As Sunni and Shi’a continue to brawl dangerously across Iraq we can note the anniversaries of two other conflicts.
We are reminded that just 100 years ago, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on 28 June 1914, Europe was lurching tragically towards the start of the Great War.
Twenty years ago, Hutus in Rwanda were completing the massacre of nearly a million of their Tutsi compatriots.
A month or two later – in August 1994 – when I arrived in Zaire (as it was then called), as part of a CARE Australia medical team, the pendulum had swung back.
It was Hutu refugees who were streaming into the refugee camps. Thousands of them were struck down by cholera. The bodies were buried in long trenches just outside the camps.
We saw pictures of other trenches full of bodies when the campaign began in June – supposedly of Iraqi prisoners shot by ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State jihadis.
They certainly had the guns to do so.
And talking of guns, we saw plenty of them in the recently screened ABC TV Australian Story about war hero and posthumous VC, Cameron Baird.
There were echoes of World War I as the diggers braved machine gun fire to storm a nest of Taliban fighters.
The same issues were raised yet again – cruelty, carnage and the question of ‘intervention’.
Of course the Hutus used machetes in their genocide and on that occasion the UN should have intervened. But the Taliban and the ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State jihadis have modern assault rifles and the Americans are talking about airstrikes – not to mention armed drones – to assist what’s left of the Iraq government.
Rockets from the air are less discriminating – with burned and blown-up children and old ladies to add to the tally of hot-headed young men who’ve already been slaughtered by bullets.
Last week, the UN envoy to Baghdad, Nickolay Mladenov, warned that Iraq could turn into another Syria. Who knows, Baghdad might soon start thinking about barrel bombs.
Millions of kilometres away from all the mayhem, in calm deep space, there’s another saga taking place.
It features a remarkable three-tonne spacecraft called Rosetta. Rosetta was launched in March 2004 and has followed a complex path and huge distances, passing close to two asteroids and the planet Mars.
It’s now slowing down to rendezvous with comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko where, if all goes well, in November 2014 it will land a module to gather scientific data.
Even if the mission goes astray – and let’s hope it doesn’t – what’s already been achieved by the international team of scientists and engineers is quite mind boggling in its ingenuity.
We humans have extraordinary skills as organisers and technicians. Just think of tablet computers and organ transplants – leaving aside modern astrophysics.
How is it that in 2014 we still tolerate our fellow humans running amok with assault rifles and rockets?
Certainly we need to protect our borders from aggressive invaders. We have to halt criminals and terrorists.
But surely we could do so without shooting them or blowing them apart and causing so much misery, grief and anger.
Compared to building Rosetta, designing devices which will immobilise soldiers without killing them should be a breeze.
Trying to intervene in foreign wars with lethal weapons has not been too successful recently.
Many of the combatants did not want us there. Inevitably, as we found in Iraq and in Afghanistan, large numbers of civilians were killed or injured.
Many local combatants were killed who could not be blamed for the conflict.
Not surprisingly their families and friends were not too happy.
Lastly, too many of our own soldiers were killed or suffered grievous injury to body and mind. And at the end of it all, after all the blood and treasure and huge damage, nothing was really resolved.
But perhaps, if it were really necessary, we could engage in nonlethal intervention. How would this work?
Not wise to talk about Iraq at the moment, so let’s take Syria as an example.
We would need effective nonlethal technology, say powerful military stun guns for a start (and various other nonlethal devices, some not yet invented).
We’d also need an effective United Nations and strong international support.
Given all this, we could enter Syria with an overwhelming intervention force equipped and protected with the latest nonlethal devices.
Both government and rebel forces would be immobilised and humanely constrained until negotiation and resolution were achieved.
That part might take much time and trouble, but at least no one would have been killed or mutilated.
Yes, it may sound like a fairy tale. We certainly don’t yet have the nonlethal technology.
But in 1990, not long before the Rwandan massacres, your tablet computer would have seemed like a fairy tale, as would the voyage of Rosetta.
It will take a while, but if we can move from the crude and dangerous devices that we currently employ in trying to end conflict to more clever and kind technology, we might begin to see on our television screens fewer smoking ruins, crying children and pits full of bodies.
* Andrew Greig lives in Sydney and is a peace activist and researcher.
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