This Thanksgiving the big news on the international food front is that starvation is back as a pretty well accepted political tactic.
True, denying food and imposing malnutrition, disease and death upon large number of civilians, for a political purpose, has never really gone out of style. But after World War II, which did after all produce a certain revulsion against the deliberate infliction of suffering on masses of non-combatants, there perhaps was a time when a carelessly hopeful person might have thought the mold had cracked.
Not so. The situation in Cambodia, where Vietnam and its puppet regime, with Soviet approval, have been forcing a surrender-or-starve choice upon the Cambodian people, is merely the most conspicuous, vicious and "successful" case.The Indonesians, who enjoy American patronage, have been oding it inconspicuously in rebellious East Timor for years. The different parties in the Rhodesai war have been doing it in their various fashions, also for years. The Nigerians in their war against Biafra, Ethiopia in its struggle against secessionists . . .
Note well: I am not talking here about simply using food as a political carrot or stick, which is common both in the export policies of the United States and in the internal-distribution policies of many local governments. I am talking about mililtary operations aimed at driving farmers off the land, destroying crops and seeds, rendering fields uncultivable, denying relief -- in brief, operations aimed at causing the sort of human loss that makes societies buckle.
In the American self-image and in much of our practice, we are a generous people eager to feed the hungry everywhere without letting politicis intrude. Yet in Vietnam, even as we sent in shiploads of food aid, we spread the herbicides and conducted the bombing that made some part of that aid necessary. Our record is mixed enough to warrant some humility.
As it happens, the practice of deliberately inflicting hunger for political aims has flourished even as the conquest of hunger has been widely accepted, in official pronouncements, as an important international goal.
It suggests a certain failure of imagination that so little attention has been given to the matter of man-made famine. People of good will have labored hard, for instance, to ensure that governments would not loose exotic germs or chemicals upon civilian populations, but the coarser and more common threat of food denial is little noted. The international community has been struggling to organize better to cope with natural disasters, but the man-made disaster of enforced starvation falls otside the pale.
Perhaps it is that the use of food as a political lever has become so ordinary, so legitimized by reglar unremarked practice, that people -- Americans, in particular -- don't focus on the use of food as the ultimate political lever until it's too late, as in Cambodia.
An oft-cited CIA study of 1974 suggested countering "oil or economic strangulation" with "food strangulation" and observed grandly, "As the custodian of the bulk of the world's exportable grain, the U.S. might regain in primacy of world affairs . . . ."
So it is that many Americans speak now of the desirability of cutting off food exports to Iran. A case can be made that a cutoff would merely reduce the quality of the Iranian diet and cause the government problems of control, without starving anyone. But it is a slippery slope.
You might have thought that the spread of powerful modern weapons would help preclude starvation situations -- by putting the means for a knockout punch into the hands of societies that otherwise might conduct their political disputes as protracted peasant wars.
But the spread of these weapons has not confined battles to armed combatants on battlefields. The spirit of the age has energized many popular causes, and people tend to struggle on. It is precisely the difficulty of routing out low-level resistance, especially in the countryside, by planes and tanks that has given food-denial tactics their opening.
The civilian victims are customarily removed, by remoteness and the starver's censorship, from the news coverage that might help the humanitarian community mobilize the political community. The starver's troops often limit or deny the victims the benefits of international relief, if it is offered.
It has become a cliche that we should all fight the "war on hunger." It should become the common political rule that we will allow no one to wage war by hunger. That would be cause for thanksgiving.