Diana Francis

Rethinking War and Peace
Chapter 2


I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. War is hell.

(General Sherman, 1879)

More frequently than not it leads to fresh wars. Preparing for war never seems to prevent it, but rather to precipitate it; and in its conclusions war is just about as disastrous to the victor as to the vanquished.

(Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, 1929)

A war is not like an earthquake or a tornado. It is an act of men and women…Do not let people lead you to think for a moment that war is a necessary institution.

(Jessie Wallace Hughan)

Peace has been a dream from generation to generation. It is my dream. Why does it prove so illusive? I believe that war is more than a sign that so far we have failed to achieve our dream but that it is integral to a system that makes peace impossible. If peace is ever to become a reality, it is a prime necessity to deconstruct the myth of war’s necessity, legitimacy and power for good.


In the run-up to the recent war on Iraq, we were subjected, for months, to the daily question, ‘Is war inevitable?’ – as if this war were an asteroid inexorably heading towards us, rather than a deliberate and resolute plan to act in a certain way. Nonetheless, many people believe that war is sometimes morally inevitable. This conviction is based on what I would argue to be a myth: that war is what works, the ‘means of last resort’ – the one thing that we can rely on when all else fails. This myth is based on three false assumptions. The first is that leaders are trying to do things that really need to be done: that the causes for which they go to war are just. The second is that they do really try everything else before going to war – that all alternatives are exhausted. The third is that war is effective in achieving the good goals claimed as their causes.

This three-fold war myth is so firmly established that it is hardly ever questioned at a fundamental level. The propaganda machines work overtime to perpetuate it, and because it is a complex myth it is hard to deconstruct. However, it must be taken apart and shown to be hollow – and poisonous – if we are ever to escape from its hold on us and from the grip of war as a system. We shall never be able to pursue peace in any consistent way until that is done. That is what I want to do in this chapter.

There is such widespread cynicism about the rationale for the War on Terror and the effects of the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq that I shall not dwell on them at length. But since they are so present and so relevant I will begin with them, before going on to a wider discussion of the myth’s three distinct elements.

In the cases of both Afghanistan and Iraq, security was the given reason for war. In the former case, however, little time was wasted on reasoning and the impression was given that the initial motive was to hit back at someone after the devastating attacks on the ‘twin towers’ and the Pentagon. Assuming Al Qaeda was indeed the group responsible for the attacks (and this seems no longer to be disputed) and that the idea was to eliminate them, the idea would have been rather ill-conceived, since they are not the kind of local and limited organisation that could be wiped out in a localised counter-attack. Those responsible for the atrocities of 11 September did not come from Afghanistan, nor did they prepare their ‘mission’ from there. If they had, a general war against the Taliban regime was not the best way of eliminating them and in the event did not succeed even locally.

Once the war on Afghanistan had been launched, however, a new reason was brought in to justify it: the removal of a cruel and despotic regime. What was not mentioned was that the same regime had been supported in the past as a counter to Russian hegemony. Nor was it acknowledged that the warlords drawn in to fight for the US had been equally disastrous in power. Extending its economic and political control in a region key to the future of oil supplies seems the only convincing long-term goal for this choice of action by the US. (I will not get embroiled here with conspiracy theories, though they are not without cogency and have been expounded by remarkably sane people.)

It was suggested before the war on Afghanistan was launched that negotiations with the Taliban regime could have resulted in their no longer allowing Al Qaeda’s activities within the country. It became clear, however, that the US had no interest in ‘exhausting all alternatives’ to war – quite the contrary, for the reasons given above.

The war’s outcome, in terms of its initially proclaimed goal of security, has been negative. Osama Bin Laden continues as an icon of jihad against Western imperialism. There is no evidence that Al Qaeda has been weakened and terrorist attacks continue around the world. Terrorism cannot be bombed out of existence. It is a part of the dynamic of violence and disrespect that requires little in terms of personnel and weaponry. It can spring up anywhere at any time.

In terms of the post-hoc reason brought in to justify the war, the ‘liberation’ of Afghanistan, the picture remains bleak. At the end of October 2003 it was being reported that the country was experiencing the worst fighting since the overthrow of the Taliban.

Human rights – particularly in the case of women – continue to be violated and warlords continue to hold sway. This is hardly surprising. The model of human relations that the US has enacted is not one of democratic process and respect for human rights but one of bullying and violence – the very things it claimed to be addressing.

The war on Iraq, like the war on Afghanistan, was initially justified in the name of security. When that argument proved unconvincing (and we have seen how little justification there was for the claims of an imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction) the ‘regime change’ cause was deployed. We were told that the war was being fought in order to liberate Iraq’s people from a cruel tyrant. As with Afghanistan, no mention was made of past connivance, support and military assistance. And, as with Afghanistan, oil and other strategic interests seem the only plausible explanation – along with ‘national pride’.

Far from valiant attempts to exhaust all alternatives to war, what we saw was a ruthless determination to brush such attempts aside and the relentless pursuit of the war option, in the face of overwhelming world opinion to the contrary. When the war was declared at an end, George Bush told his troops, ‘Through you the dignity of a great nation has been restored’ – revealing that this war, like the one on Afghanistan, was an opportunity to re-assert ‘full spectrum dominance’. (Unsurprisingly, the great majority of Afghans opposed the war on Iraq.)

Though one US spokesperson said it was ‘very difficult to fault the war’

once again war’s result in security terms has not been as advertised. No WMD have been found. The country remains extremely unstable and has become an international forum for attacking the US, while its own citizens bear the brunt of the suffering, orphans eke out an existence, girls dare not go to school, for fear of kidnap and rape, shootings and explosions are commonplace. Even humanitarian agencies are under attack. As I write (in late November 2003), the UN has pulled out the last of its foreign nationals and far more US servicemen have been killed since the war ‘ended’ that while it was officially underway. Terrorist attacks against British interests in Turkey have been related to the war on Iraq and to Turkey’s perceived collusion with the US and UK.

On the other hand the US has the opportunity of establishing several new military bases, so compensating for less certain military relations with Saudi Arabia and furthering its strategic aim of regional hegemony. US companies are now in charge of the oil, Iraq is generally ‘open for business’ and US ‘defence’ companies with close ties to the US administration have announced substantial increases in profitability.

In both Afghanistan and Iraq we have seen a military strategy, deliberately chosen by the US and used to extend its control: a strategy that is so risky that it may backfire and one that has little to do with countering terrorism or with what most people would call peace. In both wars the arms industry has prospered and through both wars lucrative contracts have been won by vast US based companies who have been assigned the many tasks of reconstruction created by years of war, neglect, sanctions (in Iraq’s case) and more war.

Now I want to focus on the first of the three false assumptions that make up the war myth, looking more broadly at different types of war and the reasons for which they are waged. I will start with a general discussion about war and its cause; then look specifically at the motivations of war leaders.


The word ‘cause’ in this context has at least two meanings. We can ask, ‘What was the cause of this war?’ meaning what circumstances, events, decisions or actions occasioned it. Or we can ask ‘For what cause was this war fought?’ meaning what were the purposes of those who waged it. It is hard to keep these two meanings distinct, since causes of the latter kind are often related to causes in the former sense. Furthermore, as I will argue, the goals war leaders claim for a war may not be the real ones, or at most partly so. And they themselves may stumble rather than march into war.

Wars – ‘hostile contention by means of armed forces’ – are fought between states and within states; for a wide variety of ‘causes’ in both senses of the word; on different scales, geographically and numerically; at different intensities and over different lengths of time; with different degrees of popular support, and with different kinds of weapons. One thing they have in common, however: they are all destructive. For this reason they should not be confused with conflict, which may be ‘waged’ constructively and without violence. All too often, though, war is the form that conflict takes.

Wars may be categorised in a variety of ways. One attractively simple typology

makes a fundamental distinction between ‘interstate’ and ‘non-interstate’ wars. It subdivides the latter into three categories. One embraces those fought for revolution/ideology, to change states – for instance from capitalist to communist (or vice versa), from secular to religious (or vice versa), or from dictatorship to democracy. Another comprises those fought on the grounds of identity, including struggles for access to wealth, employment and social and political participation, and for autonomy, control or secession. The third category is labelled as ‘factional’, including ‘coups d’etat, intra-elite power-struggles, brigandage, criminality and warlordism, where the aim is to usurp, seize or retain state power merely to further particular interests’.

This typology provides us with a useful starting point and helps us to distinguish between different types of intra-state war. But like any other typology, it of necessity suggests clearer distinctions between types of war than in fact exist, masking the overlaps between them. For instance, it does not represent the phenomenon of ‘proxy wars’ in which the interests of outsiders are played out in civil wars, and the different motivations for intrastate war are often mixed. I shall begin this general review of causes by looking at the motives of outsiders in ‘intra-state’ wars, go on to discuss their internal motivations, and conclude with a brief look at inter-state wars as such and a post-script on terrorism.

Our focus here is on the causes of wars and the purposes claimed for them – whether they can be described as just or moral. Factional wars seem to be ruled out by definition, since they are fought ‘lawlessly’, for reasons of greed and self-interest. I believe the term ‘factional’, or at least its moral content, could be applied equally to most wars fought by states, as well as within them.

As many writers have observed, wars within states have predominated over recent decades. Since the end of the Soviet Empire, civil wars in former Communist countries have proliferated. But during the Cold War the two big powers were indeed at war by proxy in ‘internal conflicts’ in different parts of the world in which they were covertly involved, pursuing their policies and interest through them. Now the US and its allies have embarked on a new series of overt wars in other states in order to change them in line with their own policies. These are labelled as ‘wars of intervention’.

A high proportion of recent wars fought within states have been fomented by interested individuals in weak, corrupt, factionalised or ‘failing’ states. Often the imposition of ‘economic restructuring’ by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and consequent impoverishment of a country’s people and services contribute to such failure and instability, not to mention the human misery behind it. (For instance, IMF policy in Sierra Leone contributed to its becoming a net importer of rice rather than a net exporter.) The big powers have alternately ignored, promoted (more or less covertly), or condemned civil wars, depending where their vested interests lay. If the status quo is generally favourable to the West, ‘moderation’ and ‘conflict resolution’ may be promoted. In different countries, the US in particular has stimulated and supported insurgency against left wing governments and given military assistance to right wing ‘counter-insurgency measures’, for instance in Angola, Afghanistan and Iran, the Philippines and Indonesia, and most of Latin America. Ghana’s President Nkrumah was overthrown because of economic interests and Congo was destabilised by the West for economic and political reasons.

Although during the Cold War such activities were at their height, they have not gone away. One current example of this policy is the US programme in Colombia. Its involvement in the suppression of guerrilla activity in Mindanao, the Philippines, is another – quite apart from the invasion of Afghanistan and of Iraq. All these interventions have been ‘hegemonic’. And in many countries the use of private armies by multinational corporations makes them major military as well as economic players.

Arms exports from the West into regions ravaged by armed conflict have been extremely high. The war in the Congo where, at the time of writing, more than four million have been killed (most of them civilians) has been fuelled by a steady flow of arms from outside. This in itself is a cynical and lucrative form of intervention. The cost of the arms trade to the world’s poorest has been indescribable, in terms of diverted resources, the disruption of productive activity and in direct casualties – again, mostly civilian.

Wars of secession within the former Soviet Union have proliferated since the collapse of Communism. Since these disturb the status quo – ‘business as usual’ – and offer no advantages to the West, the aspirations to independence of those who fight them are not a matter of concern. While the USA has supported (and indeed fomented) bloody revolutions in many countries in order to remove regimes inimical to its own interests, the West favours the preservation of existing state boundaries. Its concern is with the stability needed for the promotion of its own economic interests and political influence.

Western intervention in the former Yugoslavia, when it came, was a response prompted not only by public concern at a war fought in back gardens not dissimilar to our own but also by the West’s strategic interests in the political and geographic interface between what used to be called Western Europe and the Arab world. (How widely is it known that Kosovo is now home to a huge US base with a ninety-nine year lease?) It was in sharp contrast to the West’s minimal response to the terrible civil wars that have torn post-colonial Africa apart. At the level of governments, these seem to have excited shockingly little concern. Presumably cost-benefit analysis showed intervention to hold no advantages and there was no appreciable political pressure for action to be taken.

Sometimes neighbouring states have pursued their own interests in civil wars, too – as in the Congo, where, since the death of President Mobutu, neighbouring countries have become embroiled, whether in pursuit of armed groups posing a threat to their own security or with an eye to the country’s vast mineral wealth.

There has been much recent debate, within the world of ‘conflict studies’, as to the relative importance of ‘greed’ and ‘grievance’ as motives for war.

Civil wars or ‘insurgency’ may take place for a variety of reasons, which could be plotted somewhere along an imaginary line between greed and grievance. Very often (if not always) there is a ground of exclusion or oppression in which the seeds or war are sown. For those who are on the receiving end of aggression and repression, security, liberty and just access to the things necessary for their wellbeing are evidently an urgent need and recourse may be taken to guerrilla tactics, sometimes amounting to civil war. In other situations, disaffection manifests itself in sporadic terrorism, sometimes over many years.

Resources are a classic war interest: the need (or desire) to acquire land, diamonds, oil or water. As populations increase and living standards rise, scarcities look set to increase, and with them, arguably, the likelihood of conflict. However, archaeological findings suggest that scarcity is a matter of unequal distribution of resources within societies – as one anthropologist (Brian Ferguson) put it, ‘a matter of politics and economics, rather than the twin bugbears of too many people and not enough to go round’.

The sad irony is that the discovery of exportable resources in a ‘poor’ country makes it likely not that it will prosper but rather that it will become subject to violent conflict and that its people will be further impoverished.

Neo-colonial wars, aimed at political and economic control, can be seen as greedy wars. And the ‘military industrial complex’, which stands to gain directly from war itself (rather than from its outcome) is driven by greed. It cannot therefore be assumed that the pre-eminent purpose of those engaged in war is always to win it. Sometimes they have an interest in perpetuating it. In Sierra Leone and Uganda, for instance, many of those involved in the fighting have gained financially, whether from the spoils of war or from trading controlled by it, and have colluded in contriving the war’s continuation in order to go on doing so.

However, resources and just access to them also constitute a legitimate concern for governments and different sectors of their populations. Along with human rights violations perpetrated by oppressive governments and those they employ to control their people, poverty is in many countries a genuine and profound grievance. Those who seek to understand and articulate the dynamics of oppression do so through ideological frameworks and fight ‘wars of liberation’ under political banners. Though inter-group dynamics and personal ambitions may cloud the purity of their motives and the methods used by such movements may be no better than those used in other wars, issues of justice may be seen as underlying them.

Though civil wars are often seen and described as ‘identity wars’, ethnic, cultural and religious differences are not in themselves a ‘cause’ of war – as vividly illustrated by this commentary on the recent re-emergence of violent conflict in Burundi:

If Burundi’s war was ever motivated primarily by ethnic hatred, that day is long past. It started in 1993, after the country’s first Hutu president was assassinated by renegade Tutsi soldiers. Tribal massacres followed, but the conflict has since then morphed into a struggle for power, and so for control over Burundi’s ridiculously meagre resources. Some of the worst acts of brutality have been committed by Hutus against other Hutus: the mainly Hutu rebels are now fighting a government that is headed by a Hutu.

Sometimes ‘identity’ is used as rallying points for ambitious politicians; sometimes they do indeed contribute to misunderstanding, clashing values and alienation; sometimes discrimination, exclusion and violence meted out on the grounds of identity can constitute the grievance that provides the tinder for smouldering violence or a conflagration.

In situations of abrupt and radical change, with a consequent loss of any previous inclusive identity and political and economic instability, this in turn may provide the opportunity for demagogues like Slobodan Milosevic or Franjo Tudjman to spark a war for their own purposes of aggrandisement. The organisation and intensification of the ‘ethnic’ wars in Yugoslavia was justified in the name of liberation from oppression. Just how oppressive Yugoslavia was or had been to its non-Serb inhabitants is open to debate, but it seems safe to say that while there were real causes for grievance, relatively small flames of resentment were fanned deliberately, for political purposes.

In her powerful and disturbing collection of essays, The Culture of Lies (translated into English in 1996), Dubravka Ugresic born a Yugoslav but subsequently designated a Croat, describes how identity is created and manipulated for political ends. In one essay she writes of the different kinds of symbolic ‘kitsch’ used to foster identities based on the one hand of socialism and on the other hand of nationalism. She goes on to explain a more profound difference:

The socialist state kitsch was created in peacetime, in a country with a future before it. This other kitsch, this ‘gingerbread heart culture’, is poured like icing over the appalling reality of war.

The wars in the Balkans have been referred to as ‘The War Next Door’ but the war closest to home for British people, because it is (legally) at home, is the war in Northern Ireland. This, too, was based on real grievances, but again it is hard to believe that they could not have been addressed equally productively in other ways, and without the horrible effects of sustained inter-communal violence.

Ironically, the UK Government, while it was loudly endorsing the bombing of Serbia, was struggling to keep the Northern Ireland peace process on the road. In that case it had been decided that it was necessary, for the sake of all who live in Northern Ireland, to include ‘the men of violence’ in the dialogue and to draw them into the political processes aimed towards peace. This was a courageous decision, which has been vindicated by the slow and bumpy but nonetheless encouraging progress which has since been made – more so than many years of suppression.

Are there causes for which states might justifiably go to war against other states? Maybe the categories for intra-state wars offered by our original typology can help us here. The largely self-interest-based and greedy military activities described so far can be aligned with the ‘factional’ category. They are, however, often justified on ideological grounds and indeed it is hard and perhaps foolish to separate actions from the belief systems of those who promote and endorse them. The identity, autonomy and control category for internal wars is easily transferable to inter-state wars. In law states have a right not to be interfered with and to defend their independence. This right is, however, being increasingly challenged and ‘relativised’ in practice, as recent wars have demonstrated – wars that have ostensibly been waged (among other reasons) to protect the rights of people within those countries.

Many would argue, conscientiously, that state boundaries should not be sacrosanct and that when terrible things are being done within state boundaries ‘something should be done’. Current international law states that it is not acceptable for a state to take a decision to go to war against another state unless it has been invaded or is about to be attacked. That ‘about to be’ is in itself also relative and open to interpretation (and, as we have seen, to abuse). World War II was fought for security reasons, no doubt, but also for ideological reasons and to prevent the expansion of a regime that was objectionable on both practical and moral grounds.

Broadly speaking, then, we can say that there are just and unjust causes for which wars are fought and that they are often mixed. This brief review of the reasons for which wars in the past half-century have been launched suggests that vested interests of one sort or another have played a pre-eminent role. These are not the reasons that are given by politicians to their publics.

One final but important point before I move on to the motives of war leaders. Acts of terrorism may be an element in intra-state violence. They may also take on an international dimension and be directed at states from without as well as from within. Terrorism of this kind eludes our typology, and even our definition of war, but it is indeed a form of warfare that crosses state boundaries. Though it may be seen as factional, its motivations seem to be ideological and also related to identity and a sense of outraged dignity.

Those who study culture will tell us that dignity is a far stronger motivating factor in ‘traditional’ than in ‘modern’ cultures.

It is said that while identity needs in the West are met largely through material things, others put far greater emphasis on respect and honour. Thinking back over the events of recent years I am convinced that we need to take this far more seriously.


Decisions to go to war are taken, in the last analysis, by political leaders and it is they who are most active in justifying those decisions. Brian Ferguson argues that elites exploit the fact that a strong sense of group identity encourages feelings of collective injury and a desire for collective retaliation and go to war in pursuit of their own interests, often using people on the margins of society to fight for them. ‘[In] most cases – not every single one – the decision to wage war involves the pursuit of practical self-interest by those who actually make the decision … leaders often favour war because war favours leaders.’ They really do lead us into war for their own reasons.

At the same time, leaders are not all-powerful and events have their own momentum. Historians have described, for instance, how, in the run-up to World War One, leaders were caught up in the sequence of events, sucked into and then trapped in the dynamic of war.

Sometimes they stitch themselves up by their own early choices and rhetoric and so stumble into war because they have left themselves with no (un-embarrassing) way back. The presentation of causes and outcomes then follows – just as Tony Blair constantly reworked his arguments for supporting George Bush’s war on Iraq in a desperate attempt to justify the unjustifiable. Much has been said about the relationship between George Bush Junior and his father, and the desire of one to complete the unfinished business of the other.

It seems clear that Tony Blair, once caught in a ‘brotherhood’ relationship with the US President, found it impossible to extricate himself from it, much as he might, eventually, have wished to. He would also have found it extremely difficult to step aside from his ‘embattled man of principle’ persona, other than by resigning his position. It was clear from the start that the US was determined to go to war and the military momentum would have been very hard to counter (despite the anxiety of military leaders in the UK about such a war’s legality).

Leading their countries into war seems to have a bizarrely positive effect on the popularity of leaders. Margaret Thatcher was restored to popularity by the Falklands War. At times of crisis, people need to project their need for security onto someone. Since those who may be responsible for the crisis are also the only leaders who have the necessary power and authority, they are, ironically, the ones relied on, and often qualities which are unattractive in peacetime may now appear as desirable strengths.

To place oneself in such a role clearly has an appeal to those who like to be leaders. Although it is perhaps too easy to impute motives to others, it would appear that Tony Blair’s love of his own importance and of power alliances played a major role in his decision to stick close to the USA and its President, contrary to the wishes of his own people and of his major European allies. Righteous indignation is also a pleasant emotion and an external enemy does wonders for the self-esteem, while at the same time, as has often been observed, diverting attention from anything unsatisfactory at home.

Thomas Merton argues that those who launch wars do so because of a deep psychological attraction to it:

[War] … is a complete suspension of reason. This is at once its danger and the source of immense attraction…the awful danger of war is not so much that force is used when reason has broken down but that reason unconsciously inhibits itself beforehand in order that it may break down and in order that resort to force may become inevitable.

While I would not put all wars down to such deep and overwhelming psychological attraction, I am persuaded that it does play its part, in some cases at least.

I do not wish to suggest that people who lead their countries into wars – even those that by common consent are the most unnecessary ones – are more wicked or flawed than the rest of us: only that they have achieved positions of power where their weaknesses are dangerous. I believe that they persuade themselves of their own rightness – that they believe, to some extent at least, in the myth they perpetuate. No doubt they do have some belief in the benefits which their hegemony can bestow.

Nor would I claim that they are fully aware of the falseness of their arguments. I have clear childhood memories of lying to my parents, and of the smarting indignation I felt when accused of dishonesty, the fresh arguments I brought to convince them and me. I take this to be a common human experience. But it has large consequences when played out on the world stage.

The personal motivations and interactive chemistry of leaders can work for good as well as ill. It is said that the mutual liking between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev (and indeed between Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher), however unlikely, was instrumental in bringing about political détente. According to some, the fact that his son was nearing fighting age contributed to the decision made by the leader of the ‘Tamil Tigers’, Velupillai Prabakaran, to call for a cease-fire in the Sri Lankan civil war. The personal interests of politicians, their career needs and desire to cut an impressive figure in the world, as well as their convictions, capacities and judgement, play a vital role in the creation and unfolding of events.

While I think it is important to acknowledge that the personal thinking and behaviour of leaders can have a huge impact on events, I would not wish to suggest that they operate in a vacuum, wielding all the power and bearing all the responsibility. All those who work with them, advise them, support them, lobby them or fail to oppose them are complicit in what they do. And they operate within existing systems and cultures. I will explore these wider mechanisms and influences in Chapter Three.

‘Humanitarian causes’ for war are the most beguiling, but the evidence suggests that they are usually a cover for hegemonic interests and that where such interests are weak there will be little or no intervention. One does not need to be too cynical to conclude that in the broad sweep of history, decisions to go to war (whether civil or international) have not normally been governed by pure altruism or fought between ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Rather they have been the manifestations of rolling power contests between one potentate or one faction and another, ‘ordinary people’ being dragged into the process as foot soldiers, or caught up in the violence as civilian casualties.

There are issues of justice, human rights and self-determination that most of us would deem worthy of struggling for or defending and many situations in the world that – rightly – stir our indignation and compassion. They call for action. In most cases little or no action is taken by the outside world. Not long ago, for instance, Chris Patten, Europe’s Commissioner for International Relations, was asked in a radio interview what should be done about Burma, where Aung Sang Suu Kyi had been detained incommunicado and without trial for her democratic activities and many of her followers killed. His response, effectively, was that we couldn’t intervene in all the places where human rights violations and despotism were endemic.

The war in East Timor had gone on for decades before the ‘international community’ decided to intervene. Between 2000 and 2003 the war in the Congo has claimed three million lives while the world looked on – or away.

The question of what could and should be done in such situations will also be discussed in Chapter Five. Suffice it here to say that passivity and counter-violence are not the only options. There are countless situations, of every kind and at every level, that have been changed by social and political action. Sometimes that change has been achieved remarkably quickly and dramatically and at other times over a long period and in the face of many setbacks. But that is how most changes are brought about – including ‘regime change’. Even the grasp of tyrants slips. Latin America, while still turbulent and scarred by poverty, nonetheless bears testimony to this. South Africa, too, where it was mass civil disobedience in the townships that had the greatest impact in overcoming Apartheid. Although non-military and nonviolent alternatives of all kinds will be discussed later in the book, I will in the meantime illustrate the second of the false assumptions on which the war myth is based, by focussing on one case in which not even the most obvious alternatives were exhausted.


As I argued in Chapter One, the recent hegemonic wars on Afghanistan and Iraq were not waged for just causes, though they were presented as ‘humanitarian wars’.

Nor were they launched as a last resort. But the case for them was fortified by constant references to the Kosovo war, cited as an example of the right use of military power. At the time, we were assured that it was a war of ‘last resort’. For that reason it is key to debate in the West, a prime example of the war myth in action. Moreover, it is hard to refute the claim that ‘everything else had been tried’ – to prove a negative – other than by a detailed demonstration of the things that could have been tried in a particular case. For these two reasons I will address this question by taking the war on Kosovo as a case study and examining it in some detail. Though my main focus will be on what else could have been done, I will begin with a look at the validity of the war’s proclaimed purpose and end with a review of its outcome.

This war, like its successors, was billed as a humanitarian war. The propaganda for it was skilful and, with few exceptions, little was done at the time, or has been since, to counter that propaganda. Those endless and terrible pictures of desperate human beings, old and young, trudging in terror along rough roads, to escape murder in their own apartments and villages, will long be etched on our memories. They will be remembered by most people as the cause of the NATO war on Serbia, rather than (as was actually the case) as one of its immediate effects. In fact, retired ministers and military men warned against the Kosovo war, predicting that the proposed NATO action would not prevent but rather trigger atrocities on a massive scale. Why, then, was it begun?

It would seem fair to suggest that the need to be seen to act was an overriding factor, after the opprobrium heaped upon the West for its laggardly response to the earlier wars in what had been Yugoslavia. Those were brought to an uneasy and unsatisfactory halt by the Dayton Agreement, and because Slobodan Milosevic was necessary to its achievement he was confirmed by it in his position and the situation in Kosovo was left unaddressed. Milosevic’s defiance of the West made his continuing role irksome not only because of his policy in relation to Kosovo but for wider political reasons. While dictators flourish in many parts of the world, to have such a man in power in Europe was not acceptable.

The oppression of the Albanian population in Kosovo was real and it was severe. It was easy (and right) to suggest that the situation was unacceptable and not difficult to make the case that there was just cause for some sort of intervention. However, to claim that this action was taken as a last resort was untrue, and was itself based on two false assumptions. The first was that all else really had been tried and the second that those other attempts had been proved conclusively to be without any hope of success or somehow rendered impossible to continue. In fact, very little had been done, and that belatedly, inadequately and disingenuously. Since this war has been given such a key role in justifying subsequent Western wars of ‘intervention’ (that word itself is loaded with assumptions), I will review the events which culminated in this NATO war and set out some of the actions which could have been taken at each stage to address the situation in other ways.

The crisis which culminated in the NATO bombing campaign, in death and destruction, and the expulsion of more than a million Albanians from their homes and land, was building up over ten years and more. Slobodan Milosevic came to power at a time of major upheaval, after the collapse of Communism, when politics and identities were being redefined. Kosovo had, since 1974, been an autonomous or self-governing region within Yugoslavia. It was, however, impoverished, and most of the best jobs went to minority Serbs and Montenegrins. In the 1980s there was increasing unrest and in 1989 Milosevic used this situation to consolidate his political standing as a nationalist and champion of Serbs, rescinding Kosovo’s autonomy. Step by step, Kosovo’s independent institutions were closed down, Albanians were removed from all positions of power, and in total more than 70% of Albanians were sacked.

The response of the Albanian population of Kosovo, under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova, was to launch a massive campaign of nonviolent resistance, setting up ‘parallel institutions’, opening their own schools and medical services. In addition, large public demonstrations were organised, though by the mid -1990s these public actions had diminished.

What could have been done at this stage?

  • Support at all levels for the nonviolence campaign; solidarity actions around the world; intergovernmental attention to human rights and development needs in Kosovo.
  • Political and economic incentives for the Serbian government to restore the human rights of Albanians and other marginalised groups in Kosovo and to renegotiate the constitutional status of Kosovo.
  • Dialogue at every level, including that of political leadership; exploration of new forms of political and constitutional relationship to overcome the impasse on sovereignty.
  • Stronger links between peace and human rights activists in ‘Serbia proper’ and those in Kosovo.
  • A consistent, regional approach in all negotiations and agreements related to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

The human rights abuses against the majority Albanian population, and some non-Serb minorities, along with the parallel structures and other forms of resistance, continued throughout the war in what had been Yugoslavia, which began in 1991 and was formally ended by the Dayton Agreement in 1995. At the time of that agreement, no provision was made for addressing the conflict in Kosovo by restoring human rights and democracy there. Although, as we have seen, the power of Slobodan Milosevic, who was used by the Western powers in persuading Radovan Karadzic to sign the agreement, was consolidated by this tacit recognition, Serbia was subsequently made a ‘pariah state’ and punished economically and politically. With its own huge population of refugees from Croatia and Bosnia, and massive unemployment, Serbia was a beleaguered state, and the suffering of its people was intense. Despite the heroic efforts of peace and democracy movements in Serbia, human rights and democratic processes were constantly under attack, and the situation in Kosovo continued to deteriorate.

What could have been done at this stage?

  • Incentives for democratisation and devolution in Serbia.
  • Support for ‘civil society’ organisations in all parts of Serbia working for peace and democracy.
  • Support for the continuing nonviolent movement in Kosovo.
  • Dialogue between the nonviolent movement in Kosovo and the opposition movement in Serbia.
  • Facilitation of inter-ethnic dialogue at the grass-roots level and among middle level leaders.
  • Economic and political incentives for all parties to reach a settlement.
  • Respect and encouragement for Russia’s potential intermediary role in persuading the Serb President to introduce reforms, rein in his police and allow the monitoring of human rights.
  • A consistent, regional approach in all negotiations and agreements related to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
  • Political action on the situation in Kosovo and negotiation for agreement over its future status alongside the Dayton agreement.

As human rights abuses intensified, the nonviolent campaign and its leadership came under increasing pressure to abandon nonviolence in favour of armed struggle. Western failure to support Rugova and his followers created a situation in which Kosovar Albanians could argue that nonviolence had failed and conclude that only violence would win the attention they needed. In 1996 the Kosova Liberation Army was formed, and fed into a spiral of violence in which murders of Serb police and militia by the KLA were countered by wholesale attacks on Albanians. After years of warnings and neglect, and as assaults on villages escalated, with many notorious atrocities, as well as smaller-scale acts of vengeance and intimidation, international attention was intensified. Permission was given by the Serb government for the introduction of an OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) ‘verification mission’ of human rights monitors into Kosovo. 2000 was the proposed number. Fewer than 1300 were in fact sent, and most of those belatedly. Even this relatively small team of observers made a remarkable difference, and although there were still atrocities, they were far fewer in number. It seems reasonable, therefore, to believe that if the full number of monitors had been sent, and that if they had been well-prepared for their task (rather than almost entirely unprepared) they could have gone a long way to ending the killings.

What could have been done at this stage?

  • Sending in, quickly, the full complement of monitors, whether UN or OSCE, with appropriate backgrounds and training; providing them with expert advice and full logistical support, and allowing them to do their job.
  • Creating a space for serious talks and negotiations at all levels, and concerted international support for a peaceful interim settlement of the conflict: a modus vivendi which would protect human rights, and a process for ongoing consideration of the constitutional issue.
  • Giving authority to the UN to act as intermediary and using the ‘good offices’ of Russia.
  • Making it clear that the issue was one of human rights, not of blanket hostility to Serbs or disregard for Serb perspectives.

Instead, the OSCE verification mission was abruptly withdrawn, deadlines were set, and in the Rambouillet ‘talks’ the ‘international community’ suddenly shifted its own position, placing the possibility of a constitutional separation on the table for the first time. This was done in order to induce the Albanian Kosovars to participate. It meant that Slobodan Milosevic was asked to accept, at ‘gun point’, radically new proposals for which his electorate was in no way prepared. When he refused to sign the proposed ‘agreement’, it was announced, without any UN debate, that there was no choice but for NATO to launch an attack.

There were no easy solutions to events in what was once Yugoslavia. We cannot say, ‘If only this and this had been done, everything would have been all right.’ We can, however, say that there were constructive things that could have been done, given the will and resources, and that mistakes were made at many stages, because of prevailing interests in the West, the lack of any coherent approach, the lack of respect for local populations, and the lack of any serious analysis of what the ‘military solution’ was likely to achieve. In this case as elsewhere, uncritical and ill-founded trust in what is euphemistically called ‘force’ was coupled with a lack of commitment to non-military action already well within the current scope of governments.

The level of effort that went into addressing the problems of Kosovo by non-military means – that is remarkably little effort – is not unusual. It is typical. Where vested interests or public pressure eventually demand some kind of action, the resort to military ‘solutions’ seems to be the chosen option. This means that the potential repertoire of non-military responses remains massively underdeveloped. War may be a way of defeating an enemy (if one is the winner) but it is a very poor way of creating peace, as I will argue now, as I address the third assumption of the war myth: that war works, delivering good results for good causes.


Let us look first at the outcome of NATO’s war on Kosovo.

As various military experts warned, the violence against Albanians in Kosovo was not stopped but massively increased, and the terrible exodus began. Civilians of all ethnicities were killed.

The infrastructure of Kosovo and the rest of Serbia was severely damaged, chemical pollution and the radiation from depleted uranium in warheads poisoned the region, the land was littered with deadly cluster bombs, and all hope of inter-ethnic coexistence in Kosovo was propelled decades into the future. The hatred engendered by what had been done by the Serb militias and by NATO’s action was such that the space for interethnic tolerance had been virtually eradicated. The Albanian population, seeing their aspirations for separation as having been vindicated, were no longer open to continuing within the same framework as Serbia, but demanded full statehood. Ethnic minorities and tolerant Albanians were intimidated and murdered.

Most Serbs were forced to flee and those who remained were able to do so only under the protection of international forces, unable to move outside of their ‘enclaves’.

How could it have been otherwise? After all, violence had been upheld, by international action, as their means of choice. How could it be expected that when the ‘international community’ had made Serbs the enemy the Albanian population of Kosovo should not feel entitled to treat them in the same way? I have been present in Pristina when large and angry demonstrations were taking place because some former KLA fighter had been brought to court for crimes committed during the war or since. People were incensed. ‘We were your allies in the war’ they said. ‘Now our leaders are being treated like criminals.’ Once again, war has apparently affirmed and amplified a kind of violent behaviour that has nothing to do with peace and its norms.

Meanwhile, local capacities for self-reliance have been seriously undermined by the overwhelming international presence in Kosovo, military and humanitarian, which soaked up skilled personnel for menial work. The local economy, already weak, was destroyed, to be replaced by an elicit and exploitative ‘black’ economy. (It is ironic that those involved in illegal and immoral trading know no ethnic boundaries but work together most effectively.) The majority population is disillusioned and intimidated. Few dare to speak out against the new tyrannies of those who came to power through war, or of those who have used the social, political and economic hiatus it caused to set up their own nefarious empires. The territory is no nearer to democratic pluralism than it ever was and, like Bosnia, will look to armed forces to maintain its uneasy stability for years to come. Though the overall international presence is shrinking there, that is more because funds and personnel are being transferred to the newly devastated countries of Afghanistan and Iraq.

It was easy for NATO to say, as George Bush Junior did when he announced the end of major hostilities in Iraq, that ‘we have prevailed’. But military victory (in both these cases against ‘enemies’ incapable of much military resistance) did not signal the accomplishment of the good things that were claimed as justification for war. Regime change was indeed brought about, but peace? An end to ethnic cleansing? Ethnic coexistence and plural democracy?

Were the effects of war in Kosovo an exception? What effects could be seen as justifying a war, if any? War is usually ‘sold’ to us, in one way or another, implicitly or explicitly, on the grounds that it will bring peace.

To discuss its efficacy in doing that we need a working definition. It is useful to divide that into two: ‘negative peace’

or the absence of fighting, and ‘positive peace’. I would define the latter as a state of affairs in which the people’s human needs – physical and mental – are met; in which there is political freedom for all and a just share in power, responsibility and wealth; in which there is a culture of respect and care, reflected in laws, systems and behaviour, and in which there is a capacity to deal constructively with conflict. The ‘security’ reasons for war that have been under discussion correspond with the idea of ‘negative peace’ and the ‘freeing people from dictatorship’ reasons are related to the idea of ‘positive peace’. How effective is war in these terms?

First, the military outcome of war – victory or defeat – which is the precondition for its efficacy along any lines, is hard to predict with certainty. It is dependent on the relative power to inflict damage by violence of one sort or another, on the one hand, and the power to withstand that violence on the other, but many factors come into that equation. Hitler could have won World War II and millions of lives could have been sacrificed in vain. The introduction of new ‘players’ and other factors can shift the balance of power within the war dynamic. New and overwhelming weaponry may be introduced. While in some cases this may prove decisive, superior fire-power may be more than matched by the tenacity of those who resist. Who could have foreseen the defeat of the USA in Vietnam? (And I write at a time when parallels are beginning to be drawn between Vietnam and Iraq.)

Even if military victory is secured by those who claim to have gone to war for ‘peaceful causes’, what does war actually achieve in those terms? Let us look at the war that whose ‘effectiveness’ is hardly ever questioned. The outcome of World War II is usually presented simply as ‘Hitler and fascism were defeated’, but the reality was far more complex. Terrible things had taken place and many of the war’s consequences were unforeseen. Certainly Hitler was dead and the military victory of ‘The Allies’ prevented the creation of a fascist German Empire. But in the meantime six million Jews had been murdered in the death camps and across the world, in the global conflagration, forty million people had died. The first atomic bombs had been developed and dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Cold War and the arms race – conventional and nuclear – had begun in earnest. Eastern Europe and the Baltic states had been handed over to Russia and become part of the Soviet Empire. While world attention was elsewhere, Mao Tse Tung had triumphed and China too had come under communist control.

In the UK, among the unforeseen effects of the war were the weakening of class structures and the founding of the Welfare State under a Labour government. But times were hard and the economy had been greatly weakened. It could no longer sustain the military capacity necessary for empire. Britain’s power in the world was on the wane.

The damage inflicted on Germany had been terrible. Its infrastructure and economy took many years to repair. Japan, too, had suffered much damage. But with a ban on arms production in place and all their efforts put into technological research and development for civilian purposes, the economies of both Germany and Japan went from strength to strength and their industrial supremacy was assured.

In short, the impact of World War II was immense and beyond the control of those who fought it – even of the victors. While it achieved the original, anti-expansionist objectives of The Allies, it was catastrophic in terms of human suffering. It unleashed new and terrible forces of violence, and while it halted one manifestation of tyranny it enabled the expansion of another.

To come back to the present and the impact of the War on Terror: since the war on Iraq there have been repeated public references to the difficulty of ‘winning the peace’, in contrast with the ease of ‘winning the war’. This relative difficulty is hardly surprising. War is a process of destruction, in which brute force can achieve a great deal very quickly. But if it leaves people alive it leaves alive also the possibility of continuing opposition, so that even the security of the victor remains under threat and the local population lacks the safety needed for building peace.

Positive peace, which also needs security, implies the general wellbeing of a population (though this will always be relative). That in turn involves many things: economic provision; security to live your life without undue interference or threat; a say in the things that affect you; peace of mind; positive relationships with others; help when it is needed; education and a role in society, for instance. Despite the fact that wars may be waged with the proclaimed aim of achieving such ‘humanitarian’ goals, war has a catastrophic impact on all these things. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was right when he said recently, in a discussion about Israel-Palestine, ‘If people want peace, the only way of getting it is through a peace process’.

Whatever the gloss put on them, the fruits of the West’s recent wars have in reality been like ashes in the mouth, having achieved neither negative nor positive peace. How could it be otherwise? Through our actions we have violated all the principles of peace, democracy and international law. It is as if one could blast a huge crater where a ‘regime’ once was and then magically insert harmonious and democratic stability in its place. As if one could weave in a moment – or even in months – the necessary intricate webs of relationships and systems which need to be developed slowly, organically. As if one could bestow from above and from outside what should grow upwards, from within. As if one could expect people to welcome invasion by a ‘liberator’ who had brought their country low and contributed to the deaths of half a million and more of their children through sanctions, and respond by enacting values that have been crudely and massively violated in front of their very eyes.

Remember the US general who told reporters that looters in Basra were just reclaiming what was their own? Remember the crude jokes, the packs of cards and the lists for assassination, the smashing of statues? These were part and parcel of the culture of war – not of peace. No wonder the looting and lynching followed, and the destruction of a civilisation’s history. What happened on the streets of Iraq’s cities when all systems were destroyed or suspended was a frightening emblem of our need for order and of its fragility. The murder of one of the three women on the US appointed Iraqi Council was emblematic of the triumph of machismo over humanity. The hold of the new mafia in Kosovo is another such example. To transform an ugly dictatorship into a free and just society is indeed a worthy aspiration, but to try to do so by crude, ignorant and dictatorial violence is to show a very poor grasp of the nature of freedom or justice or society.

Wars are made up of acts of enmity, rather than co-operation, of imposition rather than negotiation, of summary killing rather than due process, of destruction rather than creation. Peace (positive peace), by my definition, is a state in which the culture of the people, the structures within which they live, the relationships between them, and the attitudes and behaviours which they display are characterised by mutual respect. If this is a fair description, trying to achieve peace by war is, to use a well-known metaphor, like trying to grow figs from thistles.

Moreover, one form of violence overwhelmed by another is likely to reappear in a new form, so that even negative peace remains under threat. To put one’s faith in war as a means of achieving a more ordered world is to ignore the fundamental lawlessness of having a world controlled by armed and economic might. It is to accept the use of naked aggressive power to achieve dominance. Law, by contrast, is designed to regulate the use of power. The laws of war may seek to curb it, but the logic of war brooks no limits. Restraint may be exercised when it can be afforded, but the victory imperative is the ultimate driving force.

Because of its overwhelming military power, the US is currently able to ignore all the international institutions designed to regulate international behaviour. The world’s ‘international policeman’ does not support international law. Having attempted to subvert the UN by bribing and bullying Security Council members it was able to ignore it.

And, unsurprisingly, the US refuses to make itself answerable to the International Court. It will not be held accountable by any Hague Tribunal. Indeed, the laws of war have until now brought only the defeated to justice – never the victors. A system where war is seen as the ultimate arbiter is by its very nature incompatible with the rule of law and international agreements through the UN. In such a system no nation that has the power to ‘call the shots’ militarily will give up its power to do so, putting itself on a level with those that do not.

The terribly reasonable-sounding head of the UK mission in Iraq said recently, ‘We’ve got an opportunity to settle this region’ – thus exposing the whole arrogant and mistaken theory that peace can be imposed from outside by war. The war dynamic constricts and displaces constructive and co-operative forms of action, forcing them into the margins or leaving those who promote them to pick up the pieces that war has created. Peace anywhere must be made by the people who live there. Wars issue at best in the imposition of ‘peace’ by the victors on the vanquished or in a deal struck between different warring parties in which the wishes of those who did not fight are ignored.

To put one’s faith in war to achieve human rights is equally contradictory. War is made up of human rights violations. It is based on a fundamental division between ‘us’ and ‘them’, which makes human rights – based on fundamental equality – a nonsense. Even the notion of the protection of ‘innocent civilians’ (as against soldiers, who are therefore by implication guilty) has nothing to do with human rights, which do not depend on innocence and guilt, but are unconditional. Whatever the rules of war, and notwithstanding the outcry at the alleged ‘execution’ of British soldiers in Iraq, in essence the killings which it entails are all a form execution without trial. ‘Operation decapitation’ and the list of those wanted ‘dead or alive’ constituted what Arundhati Roy called ‘the most elaborate assassination attempt in history’

– though live enemies can talk while dead ones cannot, so many on the ‘wanted’ list were in practice taken prisoner rather than killed.

The treatment of the prisoners held at the US base in Guantanamo Bay – some of them children – has shocked all those concerned for civil liberties and the legislation supporting them. But the overwhelming military power of the US, which enables it to impose its will around the world, allows it also to contravene international norms unscathed. Meanwhile the War on Terror has seen civil liberties diminished in many countries, including the UK. To put one’s country on a ‘war footing’ is to claim the right to restrict freedom of movement and information, and to create a climate in which measures which would otherwise seem unthinkable are seen as justified. The Spanish government even introduced legislation creating an offence of ‘defeatism’ to control freedom of expression in opposition to war. And while we concentrate on control, we fail to build the bridges that really could enhance our safety.

The US attacks on Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul and later in Bagdhad (as well as the hotel where the international press corps were staying), like the bombing of the TV station in Serbia, was a clear expression of the hostility of war leaders to the democratic principle of freedom of expression and information. Propaganda is an instrument of war – bad when it comes from ‘them’, but called ‘news’ when it comes from ‘us’.

In a democracy, decisions are made through dialogue and an agreed process. Democracy cannot be imposed – only practised. It may be supported, encouraged and learned by example. War contradicts its most fundamental principles. Even when sincere attempts have been made (as I believe they have in Kosovo) to support its establishment, a contrary example has been given, and the dynamics and values of war persist and are inimical to it.

Democracy also implies open government. But just as deception is an instrument of war,

war leaders deceive their publics about the realities they face. They have every reason to keep their public and their allies with them by putting a positive gloss on things. So at the moment there are attempts in the US to keep to a minimum television footage on the daily killings of US troops in Iraq and fake letters purporting to come from US soldiers have appeared in local newspapers, claiming to represent a high level of determination and optimism. War leaders also stoop to more blatant forms of public deception in justifying their actions – such as Tony Blair’s ‘dossier’ of ‘evidence’ against Saddam Hussein, famously containing (doctored and without acknowledgement) an out of date PhD thesis.

But surely wars can have good results? Resisting invasion and removing tyrants are good purposes that can be achieved by war, are they not? And surely there are cases where it is criminal not to intervene? There are two things at issue here, I think. The first is the inadequacy of war to address complex and entrenched situations of intense violence – such as that in the Congo – even if the will existed to do so, which it does not.

The second is the cost of wars fought for ‘just causes’ – even when those causes are genuine. The costs are not only those suffered by affected populations but, as with the wars already referred to, the costs of violating and contradicting the humane values for which such wars are fought which in turn affect the conduct of such wars and the cruelty they involve. They are costs that are incorporated in the outcome of such wars, the effects of widespread violence on the successor society. Furthermore, unless the war power of those who set off to bring justice is greater than that of those they oppose, their war will bring only further repression or years of attrition. Whatever the stakes and the risks, such wars carry with them all the dire effects of other wars. Those are the only war outcomes that can be relied on.


What we are never promised when a war is in the offing are its certain outcomes – effects that are contrary to the goal of peace and violate of all its values. While military outcomes may be uncertain, the havoc wreaked by war is predictable. Whatever its causes, its cost is immense. Its story throughout the ages has been one of the untold suffering of combatants and non-combatants alike, in which outcomes are decided by a combination of luck and power; a story in which even victories involve huge losses, misery and destruction. In the words of an email sent to me by a Serb friend, ‘To the victors goes the prize and the prize is a heap of ashes.’ It is a rather commonplace thought that if aliens were to visit our planet they would be incredulous at the destructiveness of our behaviour. Yet we do not carry this perspective into a serious re-assessment of war as an institution.

Maybe one of the reasons we do not radically review the realities of war is that those realities are unbearable to contemplate and almost impossible to imagine. While the war on Iraq was still being threatened, our small grandchild burned his hand on a stove. His parents were distraught and his agonised screams, which went on for two hours, reduced us all to tears and near-collapse. This was no more than a superficial burn. A shot of morphine and an impressive bandage restored him and us to a shaken cheerfulness. But I was haunted by this brief insight into the intensity of suffering and have been confronted by this small event with the true enormity of the pain and anguish involved in war, in which there is, all too often, no morphine and no bandages, and those who escape injury and death are forced to watch helplessly the suffering of those around them.

The kinds of injuries caused in ‘outrages’ (rightly so named) like the destruction of the World Trade Centre or the Bali bombing are graphically presented to us and are a matter of unbelieving horror. Somehow it is not clear that just such injury and death is commonplace in the wars waged by those somehow excluded from the ‘axis of evil’.

But what of the terrible scenes described by Iraqi doctors working in looted hospitals without water or medicines? Or what of the man pictured on the front page of the Jordan Times in April 2003 – a man in Hillah, south of Baghdad, throwing up

his arms to the sky in a gesture of grief. At his feet are the coffins of his three children, one an infant less than a year old. The man says he lost 15 members of his family when the pickup truck they were in was blown up by a rocket fired from an American Apache helicopter.

As I stood in a vigil during that war, a passer-by shouted, ‘But the man was a mass murderer!’ He did not wait for me to say to him that ‘we’ had also been mass murderers. When the war was over, some commentators argued that those who had opposed it should have changed their minds – as if the things to which we had said ‘Not in my name’ were things which we would now feel fine about. A friend made a new placard with a photograph of the sadly famous Iraqi child who lost both his arms, much of his skin and fifteen of his relatives. Under the photograph he wrote the caption, ‘Was this done in your name?’ Once a war is over those far away who were its victims are rapidly forgotten. Having no voice to speak for themselves, those who have been ‘liberated’ by death, or relegated to the unseen ranks of the injured-dependent, no longer figure in the story. And those of us who live in safe places carry on with our lives as if nothing had happened.

While the recent wars of Western intervention are very much on my mind as I write, all wars, past and present, have terrible costs, whatever their proclaimed cause. World War II cost an unimagineable forty million lives, with vast numbers incinerated or blown apart.

Although those who bear the brunt of war are mostly civilians, the misery of soldiers is not to be forgotten. Who could fail to pity the young men currently patrolling the streets and roads of Iraq, forbidden to speak to reporters of their low morale but waiting at any moment to be in the next jeep to be blown up or the next helicopter to be shot down. Those who eventually return home will do so with their minds scarred by what they have done and witnessed. Five times the number of soldiers who lost their lives in the last Gulf war have since committed suicide.

Civil wars, guerrilla fighting and terrorism also have a terrible impact on the lives of those who endure them. Generations of young people ‘give’ their lives in them and take the lives of many more. While murderous insecurity holds sway, the poverty and deprivation that so often underlie such conflict remain. Much-needed development, even if the political will for it existed, is rendered impossible or constantly reversed. Bread-winners are away fighting. Many are killed or incapacitated. Women are often left to cope with all the provision and care for children and older relatives in the harshest possible circumstances. A whole society is brutalised and the carnage leaves scars for generations.

Among the brutalities of war is the sexual violence that takes place within it. It does not happen under cover of war. The relationship is fundamental, not incidental and overt rather than covert. Sexual violence is in itself an act of war. It is carried out against children and men as well as women, but women are its most frequent victims. It is more than an act of uncontained lust and brutality. Through sexual violence against women, men from one community ‘prove’ their masculinity and sexual superiority over their enemies. While sexual violence in war has received more attention in recent years than in the past (for instance in relation to the war in Bosnia) and rape is now designated a war crime, the humiliation and abuse of women remains integral to the nature and conduct of war. In my next chapter I shall argue that understanding the connection between gender and war is vital to the liberation of human beings from the pernicious effects of both.

Immediate violence, injury and death are not, of course, the only ravages of war. The destruction of infrastructure takes a massive toll. When bombs are used, the killing is accompanied or followed by the destruction of homes, roads, bridges, factories, food stores, power plants, water supplies and so on (as was seen in Iraq). The loss of these facilities brings further suffering and death – sometimes on a huge scale. Their effects may reach well beyond a country’s own borders. For instance, the bombing of Serb bridges over the Danube caused economic privations to several countries through which it flowed.

Often huge numbers of those affected by the threat and the effects of war flee their homes, forced to abandon their crops and any other means of livelihood, undertaking desperate journeys to unknown destinations – where life is a continuing nightmare. Quite commonly they are never able to return but have to remake their lives as best they can in dire circumstances, since the countries to which they are able to flee are extremely poor and those which could better afford to receive them are extremely inhospitable.

At a time when the protection of the earth and its creatures is such an urgent concern, the environmental impact of war seems to go almost unnoticed. While our planet has a miraculous capacity for regeneration, the destruction of animal life and the pollution of land and water occasioned by modern warfare should, in themselves, be a cause for profound concern. In the words of a friend, Naomi Goodman, ‘war is the worst pollutant’. This may sound like an overstatement, but consider the burning of oil wells (in the Gulf), the removal of vegetation (in Vietnam) and killing of wildlife, the litter of destroyed machinery, the pollution of water supplies. In one day in Pancevo in April 1999, NATO bombs demolished a refinery, a fertiliser plant and an American-built petrochemical complex. This was one episode in 78 days of aerial assaults which caused environmental disasters across Serbia.

The daily, relentless pollution caused by military aircraft and land vehicles and by military production is less dramatic but cumulatively immense. The creation, storage and transport of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (and indeed all modern weapons of war), let alone their use, constitutes a threat to our environment, at a time when we are becoming frighteningly aware of our impact on it.

Some forms of war pollution have a directly catastrophic impact on human beings. Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the US in Vietnam, has caused (and continues to cause) terrible cancers and birth deformities. The effect of the depleted uranium used to harden warheads fired on Iraq in 1991, and the consequent massive rise in cancers and horrific birth deformities, have been well documented. But no-one has been held accountable. And in spite of the limited success of international campaigning, landmines and cluster bombs have rendered much land unusable and continue shatter limbs and destroy lives.

Any reckoning of the true cost of war must take into account not only the destruction and misery caused directly, but the resources of every kind which need to be consumed in rebuilding broken countries. A mere glance at TV footage of Afghanistan or Chechnya, for example, would give some sense of the size of the task that must lie ahead. And, soaring above all costs of reconstruction, is the cost of war itself: of the hardware and human resources used to wreak such havoc.

The obscene number of billions of pounds and dollars reportedly set aside for the war on Iraq represents vast wealth that could have been used to meet human need rather than destroy human life. (Of course arms manufacturers will have grown fat on the profits, but that is another matter.) There is never, it seems, any difficulty in funding war: money is no object. The US ‘defence’ budget recently went up by 25% and the war on Iraq cost the US four times its annual aid budget.

But when it comes to reconstruction, or even funding regular, essential, domestic services, money always seems to be in short supply. In the words of US President Dwight D. Eisenhower:

Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket that is fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

Such a theft is an absolute denial of the justice and respect that must be at the heart of positive peace.


I am not arguing that there can never be good motives for war. I am arguing that wars are more often than not fought for reasons of self-interest, not altruism, and are ‘won’ by those who have the power to prevail rather than by those who are right. I am not arguing that there are no situations where there have seemed to be no alternatives to war. I am arguing that alternatives are often not tried and never exhausted. I am not arguing that war can achieve nothing positive. I am arguing that it is an unpredictable, high-risk strategy, whose certain bad effects are incalculable and whose capacity for delivering ‘positive peace’ is, in the local view, poor, and in the global sense nil. Even ‘negative peace’ is unlikely to be reached through the violation of the security of others.

Wars revive and entrench old enmities. Their half-life endures for generations. It is hard to imagine that the wars in the Balkans have made future wars there less likely. And I doubt whether many of us feel safer from terrorism because of the War on Terror. (Apparently Tony Blair had been warned by his intelligence officers that a war on Iraq would make the UK more rather than less likely to suffer terrorist attacks.) In terms of security, what the US’s ‘for us or against us’ approach has achieved is to intensify the polarisation and hostility out of which the terrorism came. It has reinforced reactionary movements that win their support from those who feel humiliated, disregarded and impotent. War used to achieve negative peace is often only the prelude to long-term military control to keep a resurgence of violence at bay.

The cruelty and carnage of terrorist attacks speak for themselves. No doubt the likes of Osama bin Laden, like other war leaders, have mixed motives for what they do, but there is certainly no reason to suppose that they are, in contrast to their methods, somehow pure. Their democratic remit is nil. But those who, to whatever degree, support them do so out of a sense that this is the only way of getting back at those they see as global tyrants who disregard their needs, their dignity and their identity. In this sense, Peter Ustinov was right in saying that ‘Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich’. War is the archetype of violence; terrorism is its poor relation. War provides the ‘justification’ for terrorism. But, unlike regular armies, terrorism can never be vanquished, only the support for terror removed by addressing its causes.

The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, discussing the conduct of the War on Terror and noting the size, population and economic growth of China, recently argued that Britain and the US might live to regret the unleashing of ‘the law of the jungle’ in international affairs. As she said, agreed and observed codes of international conduct were vital if weaker nations were not to be at the mercy of the most powerful.

No past empires have proved indestructible and it seems foolish to think that the ‘full spectrum dominance’ of the US will be achievable or lasting. The 11 September attacks symbolised (as clearly they were intended to) the vulnerability of even the most powerful nation on earth, its vast war capability notwithstanding. At the moment the security of the West seems very tenuous, despite its massive fire-power. Those of us who remember the 1960s will know how impermanent everything seemed then, including life itself and the future of our planet. Nothing fundamental has changed since then. The threat from nuclear weapons remains as great as ever – indeed it is greater, since those weapons have proliferated, as those of us who opposed them said they would. A world bristling with such potential for its own destruction, whose only ‘stability’ depends on the threat of the release of that potential, is a fragile world indeed. War as a ‘last resort’ could give ‘lastness’ a new and final meaning.

In the meantime war as an institution continues to prove the enemy of any kind of positive peace and is disastrous for human beings and the planet. There is a ready supply of arms for those who wish to maintain control over restless populations, or to build their own wealth and power through military intimidation and war – just as the West has built its own power and continues to maintain it. Civil wars continue to ravage large parts of the world, particularly Africa and South East Asia. Most countries are marked by a cruel gulf between rich and poor – a gulf dividing every nation and defining the relationship between the North and West on the one hand and the South and East on the other. Development (what I would rather call the increase of human wellbeing) is hindered by war, by the economic dominance of the West, maintained by military dominance, and by the wealthy few within those societies who support their own positions through similar means. The earth is ravaged by wars and by the profligate consumption they are waged to protect.

Terrorism is part of the war dynamic, whatever the justifications made for it or the desperation of some of those who resort to it. While it may be impossible to eradicate, there is little to suggest that it does anything more than destroy lives, harden opposition and deepen hatred. ‘Liberation wars’ may be fought for valid causes, but bring in their wake great suffering. ‘Insurgents’ and government fighters are killed, along with the civilians caught up in their contest. Villagers see their animals taken to feed those who claim to represent them and ‘collaborators’ are tortured and killed. The fighting can be protracted over decades and more often than not achieves little if anything that could not have been achieved by other means.

Wars can accomplish certain negative things – the destruction of this or the removal of that. And there are undoubtedly things that should be destroyed or removed. But even the world’s richest and most militarised nations are incapable of imposing their will on the entire world through military action – even if that will could be trusted, which it clearly cannot. And if they could, the result would be a new kind of tyranny, in which the power and responsibility of local populations were usurped by outsiders and saw their cultures and histories swept aside.

War, by its very nature, embodies the tyranny that it claims to address. It is rarely waged for good reasons and in all cases produces unacceptable suffering. It is used before other means have been adequately tried, and those other means do exist, as I shall show in Chapter Five.

The worst effect of any war, even more terrible than the immediate outrages it involves, is that it destroys the ground of peace: erodes its culture and wrecks its institutions, so preparing the way for new wars, new suffering and the seemingly endless process of wrecking lives and squandering resources.

For us to live together in any kind of safety or to meet the real needs of human beings, like eliminating poverty or dealing with disease, the eradication of war is a prerequisite. And war is a very bad way of establishing the values that we claim to hold, such as human rights, tolerance, understanding, forgiveness, co-operation or the rule of law. The myth of war as purely motivated and as the necessary and effective means of achieving anything humane must be dispelled once and for all.