Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Mon, Oct 19th, 2015

The Game of War

The American Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman once noted the obvious: war is hell. It is hell for those who wage it, even if they do not know it, as well as the victims.

Yemeni children playing football in the rubble of Sa’da.

Yemeni children playing football in the rubble of Sa’da.

This is not some far-off eternal hellfire with imagined demons, but the blood-soaked reality of bullets and bombs, of battered bodies and scattered arms and legs, of bellies ripped open, of inexpressible anguish over the loss of loved ones. For the last seven months hell has descended on Yemen like a volcanic ash that burns everything it touches.

The number of dead is not known, surely more than the paltry official figures brandished in the media but nowhere yet approaching the tens of thousands killed in Iraq and Syria. Is there a magic number that will wake up the rest of the world to the destruction of life in Yemen? If it does not reach the level of the 300,000 victims in Darfur or the 800,000 dead in Rwanda or the million corpses littered across the Killing Fields in Cambodia, can the daily killing of men, women and children in Yemen be ignored?

War is also a hell of a game. Unlike chess, however, there is hardly ever a final checkmate, no pop-up on the screen of “game over.” The current World of Warcraft campaign against Yemen is very one-sided. The Saudi-led coalition pits the wealthiest states (minus Oman) on the Arabian Peninsula, allied with the “only glad to sell you more weapons” Americans, British and French as well as poor countries willing to exchange millions of dollars for the lives of their soldiers as mercenaries against a ragtag army of sorts. The Houthis, who are branded as evil because they have Iranian support and therefore deserve to be killed, and the former Yemeni army soldiers still loyal to Ali Abdullah Salih should have been knocked out at the start. Their resistance is all local with no air support and after destruction of every known military outpost and arms depot in Yemen. So how can a motley crew of gabilis [tribesmen] on pick-up trucks and ill-equipped soldiers with small weapons possibly hold out?

History teaches that the game of war is hard to predict. Napoleon and Hitler thought Russia was their’s for the taking; Saddam Hussein rushed into the Shah-less Iran bent on expanding his borders. But game changers can come from seemingly out of nowhere. I was struck by the photograph above of a group of Yemeni boys playing football against the backdrop of the almost total destruction of the northern town of Sa’da. Sa’da’s importance stretches back more than a thousand years as the major enclave of the Zaydi in Yemen. When I visited Sa’da in 1978, I was mesmerized by the beauty of the tall mud-brick architecture, the imamate shrines that dotted the landscape and indeed the groups of young children who followed me, shouting “Galam, galam [pen, pen].” But Sa’da is now Dresden or Aleppo; a once noble and proud town now reduced to rubble.


Yet the game goes on. The combined Saudi/Emirati force, totally untrained and unprepared for fighting in Yemen, has made only minor gains, so now mercenaries are being bought and brought, including up to 10,000 Sudanese. The perpetrators and perpetualators of this war need to take a hard look at this group of boys playing in the midst of a war that may very well have killed some of their parents. Their clothes are tattered, their parents never drove Bentleys, their mothers have never been to a boutique shopping mall and bought thousand-dollar dresses designed in Italy. Whether they know it or not, they are “Shi’a” and therefore they too are the enemy, not just the hard-core Huthis and Salih. In the hell that goes by the name of war, a label is all that is needed to have a death warrant.

Some day the game will end or at least be paused. But some games never end. The callous destruction and disregard for human life resulting in a humanitarian disaster that would be anathema in the “Western” world plays on. The silence of many money-driven media outlets and the wanton disregard of facts on the ground play on. The utter failure of the “United Nations” to live up to its charter plays on. The hollow call for democracy in a post-Arab-Spring Middle East is pure play. The ongoing transfer from the corporate West of more and more weapons and missiles makes the stakes even higher. Sweeping what are obvious war crimes under the rug of political opportunism is worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy. Take a look at these boys. Tomorrow they may not be alive, but today they will not be stopped. Those that survive, and the vast majority of Yemenis will, are not going to kiss and make up, no matter how much money is shoved down on them in the impending development of their war-ravaged land, nor will they ever buy the hypocritical religious rhetoric that denies their dignity as fellow Muslims.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.

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