It is now 105 years since Gallipoli. We have had more than a century to reflect and possibly learn the odd lesson or two. But it seems that nothing has been learned.
If we had, then there would not be the endless round of glorification of what was, after all, a war fought for no other reason than to position either British or German imperialism to better profit from the rest of the world. If we had, then we would not have spent upwards of a billion dollars on upgrades to the War Memorial and associated ‘community projects’ that engender a rather disturbing religious fervour about the war and its remembrance.
The spending on the War Memorial was organised without serious debate. But then there was not a whole lot said about the $17 billion for the new F35A fighter planes. There is always money for the military. The ABC reported in 2018 that Australia is now the 12 biggest spender in the world on what is euphemistically called ‘defence’. Much has been made of what has been described as an ‘eye-watering’ figure of $131 billion to subsidise employers in paying wages due to the COVID 19 crisis. We are told that such a crippling debt will have to be passed on to all of us for decades to come. In November 2019, a headline in the Canberra Times stated, ‘New sub fleet blows out to $225 billion.’ That spending is not seen as crippling! A curious world?
The COVID 19 virus, along with a pre-existing condition of global economic crisis, is set to plunge the world into global recession (the ‘experts’ are still coy about the term depression). I have yet to read of any nation-state slashing military spending to ease the burden. No, the burden will be shouldered by us, as has ever been the case.
There are some striking similarities between the period leading up to WWI and (lest we forget) Gallipoli. Capitalist globalisation and integration was growing. Nation-states were seeking to reassert their importance. It was a very real problem. The way these states went about it was not through any intelligent attempt at cooperation but rather seeking, individually, to gain as much as possible from the world economic system. The winner, in such a scenario, would move upwards from the status of great power to that of world power. It is good that we learn from history. If we did not, then we might be facing a similar set of circumstances playing out in real time. Oh, if only the world economic system was capable of learning from history.
In 2018 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.’
If war is being contemplated, and it is clearly being contemplated, then an enemy is always useful. This has never been a difficult thing. After all, the ‘enemy’ is always at a remove from ‘us’. ‘We’ are united, we are ‘all in this together’, we have shared values and common interests. Gina Rinehart and the unemployed worker facing eviction share a common national identity. The song has not changed in the past century. Wars require blood sacrifices. It’s all to the good if the sacrifice can be seen to be made willingly. And then, when the victory marches are over, we can get on with the business of eulogising the whole wretched process. Who knows, we might have to replay the song again and again.
Australians went to war 106 years ago. They went voluntarily. They were told it was for a cause that was noble and worthy of the sacrifice demanded. The same speeches were made to the youth of France, Britain, Germany, Russia, Turkey and all of the other combatant nations. There was courage. There was selflessness. There was a common sacrifice that united these young men. They had much in common, one with another. All had equally been lied to. Krupp had a profitable war, but 2.5 million Germans died. Renault thrived while 1.7 million French soldiers died. Vickers had a better war than did the 900,000 British soldiers who died. BHP rose while 60,000 Australians fell. The lie, as Goebbels was later to express it, was big enough and so it was believed. It was a war for freedom and against tyranny and yet it was the tyranny of imperialism, of capitalism, that won the day.
The war was about nationalism and yet a global pandemic took more lives than all of the shells and bullets combined. Today we have a situation that could so easily lead to nationalist responses to global crisis erupt once more. Before the COVID 19 pandemic there was a failing global economy and a push by the US to bolster its fading position as economic hegemon. After the virus there will be an economic wasteland. Great power conflicts were being considered well before this. The conditions are ripe for a return to the same irrational, unintelligent way of confronting global problems as existed in 1914. Will the idiocy be repeated?
This year, as every year, we will be exhorted to remember. It would be good if we could remember why so many young lives were destroyed, why they were sent off to war. It would be good if we see what we have in common with our potential enemies and how little we have in common with those who will seek to profit from another war.
Dr William Briggs is a political economist. His special interest areas are in the fields of political theory and international political economy. His latest book, Removing the Stalin Stain, will be published by Zer0 Books in October.