Humanitarian Wars? (book review)

It does not happen often, but I think a German word actually captures the essence of Rony Brauman’s book Humanitarian Wars? Lies and Brainwashing best: The word is Streitschrift and the translation polemic does not really capture the nuances of the genre well.
In just over 100 pages and in the form
of a conversation with RĂ©gis Meyran (and translated by Nina Friedman), Brauman provokes discussion, sometimes disagreement and provides always substantial intellectual food for thought. 

In the eyes of Rony Brauman of MSF, wars are always triggered in the name of morality. Today’s ‘humanitarian’ interventions are little more than new crusades – and their justifications are based on lies.
Without being militantly non-interventionist, Brauman is extremely suspicious of the thirst for war displayed by many of today’s world leaders, the consequences of which are devastating (jacket cover).
This captures the tone and scope of the book well-Brauman is always critical about justifications for interventions-but never goes down more conspiratory rabbit holes of ‘oil’ or ‘American imperialism’.

The good old days of humanitarian interventions that were neither good nor are part of
From an educational perspective, Brauman’s biggest achievement is that he reminds the reader of wars and interventions that have already entered a more monolithic historical canon – from the famine in Somalia that sparked an American-led intervention to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo and getting rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Gaddafi in Libya.
In our overcrowded mediatized world focusing on many short-term political distractions, these ‘humanitarian’ engagements may remind us of simpler times when wars could be justified and the foundations for Western, liberal social, political and economic values were laid.

Brauman revisits those ‘forgotten’ interventions from a unique perspective of a French intellectual, critical humanitarian involved with MSF and journalist who is not satisfied with the dominant discourse and convenient explanations. His perspective helps to include a European perspective in these US-driven interventions with an important reminder that the military-industrial complex, foreign policy establishment and international law system are truly global constructs that can align rather well if their is a consensus about a
‘humanitarian’ emergency.

By looking at more historical case studies Brauman also makes important points for those work in media, communication or journalism: The moment a famine was declared in Somalia (despite exaggerated/inaccurate numbers:
And though part of the food was diverted and traveled unorthodox routes, it did reach its target. I think we have to distinguish between predation and unofficial distribution. Hence the fact that I do not see them as enemies of mankind (p.54)) or a civil war in Libya (despite the fact that very little fighting was going on that did not kill 1000s of civilians) many established media quickly followed official political lines:
In France we mocked the gullibility of the American and their press, much of which-and especially the most prestigious publications-actively parroted all of the White House’s lies. Yet with the exception pf some in the media, there was the same headlong rush to war in France in 2011 (p.46).
Being skeptical about justifications for wars and interventions should be the default state of mind of any critical citizen-especially if we look at the, shall we say, mixed track-record of today’s Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya or Somalia.

Decolonize humanitarian law!
Brauman also points out that simple references to ‘humanitarian law’ are also not sufficient as the its meaning and applications have changed over time (…and are possibly in need for decolonization): 

Dumdum bullets, prohibited (in 1868) owning to their ‘excessive cruelty’, were nonetheless permitted for big-game hunting and colonial wars. That distinction was theorized by Gustave Moynier, co-founder and president of the Red Cross, who wrote that its founding principles were the product of evangelical morality and civilization. As a result, this progress was ‘inaccessible to savage tribes that…follow their brutal instincts without a second thought, while civilized nations …seek to humanise it’ (pp.94-95).
Humanitarian Wars’ educational strength lies in its accessible and conversational style that manages to bring together a historical trajectory of false pretenses for intervention and concrete examples of many conflict and wars of the last 25 or so years.

There are no
just wars, there are only false prophets 
So what should we take away from all of this?
Yesterday’s interlocutor becomes today’s enemy of mankind, blackmail is presented as negotiation, an alleged massacre becomes a genocide in progress, and a worn-out lie a defence of humanity’s values (p.109).

There are no ‘just wars’, there are only false prophets. And I worry about how easily their stories, rewritten for the purpose at hand, become History (p.110).
Brauman’s book is an excellent conversation starter for student seminars or to provoke a hawkish family member or uncritical friend – a Streitschrift rather than a simple polemic! 

Brauman, Rony: Humanitarian Wars? Lies and Brainwashing. ISBN 978-1-78738-216-9, 114pp, 14.99 GBP, London: Hurst, 2019. 


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