Sunday, September 04, 2005

War, Huh-Yeah!

I need to say something about our attitude to war. It might all be obvious stuff, but I'm afraid I do occasionaly feel the the need to state the obvious.

War is, pardon me, fucked up. When you strip it back to the bare bones, war is killing people to settle an argument. In civilized countries it is now considered unacceptable to settle domestic disputes in this way, and quite right too. Unfortunately, the governments of these same civilized countries do still find it acceptable to kill foreigners to settle their arguments outide their borders. This is fundamentally a contradictory position, but as any realist will tell you, "it's a fact buddy, deal with it". The nation state retains the right to exercise the legitimate use of violence. That this is so is undeniable. Sadly, it seems to me that the belief that it is also desirable is again gaining momentum.

And I'm not just talking about our warmongering governments. It is most evident in those supporters of the "war" on terror who gleefully declare that "we are at war, you lefties just don't get it, of course rights have to be restricted, of course a few innocent people will be shot in the head, we are at WAR!...". You might have spotted one of two of these people in blogoland (a place where I sincerely hope they are grossly over-represented). It seems to me that almost all of these people have little or no understanding of what being at war is actually like.* Perhaps if they did, they'd show a bit less enthusiasm for the idea that we we are currently at war.

I have no personal experience of what it is like to be at war. I suspect that almost everyone who reads this is equally fortunate. In my life I've met a handful of people who have experienced war firsthand. The stories they told me have given me only the tiniest inkling into the horrors of being at war.

A long time family friend, I thought of him more as an extra grandfather, fought in the jungles of Burma in WWII. I actually know very little of what happened to him as he found it very difficult to talk about. He started to tell me stories about the jungle, but he never talked about the fighting or the Japanese. He once described how a friend had woken up to find that a leech had forced itself down his foreskin and attached itself to the head of his penis. Out in the jungle, they'd had to burn it off with a cigarette lighter. I remember I onced asked him why he didn't like corned beef. His normally smiling face clouded over as, in a quiet voice, he told me that corned beef was very common in army rations during the war. That conversation must have happened in the mid 80's, about 40 years after he left the army. He was a kind, gentle, decent man, but I probably wouldn't have taken my Japanese friends round to visit (if I'd had any).

For a time, I worked with someone who had fought in the Falklands conflict. He told me that some of his friend had liked to cut off the ears of the Argentine soldiers they had killed and keep them as trophies. By all appearances, he told me this story because he thought it was funny. At the time I thought he was making it up, but since then (around 1991) I have heard similar stories so now I'm not so sure. There are certainly precedents for such things.

Another person I worked with retired from the army after having been deployed in the Balkans with the UN the peacekeeping mission. He never discussed details. He once told me he had seen things no person ought to see. "Women, children... but you're a lot better off not knowing" was the gist of his last word on the subject. His health undoubtedly suffered as a consequence of his experiences.

As I said, these stories only provide a tiny glimpse at the nature of the beast, but there can be no doubt, war is fucked up. Too many people seem to believe the Hollywood/government myths, the sanitized version of war where the good guys always win (and always act like good guys), where heroic figures die in the noble pursuit of the greater good, where the bad guys always deserve to die, where bullet wounds are healed by the swift application of the magical scrap of torn clothing. That's all bullshit. War is hell. It kills people, it maims people, and those it does not kill or maim, it dehumanises.

I accept that sometimes war is unavoidable and in the next post I'm going to write about a war I supported.** But, lets make sure we understand that war is never desirable. If civilized nations are to go to war it must be because it is absolutely unavoidable. It must be the last resort of self defence. War is not something to be entered into lightly based on vague notions of spheres of influence or national security. To justify war, there must be a tangible threat to the security of the nation. When we discard this principle, as we have done in Iraq, we lose the right to be called civilized nations.

* I'm sure they would argue that the UK and the US are actually at war in Iraq and so they are right to say what they say. That may be technically true, but it's really beside the point. The "war" on terror is not actually a war. War is mutual destruction on a far greater scale.

** Sort of.

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