More or less dead

March 2011: a rebel kicks the corpse of an African teenager, allegedly a mercenary fighter for Qaddafi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seumas Milne asks the key question about the Libyan intervention: how many dead, versus how many deaths prevented? And his answer isn’t pretty:

What is now known, however, is that while the death toll in Libya when Nato intervened was perhaps around 1,000-2,000 (judging by UN estimates), eight months later it is probably more than ten times that figure. Estimates of the numbers of dead over the last eight months – as Nato leaders vetoed ceasefires and negotiations – range from 10,000 up to 50,000. The National Transitional Council puts the losses at 30,000 dead and 50,000 wounded.

Of those, uncounted thousands will be civilians, including those killed by Nato bombing and Nato-backed forces on the ground. These figures dwarf the death tolls in this year’s other most bloody Arab uprisings, in Syria and Yemen. Nato has not protected civilians in Libya – it has multiplied the number of their deaths, while losing not a single soldier of its own.

It’s worth noting that the higher total of 30,000 dead in eight months would equal more than half of US deaths in the eight-year Vietnam War — and this in a country with a population of no more than six million. David Clark, a former UK Foreign Office advisor, responds:

The larger figure of 30,000 deaths quoted by Milne is the one given by the National Transitional Council (NTC) for those killed on both sides during the whole of the conflict, and includes 8,000 said to have been killed by the Gaddafi regime before Nato’s intervention had even started. To point out that the killing continued after that point is hardly proof that Nato caused more suffering than it prevented. The opposite conclusion – that western intervention saved lives – still seems far more convincing.

A second reason for refusing to accept moral equivalence between victor and vanquished is that the atrocities said to have been committed by rebel forces in Sirte appear to be the result of indiscipline and weak central command rather than a planned and co-ordinated programme of state terror. Had it been the latter there would doubtless be evidence of a pattern of similar behaviour in other areas liberated by the rebel authorities. Instead, the NTC instructed its forces to refrain from looting and revenge attacks, and the weeks taken to capture Sirte show at least some concern to minimise civilian casualties.

Death, with toupee

“About Hitler,” the great Viennese writer Karl Kraus wrote as his life neared its end in  the 1930s, “I have nothing to say.”  It’s hard to feel there’s much to say about Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi’s death either, though that will not stop anybody.  A regime that lived by violence and died by violence immured itself in an element that, as Hannah Arendt repeatedly maintained, is absolutely inimical to words.   Few outside Libya would disagree that it would be preferable if legality had prevailed, if he had been taken alive, if his crimes could be analyzed and proven in the verbal extravaganza of a trial.   Still, when he was seized by angry and loosely-organized men with guns, hundreds of whose comrades he had killed in a nine-month war, it is hard to imagine how any adjective could apply to the remainder of his life but “short.”  The transitional council, if it wanted him tried (as is not clear), could perhaps have sent more orders — more words — to its military to keep him living.  It’s clear from the shouting men in the existing videos of his capture that they knew there were such commands. But it was as almost-inevitable as in Chekhovian dramaturgy that someone in the scene who had a gun would use it. 

I am still not quite sure what I think about the Western intervention. I want to know — a figure still undetermined — how many Libyans died in what was supposed to be a surgical incursion, and turned into a prolonged civil war. Still, while it is easy to identify virtually any industrialized-world action in the Middle East as motivated by oil, in fact this one seems more disinterested.  Ever since the West decided Qaddafi was a decent fellow to deal with, oil had flowed from Libya quite placidly; the cheapest and surest way to ensure its unabated egress would have been to ignore the rebellion tacitly, and let Qaddafi win. And — despite the hilarity of Qaddafi’s claims that bin Laden was feeding hallucinogens to the rebels — it was true that al-Qaeda affiliates had for more than a decade been among the opposition to Qaddafi, making unseating him something of a risk from the perspective of US obsessions. Foreign policy, particularly US foreign policy, is never altruistic. But this looks like a decision in which some kind of moral calculus competed with political calculation.

Back when: the dictator, billboard-sized

Meanwhile, everyone is struck in an Aristotelian way by the depth and disorder of his fall: the figure who loomed as a giant in his own propaganda for forty years shunken to a dusty figure, clown-puffs of dishevelled Bozo-hair ballooning from his temples, dragged from a drain. The sense of tragedy is tempered by how silly he looks waddling into the face of death, the absolute deprivation of dignity as the last humiliation. They almost always seem this way at the end; people whose lives are made up of power find they have nothing left when stripped of it. (Among the fallen autocrats, or servants of autocracy, in this century, the only ones I can recall who regained some independent if ersatz dignity in the end were Göring and Milosevic. The former was detoxed by his generous captors after they jailed him, allowing him to stand up at Nuremberg as something more articulate than a morphine-addled wreck. The bureaucratic pettiness and endlessness of the latter’s trial in the Hague made anyone who spoke with passion come off better for the cameras — and Milosevic did, although his essays in mass murder had been paradoxically passionless, a bloody form of paperwork.)

Khaled Said before and after: iconic images from the Egyptian revolution

I gave a paper last week on, among other things, body politics in the Arab Spring.  Mohamed Bouazizi, who set fire to himself to protest Tunisia’s dictatorship, and Khaled Said, tortured brutally to death by Mubarak’s police in 2010, became vital figures animating the respective oppositions. Their bodies, burned and mutilated, themselves turned into symbols of resistance to the state’s power.

Down he comes: the poseur deposed

And the palpability of their deaths stood in contrast to the vast, metastasized images of themselves that the dictators pasted everywhere. On every corner were gargantuan posters of Mubarak, Ben Ali, Qaddafi looking Botoxed to an unbelievably embryonic youth, stylized idols more airbrushed than a L’Oreal ad. Those were phantasmagoric bodies, suddenly confronted by the tangible bodies of tangible people that rose to depose them. Ghost faces against real faces; the unreal and duplicitous against the living and the dead; a ghost corporeality against human demands and needs. Fake existence faded before the weight and strength of actual lives, whose final mark of actuality was their vulnerability to death. Of all the surrounding newsbits that came with Qaddafi’s killing, my favorite was the announcement that when the transitional council tried to determine for certain this was his corpse, by DNA-testing hair samples, it didn’t work. Even in the last extremity, huddling in degradation in a drain, Qaddafi couldn’t be wholly real. He wore a wig.