Making War History

Making War History

by Bruce Kent
This article first appeared in Pax Christi’s newsletter, Justpeace, for March/April 2005

“Making Poverty History” must also mean making war history. World annual military expenditure is again creeping up to the 1 trillion dollar mark – that’s a thousand billion dollars a year – a sum that dwarfs any amount spent on aid or the release of debt. Though Iraq, which has so far cost the United States alone over 150 billion dollars, is the conflict that makes the news, it is not the only one. There are over 20 armed conflicts in progress now, more than half of which are civil wars rather than wars between states.

The link between war and poverty has been pointed out often enough. It is there in article 26 of the UN Charter, signed in 1945. It is powerfully there in Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio of 1967. It is there in paragraph 89 of the Final Report of the 1978 First UN Special Session on Disarmament. In 1992 Mostafa Tolbe, then Director of the United Nations Environmental Programme, having listed all our global needs, concluded that without progress on disarmament all other positive agreements “are worthless”.

The connection between poverty and war is too obvious to be a matter of dispute but in practical terms it has not always been made.

Perhaps one reason is that bringing war to an end looks like an impossible dream despite its noble ambition. We applauded Pope John Paul in 1982 when, while the Falklands War was still in progress, he said “war should belong to the tragic past, to history: it should find no place on humanity’s agenda for the future”, but could it ever happen? After all, the UN was founded “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. Yet the years since 1945 have been bloodstained with wars and shadowed by the threat of war.

It is a time for a dose of practical optimism. Social change is always at first dismissed as impossible. The abolition of the slave trade, the creation of an old age pension, votes for women, were all in their turn described as utopian. The realistic optimist points to history. Our country is dotted with castles – once military fortresses but now tourist attractions. Some one-time enemies, for instance Germany and France, or Norway and Sweden, have so changed their political and economic relationships that war between them is simply unthinkable.

Consigning war to history means taking practical steps to build a culture of peace, to reject “peace” resting on threats of massive retaliation, to end the arms trade, source of so much destruction and so much debt, to create a public conviction that killing people is a barbaric way of resolving conflict.

For such changes to come about we need to build a global society in which the rule of law is paramount. There has been some progress in that direction. We even have a working International Criminal Court, though its jurisdiction is not accepted by the remaining superpower. In Interpol we have the start of an international police force. Changing attitudes is not easy but it does happen. The war nostalgia of the entertainment media can be redirected. The anti-poverty agencies can make practical and financial links with the peace movements. Remembrance Sunday and Week can honour the dead in the one way that they would want to be honoured, by working towards the abolition of war itself. Professor Joseph Rotblat, who refused in 1944 to work on the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, is the inspiration behind, and the President of the Movement for the Abolition of War. He remains a realistic optimist: “war must cease to be an admissible human institution”.

Making poverty history is a practical possibility, but it will not happen unless at the same time we start to cut out the cancer of militarism.