One hundred years ago ‘the guns fell silent’ or at least WWI ended. Since the end of the war to end all wars, however, 120 million more people have died as a result of armed conflict. Well might we remember, but what are we remembering and what have we learned along the way?
Just a week ago two media releases appeared. Julia Gillard from Beyond Blue announced that the government had committed $98 million to the Be You campaign to combat mental health issues among Australian children. It was a welcome announcement, especially so as 560,000 children aged between four and 17 had a mental health issue in the past year! The second announcement was made by our PM. $498 million has been allocated to upgrade the Australian War Memorial. Something is wrong when a museum that effectively endorses militarism gets five times more funding than a campaign promoting the health and well-being of our youth. Yes, something is wrong, but flag waving and nationalist symbolism, have long been motivating factors, not just here but across the world, and the flags are waving more vigorously.
The world seems to be, not sliding, but steadfastly marching towards war. There are echoes here of a century past and the conflict we are exhorted to remember. Earlier this year The Economist devoted an entire issue to a discussion of “The Next War” and “The Growing Threat of Great Power Conflict.” Its editorial commented that, “in the past 25 years war has claimed too many lives. Yet even as civil and religious strife have raged in Syria, central Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq, a devastating clash between the world’s great powers has remained almost unimaginable. No longer … powerful, long-term shifts in geopolitics and the proliferation of new technologies are eroding the extraordinary military dominance that America and its allies have enjoyed. Conflict on a scale and intensity not seen since the second world war is once again plausible.”
The Economist is not prone to works of fantasy, but surely the editorialist could not have been serious. The head of the British Army, General Sir Nick Carter, is certainly taking things seriously. Speaking at the Davos meeting earlier this year, he declared that the present global situation has “parallels with 1914,” and that “our generation has become used to wars of choice since the end of the Cold War, but we may not have a choice about conflict with Russia.”
If we throw in the growing tensions between the US and China, both economic and military, then it might be time to start getting a little concerned. Enemies have been found. It’s simply a matter of getting the people interested and inured to the prospect of war being no longer an unthinkable thing. While this might be the case and it seems that it is the case, there are questions that need to be asked and answered. How did this come to pass and why? Why does it feel like 1914 all over again?
The run up to global war at the beginning of the last century was marked by an inability to resolve some pretty big issues. Capitalism tends to globalisation. It also tends toward integration. These are inescapable to capitalist development. The nation-state, becomes threatened. There is an almost inevitable reaction. Nationalist sentiment rises. States employ economic nationalist policies. The people, concerned at the loss of economic stability and security, are encouraged to rally around nationalist slogans and symbols. The only problem with this is that it fails to resolve anything, and every country ends up doing and saying the same thing. Everybody else becomes the problem.
Some have despaired of humanity, writing us off as being an inherently war-mongering species. After all we have only had peace for 268 of the past 3,400 years. The question needs to be asked if humans simply cannot get enough of battle or are the youth in almost every generation duped into being sacrificed for the political and economic interests of those often mysterious ‘powers that be’. The USA, as an example, has been at war for 93 per cent of its history. This denotes a problem with the American polity rather than with the people who are so easily called to ‘serve’.
It is easy to say that America is ‘different’, but no limits are placed in promoting the requisite degree of patriotism. Australians have been carefully coached, in the past 20-or-so years to wave the flag in a not altogether dissimilar manner. Today it is hard to find an Australian school student who will not say, and believe, that we must honour the sacrifices that the Anzacs made on Gallipoli to give us the freedoms we all now enjoy!
The War Memorial will be expanded, and it must be expanded. After all the list of conflicts just gets bigger. From the Sudan in 1885 until Afghanistan today, Australian troops have been almost continuously engaged in ‘assisting’ powerful allies. There is a worrying sense that the War Memorial will be unveiling new exhibits in the years to come, provided that a global conflict leaves such a memorial intact. Yes, we need to remember. The casualties will continue to grow, and new contingents of young men and women will be marched off to questionable wars. Among the tragedies is the simple and sad fact that former PM Gillard’s campaign for funding measures to support the half-million Australian children with mental health problems will have to go on competing for money and headline space with an increasingly militarised state.
William Briggs’ areas of research, special interests and expertise centre around International Relations, Global Political Economy and Political Theory. A book based on his PhD research is due for publication early in 2019. Prior to this he worked as a teacher for many years and as a journalist.