While we reassure ourselves with our own humanity in the face of horror, the war continues—and our borders turn back its refugeesby / April 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
Although thoroughly man-made, just now Syria’s violence appears to have taken on a dangerous force of its own. Some in this war, of course, believe that violence is divine. But most do not, and find themselves floored, physically and mentally, by a force that seems as indiscriminate as it is unstoppable.
We look on in appalled horror, or fidget manfully about our options, but at some level we know that the chances of making this kind of violence more humane by intervention are slim. Intervention changes wars, sometimes it can prevent or end wars, but rarely does it humanise anything other than the sentiments of those not being butchered.
Samuel Beckett once noted darkly that ‘humanity’ was a word we reserve for use in times of massacres. When times are dire we reassure ourselves about our own humanity by noting our ability to register the inhumanity being done to others.
This perspective—or perhaps defence mechanism– requires some strategic forgetting about the agency of those “being done to.” People from Syria rarely get to speak in their own voice in the western media; instead they suffer passively. Syrians are people who get pulled from rubble, usually by other Syrians, who are also doing the original and dangerous filming that is edited for our screens. It actually takes a lot brave action on the part of Syrians to convince the world of their abject passivity, but we rarely pause to think about that.
And we are not in circumstances where sentiments can be soothed without serious risk. We still call it the war in Syria, but just now that ‘in’ is beginning to look like wishful thinking. The UN’s Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, recently warned of an escalation with “consequences so devastating they are difficult to even imagine.” The war could all too easily suck in those beyond the region into its vortex.
The difficulty of imagining this war—how we see it, and what we chose to see or not to see—could well have fateful consequences in this context. We look at war through two lenses today: one geopolitical, the other humanitarian. Where dodgy ideology, Twitter, and poor intelligence hamstring the first, the second has been reduced to helplessly reiterating the bleeding (literally) obvious: that war is inhuman. Now perhaps is the moment to reckon with this war not only as the human catastrophe it is, but as a war.
In her sublime essay on the Iliad, written the even darker hour between 1940 and 1941, the French philosopher and mystic, Simone Weil, wrote about the force of war.’ This force, she wrote, is “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns a man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him;” in the Iliad Hector “becomes a thing dragged behind a chariot in the dust.”
This isn’t just about the violence of the aggressor. Everyone, victor or vanquished, innocent or guilty, can suddenly find themselves naked with a weapon aimed at them; the force of war is indiscriminate. Thus it is that the epic poem’s narrator refuses to give away which side he’s on. There are few moral certainties in the Iliad; instead, it forces us to confront the possibility of “death locked up in each moment.”
Simone Weil knew what she was talking about. She wrote her essay in Marseille whilst waiting for the papers that would get her and her Jewish family out of France, via a refugee camp in Casablanca. Weil would die in exile, three years later in Ashford, Kent.
I was reminded of Weil’s essay when reading Rania Abouzeid’s extraordinary new book, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria. Abouzeid tracks the war through the lives of Syrians from different backgrounds—rebels, children, the middle-class boys engaged in the social media war, the men from Al-Qaeda. In this way, the missing story of what Syrian lives look like from the inside is at last brought back in.
Some might object to the inclusion of voices from the Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda, but Abouzeid’s book is, in its own way, as sublime as Weil’s essay. The ‘no turning back’ of the title says it all—the insane force of this war just keeps on going, gobbling up lives, turning people into things. We hear, for example of Suleiman, the middle-class boy turned rebel, finds himself endlessly recycled through Bashar al-Assad’s torture cells: “He was one of them now, a body cycled in perpetuity through a labyrinth of suffering.” A new Hector, dragged in the dust.
Weil speculated that the Iliad was written by exiles from the wars: this is where its wisdom came from. If we wanted to make a really human intervention just now we could do worse than honour the traditions of asylum, and indeed those of the best of human rights law, open up our borders, and invite Syria’s refugees to share their war stories. The tales they might tell would not comfort us about our own humanity—far from it. But they would, perhaps, compel us to confront death—and the obscene horror of this war—more honestly.