Legitimising war

IssueDecember 2000 - February 2001
Comment by Janet Kilburn

Personally I find the very notion of regulating warfare, of nations and peoples signing up to agree the rules of engagement, truly disturbing. If we believe that war is inherently a bad thing, why should we devote our time and energy to trying to make it a better thing, or a more humane thing. When is cutting peoples throats, dropping bombs from a great height or burning people who you do not even know, humane?

Surely by investing our energies in attempting to reform and improve the impact of war on civilians, the environment etc, we tacitly legitimise war as a) inevitable and b) necessary (sometimes..See the concept of just war, used so often in the Kosova/FRY war, as a prime example). So I pose the question: does the acceptance of the need to regulate war result in the de facto acceptance of war itself? This question also relates to why one believes wars happen (are they inevitable products of human nature, or the result of economic policy? for example).

It is a serious question. However, I also do not doubt that there are times when short- term reformism has improved the quality of life for certain groups of individuals at certain times and in certain areas. But what if it all adds up to the entrenchment of a series of very unpleasant ideas and attitudes?

Modern slavery

One argument put forward as a sign of the value of reformism can be seen in the anti-slavery movement. Slavery was regulated for many years but finally in 1863 was abolished. The reformists argue that one led to the other (regulation to abolition, conveniently ignoring the fact that black people were very pissed off and getting organised by 1863). However I would genuinely question this. Isnt it true that since 1863 those who had power then (predominantly white, western males in this case slave owners), continue to have power now (the white male westerners who control TNCs, the superpowers etc), and that the exploitation of people of colour has continued throughout the 20th century unabated. We may not call it slavery these days, but white people do continue to get rich of the backs of black people (black used politically). And in the north-west we continue to hold power over the global south, both economically and militarily, both protecting economic interests and ensuring that the import/export status of most countries provides the flow of profits back to the rich industrialised nations.

A philosophical divergence

As an anti-militarist this is one point at which I begin to see the cracks between those who oppose specific symptoms (such as nuclear weapons, the arms trade, factory farming etc), and those who oppose the reality of global power-play and have, in essence, either Marxist or anarchist type analyses. The divergence between philosophies becomes tangible when, for example, we discover that the animal rights activist who opposes factory farming, actually kills and eats animal flesh, or where the anti-nuclear activist does not oppose war per se merely indiscriminate weapons (or illegal weapons). These examples may seem flippant, but they illustrate a greater point: that it is very easy to tiptoe around the edge of issues which are just symptoms of deeper and inherently more disturbing problems, most of which relate to the issue of power.

In many societies humans choose to kill animals for the taste of their flesh, internal organs and blood, and in the western world the meat industry is huge - servicing the bloodlust makes a pretty penny. In the same way that I pose the question about war, I ask again: is it right to regulate the suffering, torture and murder of other species?

Regulating greed

Christian Aid has just published a report which they sponsored called Global challenges, and it is a proposal for an Economic and Social Security Council at the United Nations. In essence it calls for the establishment of a UN body with the power to issue mandatory directions to the World Bank, IMF and WTO. The body would have a similar structure to the UN Security Council, in that it would give semi-permanent status to the ten countries with the greatest economic (or military/nuclear in the case of the Security Council) power. Hang on a minute that sounds crazy to me, asking the beneficiaries of capitalist exploitation to regulate major economic organisations? Hmmm rather like asking the police to investigate each other, only considerably worse in terms of scale.

But never mind the details (as dubious as they are), what about the principle? Again, the question is: is it right to regulate exploitation, greed and suffering (aka capitalism)? Shouldn't we be working to undermine and eventually replace exploitative and violent relationships with something better?

Sometimes it disturbs me that of the relatively few people within the peace movement taking action to create change, so few are actively working to disarm the state and the TNCs, and to remove their power-base entirely.

Reclaiming power

I do not want a minimum wage, while my boss rakes in the profits from my labours. I do not want to buy the product, when I can take control of the machine that makes it. I do not want to sit down to my dinner at night, turn on the tv and watch children dying because of the economic policies which enabled me to buy the television in the first place!

The concept of law is a tie that binds us; the legal system is a product of the ruling class and exists to maintain their economic and social supremacy, be it through national or international law. Why not have the courage and vision to imagine a serious change in power or are we too scared of losing the benefits many of us receive through a privileged, white, western existence. Nothing is free especially change.