May 12, 2021

An absence of peace: When is a war actually a war?

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By Jonathan Marcus From BBC

Earlier this month, a relic from World War Two intruded into daily life in north London. A 500lb Luftwaffe bomb was discovered by builders excavating in the leafy suburb of Brondesbury.

Local homes were evacuated, local train services were closed down. Eventually the weapon was made safe and finally removed to be detonated on an army range.

This relic of a war that ended more than 70 years ago set me thinking.

World War Two – just like the Great War that preceded it – was a total war. The fates of all the countries involved were in the balance. Ordinary soldiers were largely not professionals but were conscripted citizens. The whole of society – its energies and industrial might – were mobilised for the conflict.

Once the war was over, many of its constraints inevitably lingered – the rationing of food, for example. War-ravaged cities also bore their scars.

As a child I remember the temporary homes – the rectangular “prefabs” or prefabricated houses – that dotted many of the bomb sites in east London near my grandparents’ home.

My childhood was dominated by films and documentaries about the war. I lose track of the number of plastic Spitfire model kits I must have built to battle with their Messerschmitt equivalents.

But whatever the memories and cultural obsessions, the conflict was definitively over. There was, in short, a clear distinction between war and peace.

Thankfully the so-called Cold War of the 1950s and 60s remained just that: in Europe, at least, it never went hot. War and peace were two separate states of affairs.

Fast forward to today. This week, in London, a memorial was unveiled to the service personnel and civilians who lost their lives in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the government’s own website it is described as the Iraq and Afghanistan Memorial.

In the lengthy press release that follows there is no mention of the word “war”, except to say that the new memorial stands close to monuments to World War Two and the Korean War.

There is rightly, of course, mention of the lives lost and the medals won. There is, too, appreciation for those who “put themselves in harm’s way” – an Americanism that has intruded itself into the public debate on armed conflict.

But there you have it. These were undoubtedly armed conflicts far from our shores. But in what sense were they wars? Well of course they were, I hear you say, this is all semantic argument.

Well, they were certainly wars for the Afghans and the Iraqis who were in some cases willing, and in many cases, unwilling participants in the struggles.

They were certainly wars for those actually engaged in combat. From my very limited experience under fire, it matters little if it is a skirmish or a fully-fledged battle if it is you on the spot where the bullets are flying.

But were Britain, the United States or their many allies who have contributed troops to these conflicts really “at war”? To what extent were their societies adapted or mobilised for the struggle? In some senses, very little. But in others, perhaps, more than we would like to admit.

None of their economies was on a war footing and the fighting was done largely by regular professional troops or volunteer reservists. Boots on the ground were combined with the signature style of the modern Western military campaign: lashings of air power along with the use of sophisticated armed drones.

Paradoxically, the primary impact of these wars was on the home front: the political obsession with terrorism which has had an impact on policing, community relations and security legislation and created an atmosphere in which debate about “fear of the other” has become an increasingly important factor in democratic elections and referendums.

It has also led increasingly to a militarisation of foreign policy – the idea that the military has an answer for most of the world’s problems.

And, in the midst of this, the former US Pentagon official and academic Rosa Brooks has mused eloquently on this theme in a book cogently titled How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.

Her message, that the blurring of the boundaries of war and peace has consequences for all our lives, is one that seems to resound with ever more people around the globe.


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