Ten Years of Violence: What is war good for?

It's been ten years since an act of political violence wrought destruction and misery on the people of New York City.

As the ten year anniversary of September 11th passes, a deluge of recent opinion and analysis has tried to address some of the difficult questions about the legacy of that terrible day in 2001.

Was the War on Terror a success or a failure?

Are we safer now or still vulnerable to terrorism?

Could 9/11 happen again?

Why do I still have to put all my toiletries into a little plastic bag whenever I go on a plane?

However, perhaps a more searching question should be asked about how the last ten years have affected the attitude of our society to violence and warfare. Although the violence unleashed in our name has produced uneven results and extracted a terrible price from local people, in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, militarism in the UK appears as popular as ever.

The response to 9/11 by the US and the UK reflected an uncritical resort to the conclusion that the use of violence by Al Qaeda was best met by more violence. Spectacular acts of military violence became the norm in the early War on Terror - whether at Tora Bora, through 'Shock and Awe' or in the destruction of Fallujah. Alongside this, enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition and extra-judicial killing came to be regularly used, if not wholly accepted, tools of counter-terrorism.

Programmes of counterinsurgency and state-building may paint a picture of a more humane form of war in the recent past, but violence, whether 'ours' or 'theirs', continues to affect Afghanistan and Iraq. Military violence seems to have undermined, rather than underwritten, a secure and stable environment in these countries. The question of for what war is actually good for, remains unanswered.

Despite this, the rather uncritical celebration of the military continues in the UK with government and the media averse to criticise or reflect on the conduct and role of the military. The continued faith in the use of aerial violence to "protect civilians" was evidenced recently by the 2011 intervention in Libya. Perhaps in the UK we have now reached what Andrew Bacevich, refers to as a "militarist consensus" - where broad societal agreement has been reached on the use of violence as a reasonable and appropriate tool of foreign policy.

On the one hand, defence cutbacks resulted in RAF and Army personnel receiving redundancy notices last week and military chiefs warn of the UK's inability to mount major operations in the future. On the other hand, the MOD continues to invest in warfighting technology, whether aircraft carriers or F35 fighters, equipment designed to project power and seemingly destined to contribute to the violence and destruction of future wars.

UK militarism has also reinforced a divide between ourselves and those we claim to help. Public acts of remembrance, like those held until recently in Wooton Bassett, may help us to remember UK citizens who have lost their lives in the past ten years of violence but they also help us to forget the others who were killed. The disparity in moral worth between 'us' and 'them' is reflected in the precision with which the deaths of UK soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are recorded (179 and 379 respectively) and remembered, in comparison to the very rough estimates of local civilian deaths.

Criticism of militarism is often dismissed with the claim that, "sometimes war is necessary as a last resort" a statement commonly supported by "well, what would have happened if we hadn't stopped Hitler in World War II?" Former Defence Secretary John Reid was well aware of the power of this analogy, arguing in 2006 that

"in the 20th Century, the Nazis used the most modern technology available to pursue their evil - the V2 bombs, Zyklon B and Lord Haw-haw on the radio. Nowadays, Al Qaeda use the latest, 21st Century technology available to them to pursue their evil".

Perhaps the war to end all wars has now become the war to justify all future wars...

Necessity and last resort have featured heavily in justifications for the War on Terror and the Libya intervention but the reality of our current situation bears little, if any, resemblance to that of 1939. Since there are no direct military threats to the continued existence of the UK, it is perhaps time to think differently about the role of the military and the use of violence in UK foreign policy.

As a modern European democracy, one now of more limited means, it's time to abandon the pretence of the UK as a global military power and adapt the armed forces toward a much more modest and more appropriate role...think peace operations instead of power projection. Why should Britain's prestige in the world be measured on its capacity to exercise violence and destroy human life?

As a society, the lessons learned from the past ten years of violence seem, if anything, a form of doublethink - that violence can be used to protect vulnerable foreign populations or that 'our' violence is in some way more just and humane than 'theirs'.

It's been ten years since an act of political violence wrought destruction and misery on the people of New York City. If we are to learn anything from the last decade, it should be that subjecting foreign populations to violence won't defeat terrorism, protect vulnerable populations or win the West any friends. Fighting always hurts...whether on the streets of Lower Manhattan, Baghdad or Kabul...the question is whether we let it define our next ten years.


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