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Egypt: The Need For Action Vs. The Want For War

27/08/2013 11:50 BST | Updated 25/10/2013 10:12 BST

As Egypt slides dangerously towards civil war, and the international community remains remarkably reluctant to take meaningful action, I am reminded of an incident that I witnessed in my own country many years ago.

For some people, it seems war is one of the best things ever to happen to them.

It was 1970. The British Consul in Montreal had been kidnapped by an underground group seeking independence for Quebec. The Canadian Government responded by invoking emergency legislation, The War Measures Act. Tanks were positioned outside parliament and civil liberties were suspended throughout the country.

I was a student at the time and spent the afternoon at a friend's house, shocked that the Government had declared war. My friend's mother came running down the stairs. She had dressed up in her old World War II uniform. She threw her arms around her husband as he returned from work, embraced him passionately and yelled with delight: "It's war again, darling!"

"War is an exciting elixir," wrote Chris Hedges in his remarkable book, War is a force that gives us meaning. "It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent."

So it is not surprising, perhaps, that the emotional rush of violence so often helps convince us, and countless decision makers, that physical force will make a positive contribution to dealing with crises, whether in our homes and neighbourhoods, or in our nations and internationally.

There is a sense in which the meaning of war itself has changed, expanded and blurred.

The tsunami of aggression takes countless forms, from the rage of individuals, through to acts of terror and the deployment of state forces.

Nowadays the field of slaughter can be a primary school, a skyscraper, a city square, a village, a marathon, a church, a mosque, a temple, a wedding party, a corner store, a home, a bedroom.

The vast majority of those who are killed, maimed, raped or driven insane are civilians. Vast numbers of them are women and children.

The collateral and long-term damage of violence and war is often regarded as an inevitable, albeit unfortunate, consequence of the overriding need to act. The former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfield, told journalists "stuff happens" as the city of Baghdad descended into chaos following the shock-and-awe bombing and the land invasion of Iraq.

We await the findings of the Chilcot Inquiry, finally established after years of public protest to examine whether the irresistible lure of unleashing armed might led Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George Bush to knowingly collude in deception and illegality to pursue what are widely believed to be secretly agreed aims.

We become spectators of devastation as the horror ratchets up. Last month the United Nations estimated that over 100,000 people have died in the fighting in neighbouring Syria, while it has registered more than 1.8 million refugees fleeing for their lives. Almost half are children.

Meanwhile war and the preparation for war, even limited to strictly military spending, remains one of humanity's highest spending priorities.

Last year world military expenditure is estimated to have reached £130 trillion, according to the authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. By contrast the UN's entire budget is just a tiny fraction of the world's military expenditure, approximately 1.8 per cent.

This runaway global recourse to violent enterprise comes at a far higher cost even than the killing and devastation it inflicts, and the spiral of conflict it fuels.

As I reflect on the horrors we are witnessing, I wonder if somewhere in our collective psyche there is a grim, but riveting fascination with violence. Does it take us into a trance-like state, the way bystanders are spellbound by ghoulish car wrecks and the flashing lights of the emergency services?

What will it take to wake us up?

I am reminded of the words of a man of war who saw the need for his own nation and humanity to change course:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who are hungry and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed," said former general Dwight D. Eisenhower who, at the end of his years as President of the United States, warned of the rise of the military-industrial complex. "The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children ... This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."