By Richard Jackson, Newsroom, April 25, 2022
Comments by Richard Milne & Gray Southon
Military force doesn’t work any more, it’s extremely costly and it causes more harm than good.
Comment: As we gather to commemorate the military war dead this Anzac Day, it is worth recollecting that immediately after World War I it was widely hoped it would be “the war to end all wars”. Many of those who first gathered to publicly commemorate the war dead – including the mothers, sisters and children of the young men who fell in Europe’s fields – made the rallying cry “Never again!” the theme of their memorial events.
Since then, the focus on remembering the war dead to ensure no one has to suffer in war again has become a fringe activity, limited to the inheritors of the Peace Pledge Union and the White Poppy supporters. Instead, wars have continued with deadly regularity and war remembrance has become, in some eyes, a form of civil religion and a way to prepare the public for further wars and ever-greater military spending.
This year provides a particularly poignant moment to reconsider the place of war, militarism and the purpose of war remembrance in our society, not least because of the events of the past couple of years. The Covid pandemic has killed more than six million people around the world and caused major economic and social disruption in every country. At the same time, the climate crisis has led to an alarming increase in devastating forest fires, floods and other extreme weather events, causing thousands of deaths and costing billions. Not just useless for dealing with these security threats, the world’s militaries are one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions: the military causes insecurity through its contribution to climate warming.
Perhaps more importantly, a growing body of academic research has demonstrated that military power is proving to be less and less effective as a tool of statecraft. Military force doesn’t really work any more. The world’s strongest military powers are less and less able to win wars, even against the weakest of opponents. The ignoble withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan last year is perhaps the clearest and most obvious illustration of this phenomenon, although we should also remember the US military failures in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia and Iraq. In Afghanistan, the greatest military power the world has ever known could not subdue a ragged army of insurgents with rifles and machine gun-mounted pickup trucks despite 20 years of effort.
In fact, the entire global “war on terror” has proven to be a colossal military failure over the past two decades, wasting trillions of dollars and costing more than a million lives in the process. Nowhere the US military has gone in the past 20 years to fight terrorism has seen an improvement in security, stability or democracy. New Zealand has also borne the cost of military failure recently, with lives lost and its reputation damaged in the hills of Afghanistan.
However, the failures of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the most telling illustration of the failures and costs of military force as a tool of national power. Putin has so far failed to achieve any of his strategic or political goals, despite the massive superiority of the Russian military. Strategically, Russia has failed in virtually all of its initial objectives and has been forced into ever-more desperate tactics. Politically, the invasion has achieved the opposite of what Putin anticipated: far from deterring Nato, the organisation is re-energised and Russia’s neighbours are scrambling to join it.
At the same time, international efforts to punish and pressure Russia into ending the invasion have revealed how deeply integrated the global economy is, and how war harms everyone regardless of their proximity to the locus of fighting. Today, it is virtually impossible to fight wars without causing widespread harm to the entire global economy.
If we were to also consider the long-term effects of war on the individuals who fight, the civilians who suffer as collateral damage, and those who witness its horrors first hand, this would tip the ledger against war even further. Soldiers and civilians alike who have participated in war suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and what psychologists call “moral injury” long after its end, often requiring ongoing psychological support. The trauma of war harms individuals, families and entire societies for generations. In many cases it leads to deep-seated inter-generational hatred, conflict and further violence between the warring sides.
This Anzac Day, as we stand in silence to honour the military war dead, perhaps we should consider how we might pledge ourselves to working to end the scourge of war and the costs of militarism. At the most basic level, military force doesn’t work and it’s plain stupid to keep persisting with something that has failed so often. Military force can no longer protect us from the rising threats of disease and climate crisis. It’s also extremely costly and it patently causes more harm than any good it achieves. Most importantly, there are alternatives to war: forms of security and protection that do not rely on maintaining armies; ways of resisting oppression or invasion without military forces; ways of resolving conflicts without resorting to violence; kinds of civilian-based peacekeeping without weapons. This year seems like the right time to rethink our addiction to war and to honour the dead by ending war.