Democracy, warfare and disaster management

In March 2003, when it became clear that war in Iraq was inevitable, some 30 million of the world's population demonstrated against the bellicose policies of the US and UK governments. A slim consensus was achieved among the US public about the need to go to war, but in many parts of Europe and the Arab world, governments and populations were clearly at variance. Moreover, the United Nations (UN) was in the process of being sidelined, to the evident distress of many of those who took to the streets. Indeed, the same disquiet affected the large numbers of parliamentary representatives who voted in their respective countries against executive orders to support the war.

The forthcoming invasion of Iraq was set to contravene both international law and the UN Charter. Many people did not like that state of affairs, but their protests carried little weight.

International relations and historical shallowness

Various analyses have shown that in situations of risk, crisis and disaster, the news media 'construct' the event, which is to say that they report it selectively in such a way as to create a particular image of it. This is how public opinion is formed and maintained, a process satirised long ago as 'barber-block' politics by Thomas Love Peacock in Crotchet Castle (1831). In the mass media, dissension is restricted by political and economic considerations based on power, influence, ownership, commerce and advertising. It is therefore somewhat remarkable that so many dissenters exist in societies where such powerful instruments are used so pervasively to shape the public's attitudes.

One of the most consistent trends in this process is historical shallowness. The news changes daily, yet it cannot really be understood without connecting the day's events with developments that have occurred over decades or perhaps centuries. In the case of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was seen as a rogue and a cruel dictator, which was not in doubt, but such a profile must be viewed in the light of past attitudes towards him and his country. Western powers, particularly Britain, created Iraq during the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Five disparate geographical entities were coerced into one rather artificial nation, judged by the then Foreign Secretary, Sir Winston Churchill, to be 'ungovernable'. A decade later, Sir Arthur Harris developed his 'saturation bombing' technique by experimenting on the hapless civilian residents of Iraqi villages that appeared to be sheltering pan-Arab nationalists who wished to change the pattern of states and balance of power. The Western mass media may easily forget, but in the Middle East memories are rather longer.

The British mandate in Iraq lasted until 1932 and its enduring legacy was one of political instability. In 1979, two decades after the Ba'ath ('Renaissance') Party had engineered the downfall of the Hashemite monarchy installed by Britain, Saddam Hussein came to power following a CIA-sponsored coup d'état. Fourteen months later Iraqi troops crossed the Shatt al-Arab River to invade Iran. For the next eight years of war the Western powers supported Iraq with armaments and intelligence, despite Saddam's use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops and later against Kurdish-Iraqi civilians, most infamously at Halabjah. Even in the 1990s Western governments were consistently failing to stop the export from their own countries of advanced weapons technology to Iraq, including the ability to manufacture chemical and biological weapons. In the light of this, the invasion of March 2003 amounted to what the American novelist Thomas Wolfe called "making the world safe for hypocrisy".

Casualties of warfare and short-termism

When wars break out involving the Western powers, they are debated endlessly by our news media, politicians, experts and publics. Despite the shallowness and short-termism of much of that debate, it succeeds in energising people to make their voices heard. Democracy takes two forms: direct (or participatory) and representative (including constitutional or parliamentary). It was born as the former and became the latter when applied to groups of people that were too large to govern by taking account of everyone's opinions. As representative democracy has grown, so governments have come to fear and despise participatory democracy. They are not entirely without reason, as the eighth-century scholar Alcuin noted: "Nec audiendi sunt qui solent dicere, 'Vox populi, vox dei,' cum tumultiositas vulgi semper insaniæ proxima est." ("Nor should we listen to those who say 'The voice of the people is the voice of God,' for the tumult of the mob is always close to insanity.") Yet representative democracy cannot survive and prosper without a grass-roots element, which must of necessity be composed of its direct-action counterpart. Its lack of amenability to control is one of the safeguards against totalitarianism.

The public, whether long-suffering or miserabile vulgus (the 'pathetic masses'), needs its leaders. In this context, it is often said that yesterday's militants become tomorrow's statesmen. The archetype was David Ben-Gurion, whose call upon the Jewish community in Palestine to rise up against the British mandate led to bombings and later, paradoxically, to the full honours given to an international statesman. It is equally true, however, that yesterday's statesmen can become today's dictators. Saddam Hussein was a prime example - the leader of a regime that 20 years ago was regarded in the West as the 'acceptable face' of Islam, the secular bulwark against the dangerous religious fanaticism emanating from Iran, who later became the hoarder of 'weapons of mass destruction'.

Whatever the power of weapons used, the sheer intensity of technological, economic, social, political and financial investment in warfare means that total warfare is much more common than ever before. Since 1945, 90% of the victims of war have been civilians, not soldiers, and more than half of them have been women and children. Perhaps 70% of the human victims of residual unexploded cluster bombs (present in Iraq as a result of the 2003 war) are likely to be children. From the point of view of civilians trapped by warfare, it matters not whether leaders are statesmen or tyrants: the only participatory activities are to fight, run, hide or give oneself up to whatever fate is in store.

Natural disasters and modern warfare

Like Afghanistan, Iraq is a seismic country. It also suffers floods and droughts. What lessons for disaster management can be drawn from the observation of contemporary warfare? Where do the parallels lie?

For both Iraq and Afghanistan, the management of natural disasters is subordinate to the termination of conflict. Peace and security are preconditions for the development of civil society and hence for civil protection. Commonly, hazard mitigation follows a path from spontaneity to organisation, with the latter often being post hoc and therefore a fudge concocted to remedy inefficiencies. The alternative requires forecasting of hazards, foresight in preparing for them and an adequate consensus on the need for prior planning. Such a situation is not easily aimed at, as the power structure of society, with its hierarchies and oligarchies, does not often favour grass-roots groups against the elite, and ordinary citizens seldom control the means of production. It follows that democracy, and not any subversion of it, is at the heart of hazard mitigation. Imposed external solutions are implicitly flawed.

Disasters and democracy

In Western societies one great challenge of the 21st century is to democratise disaster management. The aims of this process are to encourage people to take responsibility for their own risk behaviour and safety; to achieve a more participatory approach to disasters; to improve equity in relief, reconstruction and recovery; to share decision-making; and to ensure that democracy is safeguarded during the disruptive aftermath of disaster.

In an age in which 'disinformation' has replaced propaganda, we can only hope that the natural disasters of the future will not suffer from the same disingenuousness as is systematically applied to modern wars.

It is often said that there are no votes in sewage disposal. Likewise, political capital is difficult to garner from disaster prevention. This is the result of the common lapsus memoriæ (slip of the memory) between one disaster impact and the next. Bad emergency preparedness often results from the historical shallowness that such fecklessness promotes: many of the lessons of past catastrophes are all too easily forgotten. In this respect, we must be honest with ourselves about history: a balanced view is needed with historical depth, not cognitive dissonance.

As we move from the civil defence model, in which things are done on people's behalf, to the civil protection model, in which people should be proactive participants, changes are required in attitude, political culture, organisation and method. Good emergency preparedness needs institutions that are strong on leadership but also responsive and accommodating to their stakeholders, the public. Dissent is as valuable as consensus in the case of wars of questionable justification. Consensus is needed more than dissent in civil protection, but engagement is needed above all. People must face up to issues and vested interests, while leaders must see the problem from the point of view of the beneficiaries (or victims).

Solidarity imperative

Modern disasters are not 'acts of God' in any legal or operational sense; like warfare they are acts of people. Opinions differ regarding the extent of culpability, and students of disaster have expressed varying degrees of moral outrage. Though in other respects it differs, seen in this light the problem of natural disasters begins to merge with that of warfare. It achieves almost complete synthesis in the modern 'complex emergency'.

The paradox of natural disasters in the early 21st century is that they are converging with warfare in terms of causes, ethics, and operations. In Afghanistan and Iraq, peace and stability are necessary preconditions for organising disaster prevention. But elsewhere the threat of terrorism and the prevailing ethos of security are beginning to override any consensus about fighting a common enemy - the flood, earthquake or hurricane - that was once considered to be morally neutral.

Warfare thrives upon the polarisation of society: "Man's inhumanity to man/Makes countless thousands mourn", as Robert Burns put it. Other forms of disaster should not fall victim to that polarisation, for there has never been as much need for solidarity in the world as there is now.

David Alexander is Professor of Disaster Management at Cranfield University, Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham

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