Oh how times have changed since the halcyon days of the first and second world wars (as well as the wonderful Cold War period). Following on from a line of thinking in my previous post, it seems there are some other generalisations you can make about societies that have experienced the horrors of war, and those that haven’t1.
It seems to me that in our current, peace-addled, societies if a month goes by without a government body declaring war on something the world will stop rotating. This week, New Scientist reports2 “Plans drawn up for a war on drink.” Wow. A real war on drink. Amazing. Will people get medals? When will the US invade the ocean? Comically, the online version tempers its headline somewhat, choosing to use the less comical “WHO considers global war on alcohol abuse.” I find the print version more honest though. (I will attack this at a later date)
Even ignoring the sheer comedy of a “war on drink” there are some telling aspects of modern, western, culture here. It seems every time there is a societal “problem” that a government (or international) organisation want to diminish, the only way it can get public attention is by declaring a war against it. In recent years we have mounted a war on poverty, obesity, hunger, want, crime, drugs and the ever comical war on terror. Are any of these real wars? Of course not. They are just victims of the increasing need to over-dramatise everything to get public attention.
Are they “winnable” wars? Again, no. Can they ever end? Still no.
And herein lies the problem I have with all this word-nonsense.
Westerners (at least English speakers) have a strange association with the term “war.” While it has become the norm for a war to be declared on everything and anything, we still have a lingering memory of what war really entails. This creates a strange situation where people will sacrifice their rights and liberties because “we are at war” without realising the term has simply been misused. Giving up an essential liberty for the “duration” of one of these insane wars is foolhardy – the war will never end so the liberty will never return. Even the War on Terror, which at least involves military action, is not a war the traditional sense of the word.
Compare our peace-loving present with the past of a mere 30 years ago. In the mid-1970s most people in the West could remember the War, lots had served in smaller wars (Korea, Vietnam, Borneo, Aden etc) and there was the ever present threat of a REAL BIG WAR with the USSR. Scary times. Genuinely scary.
Into this mix, we throw in a wide set of terrorist organisations who are bombing, shooting and kidnapping all over the place. Planes were regularly hijacked, visitors to the middle east had a 50:50 chance of being kidnapped each day and the IRA were doing their level best to turn the UK into one big fireball. Even Africa was in at least as much chaos as it is today – only instead of the locals killing each other it was mostly lunatics trying to be mercenary kings.
Throughout this crazy time did we have a war on Smoking? Drink? Obesity? Crime? Violence? Drugs? Nope. We didn’t even have a war on terror; western governments understood that declaring “war” on the terrorists gave them a status they didn’t deserve and changed how the state had to interact with them. One of the things the IRA/INLA hunger strikers were campaigning for was recognition of their struggle as being a war. Instead of starving to death, all they had to do was convert to Islam apparently.
What has changed over the world? So far, the Islamic terrorist threat has killed less British people than the IRA did in 1970 but we are a thousand times more frightened. Does this explain why we declare war on anything and everything?
It strikes me, that in the same manner people who have never experienced war sometimes long for it, a culture which has forgotten the horrors of war may start to long for it.
Worryingly, does this imply western society will, out of fear of the bogeyman, keep going to “war” on things until a real big war reminds everyone what they were trying to avoid? Crucially, when can we declare war on declaring war?
1: I am fully aware that these are generalisations. I am seeking to do no more, and no less, than discuss a trend. There will always be examples which flow counter to this and I wont lose any sleep over them.
2: Unfortunately you need to be a NS subscriber to get full access to this. Buy the magazine or trust me…