Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The 'War of Needs'

Even as a callow student long, long ago I could be provoked to rail against the unhelpful conflation arising from the use of the terms 'First World War' and 'Second World War'. To me the danger was that somehow WW2 could be viewed as a further iteration of something that had happened just a couple of decades earlier. To be sure, in both cases the conflicts were transnational in character. Similarly there were stories of heroism, sacrifice and unforgettable human tragedy writ on the same page as accounts of horror, villainy and astonishing military exploits.

But in the twenties it was for most people sufficient to speak of 'The War', as if there had not been such calamities, even on a grand scale, since the dawn of history.  Wikipedia tells us that The term 'World War' was coined speculatively in the early 20th century, some years before the `Great War' (as it was soon afterwards designated') broke out, probably as a literal translation of the German word Weltkrieg. German writer August Wilhelm Otto Niemann had used the word in the title of his anti-British novel Der Weltkrieg: Deutsche Träume ("The World War: German Dreams") as early as 1904, published in English as The coming conquest of England. Also the term was used as early as 1850 by Karl Marx in The Class Struggles in France. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first known usage in the English language as being in April 1909, in the pages of the Westminster Gazette.

As the second half of the 20th century opened there was no lack of warnings that WW3 could be imminent. As always, there would be new and even more terrifying tactics and weapons. The Battle of Agincourt in 1415 is notable for Henry V's introduction of the English longbow into military lore. Belligerence is the mother of invention. The Great War had pioneered the madness of trench warfare, seen poison gas deployed and bombs dropped from airships. WW2 saw the adoption of Blitzkrieg as a strategy, advances in espionage technologies and the conflict ended only after the first two atom bombs had wreaked apocalyptic devastation. WW3 would mean intercontinental guided missiles with nuclear warheads and ‘mutually assured destruction’ may have saved mankind for the rest of the century, Korea, the Balkans and Vietnam notwithstanding.

Ill-advised politicians found it expedient to resort to facile and bellicose language when speaking of waging a ‘War on Drugs’ or, worse, the ‘War on Terrorism’ against an ‘Axis of Evil’. Neither of these conflicts has been resolved, no clear winner or loser as yet irrefutably distinguishable.

My worry, a century after the outbreak of the ‘Great War’, is the ‘New War’, the one for which our rulers seem to have articulated no viable battle plan. The origin of this conflict which is already claiming far too many lives cannot be traced back to a shot fired in Sarajevo and the death of an Archduke. And yet it is coming to resemble a Weltkrieg, transnational and in fact transcontinental in character, erupting concurrently in America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

I might for convenience call it the ‘War of Needs’, in recognition of the foot soldiers marching as best they can from the lands of the ‘have nots’, desperate to reach the nations where the ‘haves’ enjoy freedom from persecution, relative prosperity and the rule of law.

Their ‘needs’ drive them on, when either violent death or brutal destitution is the price of taking no action. They press across the border from Mexico. They flee Myanmar where they are victims of pitiless discrimination. Their number moves the Australian government to outsource their detention facilities. From the most poverty-stricken regions of Africa the hungry and hopeless make their way northward. Lives are lost above all when the Mediterranean has to be crossed.
We split hairs when designating some of them ‘refugees’ and others ‘economic migrants’; they are on the way, for the most part unaware that they are in fact combatants in a war not of their choosing. They are not arrayed in uniformed battalions; they are shod in flip-flops and sneakers, not jackboots. Of course they are not an ‘enemy’ to be opposed by military might, nor will they for long be constrained by fortified frontiers.

In the ‘War of Needs’ the very latest weaponry - smartphones, social media and the internet - is not the exclusive property of one side or the other, the selfsame arsenal being also in the hands of the agents provocateurs profiteering from the smuggling of human cargo. In this instance there is no King Henry V giving his army the superior technical advantage of the longbow. Nor in the case of the ‘War of Needs’ is there any implacable clash of mutually incompatible ideologies. I repeat my contention that none of these transnational conflicts can be seen as encore performances of a previous tragic scenario.   

I wonder how the historians of the future will chronicle the ‘War of Needs’?       


Re-reading what I posted yesterday, I think I should add that I am by no means ignorant of the welcome extended in Munich to the thousands arriving at the central station. The Guardian reports:

  • "Under handwritten signs reading “welcome to Germany” in English and Arabic, volunteers hand out bottles of water from a supermarket trolley and bars of chocolate. There is even a baby pack containing nappies, baby cream, wet wipes and a jar of baby food."    

This is heartening, of course, but it in no way lessens my concern that Europe's governments are paralyzed, squabbling among themselves instead of acting with wisdom and resolve.  

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