Why the Global War System must now be abolished

by Rob Thomson

As Arthur Koestler has it, “The most persistent sound which reverberates through men’s [sic] history is the beating of war drums.” War has been part of the human condition for as long as history records the story of our lives. In the process it has evolved as an institution so that today we may characterise it as a global war system. This system is not homogeneous: it ranges from militias and warlords in the global south to nuclear weapons, star wars and killer robots in the north. But there is a continuity between those extremes that constitutes a system. Part of the system comprises the network of interrelationships between the arms suppliers and the armed formations. And the system is integrally related to the global capitalist system currently dominating the world. Whilst we have inherited the war system from our ancestors, it is now a very different phenomenon from theirs.

Today the war system of the north is characterised by massive expenditure, high technology, the removal of soldiers from battlefields and invasive corporate influence in the corridors of power. In the south it is characterised by gun-running, contestation of power, murder, rape and fear. Common to both ends of the spectrum are resource conflict, the disregard of human rights, the perpetration of violence against non-combatants and disruption of people’s lives and social networks.

This article suggests fourteen reasons to abolish war.

1. There is no glory in war.

One of the principal perpetuators of war is the notion that war is glorious. It is not. It is ugly. When the U.S. military was asked why it had censored graphic video footage from the Gulf War, a Pentagon official explained: “If we let people see that kind of thing, there would never again be any war.” Instead armies engage in remembrance days, military funerals and ceremonial activities to foster the myth that it is glorious to ‘die for your country’. No soldier dies for his country. He does not even kill for his country. He kills because the war system, perpetuated by myths of the glory of war and nationalist notions of patriotism, makes him kill. The fostering of these myths is at best a lie, at worst a cruel abuse of war widows and war orphans.

2. No responsible party wants war.

When I have discussed war with people in the armed forces, they invariably state that they do not want war; “War,” they typically say, “is a last resort.”

3. War is never a ‘last resort’.

But war is never a ‘last resort’. If a country’s armed forces lose a war, it is the people who are left with the problem. There are alternatives to war. When people ask me “What about Hitler?” I answer: “Do you really think Hitler could have ruled Great Britain? He couldn’t even stop the Norwegian teachers from downing chalk.” The alternative to military defence is civilian-based defence, which is based on withdrawing cooperation from the aggressor and making the country ungovernable. The people of Germany did it against the Kapp putsch in 1920. The people of South Africa did it against apartheid in the 1980s.

4. Modern war is never a ‘just war’.

The notion of a ‘just war’ was invented by Saint Augustine in the 5th century to justify participation by Christians in war. It was developed into a code by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. The requirements for recognising a war as a ‘just war’ are very demanding, both with regard to the declaration of war and with regard to the conduct of war. The attempts of the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq as a ‘just war’ were disingenuous. Modern warfare inevitably fails the requirements of a ‘just war’, for starters because of the vulnerability of non-combatants.

5. War proves nothing.

War does not determine who is right. It only determines who has the greater capacity for violence and intimidation. If the war system is used to determine who rules a nation, it will tend to install governments that rule by violence and intimidation and have an interest in the perpetuation of the war system.

6. War does not bring peace.

The ‘peace’ imposed by war depends on the continuance of repression of dissent. Building peace on the ruins of war is thus made doubly difficult. Nobody wins a war; war is a catastrophe. As Jeanette Rankin put it, “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”

7. Military security is not human security.

The insecurity that most people experience—especially in Africa—is not the type of insecurity that can be reduced by war. It relates to the lack of the basic necessities of life and the breakdown of law and order. The antidote is social services, social security and nonviolent public-order policing.

8. The ‘responsibility to protect’ does not require war.

The notion of the ‘responsibility to protect’ was developed by the United Nations after its perceived failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide. It is now used as a reason for intervention in civil war, generally taking sides against a perceived aggressor. But aggression never comes without a history. If the international community waits for that history to unfold into civil war or genocide it has waited too long. Intervention needs to happen earlier and less violently. In Rwanda it should have happened during Belgium’s colonial rule. In the mean time it appears that nobody has asked the question “What happens if the United Nations or the African Union loses the war?”

9. War is expensive.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” (Eisenhower, 1953) Global annual military spending now exceeds US$1,2 trillion. We are told that an army is like an insurance policy. But the difference between an army and an insurance policy is that, whilst an insurance policy pays you when you need it, you pay your army many times as much when you use it in war than when you don’t.

10. Armies are dangerous.

In Africa there have been 128 military coups since 1960. Whilst some of these have been ‘bloodless’, all of them have established or normalised precedents for military rule.

11. The war system demands secrecy.

The first casualty of war, Aeschylus said, is the truth. By upholding the war system we deny our own right to the truth.

12. Weapons are a curse.

In Africa, in particular, the flow of small arms and light weapons across borders and into the hands of militias has created massive instability and has empowered warlords. According to the Small Arms Survey there are now about 875 million small arms in circulation worldwide. The connection of this traffic to the interests of foreign powers, the arms industry in particular and global capitalism in general, and to the looting of Africa’s resources, is a massive problem. But it’s not only small arms and light weapons that are a curse. The arming of states with atrocious human-rights records in preparation for war continues unabated. South Africa continues to circumvent its internationally hailed National Conventional Arms Control Act by disregarding the human-rights records of recipient countries and their armed forces. And the curse of weapons continues long after war in the form of environmental damage from the effect of uranium contamination, unexploded munitions and devastated land.

Eve Merriam’s dream: “I dream,” she said, “of giving birth to a child who will ask, ‘Mother, what was war?’” It is up to us to make such dreams come true.
13. The war system dehumanises humankind.

As Tennyson suggested, nature may be red in tooth and claw, but that is no excuse for humankind to indulge in organised violence on a global scale. No other species has these powers. No other species has the power to hold its kind accountable for the abuse of these powers. Humankind must rise to the occasion.

14. It’s better to die than to kill.

Not everybody can hold that it’s better to die than to kill. But some do.

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