Cooking the Books II: The Next War

In the next war, we’ll need the Royal Marines’ was the heading of an article by Roger Boyes in the Times (17 July), subtitled ‘Other nations are scaling up for an amphibious conflict over trade but Britain is ill-prepared.’ He quoted Hannah Arendt about the age of imperialism being when ‘businessmen became politicians and were acclaimed as statesmen, while statesmen were taken seriously only if they talked the language of successful businessmen,’ adding: ‘These times are back.’

Socialists have always contended that the underlying cause of war is the competitive struggle for profits that is built-in to capitalism and which leads to conflicts between capitalist states over sources of raw materials, trade routes, markets, investment outlets, and strategic points and areas to protect these. Normally, this competition is peaceful and differences are settled by diplomatic means in arrangements which reflect the relative strengths of the states involved. Here might is right, and not just economic might but also the military force at a state’s disposal. This is why all states try to equip themselves with the most up-to-date and deadly weapons that they can afford.

War is only resorted to as a last resort, when those in charge of a state judge that its vital interests are at stake. After all, war is costly and risky for a capitalist state. On the other hand, sabre-rattling, as a threat to go to war, is a normal part of diplomacy. Economic sanctions, in which states try to impose a mediaeval-type siege on the population of a whole country, have more recently become an alternative to actual war.

All that happened after the end of the stage of capitalism Arendt commented on was that ‘statesmen’ found it politic to speak of war as being fought for ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’ and other such lofty ideals, in order to disguise the real reason from populations less likely to support a war over such a sordid thing as trade. Now, it seems, they don’t feel the need to do this so much.

Boyes, who is the paper’s diplomatic editor but who sounds more like its war correspondent, was mainly concerned in the article about conflicts over trade routes, mentioning in particular three strategic sea lanes:

  • The Strait of Hormuz which controls the entrance to the Persian Gulf ‘through which a fifth of the world’s oil passes.’
  • The Bab el-Mandeb Strait between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, through which all shipping using the Suez Canal has to pass.
  • The Malaccan Straits ‘through which 80 per cent of China’s imported oil passes from the Indian Ocean into the South China Sea.’

There is already a war going on in the Red Sea area, on one side of which is Yemen where America’s allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are fighting against local militias serving as Iran’s proxies, with, as always in wars, devastating effects on the local population. The main flashpoint at the moment, however, is the straits of Hormuz which Iran is threatening to close in retaliation for the crippling economic sanctions imposed on it and the US is mobilising a war fleet to keep them open if needed.

Boyes views this as normal: ‘Proximity to the sea lanes that define global trade has become something worth fighting for.’ Actually, from a capitalist point of view, it always has been, but in expressing this Boyes is at least being honest, while at the same time confirming the socialist case on why wars happen – and why we say that defending trade routes is not worth a single drop of working class blood.