through many levels of conflict that fall short of war. Of course, this level of theory is far for the grim reality of warzones. However, knowing that the warlords in the Afghan hills or the Colombian bush may not see the merit in setting aside their weapons does not make the insight less valid, only more difficult to act upon.

In his classic book, On Aggression, Konrad Lorenz showed how human aggression is a manifestation of instinctual defensive drives that have parallels in the animal kingdom. He did not say this in order to suggest that men are violent beasts and there is nothing we can do about it, although ironically, in his lifetime he was attacked for that. Reflecting on his meeting with Lorenz in 1974, Bruce Chatwin explained how Lorenz’s ideas were used by policymakers to rationalize man’s addiction to armed conflict. “What, in On Agression, caught the fancy of the Cold War warriors was Lorenz’s concept of ‘ritual’ combat. The Superpowers, by implication, must fight because it is in their nature to fight: yet perhaps could contain their squabbles in some poor, small, preferably defenseless country — just as two bucks will choose a patch of no-man’s land to spar on. The US Secretary of Defense, I was told, kept an annotated copy by his bedside.”

Lorenz was interested in telling the truth about the inarticulate heart of the god of war, so that we would know what we are up against—the enemy within. But anthropology also teaches us that gift-giving and hospitality traditions are forms of ritualized aggression, in which fear or animosity toward the Other and the Stranger are transformed into gestures of good will. This is the ancient historical basis for treaty-making, intercultural exchange, intertribal coexistance, and all the alternative strategies that are now gathered under the idea of peacebuilding.

This argument can provoke some intense reactions, whether insistence on the pragmatic necessity or inevitability of war, or discussions about why war-making is an essential aspect of our human nature that ‘will out’, regardless of, or indeed because of, its own diabolical nature. There is ‘just war theory’ which gives rise to the Geneva Conventions. But this set of ideas and the rules of fair war play are rarely honoured in any contemporary war, in which it is not possible to protect civilians, as I have already shown.

Children, on the other hand, when asked to think about war, do not tend to say that it is inevitable, natural, or archetypal. They do not want to talk about whether it is ever justified, or about why men must equate conflict with physical violence at a primal level, and why it is so difficult to channel our aggression toward non-violent transformation of conflict. They choose instead to be pragmatic in a way that is in stark contrast to the pragmatist lines sketched out by world-weary adults. They call on world leaders to do many sensible, if difficult, things: focus foreign policy attention on preventing war; promote lower military spending around the world, and more attention to education; recognize that international economic sanctions harm children and normal people, not government leaders; control gun sales and trade, cut off the supply of small arms; get rid of all landmines; arrest and punish all war criminals; provide more help to war-affected families abroad, especially children who have lost families and homes.

At the same time, we can recognize and respect the choices of children who choose to take up arms or stones as participants in conflicts such as the Palestinian Intifada, the Sandinista uprising in Nicaragua, the Eritrean war of independence, or the struggle against Apartheid. Having ideals, identifying with a just cause, and taking action are all protective factors for resilience and mental health that should not be underestimated. Sometimes it is the children who are kept home from the fighting who suffer the most acute distress. When adults fail to prevent armed conflict, some of the smartest and most resourceful young people can be expected to join in the violence.

In the current bellicose climate it is easy to forget that since 1945, the UN has negotiated more than one hundred and seventy peaceful settlements that have ended regional conflicts. The tragic fact that some of these countries, such as Afghanistan, continue to be torn by strife, does not erase this record of effective conflict transformation. We have the mechanisms, imperfect as they are, to respond to the challenge that children put to us, not merely to clean up post-war messes, not only to help alleviate the consequences of war on civilians, but to address violence at its roots.

This has been called a “culture of peace” approach, but “peace” may be a misnomer that perpetuates a misunderstanding about its apparent opposite, dark side, conflict. The trouble with notions of peace is that they are inevitably tangled in a flower bed of perpetual sunlight, without ice or darkness or storms. To draw from William Blake again, the hand that made the lamb also made the tiger, and the tiger is not just destructive but also our own creative power that we need to embrace. In wishing for peace, let’s be careful not to wish for a world that represses our healthy appetite for conflict, debate, dissent, and opposition.

Is such a global cultural shift possible? Can we kick the old human habit of problem- solving through violent aggression? Are we sincerely willing to push the nations and corporations of this earth in the direction of a genuine non-violent culture, toward a world in which war is not seen as a legitimate political tool, but rather the abomination that it is? Can we make a world in which war is viewed as an illegitimate, criminal option that will be responded to with the full force of international law, by blue helmets and no one else?

The theory and practice of international peacekeeping is on a continuum with other forms of law enforcement. Studies of American and British police forces have shown that the majority of police work is actually data-gathering for crime reporting, and social work. Although police tend to self-select as good guys who want to catch and punish bad guys, most of the time the job involves offering comfort and restoring some sense of security to people who have experienced crime, injury, loss or other disruption of their lives. This is not meant to dismiss the courage and tolerance for risk required for police work. The rest of the time they are engaged in crime prevention, the action that drives cop shows on TV, struggling with the corrupt, the cruel, the cold blooded and the desperate people of society.

Is there an analogy here to the way that an international peace keeping force should and could function? I think so. What if, like the British and American cops, the soldier’s real job was to prevent armed conflict where it breaks out? What if we come to a collective recognition that it is not a legitimate means to advance any political agendas, however just the cause, and we agree to make it illegal under international law? We would need a reinvented form of the Blue Helmets, not under the orders of any individual world leader or nation state, but governed by a revitalized UN Security Council that genuinely represents the peoples of the earth. This global military security force would function in a way analogous to a well-regulated domestic police force. They would spend most of their time offering comfort and restoring a sense of security to people in places where armed conflict breaks out, and the rest of the time they would engage in war prevention, struggling against the corrupt, the cruel, the cold blooded and the desperate groups in the world. What if the dirty job that must be done is not to fight wars, but to prevent them?

There is an assumption that the main job of soldiers is to use weapons, to be warriors, and most of the conventional wisdom of both hawks and doves is based on this simplistic premise. But if you think about it, this is not the main job of peacekeeping soldiers, whose mission is to protect non-combatants, and to prevent the escalation of armed conflict, by force if necessary. This is very different from the notion that the business of soldiers is merely to use weapons, following orders. It is more difficult, it requires more judgement and compassion, a more complex skill set, and more personal responsibility, while still including respect for hierarchy and obedience to orders.

This is what soldiers must be in the 21st century. This is the basis on which to build an international peacekeeping force. Of course, this notion of the good soldier has already been co-opted in operation Enduring Freedom, where the United States claims that its soldiers are humanitarian workers. Yes, say the generals, we do that. That’s what we are doing in Afghanistan. War is indeed Peace. This demonic parody of a just war should not surprise us, in a world where ‘just war’ has become a contradiction in terms.

Only an international peacekeeping force, governed by an international body independent of the unilateral will and geopolitical ambitions of any one head of state, can be a legitimate peacekeeping force. Please understand that I am talking about what the UN could become, not what it is. The United Nations as it is today, a discredited, ineffectual, repeatedly shamed, humiliated collection of institutions, is in desperate need of a complete overhaul. UN peacekeepers, we know, are sometimes restrained from preventing violence on the ground by the influence of member states with conflicting geopolitical agendas that, in the current system, override humanitarian imperatives.

There are some relatively functional parts of the UN, such as UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) that continue to provide vital services in the world despite the general impression of failure. These are the agencies that struggle against the cynical war-mongering, arms-dealing tide of member states’ actions. They struggle to clean up the bloody, grief-stricken mess that grows daily. They are among the humanitarian agencies that work to assist, care for, and protect war-affected children and their families alongside various international non-government organizations, including Médecins Sans Frontières.

But the litany of ways that the UN has failed to fulfill its peacekeeping mandate in recent years are only matched by the catalogue of ways that member states have failed to meet their obligations to help make the UN a credible and effective peacekeeping institution. The rules that limit its actions make it very difficult for a UN force to protect human security other than their own self-defense, as we saw in Rwanda. The unprepared state of the troops provided by some of the world’s less scrupulous governments suggests that they are a new form of bonded labour, rented to the UN ill-equipped and poorly trained, with little more than the shirts on their backs. The failure of the UN to keep peace is its failure to protect children.

I have no illusions about what we are up against. We should leave open the possibility, as Wendell Berry says, that we’ll be too stupid to change. I too, wish to be pragmatic, but more in the way that young people describe how to work for the world as it could be, rather than the way that adults explain human folly as it works in the real world. Justice, social and ecological justice, is no longer compatible with the bankrupt theory of just war. Conflict transformation, politics practiced with integrity, are also part of the real world. This is a dream that children, who have a keen sense of justice, can respect and work toward.

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