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War – what is it good for?

August is traditionally a time of concentrated conflict and when wars have started. One hundred years ago this week the first world war broke out as a result of a series of dangerous interlocking military alliances, a massive arms race between Britain and Germany, and a competition between European powers for trade and colonial influence all across the globe.

Four years later with 13 million dead and the empires of Russia, Austria, Hungary and the Ottoman in tatters, Britain and France desperately in debt, the real victors of the war were US bank financiers and arms manufacturers. The first world war was also a major contributory factor to the Russian revolution and the birth of the Soviet Union.

What we should also remember is that at the outbreak of war in 1914 the whole population did not go waltzing down the street to the nearest army recruiting office. Many instead took to the streets to protest at the waste, the potential loss of life and to proclaim that workers in Britain and France had no enemies in the working-class movement of Germany and Austria. Unfortunately these voices were a minority, drowned out by the drum of chauvinism.

On Monday the great awhite_poppies_244nd the good, led by the Prime Minister, will be in Westminster Abbey commemorating the outbreak of war. Later that evening there will be a gathering of the No Glory group, also commemorating the outbreak of war and, notably, those who opposed it and the conscientious objectors who were subsequently imprisoned for their principles.

We live in an age of instant communication and relentless media attention to one conflict after another. In real time, we can see schools in Gaza being bombed and the mutilated, bodies of children taken into overcrowded hospitals for whatever limited treatment can be offered, particularly in the absence of electricity and other vital medical infrastructure. The media in 1914 were kept at arm’s length from the war, and the true horrors of the trenches and the incredible loss of life on all sides was deliberately minimised by a jingoistic press.

War is now the power of high technology, electronically managed weaponry of the richest countries against the poorly armed and, in some cases, virtually defenceless people of the poorer countries in the world. In 1914 it was industrial-scale warfare against soldiers using the infantry tactics of the 1850s who were mown down by machine guns while entangled in barbed wire.

The conflicts that are eating up lives and creating the bitterness that will be the conflict of tomorrow in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Libya and Palestine and Afghanistan are well documented, and nobody in the world can be unaware of the horrors that are going on. There is no one specific cause for any war but there are the general lessons of history where colonialism and short-term political deals drew lines on maps. There are also the unrelenting thirst of the industrial economies of the world for raw materials and minerals.

After the first world war, the lessons were learnt about the horror of chemical weapons and they were indeed outlawed in 1925. More recently, world agreements have outlawed landmines and to some extent the export of weaponry to areas of conflict. They have not however dealt with nuclear weapons beyond the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay made a very interesting and well researched speech on Palestine in which she asserted that the deliberate targeting of civilian populations, attacks on schools, hospitals and places of worship, needed to be investigated as war crimes. She is right.

The recent bombing of Gaza’s only power station and the bombing of a school where some of the refugee children slept next to their parents who died in a pile of rubble are appalling acts carried out by a powerful country against a defenceless people. While the causes of the conflict go a long way back, the theme of Israeli expansion ever since the 1960s remains unchanged.

The idea of a viable two-state solution is becoming impossible to contemplate when the West Bank is now carved up by Israeli settlements with settler-only roads linking them.

The refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan are now into their fourth generation of existence with Palestinian families dreaming of the possibility of returning home, and Gaza is in its seventh year of siege. Wednesday’s maneuver by the Israelis to create a three-kilometre depopulated buffer zone all round Gaza sounds more like encirclement and pushing the 1.8m Gazan Palestinians almost into the sea.

Last Saturday 60,000 people marched through the streets of London and the demonstrations are having an effect. A number of countries around the world have either suspended trade or diplomatic relations with Israel.

The British government remains obdurate in refusing to recognise the disproportionate attacks on Palestinian people — Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond repeatedly refused to use the word (disproportionate) when invited to on Radio Four to do so yesterday morning.  Another demonstration is due this Friday evening outside the Israeli embassy as well as local protests all over the country this weekend.

Liberation was founded in the mid-1950s as the Movement for Colonial Freedom, and was transformed into Liberation on the independence of most former colonies.

Its purpose is to be a catalyst for international solidarity action and at our annual meeting this Saturday we’ll be hearing speeches from the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign chair Hugh Lanning and the president of Palestinian Forum in Britain Ziad Elaloul, with a serious discussion about solidarity and prospects for long-term peace for the peoples of the region.

Next Tuesday is the anniversary of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and at midday there will be an act of solidarity and remembrance of the victims of nuclear war in Tavistock Square in London.

Nine months ahead of the general election it’s important to remind MPs and potential candidates that to spend £100bn on nuclear weapons when we desperately need investment in good-quality jobs in engineering and services is outrageous. Britain has even refused to attend the conferences on the humanitarian effects of nuclear war — is this to ensure ministers remain oblivious to the true realities of the effects of these weapons? The cancers of nuclear fallout are still killing people in Hiroshima.

This article previously appeared in the Morning Star

Image credit: White poppy advert for demonstration: No Glory in War

Music by Edwin Starr: War (What Is It Good For?) (fair use)

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