As a child, like many children before and after me, I hated sprouts. Sprouts. Blech! Just thinking the word made me shudder. They looked, smelled and tasted of concentrated ogre excrement (or what my active juvenile mind imagined ogre excrement might look, smell and taste like). My mother also hated sprouts, but she made me eat them at least a few times a year. Why? Because her mother made her eat sprouts and her mother before her and so on and so on back to the mother-effing Stone Age. She called it character building. I call it revenge.
At some point, one of my female ancestors—possibly my grandmother—decided milk was the key to enduring Sprout Torture: take a small bite of sprout, drown it with a gulp of milk and repeat until the sprout, at last, is conquered enough to allow a well-earned dessert. With respect Granny, the milk doesn’t work. It doesn’t change the essential nature of a sprout. It’s nothing but a futile attempt to dilute the impact on my digestive system. I still tasted every mouthful of vile, green horribleness and now I don’t like milk very much either.
As an adult I am still not a huge fan of sprouts, but I recognise that they are good for me and an inescapable part of any British Christmas meal. Resistance to the sprout is futile. In a mature version of my learned childhood pattern, I now attempt to douse each mouthful of sprouts with a generous swallow of Pinot Grigio. It doesn’t work any better than the milk did, but by the time I’m finished I could care less about sprouts or pudding or much of anything really. Strangely, my own children like sprouts. I blame their father who has never met a brassica he didn’t like.
I have been thinking a lot about sprouts lately, and about milk and about futile attempts to dilute the essentially distasteful. I have also, like many on both sides of the Atlantic, been thinking a lot about Syria and chemical weapons and Martin Luther King’s dream. Putting all of these disparate thoughts together, I am starting to wonder about war crimes.
By and large I consider myself a pacifist. I live by the immortal words of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and the whole world will soon be blind and toothless.” I find war unethical on a personal, social, political, spiritual and universal level. Perhaps this is the attitude of a privileged Western woman who has never lived under true tyranny, never experienced violent subjugation, never been at risk of being called to arms. Maybe I would have fought to defend my homeland against European settlers alongside my (admittedly distant and questionable) Native American ancestors. Maybe I would have taken up arms against the oppressive English with my even more distant but less questionable Irish ancestors. In an alternative, Steam Punk world I might have machine gunned my way to suffrage with my feminist sisters.
But I like to think that no matter where or when I lived, I would share the beliefs of Ghandi and Dr King. The idea that a victory achieved through bloodshed is no victory. Both leaders worked hard for change, but refused to be part of a new order achieved through violence. Such a world would be one not worth living in, they argued.
And yet, when I hear peacemakers flap on about the Geneva Convention and the ethics of modern warfare I get a bad taste in my mouth reminiscent of sprouts. The idea that there is a right and wrong way to conduct war seems laughable to me. Even if we accept that warfare is an inevitable part of human nature (which I do not accept), the concept of creating regulations which govern human behaviour in times of war…
Well, it tastes of milk and sprouts to me.
The Geneva Convention, the Hague Convention and all the accompanying articles were born of witness. A writer witnessed a battle first hand and it left a bad taste in his mouth. War is brutal, the writer realised. What a truly startling revelation. And so a movement began to make warfare more palatable.
But war is war and sprouts are sprouts. No amount of kindness or milk changes their essential nature. War demands we reject the concept at the core of ethical and legal philosophy: killing people is wrong. Once you force someone to throw out this basic moral tenet, all bets are off really. How can limiting regulations or dilutions have any impact on an institution which turns over such an essential block of our psychological DNA?
I don’t think I am suggesting we burn the Geneva Articles, but there is a part of me that feels like the entire concept of war crimes is milk to the sprouts. I resented my mother for enforcing this pointless act of making something gastronomically intolerable allegedly easier to swallow. I felt betrayed for believing in the slim hope that perhaps I could handle the sprout under these parameters.
But it was lie. Sprouts are bad. War is wrong. Period.
When I hear the justifications for intervention in Syria on the basis of the government’s use of chemical weapons, it seems childishly ludicrous. Why should that be the moral issue which forces our hand? It’s war. War is brutal, violent and inherently amoral. That is its nature and, like sprouts, it’s not going to taste better for a bit of milky kindness.
If we aren’t willing to swallow all that war brings with it, we need to think about whether war has any place on our plates at all.