It’s that nostalgic time of year again when we are supposed to look back – hopefully not in anger, but frequently in regret – to the events of the last twelve months. For some, this year has been a valley of Achor, a year of hope dawning, new beginnings. For others, loss, deprivation, refugee camps and unremitting terror.
Since early man began acquiring possessions, there has grown up with him the oldest technology in the world – the art of war – and 2017 has not escaped its ravages. We who are relatively untouched by violent conflict would do well to remember that with the crisis in Syria, who tops the fatality list for the third year running, the almost total defeat of Islamist militants in Iraq and the international ongoing stand-off in Afghanistan, it can sometimes feel like the whole world is at war. The sad reality is that this is in fact almost universally the case, according to a think-tank which produces one of the world’s leading measures of “global peacefulness” – and it has been suggested that things are only going to get worse. Given that violent conflict already costs nearly 13% of world GDP, this is not good news.
It makes for bleak reading, but only eleven out of a total of one hundred and sixty two countries covered by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s (IEP’s) latest study were not involved in conflict of one kind or another in the last twelve months. Worse still, the world as a whole has been getting incrementally less peaceful every year since 2007 – sharply bucking a trend that had seen a global move away from conflict since the end of the Second World War. But, it’s really just about following the money. Factories in Sardinia routinely package bombs and other paraphernalia of warfare like Amazon deliveries and blithely ship them to Jeddah where the Saudis load up the warplanes and drop the ordnance on Yemen – in violation of all human rights legislation.
Neglecting the fact that war is good business for some, we might ask the moral question, ‘why do we fight?’ If there is a thread running like a shameful scarlet ribbon through mankind’s seemingly unslakable thirst for the blood of his enemies, it must be this. From the first moment we declared ourselves owners of something, whether land, material wealth or property, somebody else has wanted to take it from us and we have had to learn to fight to keep it. Riches are gained at someone else’s expense and kept by making sure that others are disempowered so they do not represent a threat. In the modern world, where colonial activity is considered undemocratic, one might imagine that conquest as causus belli could be relegated to the dustier and more shameful pages of history. And yet, we persist, more so than ever before, it would seem. Modern warfare, adjudicated by the UN, takes the peacekeeping initiative and conflict and land-grabbing on an historical scale is simply not tolerated in the modern world as Saddam Hussein found out to his cost. Instead, people find something else to fight about. They fight over ideas and belief systems instead where the need is less for boots on the ground and more for drones in the air. Our media overwhelm us with footage from any one of a dozen theatres. We can cherry-pick a smorgasbord of slaughter from Nigeria to Syria, to Libya and Iraq and watch it live. We, the bystanders, both appalled at the consequences and relieved not to be part of them, align ourselves, or not, with protagonists on either side, either because we support the ideas they seek to spread or resent their attempts to spread them.
How little, I wonder, have we actually learned since the time when war as a glorious fight for liberty can now so much more easily be seen as a desperate and feral struggle for survival, mostly by people who, if given a choice, would never have wanted to go to war in the first place.
As we say farewell to another year, we all still hope for the magical paradigm shift, as if we could wake up from a bad dream and realise the futility of never-ending, Orwellian conflict and the ability to turn our backs on it forever.