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technology of death

‘Without upgraded armed forces much of our well intentioned rhetoric will be so much hot air.’

what they won’t remember is that the values they’re saluting are the self-same values that bring business to grave-diggers

Some years ago I helped four students at the London Film School who were interested in making, as part of their course, a video in support of an aspect of the PPU’s work. After some discussion we agreed that they should focus on war toys. ‘War toys’ encapsulated the violent values which we wanted to foreground and challenge, and it was good to have the chance of a fresh approach.
Part of the LFS video put words into the mouth of ‘He Man’, a character from a cartoon series and its associated toys, very popular at the time and entitled - what else? - ‘Masters of the Universe’. He Man was one of those superheroes who do ‘good’ by means of maximum violence. No sooner has he reached one peak of destruction, than he finds yet more ‘evil’ forces erupting; and he must smash and destroy (do some more ‘good’) all over again.
‘I’m going to kill you with my trusty sword,’ says He Man to Skeletor (the truly evil one). ‘So much more personal, don’t you think?’
Well, I didn’t think much of the dialogue either, but I appreciated the point the students were trying to make. Toys, like so much modern military hardware and military ‘talk’, distance us from the consequences of violence. War toys or war machines - they all make it harder to engage with the issues of conflict or to envisage nonviolent solutions.
I was reminded of He Man’s personal touch recently when I spotted a Reuters photograph entitled: ‘A militiaman from Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front shoots a prone, unarmed prisoner. Liberia, 1997.’1
In this photograph we see a young man in a neat beret, a clean white shirt and khaki trousers. His hand is outstretched and the barrel of his gun is almost touching the ‘prisoner’ lying in the gutter, whose head has just exploded into fragments of tissue and bone. The soldier’s posture is that of a man who has done this before and knows that the explosive effect of his bullet could make a mess of his trousers. In the corner of the photograph there is a group of onlookers: smiling young men. Televised scenes of machete-waving militiamen in East Timor are merely the most recent glimpse the public has had into this world of intimate violence.
Much has been made in some circles of Robin Cook’s elastic position on the sale of Hawk aircraft to East Timor. A few short years ago Cook was criticising the sale of Hawk jets to the Suharto regime. In 1994 he was telling Parliament that Hawks had been ‘observed on bombing runs in East Timor in most years since 1984’. He has now denied his words and allowed his civil servants to deny that Hawks were operational in East Timor at all.
But how many of us are really surprised by this political about-turn? Whatever reason Cook has for his position, which many see as wholly hypocritical, the British Aerospace Hawk jets probably cause far less suffering in East Timor (as in wars around the world) than the more commonplace weapons of war - such as the guns also supplied by British Aerospace. Guns are so much more personal....
In fact Robin Cook’s announcement that he wanted to add an ethical dimension to foreign policy was quickly recognised for the public relations stunt it was. But it was something else as well: part of the increasing militarisation of foreign policy under the guise of ‘humanitarianism’.
In a recent visit to Germany as I was looking through the recently-discovered Gestapo torture cellars in former East Berlin, just round the corner from Goering’s Luftwaffe headquarters, the 1990s Luftwaffe, newly liberated, were once again flying out to war. What the political fall-out from this constitutional change will be in Germany isn’t yet clear. But since even many of the anti-war Greens have caught the ‘humanitarian war’ bug, it may simply fuel the growing enthusiasm and consensus for some kind of unified European military structure.
‘Checkpoint Charlie’, that once uneasy meeting point between Berlin’s US and Soviet sectors and made famous in spy books and films, is now a rather tatty tourist attraction. Potsdamerplatz, once a bleak windswept patch of land marred by its closeness to the Wall, is now overwhelmed with shiny new offices and shopping malls; they were noisily and enthusiastically celebrating ‘The American Way of Life’ when I was there. But America’s value to Europe in the post-Cold War period has declined. What has increased is its competitive challenge, particularly in the arms business. A recent Boeing advertisement claims to ‘guarantee to lower the price of victory’; unprecedentedly, German soldiers have been holding meetings to protest against cuts in their military budget.
America’s project is to perpetuate its dominance as the only world power. It is doing this through NATO - one of the reasons for NATO’s expansion - and it is pursuing its aim at the other end of the Eurasian land mass through alliances with Japan and Korea. Consequently Europe is feeling increasingly uneasy.
‘I believe’, said Chris Patten, the new European Commissioner responsible for foreign relations, ‘that the Kosovo crisis showed that Europe needs an enhanced defence capability ....’ (This prospect is not popular with his former Tory party colleagues; it’s a disturbing thought that the Conservative party may become the strongest opponent to the growth of a European military bloc.) ‘What we need is a credible military force that can be brought together quickly and in a flexible manner’ - allowing the EU to engage in autonomous operations.
The Kosovo war, in which most of the aircraft, bombs and intelligence were provided by America, made it clear that Europe can’t conduct any significant military operation without the US - which, by implication, it wants to be able to do. ‘I do not think the EU...could, or should, do NATO’s job,’ Patten said. ‘The EU...is aiming at peacekeeping, crisis management and humanitarian intervention.’ All of which begs at least four questions.
‘Without upgraded armed forces’, says Patten, ‘much of our well intentioned rhetoric will be so much hot air.’ But of course there is another picture, and Tony Blair has been sketching it for some time. What is needed, he said at the Anglo-French summit meeting last year, are ’strengthened armed forces that can react rapidly to the new risks, and which are supported by a strong and competitive European defence industry and technology’.
Here is the clue to all the muscle-flexing. The combined European military budget is some £100 billion; NATO’s hazardous expansion into former impoverished ‘eastern bloc’ countries provides an additional bonus in the shape of opportunities for the arms industry. A reverse kind of humanitarian aid, one might say.
In November thousands will be gathering once again in Whitehall to lay wreaths and remember the dead. What they won’t remember is that the values they’re saluting are the self-same values that bring business to grave-diggers. ‘The advanced technology that wins wars without body bags does not come cheap,’ said Gordon Page of Cobhams. Cobhams have already won a few post-Kosovo military orders and expect to pick up a good many more. But the truth is there is no such winning technology. Most deaths and injuries in wars are caused by much simpler weapons.
What that much-hyped advanced military technology and the lure of the ‘magic bullet’ do is shape, activate and maintain the conviction that they are the key to a conflict’s ‘final solution’. For those with access to advanced military technology, the imagination and will to put in place systems and structures for defusing conflict is stifled. Those who benefit from advanced military technology - industry, trade unions, workers and pensioners through their pension funds - prefer to turn a deaf ear to the fact that they benefit from death and misery. It isn’t surprising that those who don’t have advanced military technology passionately want to acquire it; the inevitable consequences aren’t surprising either.
The challenge still with us as we change centuries is not so much the sale of arms as those social, cultural and economic values which prioritise force over less bloody resolution of conflicts. No amount of ‘transparency’ in arms sales, no number of arms registers, can help as long as we’re prepared to couple up so much of our comfort and our future to weapons manufacture and trade.
While a new generation of children clutch their ‘Star Wars’ toys and adults enthuse about ‘The Phantom Menace’, the multi billion pound toy industry once again rubs its hands with glee as titanic struggles of ‘good’ against ‘evil’ are endlessly replayed on millions of videos and computers. So blinded is our society to the futility of force as a ‘solution’, it can’t see how even in the mythic future all that advanced technology is just as useless as it was in Kosovo.
Jan Melichar
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1Crimes of War - what the public should know. eds. Roy Gutman and David Rieff. W.W.Norton. 1999.

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