Stop saying that Ukraine rubble reminds you of ‘memories of the past’

Statues by Palestinian artist Eyad Sabbah, in the Israeli destroyed neighbourhood of Shejaina, Gaza City (Mohammed Asad)

Philip Weiss

Mondoweiss  /  April 1, 2022

“These are not memories of the past,” Biden said of the destruction in Ukraine. Biden’s “past” is Europe and World War II. But such horrors have regularly occurred in the Middle East at the hands of America or its allies, notably Iraq, Gaza, and Yemen.

Last weekend in a speech in Europe, Joe Biden hit one of the major themes of the Ukraine war. We thought these pictures of rubble were memories of the past.

Of all people, you, the Russian people, as well as all people across Europe, still have the memory of being in a similar situation in the late thirties and forties — the situation of World War Two… Whatever your generation experienced — whether it experienced the Siege of Leningrad or heard about it from your parents and grandparents — train stations overflowing with terrified families fleeing their homes; nights sheltering in basements and cellars; mornings sitting through the rubble in your homes — these are not memories of the past.  Not anymore. 

This is a disturbing statement. It feels almost sociopathic in its disregard of history: the rubble throughout the Middle East, much of it caused by Americans or our allies.

Iraqi cities were reduced to rubble by an American invasion that was certainly a war crime by the standards everyone cites for Russia. The invasion caused millions to flee their homes in terror. Iraq has not recovered, and millions are still displaced. The U.S. has had a hand in Syrian rubble, Afghanistan rubble, and Libyan rubble.

Then there are the main events of recent years: The genocide in Yemen, where we support the Saudis/the Israelis out of some geopolitical calculus that ought to be interrogated under oath at the Hague (“We will continue to work with our Saudi partners to strengthen their defenses” — the State Department’s latest). And Israel’s regular destruction of Gaza City and all its infrastructure, not to mention thousands of civilian lives, on the rationale that it has to “mow the lawn” of Islamic extremism every few years.

None of these is memories of the past. They are the living experiences of Middle East capitals, and many Muslim societies, mostly Arab ones. Joe Biden voted for the Iraq war, and he was part of the Obama administration when it was bombing seven Muslim countries. For a little while it looked like the New York Times was going to scrutinize U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. That didn’t last.

The Iraq war caused 655,000 civilian deaths by 2006, a leading study showed. The Yemen war caused “the deaths of nearly a quarter of a million people” since 2015, Human Rights Watch reports this year. In Gaza, several thousand have been killed in four onslaughts and two million people are blockaded and immiserated in ways that reminded me of the Warsaw Ghetto when I visited the place 13 years ago.

You hear the same theme on the network news and public broadcasting too. That we thought these pictures from the Ukraine were a thing of the past, meaning World War II. I’ve heard it said so often I stopped writing down the offenders.

I know that they think they get off the hook because they are talking about Europe. And no, we haven’t seen such destruction in Europe since, oh, the siege of Sarajevo in the 90s, in which the United States again took part in the bombing.

But that’s not an excuse. Imperial history, and American history, cannot be segmented on such a racial/geographical basis. It smacks of white supremacy and “clash of civilizations” talk, when the continuity of human suffering is the only morally justifiable way of looking at such events.

I deplore the Russian invasion and my heart is with the Ukrainian refugees. But saying these are images of the past gets a lot of elite American foreign policy experts off the hook for atrocities we are responsible for. It’s just that some victims are faceless.

Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006

h/t James North, David Higgins, Scott Roth, and Donald Johnson.