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Posts Tagged ‘war

solving the world’s problems, one bastard at a time..

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Canto: Let’s talk about something more gripping for a while. Like, for example, the global political situation.

Jacinta: Mmmm, could you narrow that down a bit?

Canto: No, not really… Okay, let’s take the most politically gripping issue of the moment, the possibility of nuclear annihilation for thousands of South Koreans or Japanese – and then North Koreans – due to the somewhat irresponsible launchings and detonations of massively destructive weaponry by a guy who we can reasonably assume to be intoxicated with his own power – and I do believe power to be the most toxic and dangerous drug ever conceived. And then we can talk about all the other issues.

Jacinta: Well as for the Kim jong-un issue, I suspect I can speak for a lot of people when I say I oscillate between dwelling on it and dismissing it as something I can do nothing about. What else do you want me to say. To say I’m glad we’re not in the way of it all would seem inhumane…

Canto: Do you have any solutions? What should we do from here?

Jacinta: We? You mean ‘the west’? Okay, from here on in, I’d cease all direct communications with Kim – all threats, all comments, everything. That only seems to make him worse.

Canto: But it can hardly get worse. Don’t we need to act to remove his threats, which are a bit more than threats?

Jacinta: Well of course the best solution, out of a bad lot, would be to have him disappear, like magic. Just deleted. It’s impossible, but then I’ve heard some people do six impossible things before breakfast.

Canto: He’s only 33 apparently, and according to Wikipedia he’s married but childless…

Jacinta: I’m not saying deleting him would be a good option, it’d presumably cause chaos, a big power struggle, a probable military takeover, unpredictable action from China, and all the weaponry, such as it is, would still be there. And we have no idea how to do it anyway.

Canto: I’m sure they have some plan of that type. The CIA’s not dead yet.

Jacinta: Yeah I’m sure they have some back-drawer plan somewhere too, but I wouldn’t misunderestimate the incompetence of the CIA.

Canto: So what if we follow your do-and-say-nothing policy? Don’t aggravate the wounded bear. But maybe the bear isn’t wounded at all. NK just detonated something mighty powerful, though there’s some controversy over whether it was actually thermonuclear. Anyway it’s unlikely the country just developed this powerful weapon in the few months that Trump has been acting all faux-macho. Who knows, this may have taken place if Clinton or someone else was in power in the US.

Jacinta: Interesting point, but then why are so many people talking about tit-for-tat and brinkmanship? They may have had the weapon, and maybe a lot more, but Kim’s decision to detonate it now, to show it, seems to have been provoked. It’s classic male display before a rival. Think of the little mutt snapping at the mastiff’s heels. Fuck you, big boy, I’ve got teeth too.

Canto: Yeah, but this little mutt has teeth that can wipe out cities. In any case, now he’s been provoked, and it’s unlikely that Trump and his cronies are going to damp down the belligerent rhetoric, the rest of us seem to be just sitting tight and waiting for this mutt to do some damage inadvertently/on purpose, and then what will happen? Say a missile goes astray and lands on or near a Japanese city? Untold casualties…

Jacinta: I think China will be key here. Not that I have any faith in the Chinese thugocracy to act in any interest other than its own.

Canto: Or the Trumpocracy for that matter.

Jacinta: I suspect China might step in and do something if it came to the kind of disaster you’ve mentioned. Though whether they have a plan I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised, actually if they’re having urgent closed-door talks right now on how best to take advantage of the crisis.

Canto: Well don’t worry, Trump and our illustrious leader are have a phone call today to sort it all out.

Jacinta: I’m really not sure what there is to talk about. An American first strike would have horrific cascading effects, and upping the tempo of military exercises in the neighbouring regions will just make Kim more reckless, to go by past experience. So if we don’t have any communication directed at him, he might continue with building bombs, but he would’ve done that anyway. So, though we’re not making matters any better, neither are we making them worse, which we are doing by goading him. Meanwhile we should be talking around NK. It’s like the elephant in the room. No sense talking to the elephant, he doesn’t speak our language (actually that’s a bad example, as intelligent mammals elephants have a lot in common with us…). Anyway we should be talking to significant others to try to build a team that can deal with the elephant.

Canto: Teamwork, that seems highly likely.

Jacinta: Yeah, I know everyone has a different agenda with regard to the elephant, but surely nobody wants to see anyone nuked. And the US shouldn’t be wasting its time talking to Australia, though I suspect Trump will be talking to Turnbull re troop commitments rather than any serious solution.

Canto: And by the way, we’re talking about Trump here, he’s never going to quit with the macho bluster. That’s a given.

Jacinta: All right so all we can do is hope – it’s out of our hands. But it seems to me that all his advisers are telling him a first strike isn’t an option, so maybe he will listen.

Canto: Maybe he’ll listen about the first strike, but he won’t stop the bluster and the goading. So Kim will continue to react by testing missiles and such, until something goes horribly wrong, and Trump will feel justified in delivering a second strike, and things’ll get very bloody and messy.

Jacinta: Okay, you’re getting me depressed, but if I can return to teamwork, the thing to do is get the team on board – the UN as well as the key players, China, Russia and of course South Korea and Japan. That means putting aside all the bad blood and really working as a team.

Canto: To do what? Get NK to stop producing nukes? Putin has already said that would be a no-goer, given their position.

Jacinta: Right, so that would be a starting point for discussion. Why does Putin think that, and what would be his solution, or his advice? And China’s? I’m assuming everybody’s uncomfortable about NK, though some are clearly more uncomfortable than others. So get a discussion going. What does Russia think the US should do about NK? What does China think Russia should do? Does anyone have good advice for South Korea?

Canto: You’re being hopelessly naive. I suspect Russia and China would approach this issue with complete cynicism.

Jacinta: Well let’s be well-meaning rather than naive. I think we’re inclined to be a co-operative species. I think cynicism can dissipate when confronted with a genuine desire to listen and co-operate. You know I’ve described all of the main actors here – Trump, Putin, Li Keqiang and his henchmen, and of course Kim Jong-un, as macho scumbags and the like, but maybe its time to appeal to the better angels of their natures, and ours, to find a peaceful resolution to this mess.

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Written by stewart henderson

September 6, 2017 at 12:22 pm

nationalism, memes and the ANZAC legend

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Canto: Okay, I get livid when I hear the unquestioning and unquestioned pap spoken about the Anzacs, year in year out, and when I hear primary teachers talking about their passion for Anzac Day, and teaching it to impressionable young children. Not sure how they will teach it, but when such remarks are followed by a middle-aged woman knitting poppy rosettes and saying ‘after all, if it wasn’t for them [the Anzacs] we would’t be here’, I’m filled with rage and despair about the distortions of history to suit some kind of nationalist pride and sentimentality.

Jacinta: Yes, that sort of thing leads to innocent, impressionable young children parroting the meme ‘they died so we could be free’.

Canto: Or in this case the even more absurd ‘they died so that we could exist’…

Jacinta: On the other hand, to be fair, many young people go off to Anzac Cove to commemorate their actual grand-fathers or great-great uncles who died there, and they’re captivated by their story of sacrifice.

Canto: Yes, and this memory should be kept, but for the right, evidence-based reasons. What did these young men sacrifice themselves for, really?

Jacinta: Well as we know, the reasons for the so-called Great War were mightily complex, but we can fairly quickly rule out that there was ever a threat to Australia’s freedom or existence. Of course it’s hard to imagine what would have happened if the Central Powers had won.

Canto: Well it’s hard to imagine them actually winning, but say this led to an invasion of Britain. Impossible to imagine this lasting for long, what with the growing involvement of the US. Of course the US wasn’t then the power it later became, but there’s little chance it would’ve fallen to the Central Powers, and it was growing stronger all the time, and as the natural ally of its fellow English-speaking nation, it would’ve made life tough for Britain’s occupiers, until some solution or treaty came about. Whatever happened, Australia would surely not have been in the frame.

Jacinta: Britain’s empire might’ve been weakened more quickly than it eventually was due to the anti-colonisation movement of the twentieth century. And of course another consequence of the Central Powers’ victory, however partial, might’ve been the failure or non-existence of Nazism…

Canto: Yes, though with the popularity of eugenics in the early twentieth century, master-race ideology, so endemic in Japan, would still have killed off masses of people.

Jacinta: In any case your point still holds true. Those young men sacrificed themselves for the British Empire, in its battle against a wannabe Germanic Empire, in a war largely confined to Europe.

Canto: But really in order to understand the mind-set of the young men who went to war in those days, you have to look more to social history. There was a naive enthusiasm for the adventure of war in those days, with western nations being generally much more patriarchal, with all the negative qualities entailed in that woeful term.

Jacinta: True, and that War That Didn’t End All Wars should, I agree, be best remembered as marking the beginning of the end of that war-delighting patriarchy that, in that instance, saw the needless death of millions, soldiers who went happily adventuring without fully realising that the massive industrialisation of the previous decades would make mincemeat out of so many of them. I’ve just been reading and watching videos of that war so as not to make an idiot of myself, and what I’ve found is a bunch of nations or soi-disant empires battling to maintain or regain or establish their machismo credentials in the year 1914. With no side willing to give quarter, and no independent mechanisms of negotiation, it all quickly degenerated into an abysmal conflict that no particular party could be blamed for causing or not preventing.

Canto: And some six million men were just waiting to get stuck in, an unprecedented situation. And what happened next was also unprecedented, a level of carnage never seen before in human history. The Battle of the Frontiers, as it was called, saw well over half a million casualties, within a month of the outbreak.

Jacinta: And so it went, carnage upon carnage, with the Gallipoli campaign – unbearable heat, flies, sickness and failure – being just one disaster among many. Of course it infamously settled into a war of attrition for some time, and how jolly it must’ve been for the allies to hear that they would inevitably be the victors, since the Central Powers would run out of cannon fodder first. It was all in the maths. War is fucked, and that particular war is massively illustrative of that fact. So stop, all teachers who want to tell the story of the heroic Anzacs to our impressionable children. I’m not saying they weren’t brave and heroic. I’m not saying they didn’t do their best under the most horrendous conditions. I’m certainly not saying their experience in fighting for the mother country was without value. They lived their time, within the confines and ideology of their time, as we all do. They played their part fully, in terms of what was expected of them in that time. They did their best. And it’s probably fair to say their commanders, and those above them, the major war strategists, also did their best, which no doubt in some cases was better than others. Even so, with all that, we have to be honest and clear-sighted and say they didn’t die, or have their lives forever damaged, so that we could be free. That’s sheer nonsense. They died so that a British Empire could maintain its ascendency, for a time, over a German one.

Canto: Or in the case of the French and the Russians, who suffered humungous casualties, they died due to the treaty entanglements of the time, and their overlords’ obvious concerns about the rise of Germany.

Jacinta: So all this pathos about the Anzacs really needs to be tweaked, just a wee bit. I don’t want to say they died in vain, but the fact is, they were there, at Gallipoli, in those rotten stinking conditions, in harm’s way, because of decisions made above their heads. That wasn’t their fault, and I’m reluctant, too, to blame the commanders, who also lived true to their times. Perhaps we should just be commemorating the fact that we no longer live in those macho, authoritarian times, and that we need to always find a better way forward than warfare.

Written by stewart henderson

August 21, 2017 at 10:56 pm

matriarchy – surely it couldn’t be worse than patriarchy?

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In one of the international English classes I occasionally teach, we have an opportunity for debate. Here’s a debate topic I’ve thought up but haven’t yet tried out: If 90 to 99% of the world’s business and political leaders were female, instead of male as they are today, would the world be a better place to live in?

It’s not a question that’ll find a definitive answer in the foreseeable future, but my strong view is that the world would be better.

Why? I’m not entirely convinced that women are the gentler sex, and I’m very wary of succumbing to a facile view of women as inherently more calm, co-operative and conciliatory, but I think that on balance, or statistically, they’re more risk averse, less impulsive, and, yes, more group-oriented. Whether such tendencies are natural or nurtured, I’m not at all sure. It’s a question I intend to investigate.

So to stimulate myself in pursuing the subject of patriarchy and its obverse I’m reading Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy, a rather optimistically-titled book by an American doctor and teacher, Melvin Konner. It’s one of many sources of information I hope to access in the future. It argues that there are fundamental differences between males and females, and that females are the superior gender. I’m not sure about the ‘fundamentals’, or categorical differences, but I agree that the current differences can and probably should be interpreted in terms of female superiority. Certainly, given the needs and responsibilities of humanity in this time, woman appear to have more of the goods than males for facing the future. After all, if we look back at the last 6000 or so years of human history, it’s dominated by male warfare, and if we look at today’s most violent and brutish cultures, they’re clearly the most patriarchal.

Of course if you believe that women and men are fundamentally different, as Konner does, then it becomes straightforward to argue for women being in control, because it’s highly unlikely, indeed impossible I’d say, that these fundamentally different genders are precisely equal in value. And given the devastation and suffering that men have caused over the period of what we call ‘human civilisation’, and given that women are the (mostly) loving mothers of all of us, it seems obvious that, if there is a fundamental difference, women’s qualities are of more value.

On the other hand if you’re a bit more skeptical about fundamental differences, as I am, and you suspect that the idea that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is as applicable to women as it is to men, you’ll feel rather more uncertain about a profoundly matriarchal society. And yet…

I draw some inspiration for the benefits of matriarchy from the closest living relatives of homo sapiens. There are two of them. The line that led to us split off from the line that led to chimps and bonobos around 6 million years ago. Chimps and bonobos split from their common ancestor much more recently, perhaps only a little over a million years ago, so they’re both equally related to us. Chimps and bonobos look very very alike, which is presumably why bonobos were only recognised as a separate species in the 1930s – quite extraordinary for such a physically large animal. But of course bonobo and chimp societies are very very different, and vive la différence. I’ve written about bonobo society before, here and here, but can’t get enough of a good thing, so I’ll look more closely at that society in the next few posts.

I think I'd rather be a bonobo

I think I’d rather be a bonobo

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Written by stewart henderson

August 25, 2016 at 10:55 pm

was the invasion of Iraq justified?

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“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?”
― Mahatma Gandhi

 

In 2003 I protested against the impending attack on Iraq, along with so many others, though I don’t like being involved in mass protests, because they tend to over-simplify the response. A lot of the protesters were saying things I didn’t agree with, as is often the case. For example, some were using the national sovereignty argument, which I have little time for. Others were saying that war is always wrong, but I think war can be justified if it results in less harm than non-intervention, though this isn’t always easy to determine. As a humanist, I don’t think national or cultural boundaries should interfere with what we owe, ethically, to others, though I recognise as a pragmatic fact that they often do.

To me, the Iraq invasion has always been a clear-cut case of a criminal act, resulting in a loss of life – hardly unforeseeable – far greater than that suffered by the USA on September 11 2001. Furthermore, the September 11 atrocities, without which the invasion clearly would never have occurred, were in no way connected to the Iraqi regime. In the lead-up to the invasion, at the time of the protests, I was incensed, like others, at the Bush regime’s bullying treatment of the weapons inspectors in Iraq, and Hans Blix in particular, because their findings didn’t fit with the story Washington was trying to sell. This bullying proliferated, of course, to the leaders of major European nations such as France and Germany. The response of the French government to the possibility of war still seemed to me the most sensible and prescient one. In January of 2003, their foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin said ‘We think that military intervention would be the worst possible solution’, even though the French government felt at the time that Iraq wasn’t being truthful about WMD. In an impassioned speech to the Security Council only a few weeks later, Villepin spoke of the “incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region”, whose overwhelmingly Moslem inhabitants had sound historical reasons for suspecting and wanting to resist western interventions. He said that “the option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest, but let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace”. He also reported on the intelligence of France and its allies, which failed comprehensively to support links between al-Qaeda and Hussein’s regime. Of course, Villepin’s speech was roundly rejected and disparaged by the US and UK leadership, and the rest is the history we’re making and trying to make sense of today.

I’m returning to the subject for two reasons – a philosophical summary of pacifism and just war theory in a recent issue of Philosophy Now magazine (issue 102), and the views of British leftist but pro-Iraq war writers such as Nick Cohen.

In 2006, a document called the Euston Manifesto was produced in Britain. A leftist document, it was designed to draw the line against what its authors and signatories claimed to be an overly-indulgent, cultural relativist tendency in a large sector of the leftist commentariat. The document focused largely on the positives – upholding human rights, freedom of expression, pluralism, liberalism, historical truth, the heritage of democracy, internationalism and equality. It expressed opposition to tyranny and terrorism, racism, misogyny and censorship. In more specific terms, it supported a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict and opposed anti-Americanism – though in a somewhat backhanded way:

That US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or its people.

This is all outlined in the manifesto’s ‘statement of principles’ (section B), none of which I have any issue with. Section C, ‘elaborations’, addresses the Iraq war, inter alia, and is a little more problematic. Just before the Iraq campaign is dealt with there’s a paragraph on the September 11 attacks, which is uncompromisingly hostile to the view that it could be in any way justified as payback for US policy in the Middle East. Again I completely agree.

The paragraph that follows is interesting, and I will quote it in full, always remembering that it was written in 2006, before the execution of Saddam Hussein, and not long after the first parliamentary elections. Much has changed since then, with Iraqi governments becoming less democratic, and the contours of instability constantly changing.

The founding supporters of this statement took different views on the military intervention in Iraq, both for and against. We recognize that it was possible reasonably to disagree about the justification for the intervention, the manner in which it was carried through, the planning (or lack of it) for the aftermath, and the prospects for the successful implementation of democratic change. We are, however, united in our view about the reactionary, semi-fascist and murderous character of the Baathist regime in Iraq, and we recognize its overthrow as a liberation of the Iraqi people. We are also united in the view that, since the day on which this occurred, the proper concern of genuine liberals and members of the Left should have been the battle to put in place in Iraq a democratic political order and to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, to create after decades of the most brutal oppression a life for Iraqis which those living in democratic countries take for granted — rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.

Since this post is precisely about the arguments over intervention, I should say something in justification of my writing it. While we can’t predict precisely the outcome of an intervention or invasion or liberation (words are so important here), there are often broad and quite obvious signs to indicate whether such an event will advantage or disadvantage the targeted population. In analysing these signs we utilise history (or we should do) – that’s to say, we pick through the rubble of previous experiences of intervention. The question of whether the invasion (or whatever you choose to call it) of Iraq was justified is therefore a question about the future as well as the past. How, in the future, and in the present, should we, as humanists, deal with oppressive, reactionary, murderous regimes, such as exist today in North Korea, in Myanmar, and in the wannabe state of ‘the caliphate’? Not to mention so many other dictatorial regimes whose likely ‘murderousness’ is hard to get data on, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Asian and African tyrannies large and small.

I also have a quibble with the view that all good liberal leftists, regardless of their position before the war, should jump on board with the invaders to ‘remake’ Iraq into a democracy. The obvious problem with this view is that many of the anti-war protesters were concerned, and deeply so, that the reason for the invasion wasn’t democracy-building. The stated reason for the invasion, after all, was a defensive one; getting rid of WMDs to make the world a safer place. Other reasons were suspected, including simple restoration of US pride, and economic exploitation. The bullishness of the invasion rhetoric didn’t sound much like an attempt at democracy-building.

But I think the overwhelming reason for this deep concern  –  it was certainly my concern – was the suffering and harm that the invasion and aftermath would inflict on the people of Iraq. Nations invaded by foreigners tend to fight back, regardless of how much of a basket case the invaders think the nation is. This is even more the case when the ‘liberators’ are seen as having values antithetical to the target nation. Think of the consternation caused by the threatened invasion of England by the Spanish in the 1580s, or the French in the early 1800s, surely mild compared to that felt by the overwhelmingly Moslem Iraqis, fed for decades on tales of western decadence and double-dealing. An invasion would be fought bitterly, Hussein or no Hussein, and democracy isn’t the sort of thing to be imposed from above. So it’s understandable that those opposed to the invasion, and crushed by their failure to stop it, didn’t rush to join hands with those whose motives they so distrusted in an enthusiastic experiment in nation-restructuring.

I’m no pacifist,  and I’m concerned and demoralised by brutal dictatorships everywhere – many of which we know little about. I would like to see interventions wherever murder and oppression are the weapons of state control, but that’s a big ask, and where do we start, and how do we do it? Warfare is one of the most problematic options, but will a siege of sanctions be effective? A united, internationalist front which will offer credible threats – desist and democratise or else? And should we start with the tinpot dictatorships and work our way up to the giants? Which leads back to the question, why Iraq in the first place?

Muddled motives and intentions lead inevitably to muddled and contradictory outcomes. Indeed the stated motive for the intervention, dismantling WMDs and making the rest of the world a safer place, didn’t consider the Iraqi people directly at all. On that basis alone, the war could hardly be justified, because it was clear that even if Hussein’s weapons existed, they were not an imminent threat, with the dictator doing everything in his power to placate the west. Hussein was brutal and nasty, but his instinct for self-preservation was paramount, and it was clear in the last days of his regime that he was saving his sabre-rattling for his domestic audience while bending over backwards to comply with international demands.

One argument being put at the time was that anything was better than Saddam. But is this really the case? Consider two polar scenarios; a failed state in which there are no government regulations, and no police or legal institutions, an anarchic free-for-all; or a rigid dictatorship in which freedom is highly circumscribed and much that we value in life is sacrificed just for survival. Which is better? Well, with that very slight sketch it’s impossible to judge, but neither is very palatable. In the case of Iraq it would be comparing a ‘known’ with an ‘unknown’. The result of deposing Saddam was unknown and poorly planned for, but clearly it would unleash violent forces, and we knew from organisations such as Human Rights Watch that the day-to-day dictatorship, though repressive, wasn’t murderous at the time of the invasion.

My concern then, was saving lives, or more broadly, minimising harm. One thing I’ve always loathed is the ‘big picture’ politics of certain world leaders who like to redraw maps and bring down regimes with grand strategies, with very little thought to the ordinary struggles for survival, the lives and loves of people who suffer the consequences of those grand plans – including death and destruction. Of course, harm minimisation is fiendishly difficult to quantify when you’re talking about such variables as freedom and opportunity, but at least we can try. Just war theory might help us with some guidelines.

Duane Cady, Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus at Hamline University, Minnesota, provides a two-part outline of just war theory as currently understood. I’ll focus only on the first part, which seeks to answer the question – When is it justified to go to war?

Going to war justly requires meeting 6 conditions:

1. The war must be made on behalf of a just cause

2. The decision to go to war must be made by proper authorities

3. Participants must have a good intention rather than revenge or greed as their goal

4. It must be likely that peace will emerge after the war

5. Going to war must be a last resort

6.  The total amount of evil resulting from making war must be outweighed by the good likely to come of it.

I hardly need to go into detail to show that a number of these conditions were not met in the case of the Iraq venture, but I’ll briefly discuss each one.

For condition 1, if WMDs were the cause, then it wasn’t just, as there weren’t any, and the best intelligence showed this. Other causes, such as getting rid of a despot, bringing about democracy, lead to the question – why Iraq? Why not Syria, or Saudi Arabia? Why pick on any Middle Eastern country where western interference would be fiercely combatted?

For condition 2, there are supposed to be strict rules regarding such decisions, though of course they’re unenforceable. In September 2004, the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan declared the Iraq invasion illegal from the point of view of the UN’s charter, presumably because of insufficient numbers in the Security Council agreeing to it. If you consider the UN the proper authority to make such final decisions – and if not what would be? – then condition 2 hasn’t been met.

Condition 3 goes to intentions, which might be muddled or concealed. My view is that revenge, or wounded pride, had much to do with it on the US side. People may disagree, but nobody can seriously argue that the Bush administrations’s intentions were clear and humane.

Condition 4 gives no timeline. ‘After’ is a long time, and peace might achieved at the cost of maximal loss of life. The condition is a little too vague to be useful. Certainly, a quick peace looked highly unlikely, and I think that was a major concern of protesters worldwide.

Condition 5 clearly wasn’t met. The term ‘last resort’ infers something else – a last resort before x occurs, that x being something catastrophic and to be avoided at all costs. Whether there was an x in Iraq’s case is highly questionable.

In the long view, I think, or fervently hope, condition 6 will be met, but that’s only because I’m a ‘better angels of our nature’ advocate, and anyway the lack of a time-frame attached to the condition renders it essentially meaningless. Is Europe now more humane and peaceful as a result of the Thirty Years’ War? To what degree is our greater tolerance of diversity a direct result of the Nazis’ homogenising race policies? There’s no doubt that the most horrible wars can result in massive lessons learnt, leading to accelerated positive outcomes, but that in no way justifies them.

 

So, okay, the Iraq war was a disaster. However, I thoroughly agree with Alex Garland, the writer and film-maker, who referred briefly to the war in   a recent Point of Inquiry interview. It’s too late to wonder about whether the invasion of Iraq was a good idea, and it was essentially too late even when the protests began in 2003, as it had a horrible inevitability about it. Trying to work out the consequences, to minimise the negatives and maximise the positives, and to take responsibility for those consequences, is much more important. Particular nations, including Australia, imposed this invasion on the Iraqi people. Those nations, above all, should take most of the responsibility for the consequences. I don’t think that’s really happening at the moment.

Written by stewart henderson

May 30, 2015 at 10:53 am

1914 – 2014: celebrating a loss of appetite

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Statue_of_Europe-(Unity-in-Peace)

 

I’ve read at least enough about WW1 to be aware that its causes, and the steps made towards war, were very complex and contestable. There are plenty of historians, professional and amateur, who’ve suggested that, if not for x, or y, war may have been avoided. However, I don’t think there’s any doubt that a ‘force’, one which barely exists today, a force felt by all sides in the potential conflict of the time, made war very difficult to avoid. I’ll call this force the appetite for war, but it needs to be understood more deeply, to divest it of its vagueness. We know that, in 1914, lads as young as 14 sneaked their way into the militaries of their respective countries to experience the irresistible thrill of warfare. A great many of them paid the ultimate price. Few of these lambs to the slaughter were discouraged from their actions – on the contrary. Yet 100 years on, this attitude seems bizarre, disgusting and obscene. And we don’t even seem to realise how extraordinarily fulsome this transformation has been.

Let’s attempt to go back to those days. They were the days when the size of your empire was the measure of your manliness. The Brits had a nice big fat one, and the Germans were sorely annoyed, having come late to nationhood and united military might, but with few foreign territories left to conquer and dominate. They continued to build up their arsenal while fuming with frustration. Expansionism was the goal of all the powerful nations, as it always had been, and in earlier centuries, as I’ve already outlined, it was at the heart of scores of bloody European conflicts. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that the years of uneasy peace before 1914 contributed to the inevitability of the conflict. Peace was considered an almost ‘unnatural’ state, leading to lily-livered namby-pambiness in the youth of Europe. Another character-building, manly war was long overdue.

Of course, all these expansionist wars of the past led mostly to stalemates and backwards and forwards exchanges of territory, not to mention mountains of dead bodies and lakes of blood, but they made numerous heroic reputations – Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Peter the Great of Russia, Louis XIV of France and of course Napoleon Bonaparte. These ‘greats’ of the past have always evoked mixed reactions in me, and the feelings are well summed up by Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature:

The historic figures who earned the honorific ‘So-and-So the Great’ were not great artists, scholars, doctors or inventors, people who enhanced human happiness or wisdom. They were dictators who conquered large swaths of territory and the people in them. If Hitler’s luck had held out a bit longer, he probably would have gone down in history as Adolf the Great.

While I’m not entirely sure about that last sentence, these reflections are themselves an indication of how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve been affected by the wholesale slaughter of two world wars and the madness of the ‘mutually assured destruction’ era that followed them. The fact that we’ve now achieved a military might far beyond the average person’s ability to comprehend, rendering obsolete the old world of battlefields and physical heroics, has definitely removed much of the thrill of combat, now more safely satisfied in computer games. But let’s return again to that other country, the past.

In the same month that the war began, August 1914, the Order of the White Feather was founded, with the support of a number of prominent women of the time, including the author and anti-suffragette Mrs Humphrey Ward (whom we might now call Mary) and the suffragette leaders Emmeline and Cristobel Pankhurst. It was extremely popular, so much so that it interfered with government objectives – white feathers were sent even to those convalescing from the horrors of the front lines, and to those dedicated to arms manufacturing in their home countries. Any male of a certain age who wasn’t in uniform or ‘over there’ was fair game. Not that the white feather idea was new with WWI – it had been made popular by the novel The Four Feathers (1902), set in the First War of Sudan in 1882, and the idea had been used in the British Empire since the eighteenth century – but it reached a crescendo of popularity, a last explosive gasp – or not quite, for it was revived briefly during WWII, but since then, and partly as a result of the greater awareness of the carnage of WWI, the white feather has been used more as a symbol of peace and pacifism. The Quakers in particular took it to heart as a badge of honour, and it became a symbol for the British Peace Pledge Union (PPU) in the thirties, a pacifist organisation with a number of distinguished writers and intellectuals, such as Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell and Storm Jameson.

There was no PPU or anything like it, however, in the years before WWI. Yet the enthusiasm for war of 1914 soon met with harsh reality in the form of Ypres and the Somme. By the end of 1915 the British Army was ‘depleted’ to the tune of over half a million men, and conscription was introduced, for the first time ever in Britain, in 1916. It had been mooted for some time, for of course the war had been catastrophic for ordinary soldiers from the start, and it quickly became clear that more bodies were needed. Not surprisingly, though, resistance to the carnage had begun to grow. An organisation called the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), consisting mainly of socialists and Quakers, was established, and it campaigned successfully to have a ‘conscience clause’ inserted in the 1916 Military Service (conscription) Act. The clause allowed people to refuse military service if it conflicted with their beliefs, but they had to argue their case before a tribunal. Of course ‘conshies’ were treated with some disdain, and were less tolerated by the British government as the war proceeded, during which time the Military Service Act was expanded, first to include married men up to 41 years of age (the original Act had become known as the Batchelor’s Bill) and later to include men up to 51 years of age. But the British government’s attitude didn’t necessarily represent that of the British people, and the NCF and related organisations grew in numbers as the war progressed, in spite of government and jingoist media campaigns to suppress them.

In Australia, two conscription bills, in 1916 and 1917, failed by a slim majority. In New Zealand, the government simply imposed the Military Service Act on its people without bothering to ask them. Those who resisted were often treated brutally, but their numbers increased as the war progressed. However, at no time, in any of the warring nations, did the anti-warriors have the numbers to be a threat to their governments’ ‘sunken assets’ policies.

So why was there such an appetite then and why is the return of such an appetite unthinkable today? Can we just put it down to progress? Many skeptics are rightly suspicious of ‘progress’ as a term that breeds complacency and even an undeserved sense of superiority over the primitives of the past, but Pinker and others have argued cogently for a civilising process that has operated, albeit partially and at varying rates in various states, since well before WWI, indeed since the emergence of governments of all stripes. The cost, in human suffering, of WWI and WWII, and the increasingly sophisticated killing technology that has recently made warfare as unimaginable and remote as quantum mechanics, have led to a ‘long peace’ in the heart of Europe at least – a region which, as my previous posts have shown, experienced almost perpetual warfare for centuries. We shouldn’t, of course, assume that the present stability will be the future norm, but there are reasons for optimism (as far as warfare and violence is concerned – the dangers for humanity lie elsewhere).

Firstly, the human rights movement, in the form of an international movement dedicated to peace and stability between nations for the sake of their citizens, was born out of WWI in the form of the League of Nations, which, while not strong enough to resist the Nazi impetus toward war in the thirties, formed the structural foundation for the later United Nations. The UN is, IMHO, a deeply flawed organisation, based as it is on the false premise of national sovereignty and the inward thinking thus entailed, but as an interim institution for settling disputes and at least trying to keep the peace, it’s far better than nothing. For example, towards the end of the 20th century, the concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide were given more legal bite, and heads of state began, for the first time in history, to be held accountable for their actions in international criminal courts run by the UN. Obviously, considering the invasion of Iraq and other atrocities, we have a long way to go, but hopefully one day even the the most powerful and, ipso facto, most bullying nations will be forced to submit to international law.

Secondly, a more universal and comprehensive education system in the west, which over the past century and particularly in recent decades, has emphasised critical thinking and individual autonomy, has been a major factor in the questioning of warfare and conscription, and in recognising the value of children and youth, and loosening the grip of authority figures. People are far less easily conned into going into war than ever before, and are generally more sceptical of their governments.

Thirdly, globalism and the internationalism of our economy, our science. our communications systems, and the problems we face, such as energy, food production and climate change, have meant that international co-operation is far more  important to us than empire-building. Science, for those literate enough to understand it, has all but destroyed the notion of race and all the baggage attend upon it. There are fewer barriers to empathy – to attack other nations is tantamount to attacking ourselves. The United Nations, ironic though that title often appears to be, has spawned or inspired many other organisations of international co-operation, from the ICC to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There are many other related developments which have moved us towards co-operation and away from belligerence, among them being the greater democratisation of nations – the enlargement of the franchise in existing democracies or pro to-democracies, and the democratisation of former Warsaw Pact and ‘Soviet Socialist’ nations – and the growing similarity of national interests, leading to more information and trade exchanges.

So there’s no sense that the ‘long peace’ in Europe, so often discussed and analysed, is going to be broken in the foreseeable future. To be sure, it hasn’t been perfect, with the invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the not-so-minor Balkans War of the 90s, and I’m not sure if the Ukraine is a European country (and neither are many Ukrainians it seems), but the broad movements are definitely towards co-operation in Europe, movements that we can only hope will continue to spread worldwide.

Written by stewart henderson

August 22, 2014 at 9:05 am

perceptions of war and fighting and other things

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and believe me, Schopenhauer never looked like that

and believe me, Schopenhauer never looked like that

Oscar Wilde once wrote: As long as war is regarded as wicked it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar it will cease to be popular.

This remark might seem trivial perhaps because Wilde himself is sometimes seen as a mere wit and because the word vulgar is now no longer popular (it has a certain vulgarity about it), but with different phrasing I’ve often thought along similar lines. In exasperation I describe to myself the current horrors in Palestine and Iraq and Syria as the acts of religious primitives, and fights in bars as the acts of bogans. I’m really talking about what used to be called vulgarity. it’s partly this way of thinking that makes me annoyed about the so-called war on terrorism, as if these were warriors, with their inherent fascination, instead of vulgar criminals.

Take cigarette smoking for example. When I see smokers on the streets these days, I think of sad sacks and the left behind. My zeitgeist-tinted specs see them as wash-outs and losers, adjusting my focus to catch clearly the ever-changing face of the properly vulgar, as it was once termed.

Written by stewart henderson

August 17, 2014 at 4:15 am

a brief history of pre-20th century European violence, part 2

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not quite a game

not quite a game

In my first post in this series I wrote about the 17th century and wars. In this post I’ll look at the wars of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Britain was more or less at peace in 1700, but it was soon involved in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), a messy dispute, ostensibly about who should succeed the mentally and physically incapacitated Charles II on the Spanish throne. The death toll may have reached a few hundred thousand, but of course little clear data is available. The war divided Spain itself, but essentially it pitted the France of Louis XIV against its neighbours, including the British, the Dutch and the so-called Holy Roman Empire. It brought to an end the Habsburg dynasty in Spain.

Meanwhile elsewhere in Europe the Great Northern War (1700-21) was being fought. The Russian Tsar Peter the Great and his allies were fighting to curtail the power of the Swedish King Charles XII. Sweden had created an empire for itself out of the devastating Thirty Years’ War, but the Great Northern War finally ended Sweden’s dominance and established Russia as a major power. Again the casualties numbered a few hundred thousand – many dying of famine and disease. The Battle of Poltava, won by the Russians, was the most decisive single event.

Queen Anne’s War (1702-13) was arguably not a European War, or arguably a fully European War fought on American soil, often with most of the combatants on both sides being American Indians. Casualties, however, were relatively light. Also, during the War of the Spanish Succession there was an internal revolt of Huguenots (Protestants) in the isolated Cévennes region of France. The Huguenots had been persecuted for decades, but in the case of this uprising, known as the Camisard Rebellion, atrocities were committed on both sides. Hostilities began in 1702, and the ‘troubles’ weren’t settled until the death of Louis XIV in 1715.

Further east in Hungary a group of noblemen enlisted the aid of Louis XIV to bring about an end to Austrian Habsburg rule in the region. The consequent conflict is known as Rakoczi’s War of Independence (1703-11), a complex affair which also involved the Ottoman Turks, who had only recently given up all their Hungarian territories. Rakoczi, one of the noblemen, was unsuccessful, but he’s considered a national hero by Hungarians today.

The Russo-Ottoman War 1710-11 broke out largely as a result of Russian pressure on the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed III to hand over Sweden’s Charles XII, who had taken refuge at the Ottoman court during the Great Northern War. The conflict drew in Cossacks on both sides, and the Swedes aligned with the Turks. Some 50,000 were killed.

The Ottoman-Venetian War of 1714-18 was the seventh of that name. The Republic of Venice had, up to that time, been a powerful state for a full millennium, but it was in decline having lost its greatest overseas possession, the island of Crete, in the late 17th century. It had, however, captured the Greek Morean Peninsula from the Ottomans, who were determined to regain it. They mustered a huge army, and were often savage in victory, but the Venetians were saved from complete humiliation by the intervention of Austria in 1716.

In 1715 the first Jacobite rising saw a number of battles fought in Britain, including Sherrifmuir and Preston. The Jacobites  were supporters of the ‘Tory’ James Stuart, son of the deposed King James II, against the Whig George I. The Catholic Jacobites also featured in the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718-20), in which they supported Spain against the quadruple alliance of Britain, France, Austria (representing the Holy Roman Empire) and the Dutch Republic. Savoy joined this alliance later. This was the only occasion in the 18th century that Britain and France were on the same side. The war was also fought in America. The allies were victorious, unsurprisingly, and Philip V of Spain soon sued for peace.

The Russo-Persian War (1722-3) was a result of the expansionist policies of Peter the Great, and of his concern about Ottoman expansion in Safavid Persia. Thousands died in these ‘manoeuvres’, which today would be a matter of diplomacy. All the territory gained by Peter was ceded back to the Persians by Empress Anna of Russia in 1732, to secure Persian support in the next great conflict with the Ottomans.

A brief Anglo-Spanish War (1727-9) saw the Spanish lay siege to Gibraltar while the British blockaded Porto Bello, both unsuccessfully. The Treaty of Seville at the end of this ‘war’ saw everything returned to the status quo, though of course thousands of lives were lost, mostly, as usual, from famine and disease.

One of the bloodiest wars in the first half of the 18th century was the War of the Polish Succession of 1733-8, not to be confused with the 16th century war of the same name! This war saw France, Spain, the Duchy of Parma and the Kingdom of Sardinia rallying in support of one aspirant to the Polish throne, while the Russian Empire, Habsburg Austria, the Kingdom of Prussia and Saxony supported another. The casualties, which may have numbered around 100,000, were mostly French and Austrian. It resulted in the Treaty of Vienna, the ascension of Augustus III to the throne, and various transfers of territories in the endless carving and recarving of the meat of Europe. Meanwhile the Austro-Russian-Turkish War (1735-9), a struggle between the Russians and Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire, ended largely in a stalemate, with several tens of thousands dead, almost entirely of famine and disease.

One could go on, and on. The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-8) involved, again, most of the European powers and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Between this and the French Revolutionary Wars at the end of the eighteenth century, which killed an estimated 1 million people (one historian, James Trager, estimated 3-600,000 deaths in the suppression of the Vendee revolt within France in 1793) there were of course numerous conflicts large and small, including the bloody Seven Years War (1756-63, though many historians argue for a longer period), which also saw at least 1 million dead.

The Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century built on the warfare habits of the French revolutionaries. There are no accurate figures, of course, in any of these wars – any more than there are accurate figures on the deaths caused by the US invasion and occupation of Iraq today – but an estimate of 2 million dead as a result of Napoleon’s campaigns is regarded as moderate. This was certainly the largest death toll of any war or campaign of the nineteenth century. Of the other wars of the century, the Crimean War (1853-6) killed about 300,000, three more of the many Russo-Turkish Wars (1806-12, 1828-9 and 1877-8) each killed about 200,00, a conservative estimate, and the Franco-Prussian War killed anywhere from 200,000 to above 700,00o, depending on various historians.

I’ve only included here the major conflicts civil and international, within Europe, but of course European forces were in conflict in Africa, Asia and the Americas throughout the century. It’s also never been easy to determine the eastern boundary of Europe. The ethnic cleansing of the Circassian peoples on the north-eastern shores of the Black Sea was undoubtedly one of the most murderous campaigns of the 19th century, with wildly varying estimates claiming up to 1.5 million deaths. Whether or not this was a specifically European holocaust is obviously a trivial question.

Although there was something of a lull in warfare at the end of the nineteenth century, attitudes towards war, its manliness and its character-building nature, were still dominant, as we can see in much of the rhetoric that preceded and influenced the so-called Great War. It was the carnage of that war, it seems, that first started to change attitudes, reflected in the war poets and in the criticisms aired thereafter. The Second World War, and particularly the horrors of Nazism, had a catalysing effect, and the culturally decisive decade of the sixties (and another war in South East Asia) succeeded in irreversibly changing attitudes to war, manliness and much else besides.

So ends part 2 in this series. Next I want to go back over that 300-year period from 1600 to the beginning of the twentieth century to look at domestic and other forms of violence within European society.

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 19, 2014 at 7:02 pm

Posted in history, violence, war

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