Ted Honderich's new book HUMANITY, TERRORISM, TERRORIST WAR: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7...
Reviewed by Tam Dalyell,
lately Member of Parliament for Linlithgow and Father of the House of Commons


    Ted Honderich is, above all, a philosopher, who eyes the world, professionally, in terms of right and wrong. It is this approach which makes Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War, Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... important reading for those who consider our current perilous state in depth.

    Furthermore, this is a contribution which is far from ephemeral and will constitute a valuable quarry for historians in the future.

    Honderich’s view is that a just war, in the intended sense, is evidently a justified war, a war that is right, a war that it is not wrong to engage in and possibly, a war that it would be wrong not to engage in.

    There must be no doubt that what is in question is not merely “a somehow legal war”. Many of my erstwhile colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party, in my judgement mostly decent caring men and women, were seduced out of their collective senses, into swallowing the obviously ridiculous notion of a “somehow legal war”.

    At this point, allow your reviewer to ride a hobby-horse. If the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith had been in the House of Commons, and not the House of Lords, there might have been less about the “somehow” of a “somehow legal war”.

    Every three weeks, Goldsmith, had he been required to face probing, persistent questions about legality from MPs Frank Dobson, Alice Mahon or Tam Dalyell, would have had his doubts exposed – doubts that were obvious to Sir Michael Boyce as chief of the defence staff.

    In the Lords, the Law Officer got away with it; his deputy, Harriet Harman, as Solicitor-General was in the uncomfortable position of monkey to the organ-grinder.

    Honderich tackles the familiar line of thinking to the effect that the massive civilian death toll in Iraq was not intended by Bush and Blair, or by our servicemen dropping the bombs or firing the missiles.

    They did not intend to kill innocent people. Their actions were not directed at the civilians. They would have chosen of course to proceed in such a way as to avoid all civilian deaths if that had been possible consistently with their own safety. What Bush and Blair intended was the killing of Iraqi soldiers and insurgents. The deaths of innocents were not actual targets, argues Honderich, but rather what the American military call “collateral damage”.

    Rightly, in my view, Honderich dubs this line of argument “total nonsense”. And, it is worse than moral nonsense. It is viciousness about the deaths of innocents that is so useful to Bush and Blair.

    Devastatingly, Honderich contends that what makes something right or wrong is what it will do. Or what it is reasonably expected to do. It is nonsense to suppose that something is to be judged right as a result of ignoring some of what you know or believe it will do.

    Honderich contends that this is on a level with supposing that a murderer who kills a husband in the course of achieving his aim or goal of killing the husband’s wife is to be judged only in terms of the killing of the wife.

    Honderich asks us to consider the American who fires a missile at a house or into the neighbourhood of a house said to have insurgents in it.

    In the house or thereabouts there are innocents, maybe at a wedding party, and they are killed; and to consider the case of a young Palestinian woman who carries a bomb on to a bus in Israel to kill innocents and herself.

    Pointedly, he asks if there is a difference or a gulf between the two cases, because the American did not intend to kill innocent people.

    I strongly commend Honderich’s thought-provoking, beautifully written, elegantly expressed volume. My hope would be that the Grote Professor’s work should be pondered not only by those of us who opposed the Iraq adventure from the beginning, but by those who went along with Bush and Blair, and should now be in a position to withdraw their support.

This review appeared in London's Camden New Journal on 1 June 2006. The English edition Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... is published by Continuum Books in London for £12.99. The American edition, under the title Right and Wrong, and Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... is published by Seven Stories Press in New York.

You can also go to a review by Steven Poole, author of Unthink, in The Guardian.

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