Why war is no accident
The fate meted out to the innocent population of Iraq, due to the terror and sanctions imposed upon that country by Britain and the US, is not a freak of history, nor an accident of policy. Rather, it is the continuation of an old game, and the re-use of policies deployed successfully, and equally devastatingly, elsewhere.
The noted historian, Eric Hobsbawm, in his essay “Barbarism, a Users Guide’, cites how, over the course of the century, the Enlightenment principle that “civilised warfare [sic] is confined to the disablement of the armed forces of the enemy” has declined. He finds the cause of this change en the “concept of total national mobilisation [which] shattered” this vital principle of “civilised warfare” [sic]. Hobsbawm however, offers no notion as to how this happened, or why the world should be slidng towards barbarism.
Hobsbawm’s “enlightened” idea of warfare was indeed compatible with a society in which warfare was the preserve of an elite, which was separated from the relatively independent communities in the villages and far flung towns—which was the economic conditions of the eighteenth century under which these ideas developed. It was thus able to conduct its warfare within terms of the social surplus upon which this elite generally existed.
As, however, capitalism developed the relative independence of rural towns, regions and of the military structures, became gradually eroded as the whole world was swallowed up into an integrated market economy. Everyone became absolutely dependent upon everyone else. Thus, eruptions of military conflict could no longer be confined to the combatants alone, as the shock waves spread out throughout the whole economy. Hence, Hobsbawm observes, that such societies had to mobilise the population to war generally: “[capitalist societies] do not fight…like bodies of professional soldiers, for whom fighting the war does not require hating the enemy.” War could no longer be a gentlemanly pastime, played with a set of rules to make things fair.
Hobsbawm’s basic error is to accept the distinction between official war, and peacetime, the start and end of the game declared by the gentleman players. His Arcadian depiction of enlightenment warfare neglects the continual use of state military forces against the lower classes, the regular insurrectionary slaughters, and the like. He neglects the fact that capitalism is a system “based on a state of perpetual war” (Morris). Just because an end of play is called, it does not mean that the slaughter ends.
The twentieth century has not been about the decline of an official distinction between war and peace, but rather, a growth in the scope and magnitude of the capitalist war.
First world slaughter
The First World War provides a case in point, where this universal warfare was pursued. Not content simply with seeing something like 9 percent of the world’s population dying on the battlefields (Hobsbawm) in order to secure capitulation from the gentleman players in Germany, the British ruling class also followed a policy of blockade against Germany, even after the end of the war. The effects of this course of action were devastating, and utterly indiscriminate. Not only, thus, were supplies disruptive by the usual wastage of resources due to war, but exacerbated, across the whole of central Europe by Britain’s blockade. In Germany. some 800 people perished every day from starvation: in the first months of 1919 30% of babies born in Berlin died, and the figure was 85% in Dusseldorf, due to a shortage of milk.
The Blockade—the cordon sanitaire— was also turned into a device for trying to crush the Bolshevik regime in Russia, and as a result, exacerbated no doubt by Russia’s own civil war, some 50 million people across the North of Russia faced starvation in 1919. Across all of central Europe, some 200 million faced death by famine.
All of which was the result of conscious policy. The British Minister responsible for the blockade wrote “I regard the blockade as the easiest and cheapest method of applying pressure to Germany.” The force, eventually for abandoning the policy of starving Germany into submission, was the threat of loss of control. President Wilson sent the Allied Blockade Council an illuminating telegram “Food relief is now the key to the whole European situation and to the solution of peace. Bolshevism steadily advancing westward, poisoning Germany. It cannot be stopped by force but it can be stopped by food.” The New Statesman at the time perceptively observed that food relief “cost something not far short of continuing the war”, which, of course, was precisely what it was for.
Likewise, during all that time of peace and victory, troops continued to pour into battle for the benefit of their country’s capitalists. The Great Powers of the world banded together to plunder fallen Russia, in the midst of its chaos. British, French and American troops landed at Archangel – ostensibly to secure Allied munitions from falling into German hands; Japanese and American troops landed at Vladivostok: and – since no war would be complete without it – British troops seized the Caucasian Oil fields at Baku. The defeat of the official Gentleman players merely meant that the winning powers were free to use their strength against the workers in the losing states in order to seize the assets and booty on offer there.
Those assets included human beings. Since their capacity for war was in no way related to an inherent antagonism to their foes, when Germany was defeated the allies demanded that German troops in Russia be handed over to their use against the Bolshevik foe. There are no permanent enemies, only permanent interests, and the name given to the game depends soleIy upon the interests of the day (all these incidents are described in 1919 Red Mirage by David Mitchel).
Churchill and Stalin – comrades in the ‘just’ Second World War
Second world slaughter
Apologists of capitalism would claim, however, that World War I was a monstrous carnival of imperialism, madness run rampant. They would point to the Second War, and declaim loudly that it was a just war, where the actions of the Allies were intended to stop just such atrocities. Indeed, James Baque in his book Crimes and Mercies sets out such a case, despite the fact that his book deals with precisely with the horrors meted out by the Allied occupiers of Germany. Asserting that the allied crimes were simply vengeance and hawkishness run rampant, he Iauds the eventual triumph of dovism. The stories he relates, though, point to a bleak continuance of the exact same policies as after the first war.
On the Eve of the allied victory, the leaders of the victorious countries accepted a plan drawn up by American Secretary of the Treasury Henry C. Morgenthau, to de-industrialise Germany, and forever end the threat it posed, leaving it at a not-quite agricultural level of economy.
The usual historical accounts of the war tell of the atrocity that was the blockade and starvation of the Netherlands; and many accounts tell of the perfidy of the Russians in blockading Berlin, and the heroic allied airlift to save that city. What these accounts miss out is that Britain, France and America subjected their sectors of occupied Germany to just such a treatment themselves. In 1944 the average Dutch ration was 1,397 calories per day, and 1,554 in 1945. In the British zones of occupied Germany the official ration was 1550, and for six months in 1946 it fell down to as low 1,000 calories. In the French sector, conditions including a daily diet of 450 daily calories were recorded. All this, while the occupying armies and the staff lived in comfort.
On the 8 May 1945 General Eisenhower issued a proclamation forbidding civilians to feed German POWs under pain of death, and all the while, thousands of prisoners languished in Allied camps, unable to return to rebuild their communities, and dying due to maltreatment. The occupying powers again took POWs to rebuild their own economies, as virtual slave labour—in the name of reparations. Further, the occupiers removed industrial capital to use for their own economies, leaving Germany in a state that it only reached 25 percent of pre-war production.
The cumulative effect of the ongoing economic attacks on Germany, after the formal ending of the war, was that by 1950 it is estimated that some 5 million Germans died as a direct or indirect result of the conditions imposed on Germany. Where foreign policy demanded it, food could be found – Britain managed to send food to Greece where – as in Italy – the war continued as a counter-insurgency struggle against the locals. The siege was only lifted, again, when chaos and collapse threatened allied control over Europe.
To accept the official distinction between war and peace, the official distinction between “friend” and “foe”, is to buy into an ideology meant to disguise the reality of continuous warfare. Not a decade passed last century without British troops being in the battlefield. Regardless of the stated intentions, of the apparent excuse for beginning a war, the only reason ever is the pursuit of the interest of the capitalist class, which they will enforce without ruie or reserve upon the working class. Hoping that war can be carried out in a gentlemanly way, that it can be carried out without inflicting suffering on the working class is pie in the sky. The destruction of resources, of wealth, that is inherent to war is diametrically opposed to the interests of the working class.