ISSUE 53 WINTER 2006-07

Peace Matters Index

last one out turn off the lights

ONLINE contents

- turn off the lights
- mince pies and missiles
- making room for peace
- in harm’s way
- positive response to conflict
- action for peace where you live
- playtime in the Lotz ghetto
- new kind of warfare

- compled issue pdf

Boys with their toys
The new face of war
Uncrewed planes such as those
increasingly used by the US
military may soon be flying
over Britain.
Cover story

If reports are to be believed, the Army is so strapped for cash that soldiers based in Britain have been told to take extended leave over Christmas and to be sure to turn off the lights and heating at barracks and offices.
Thousands of soldiers working for units that provide back-up at home for troops working in Iraq, Afghanistan and other overseas actions have been warned that money must be saved over the three-week holiday period. Military sources said the more radiators, lights, computers, faxes and printers that could be turned off, the better it would be for the budget which is now straining to keep within the designated expenditure limits.
One army officer who returned to his office this week discovered the heating had been turned off. ‘It was freezing, so I went home,’ he said.

action: military and education

Anti-militarists have favoured a vision
of a future in which soldiers have to go out on the streets with collecting tins, trying to raise enough money for a few tanks, while our taxes will be spent on improving the quality of our lives. But no such luck. That anecdotal military Christmas nonsense was probably part of an elaborate propaganda effort to corner more money for the MoD. Following tales of soldiers having to buy their own boots and obliged to paint over mould growing on the walls of their living quarters, £1.6bn ‘special funding’ was announced by the MoD. This was in an addition to its £32bn budget for 2006/07, published a few days after representatives of the government, the military and an increasing number of ‘faiths’ had performed, with sombre faces, their yearly ritual around the cenotaph. Several days after the Press Association reported this staggering figure, media database searches found no mention of it, or any follow-up in the British press. (Just one exception, in a piece by George Monbiot in the Guardian.) As the cost of the ‘war on terror’ to the British taxpayers passes £7bn, smaller (though huge) figures can lose impact. In any case, that £32bn figure is misleading – a more accurate estimate would be close to £40bn.

The war machine is insatiable. Britain’s military budget is the second highest in the world after the USA’s. ‘Defence’ is the fourth largest consumer of taxpayers' money after social security, health and education. Yet you would be hard put to find a serious discussion in the mainstream media, let alone parliament about the impact these skewed finances might have on state support for public health services, education and social justice generally. ‘In a country as rich as Britain it is embarrassing and shocking that children still live in poverty,’ notes Hilary Fisher, director of the campaigning coalition End Child Poverty.

In 1999, Tony Blair promised to eradicate child poverty ‘within a generation’. Last year, the government was forced to announce that it had failed - by a significant margin - to meet its first target. In the same month that child poverty statistics were published, indicating that 3.4 million children in the UK live in poverty, costly plans for replacing Trident were announced.

In the same month the National Audit Office seemed to congratulate the MoD for going only 11% over budget on new acquisitions, which included attack submarines, destroyers, the Eurofighter, and anti-tank weapons. What the report and almost everyone else failed to ask is what all this hardware was for. Is anyone expecting armoured tank divisions to be heading for the Channel coast any time soon? Apparently not: in the 2003 White Paper the MoD admitted that ‘there are currently no major conventional military threats to the UK or NATO.... It is now clear that we no longer need to retain a capability against the re-emergence of a direct conventional strategic threat’. Obvious to most of us, probably, but it’s good to know we are not alone: at its recent summit NATO, though always on the look-out for reasons to exist, conceded that ‘large-scale conventional aggression against the alliance will be highly unlikely’.

Things are much worse on the other side of the Atlantic. The Bush administration wants Congress to approve an additional $100bn for making life intolerable for people in Iraq and Afghanistan. This would bring US expenditure on the war on Iraq and Afghanistan to over $500 billion – enough to give every American $1,600 or every Iraqi $18,700, but, hey, that’s no way to win people’s hearts and minds! Perhaps more importantly, there would be less benefit to big business: Halliburton’s profits in 2005 were ‘the best in our 86-year history’.

Here as there, big budgets mean big lobby groups supported by a wide range of interests – from arms manufacturers and trade unions to shady salesmen with walletfuls of slush money. According to a Downing Street aide, whenever the head of BAE encountered a problem ‘he'd be straight on the phone to No 10 and it would get sorted’.

Justifying this vast expenditure on pointless hardware, in the face of truly pressing social needs, is a major creative effort. Even so, it is hard to understand why there is so little resistance, why so few questions are being asked. Why aren’t more people insisting that future challenges are insoluble by military means, and are in fact exacerbated by ‘defence’ expenditure almost as much as by Britain’s wars? Even if the effects of climate change turn out only half as bad as many expect, the resultant social breakdowns, mass migrations, food shortages and struggles over failing resources will be infinitely worse than the grimmest scenarios provided by the war-on-terror prophets.

The intelligent thing to do? Redeploy the resources of the MoD to urgent nonmilitary objectives, both here in Britain and elsewhere in the world. Applying those resources to energy efficiency, foreign aid and arms control would bring us a lot closer to a less violent and more sustainable world.

Jan Melichart


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