Why War?

Lindsey German was one of the founding members of the Stop the War Coalition, and remains its convenor. She wrote this at the time of the national celebration of war known as remembrance day, when even the trains on the overground were wearing poppies – and not white ones, either.

Illustration by Hannah Meese.

Why War? by Lindsey German

The same week in November that David Cameron embarked on a campaign to sell British fighter jets to some of the most gruesome regimes in the Middle East was the week when fervour about the red poppy reached its crescendo.

The poppy is the symbol of remembrance, adopted after the hideous slaughter of the First World War. Remembrance Day has been widened to include remembering the dead in all wars, although in Britain these are still marked on what used to be Armistice Day -11am on 11th November, which signalled the end of the war in 1918.

It is officially a near universally celebrated day, or at least that is what our rulers would like it to be. Everyone appearing on national television wears a poppy for weeks beforehand (with one or two honourable exceptions, such as Paul Mason on Newsnight). Even journalists reporting from the US election campaign were wearing red poppies, which must have been flown in from Britain. On 11 November, every national Sunday paper had a red poppy on the front. There is widespread coverage of all the wreath laying events.

Unfortunately the prime movers behind the campaign use it more for promoting war than for ensuring peace. This year, London railway stations at times looked more like a military tattoo than a transport hub, as pipers, bands and uniformed soldiers sold poppies to ‘support our troops’. London Overground trains were painted with poppies and underground stations carried large ads.

Those who opposed the cult of the poppy are subject to harsh sanctions: a man in Kent was arrested for putting an image of a burning poppy on Facebook; another in Bristol for skateboarding in fancy dress.

So much for wars being fought in the name of democracy.

What is rarely acknowledged is that the vast majority of war dead in the past 100 years have been civilians. They are almost totally ignored in the remembrance events. While central London is full of statues and memorials to the military, there are few to civilian dead. It is only in relatively recent years that there have been memorials to women workers who died in the Second World War, or fire-fighters who gave their lives.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that politicians, press and right wing media use remembrance as a means to justify present wars. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, there was no great fuss about the day. People wore poppies or not, depending on how they felt. Most people didn’t observe a minute’s silence. My parents and most of my friends’ parents had lived through war, the men had fought in wars, and most of them did not want to glorify it.

Today, Britain has been at war – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and threatening future wars in Syria and Iran – for more than 11 years. The war in Afghanistan began in October 2001 and is still going on. That is longer than both the First World War and the Second World War – in fact, longer than the two put together. It is a war which is limping on, bloody and destructive. It is near universally acknowledged, even by the military, that this war has been lost. There is to be no victory for western troops, only ignominious withdrawal at some stage, or a continued war of attrition that is taking thousands of lives each year.

The war is deeply unpopular, with recent polls showing as many as 4 out of 5 respondents seeing no point to it, and consistent majorities wanting the troops out. The anti-war movement has helped to create widespread anti war opinion in Britain. To counter this, the politicians and generals who are deliberately prolonging this war to save their own faces are trying to whip up support for the troops – and to separate this from the question of unpopular wars.

During the summer, the troops were hailed as the saviours of the Olympics – another example of public money being spent to stand in for failed private security. They and their families were given free tickets for the games. David Cameron is now promising that troops and their families will receive preferential treatment for low cost housing over and above groups like the unemployed.

The cult of the military extends to uncritical questioning on radio and television, the hushed tones of reports from embedded journalists, the promotion of the military wives’ choir, and the propensity of the royal family to dress up in military uniform at the slightest excuse.

To challenge any of this is to be met with incredulity at best and hostility at worst. Yet challenged it has to be. No one wants British troops to be put in danger, but while they are fighting in unjustifiable wars that is precisely what will happen to them.

Wars also brutalise. There are a number cases of atrocities by British and US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Four US soldiers raped an Iraqi teenager and killed her and her family. A US soldier is now in trial charged with the deaths of 18 Afghans, mainly women and children, after he went on a murderous assault in villages near his base, returning covered with blood.

Baha Mousa was killed in Iraq by British soldiers. And the long colonial history of Britain is peppered with atrocities like those now coming out about the war in Kenya in the 1950s.

The support for war in capitalist society should not surprise anyone. It came into the world as a militarised system. It grew through plunder and conflict. Every nation state has its armies and the most powerful states are the most highly militarised. The US ranks number one in every aspect of military spending and equipment, larger than many other countries combined.

It is at the centre of a system of imperialism, which began with the old European colonial empires and has become an economic and military system which extends its strategic control and influence throughout the world. Imperialism is intertwined with capitalism. It has produced the worst wars in history – the First and Second World Wars – and war has been ever present in some part of the world ever since.

For decades after 1945, peace between the major powers was maintained by a ‘balance of terror’ between the two heavily nuclear armed superpowers, the US and the USSR. This situation ended in the late 1980s with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the emergence of the US as the sole superpower. At the same time it coincided with the drive to ‘free markets’, privatisation and deregulation which characterised neoliberalism. The end of the Cold War meant more hot wars, starting with the first Gulf War, followed by the Balkan wars and the war on terror since 2001.

The economic crisis that has become acute in the west since 2008 has led to greater tensions between nations, with a declining US economic power threatened by rivals, especially China. This leads it to use it military weight more not less.

The Middle East has become a tinderbox, as the present conflict in Gaza shows. Any extension of the conflict there, or in Iran or Syria, is likely to spread throughout the whole heavily armed region causing terrible human and environmental devastation. Those who suffer are not the politicians and generals, but ordinary people – whether in uniform or not.

Since the suffering of the First World War, there have always been people who campaigned for peace and who understood the horrors of warfare on an industrial scale. The anti-war movement since the war on terror has been the biggest anti-war movement ever, and its legacy continues as we fight against current wars.

But if we remember how the First World War began, in jingoism and excitement, we should remember how it ended. The slaughter of the war led to opposition to governments across Europe. The weak link of the old empires, Russia, was plunged in revolution in 1917. A year later, German workers and soldiers ended their role in the war through revolution. Throughout the world, ordinary people wanted not just an end to war but to the capitalism which had produced it.

So wars can produce their opposite: from horror and misery we can create peace and hope for the future. That involves campaigning against war itself and linking those campaigns to those against inequality, austerity and injustice. They are not different fights but the same one.

That is something we should never forget. We can create a world without war, but only by ending the system that feeds it.

Lindsey German helped found the Stop the War Coalition in 2001 and remains its convenor. She co authored A People’s History of London (Verso 2012) and has written a book on women and war: How 100 years of war changed the lives of women (Pluto – due out February 2013).

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