Ed Cairns worries that, 75 years since Oxfam was founded, we have returned to an era of heartless total war
When a group of people met in Oxford’s University Church on 5 October 1942, they talked about the dire shortage of food in Nazi-occupied countries, and how to raise money and get relief through the Allies’ blockade. They agreed to set up something called the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (whose name was later shortened to Oxfam), fuelled by a desire to help, but perhaps more importantly by a belief that that blockade was wrong.
One of those gathered in the church’s old library was Gilbert Murray, Oxford’s Regius Professor of Greek until a few years before. He argued how difficult it would be to advocate for aid without challenging the Government’s policy of blockade, which Churchill himself had set out in 1940.
This was part of a wider debate in wartime Britain on whether it should wage ‘total war’, including blockades and the bombing of cities, or whether, even when facing Nazi Germany, wars should have limits. Relatively few people questioned ‘total war’, but those that did argued that we should not punish hungry people – through restricting food and other supplies – whose only crime was living under an odious regime.
Relatively soon after the war, the critics of ‘total war’ seemed to win the argument. When the new Geneva Conventions were agreed in 1949, they restricted the means and methods of warfare; flatly forbade starvation as a tactic; prohibited the destruction of vital services; and obliged warring parties to allow the unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid. That has been the cornerstone of international humanitarian law ever since.
But has the age of ‘total war’ really been consigned to the past? The prospect of a nuclear strike, inevitably leading to the ‘total’ destruction of civilian areas, doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched as it has. But the war of words between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump is not the only reminder of ‘total war’ – as Oxfam’s staff see in a saddening number of crises today.
The number of people killed in war in 2016, 157,000, is a fraction of those who died in the world wars of the twentieth century. Despite the rise in conflicts in the last ten years, the sheer numbers killed in the terrible bombings of the Second World War, conventional and atomic, have never been repeated.
But ‘total war’ was never about numbers. It was an attitude of mind that no holds were barred, and that if civilians had to be, effectively, punished for being in the wrong place, ruled by the wrong side, that was too bad.
A few months ago, I saw this in north-east Nigeria, the region blighted by the conflict between Boko Haram and the military operations against it. The horror at Boko Haram was beyond doubt. I listened to men and women forced from their homes by the group’s brutal attacks, in which so many others had died.
But time and again, I also heard this kind of story from a 40-year-old woman, Hadiza. ‘Both Boko Haram and the army,’ she said, ‘have killed so many men. Boko Haram killed 4 of my cousins. But the army took my husband and 7 others. My husband did not survive.’
I heard that Nigeria’s army used multiple rocket launchers to deny Boko Haram access to land – land in which
civilians were inevitably killed by the rockets as well. I heard that the government restricted access to food, fearful that it could sustain Boko Haram fighters, even as the threat of famine remained. And I heard many stories that backed up Amnesty’s research of deaths in military custody, from disease, hunger and killings, as young men were presumed to back Boko Haram until proven innocent. It all felt a bit like ‘total war’, in which, as a 2015 study put it, Nigeria’s army forces defined its role in terms of killing Boko Haram, not saving civilians.
North-east Nigeria has been only one place on the brink of famine in this extraordinary year. Millions more people have faced this threat in Somalia, South Sudan, and, more than anywhere else, Yemen. All sides in Yemen’s conflict have attacked civilians, and restricted their access to food. Among these, the Saudi-led coalition has enforced a de facto blockade on Yemen’s main port, Hodeidah, and closed the capital’s airport to commercial flights, greatly complicating the aid effort. As one of my colleagues ruefully put it, ‘Yemen isn’t starving, it’s being starved.’
One could go on. It’s three years since Gaza’s last major violence, when more than 2,000 people were killed. Now Israel and the Palestinian Authority are cutting electricity to the enclave to put pressure on Hamas, the de facto authority. Not war, but in many respects the impact on people living in Gaza is as bad. After 2014’s conflict, half of the sewage treatment centres didn’t work. None do today. And this is on top of Israel’s blockade in place for almost a decade, which has devastated Gaza’s economy.
In the Second World War, reasonable people, facing terrible threats, once thought that blockading civilian populations, and bombing civilian cities, was acceptable. Today’s conflicts are very different, but still often marked by, at best, accepting that large numbers of civilians will suffer, and, at worst, a deliberate plan to use civilian suffering to put pressure on the enemy. The consequence is much the same: to punish desperate people, whose only crime is the authority they live under.
Seventy-five years ago, this was an issue that divided at least parts of British opinion. Today, these crises are thousands of miles away, but in every case, Britain is involved. It has sold £3.6 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia since it started striking targets in Yemen; in the first eighteen months, 37% of those targets were ‘non-military’. The British Army trains Nigeria’s armed forces operating against Boko Haram. And the UK has been slow to speak out against the vast human cost of Gaza’s electricity crisis, though Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in an earlier career, condemned Israel’s military action in 2014 as disproportionate, ugly and tragic – a good description for what is happening now.
It’s difficult not to think that this would sadden Gilbert Murray and the others who gathered to found the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief in 1942. Seventy-five years later, civilians are still being punished, through blockades and military action that hits combatants and civilians alike. The campaign against total war goes on.