Eastern Ghouta: When Will We Learn?


When I think of war, and of the lessons of history, my mind goes first to the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus’ account of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 CE. A vast number of civilians—over a million according to Josephus—were gathered in the city to celebrate Passover. They were besieged and starved until the final onslaught by fire and sword.

 But when (the Roman legions) went in numbers into the lanes of the city, with their swords drawn, they slew those whom they overtook, without mercy, and set fire to the houses wither the Jews were fled, and burnt every soul in them, and laid waste a great many of the rest; and when they were come to the houses to plunder them, they found in them entire families of dead men, and the upper rooms full of dead corpses, that is of such as died by the famine; they then stood in a horror at this sight, and went out without touching anything.  But although they had this commiseration for such as were destroyed in that manner, yet had they not the same for those that were still alive, but they ran every one through whom they met with, and obstructed the very lanes with their dead bodies, and made the whole city run down with blood, to such a degree indeed that the fire of many of the houses was quenched with these men's blood. And truly so it happened, that though the slayers left off at the evening, yet did the fire greatly prevail in the night.

That was in the ancient world—a world where slavery was a fact of life and international law did not exist. It was a world where total war, war upon civilians, was accepted, where might was right.

Today, as incendiary bombs rain upon the starving people of Ghouta, Syria, I ask myself—have we learned nothing? Have we learned nothing from the siege of Jerusalem except how to besiege, starve and burn civilians more effectively?

Have we learned nothing from the siege and destruction of Constantinople by the Crusaders? War upon war, siege after siege, human history has rolled on, bringing us to the horrors of the Twentieth Century. And after eighteen million died in the First World War—my uncle Albert among them—and perhaps eighty million perished in the Second World War, did we not say, ‘Never Again?’

WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

AND FOR THESE ENDS to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,


 These are fine and lofty words, born of the bitter experience of two horrific wars.  Yet even after this charter was written, the US dropped a million tons of bombs on North Korea, used napalm and chemical weapons and killed 20% of the civilian population. Are we surprised the North Korea feels impelled to have its own nuclear weapons? Have we learned nothing?

Even after this charter was written and this noble resolve made, the Twentieth Century continued its sorry course--Vietnam, Iran-Iraq, Ruanda, Bosnia, the Gulf War.  Have we learned nothing?

Fireworks around the world ushered in a new millennium. The Twentieth Century was over.  The century of horrific wars had ended, yet the horror continued. Iraq. Afghanistan. Chechnia. Somalia.  Gaza. Darfur. South Sudan. Ukraine. The Democratic Republic of Congo. Syria. Yemen. Syria.   

A million Syrians have been killed in a war almost seven years long. Over five million are refugees living in miserable conditions with no future to hope for. Eastern Ghouta has been besieged and starved for five long years. And the UN Security Council is impotent to enforce international law and protect the civilian population.

Today, as incendiary bombs rain upon the 400,000 starving civilians of Eastern Ghouta, I ask myself, what would Titus have given for incendiary bombs? My sisters, my brothers, have we learned nothing in two millennia except how to wreak greater havoc?

Let us awaken from our sleep, We the People of the World. Let us rise up for peace. Let us make our voices heard, even while ‘our earthly rulers slumber.’ Let us speak out, let us take to the streets, for Gouta, for Syria, for Yemen, for the children of the world. Let us combine our efforts to accomplish the aim of peace.