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War and Peace: Has the Distinction between the Two Collapsed?

Simon Cooper The globalised policing of dissent, opposition and difference, as well as terrorism, is creating a culture of perpetual war.

We are moving towards a state where the distinction between war and peace is collapsing. On the one hand, we have the actions of the US government and its allies operating according to a framework geared towards perpetual war. On the other, within the West, we are experiencing a culture shift that is antithetical to peace. We are a culture that clings to security but in doing so militarises itself. The very democracy we are defending is being undermined from within. Witness the closing down of spaces for dissent, the creation of anti-terror laws appropriate perhaps only for wartime, the adoption of surveillance techniques within the general population, and the amplification of fear and resentment within mainstream media culture. All of this creates a set of circumstances where the possibility of peace — based upon recognition of and the need to come to terms with other cultures and other ways of life — is eroded. This is not to say that the possibility for long-term global peace has disappeared, but that this pervasive culture shift needs to be reckoned with.

This change in the culture is most immediately a result of the war on terror, but it’s wider than that too. Our leaders tell us that our freedoms need to be secured. In fact some of our freedoms may well be making us more insecure. The freedoms enabled by the global market may give us more choices, but they also strip away much of what we took for granted — public health and education, sustainable ways of life and so on.

Such insecurity undermines any sustainable peace — that is, peace as a way of life where relatively stable cultures are able to co-exist. It is hard to generate the kind of openness necessary for peaceful co-existence with different cultures when everything you take for granted is being swept away. John Howard, Tony Blair and George W. Bush claim that the threat of terrorism makes us insecure. And to some extent it does. But their own market fundamentalism creates a precarious kind of freedom — a fragility that can easily become defensive and intolerant of others.

The current US administration has created the potential for perpetual war. The whole project of taking democracy where it has never been before is couched in the language of infinity — infinite justice, perpetual freedom. Similarly, any war on ‘terror’ marks the impossibility of closure — as terror is not tied to any single source or geographical location.

The aggressive unilateralism of the US — not just in the pre-emptive war on Iraq and the threats of similar actions in Iran and Syria, but in relation to the Kyoto treaty on the environment and the International Criminal Court — amounts to a wholesale rejection of global governance. This in itself creates the possibility for continual war, because the structural causes of the war in Iraq — and of global terrorism itself — are not being addressed. There seems no doubt at all that future wars will be fought over declining natural resources, exacerbated by rising levels of unsustainable consumption.

The break up of the Soviet bloc has allowed for the possible dissemination of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Human rights abuse by dictatorships has not gone away with the war on terror. If peace is to be achieved then a genuine commitment to global governance needs to be reached so that the combination of environmental and humanitarian issues, alongside the threat of WMD that led to the current war, is dealt with systematically, not in the mendacious and opportunistic manner of the US, a manner that seems likely to be counterproductive in terms of halting future wars.

One example of this counterproductive approach is the United States’ continued support of dictatorships in oil-rich places such as Uzbekistan, strengthening oppositional groups within that country that hate their government and now identify the US as the enemy for backing their oppressors. Further evidence lies in the fact that those states which have been invaded in the war on terror have been left in a chaotic, fragmented condition. Iraq seems destined to go the same way as Afghanistan. Already the US seems to be abandoning their own minimal requirements for handover — a new constitution drafted by Iraqis, a legitimate Iraq council.

As a result of such intervention, the fantasised link between Iraq and Al Qaeda postulated before the war seems to have become a reality, as Iraq becomes a focus of resentment and a point of struggle for a whole mixture of groups. And there is a lot to resent. Remember, the occupation of Iraq is not merely a military occupation, but an economic one. As Robert Fisk remarked, Paul Bremmer’s uniform — a business suit and combat boots — says it all. Bremmer’s infamous order 39, allowing over 200 Iraqi state-owned companies to be privatised and sold to foreign interests who would be able to take all of the money out of the country, means that Iraq has little control over its infrastructure. Even if the troops leave, the occupation and resentment will continue. The conditions for an endless cycle of intervention and resistance are in place.

As the US tries to deal with the chaos it has created in Iraq, the focus is now on elections. Again and again the link between democracy and peace is made. But what is occurring to democracies within the West? The war on terror has had a unifying effect in the West — at least in the short-term. Take this quote from George Soros, currency raider and social idealist, a man who should know a contradiction when he sees one. Soros remarks:

Bush came into office with a coherent strategy based on market fundamentalism and military power. But before 9/11 he lacked a clear mandate or a well-defined enemy. The terrorist attack changed all that. Terrorism is the ideal enemy …it poses a genuine and recognised threat that can effectively hold a nation together. This is particularly useful when the prevailing ideology is based on the unabashed pursuit of self-interest.

This last comment points to the contradiction in market-based societies: what can possibly bind people’s self-interest into a community? With the downturn in the stock market and the end of the dotcom delirium, market society needed something to bind it together. The war on terror allowed for a temporary solidarity based on the externalisation of fear.

However, the pervasive culture of surveillance needed to protect citizens also compounded their fear and turned it inwards — into a fear of one’s neighbour. The ideology of market cultures founded on healthy competition imploded so that one’s rival was to be feared as a potential enemy.

The mainstream media seems only too happy to peddle this insecurity. This is especially so in Australia with the almost total dominance of neo-conservative opinion in the primarily Murdoch-owned press. These days, conservative commentators rarely even debate their opponents — they merely denounce them as anti-American or supporters of tyrants. Look at the near hysterical reaction recently to Bob Brown’s parliamentary activities and the labelling of the Greens as Nazis.

Achieving peace is not easy — it requires being prepared to think through complex issues: how to co-exist with cultures essentially different to yours; whether to accommodate practices you may find strange or even offensive. We seem to have gone backwards in this regard falling back on simple friend/enemy distinctions.

In the US House of Representatives, there has been a recent select education hearing concerning bias in higher education (a bit like the search for bias in the ABC) and there is now serious talk of cutting off funding or resetting the curriculum of courses deemed ‘unpatriotic’. Specifically targeted, in the testimony of one aptly named Dr Kurtz, were courses which rely on the work of Edward Said, or post-colonialism in general. Why? Because these courses were critical of imperialism in the past, and by implication would distort young minds with respect to the current imperial project. The history wars in Australia, which re-represent old empires as founded on benign processes might be seen in a similar light.

These moves represent a war on dissent as much as a war on terror and they are complemented by new forms of surveillance that effectively shift civilian populations towards a militarised state. This is evident in anti-terror legislation such as the US Patriot Act or Australia’s ASIO legislation, where you can be detained even if you haven’t committed an offence; where the presumption of innocence is reversed and your right to silence is denied; where you can face a five year jail term if you fail to provide information.

One can speculate on the cultural impact of overturning the right to silence in legislation like this, so that the only means of release from custody may well be through the provision of information, irrespective of its accuracy. Does this not lead to the danger inherent in all authoritarian cultures where the capacity for justice depends on the provision of information, on the naming of names, where rumours and gossip become the source for new investigations? The spectre of McCarthyism or Soviet show trials haunts the anti-terror laws.

As well as the anti-terror legislation there is the introduction of military technologies into civilian life. It has become a cliché to say that the current war on terror is an information war, but what is less discussed is how the same surveillance techniques used in war can be used upon civilians. By directing surveillance technologies at the enemy, analysing the captured information and relaying the results to mobile soldiers, the military hopes to gain an advantage over an opponent who may have a greater familiarity with the terrain. This model, however, can equally be applied to civilians.

Witness the go ahead last week for high-tech identity-cards in the UK. In a scenario that resembles the film Minority Report (itself a warning about the dangers of pre-emptive security), the identity card scheme involves electronically scanning the eyes and fingerprints of UK citizens. The scanned results will then be linked to a database of 60 million people, including Britons living overseas. Those without such identification will be denied essential services such as medical support. This move has been justified by Tony Blair: ‘If we are going to have the right security and the right systems within our public services for the future we do need to contemplate things that maybe a few decades ago we wouldn’t.’ One wonders what else is being contemplated.

It is not simply a question of civil liberties here, though of course it is that too. It’s also the cultural effects upon a society in which legitimacy is granted to citizens only to the extent that they are integrated into a high-tech network. What impact does this have on the way we see ourselves, come to understand our security and, more importantly, how we view those outside the technological system — those unwilling or unable to be integrated?

I think that we are moving towards a culture that is incapable of grounding a genuine peace. A culture circumscribed by new laws and surveillance techniques that close us off from the possibility of co-existence with others. A culture that exacerbates a sense of inside and outside through high-tech forms of integration, a media that seems more about closing off dissent than engaging in debate, and anti-terror laws that overturn basic rights and liberties as if we were in a permanently war-like situation. All these processes mutually reinforce each other and make a situation where perpetual war — as a globalised policing of dissent, opposition and difference, as well as terrorism — becomes acceptable.

It is important to register that this culture shift does not merely result from the war on terror.  The global market in its current form functions as a pretty good mechanism in itself for collapsing any real distinction between war and peace.

In the non-West, the consequences of  free trade and the policies of the IMF all too often ends in an assault upon cultures. Not only does a move to free trade demand a change in the local culture — ushering all and sundry straight into the world of unfettered capitalism — but the programs don’t work on their own terms — they exacerbate levels of poverty. The uprooting of cultures and the robbing of resources by foreign companies creates division, resistance and inevitable conflict. Free trade itself functions as a kind of  war.

The flipside of this is that, within the West itself, we are embracing a market-orientated freedom that creates fundamental insecurity. Stable jobs and ways of life disappear or go offshore, public services like health and education are privatised and reappear in distorted forms. This insecurity is easily channelled onto scapegoats and John Howard has been expert in doing this — targeting Aborigines, boat people, terrorists. The chances for peace within such a climate are slim.

Given this, any attempt to create a genuine culture of peace that exists as a genuinely different form of life needs to look at the global market as much as it needs to resist the actions of the current US administration and its allies.

This is an edited version of a talk given at 45 Downstairs in Melbourne as part of the Interesting Times series of forums, organised by Arena and the Mietta Foundation and hosted by 45 Downstairs.

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.