The Mirror of Wars

Sixty years ago, the era of weapons of mass destruction began, with the inauguration of the Manhattan Project and the preparation of the A-bomb. Their development and spread has taken us into a qualitatively different period from that which had gone before. In the 1920s and 1930s, the development of the bomber airplane and mustard gas made more forward thinking people aware that warfare would not be as before, and that populations would be mobilised in their totality — whether as soldiers, workers, or targets. The memory of the Great War, and the prospect of the war that would follow it, gave rise to an international pacifist movement of tremendous number and apparent power, and credibility to internationalist Marxism. The various policies of that period, and their failure, have become the glass through which the Right darkly views world affairs, or purports to. Every dictator who is no longer a client, becomes a Hitler; every strategy that is not bellicose is appeasement.

The mirror is a distorting one from every angle. US strategic interests figure prominently in the selection of enemies; the dictators that are put in the frame are usually small-time local tyrants. Genocidal leaders — such as the Burmese government, which has repeatedly expressed its desire to exterminate the Shan people — are as likely to be handled via constructive engagement as with stronger measures. And World War II, retroactively constructed as a knowing crusade against the Holocaust, was got into via a series of blunders and called bluffs.

For all the well-canvassed arguments against the war against Iraq in particular — the overwhelming one being that it seems substantially to have an oil policy rationale — and for the more general reasons cited above, there is no question of doing anything but rejecting this attack on Iraq and forming the largest anti-war movement possible. But on what set of political and moral principles is such a rejection based?

Much of the message of the anti-war movement does not address this question, nor can it in the breadth of a slogan or a banner. But it is a question that the Left and other progressive and critical formations will have to address sooner or later. The Left formed a radical anti-statist approach to conflict in the era of total war, inaugurated in 1914. It was argued and assumed that a revolutionary uprising could break the back of such war machines, composed, as they ultimately were, of mass-mobilised human beings. But the era of total war was brief, and ended by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the 1950s. We are now in an era of annihilating war, in which we face not men and women mobilised as war machines, but machines mobilised to fight other machines. These are autonomous systems that rely on the technical development of weapons whose destructive capacity is not merely massive, but potentially unlimited and unlimitable. Drawing in the most fundamental levels of life — the molecular, the chemically and biologically constituted body — the development of such weapons means that we have no choice but to make real considerations of how humanity can actively control such destructive forces.

That necessity is obscured at the moment by the fact that the US is the single world power, and will be for some time, and any proposal for an overarching authority for WMDs could not be achieved at present. But the same could be said for the United Nations, which was first proposed in the eighteenth century. The clear and present danger today comes from states which have made clear their readiness to countenance ‘pre-emptive’ — i.e. unilateral — strikes: the US, Israel, India and Pakistan. The existence of actual rogue states — i.e. genuinely irrational ones, rather than merely oppositional governments — is rare, but not unknown, and far from impossible in the future. We can imagine the possibility that collective and multilateral intervention would be a necessary, ethical and politically sound move — and that the US could be the object of such intervention, rather than the instigator.

Iraq does not even begin to fit the bill for such measures. But rejecting wrong action cannot be done by refusing to ask the hard questions. Annihilation is, by definition, something that we have no choice but to confront and control.

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