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War, what is it good for?

12/06/2015

images-39Back in February forty Members of Parliament attended a banquet at a plush London hotel hosted by some of the UK’s leading defence and security companies; firms like BAE Systems, Raytheon and Cobham who earn millions flogging weapons to countries that engage in serious human rights abuses such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and Bahrain. Several Labour MPs, including the former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, were on the guest list and they were joined by other champagne swillers such as Nick Clegg, then leader of the Liberal Democrats and a host of Tory MPs.

Like me, you probably missed any mention of this in the press or on television or radio. Indeed the lack of coverage of this soiree contrasted sharply with the recent media furore surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s attendance at the Stop the War Coalition’s Christmas do, an organisation that campaigns for peace and one that Corbyn chaired until elected as Labour leader. While Jeremy Corbyn was urged to keep his distance from an apparently “disreputable” organisation there is barely a whisper about MPs repeatedly sucking up to firms engaged in the business of killing. It’s interesting to note, perhaps not coincidentally, that all of the MPs at February’s dinner subsequently voted in favour of bombing Syria in the recent parliamentary vote, a session described by many media sycophants as representing “parliament at its best”. A session that ended with cheering and clapping for a lacklustre pro-war speech by Hilary Benn.

On a mild, grey November morning  I joined a very different group of around forty people at the Peace Pledge Union’s alternative Remembrance Sunday event in Tavistock Square in central London. The square is one of my favourite London spots, a place for quiet contemplation away from the bustle of nearby Euston Road and is perhaps the nearest thing that the capital has to a peace garden with its memorial to the victims of Hiroshima and statue of Gandhi.

Barely a mile from the pomp and ceremony of Whitehall we gathered in front of the conscientious objectors’ memorial to listen to speeches and stand in silence to remember all of those who have lost their lives in war, not just the military dead. Forty people is a tiny fragment of London’s vast population but it represented an important congregation nevertheless and the group included a senior politician, the admirable Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party,  who wore both red and white poppies.

Unknown-35“Never again” was the key message as it was back at the very first remembrance day event in 1919, the emphasis on the ultimate futility of war. Sadly, there has barely been a year since the end of the first world war, the so-called “war to end all wars” when the British military has not been in action somewhere on the globe. The so-called war on terror has been rolling on since 2001; a fourteen year war that has killed thousands of innocent civilians, cost billions of pounds and made the world a significantly more unsafe place.

Indeed, 2015 has seen more suicide bombings around the world than any other year during that period. Worshippers at a mosque in Kuwait, shoppers and traders at a market in Cameroon, peace activists at a rally in Turkey and now gig goers at a concert in Paris; all have been attacked by suicide bombers in 2015. In the first half of this year over five thousand civilians were killed or injured by suicide bombers worldwide, up by nearly a half on the same period last year. Violence is on the increase yet our response, once again, is one of more violence.

Barely a couple of days after the slaughter of innocent civilians in the centre of Paris, French planes were already bombing civilian targets in Raqqa in north east Syria, a stronghold for the so-called Islamic State. Fighting fire with fire has been the key mantra of the last decade and a half but where has it got us? Surely it’s time for a re-think or we face the dismal prospect of being permanently at war. The prime minister has already spoken of the war lasting for a generation when discussing increased funding for the security services and there are now teenagers who know only of a Britain of fear mongering and heightened security levels. What sort of society is this to grow up in? How many times must we repeat this cycle of violence before we realise that peace is the only answer?

At the PPU’s remembrance event the historian and writer Joanna Bourke spoke of the increasing militarisation of our lives and referred to “Over The Top” an interactive adventure game that allows Canadian children to “experience life in the trenches during the First World War”. Apparently there’s no need to worry if you get shot as “you can always start over and try a new adventure”. She also noted how we live in a world where military terminology has crept into our everyday language. Even in the health service, surely as far as it is possible to get from killing people, we talk of a war on obesity. For years we’ve engaged in a war on drugs.

We live in a world where labelling someone as a “pacifist” is seemingly a term of abuse and ridicule. We live in a world where a politician who dares to question the desire to carry on bombing far off places without any thought for the consequences is labelled as an “extremist” while war mongers like Hilary Benn are hailed as “moderate”. And we live in a topsy turvy world where a government that supplies arms to a despicable, woman hating regime in Saudi Arabia that regularly terrorises its own citizens labels people who don’t want us to drop bombs on Syria as “terrorist sympathisers”.

images-40Jeremy Corbyn’s principled reluctance to bomb Syria or press the nuclear button and obliterate the lives of hundreds of thousands of people is a threat not to our national security but to the British military. Hence the recent stream of drama queen television appearances by senior military figures anxious to protect the vast military-industrial machine. “There is no alternative” to bombing Syria they all chime. But, if nothing else, what Corbyn’s stance has done is to widen the terms of the debate and to question the very need to spend billions on defence when our health service struggles financially and benefits to some of the most vulnerable in our society are cut. We’re human beings hurtling through space on a lump of rock. Can we not solve these problems without blowing each other up?

The world will not become a safer place without challenging accepted wisdom. Supplying arms to the Middle East or bombing even more people out of existence is not the answer. Neither is raising children to believe that warfare is an “adventure” played out on computer screens. The thuggery of IS presents us with many problems but closing the borders, building the walls higher and turning our anger on Syrian and other refugees is certainly not the answer. In fact, it is exactly what IS want. They want “infidel” western nations to reject the refugees who have fled regions controlled by them. It would give them great satisfaction to see the west turn its back on refugees thus forcing many of them to return to IS-held territory. By standing in solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers we undermine the threat of Islamic State.

The return of many former jihadis to Britain from Syria is a complex issue that presents us arguably with our best opportunity to prevent even more young people from leaving our shores to fight for them. These are people who’ve seen IS in action at close quarters and have been repulsed. On their return to Britain they could be used to used to talk to young Muslims to prevent them following the same path. I reckon they would be more effective in altering views than any politician.

White poppyAt the end of the Peace Pledge Union’s remembrance event a wreath of white poppies was laid in front of the conscientious objectors’ memorial. In the centre of the wreath was an inscription that is perhaps worth a moment’s reflection in the light of recent events; “for all those who have died or are dying in wars, who have died or are dying because resources that could have fed or housed them have been wasted on war and preparations for war, who will die until we live in peace, when shall we ever learn?” It’s a question that few of the world’s leaders appear to have the answer to.

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