One sign of the impact of militarism is the number of progressively minded people who express a belief in peace but support war once it is proposed. This is rather like being teetotal until you’re offered a drink.
Today, only 43 MPs voted against bombing Iraq, although I appreciate that some others struggled with their consciences before abstaining or reluctantly voting in favour. Sadly, there was pretty enthusiastic support for bombing from some who are regarded as being on the left.
It was particularly disheartening to receive an email this morning from 38 Degrees, the online campaigning organisation.
The group chooses campaigning positions based on votes amongst members, so I would not expect them to take an anti-war stance straight away. I filled in their form asking for opinions on this issue yesterday, and expected that the majority of respondents would oppose bombing. They seem after all to be a broadly left-wing, progressively minded group of people. 38 Degrees regularly campaigns on issues such as corporate tax dodging and public services.
Today’s email from 38 Degrees declared, “Tens of thousands of 38 Degrees members took part in a vote to decide whether 38 Degrees should launch a campaign about this. The response was quite mixed. 45% of us are in favour of the air strikes, 42% are against. 13% haven’t decided yet.”
So a slight majority of this group of progressive activists are in favour of UK troops joining another war in Iraq.
As anyone who has researched the anti-war movement during World War One knows, hopes for an international socialist front against war faded in the first few days of August 1914. Left-wing parties in all the combatant countries split, with majorities in most of them supporting war. We saw a similar development with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. There are so many people who are against war until their opposition is needed, and then they decide that this war is somehow different. History shows that this claim is always made and usually wrong.
To be fair, it is very hard to oppose war. Resisting pro-war thoughts in your own head can be difficult for the most dedicated pacifists. Militarism is so deeply ingrained in our society, culture and mindset that it can seem almost impossible not to think in military terms.
This is reflected in the militarist language that even peace campaigners sometimes slip into using. Thus we talk about “intervention” when we mean military intervention, “doing nothing” when we mean not engaging in warfare and the “defence industry” when we mean the arms industry.
I respect much of what 38 Degrees does. I’m sure their organisers don’t think of themselves as a pro-war group. But their emails this week have reflected a militarist mindset that I suspect they have absorbed without noticing.
Thus they talk of “air strikes”, a much cleaner term than “bombing”. They refer to this being done “against the group known as Islamic State” rather than in the areas controlled by this group – where there are plenty of civilians who do not support IS but are likely to be hit.
Most significantly, the email from 38 Degrees began with the words, “By the weekend, we could be at war”.
This is not true. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and many supporters of 38 Degrees may be at war, but I won’t be. Nor will the many others who reject participation in war in any way. I will of course be engaged in conflict – opposing oppression, injustice and indeed war naturally leads to conflict, not least with those who hold to dominant views. And I will be complicit in the sins of a unjust political and economic system of which I am part, even though I try to oppose it. But I will not be at war.
You and I do not need to be at war. Despite the dominance of militarism, the first step to ending something is to refuse to participate in it.