A 21st Century

War. A Redefinition

To those who follow the maxim ‘history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes’, whilst so far this century we’ve not had a global crisis on anywhere near a big enough scale to be referred to as a ‘world war’, we have been witness to our own era of extensive conflict. In 2016, according to authors of the (10th annual) Global Peace Index, there were just 10 countries in the world that could be considered completely free from armed conflict.1

Whilst World War II resulted in an estimated 60 million civilians being displaced, the UN estimates that in 2017, 65.5 million people existed as refugees resulting from conflicts worldwide.2 With more than six million people displaced from their homes in Syria alone, this all equates to one child, woman or man being displaced every three seconds. (In 2019 this figure in Syria surged past 11 million).3

The industry of war is also at all-time-high levels. American defence spending as a proportion of GDP might well be down since WWII, but in reality this is only because GDP overall has risen considerably over the same time period. In George Bush’s post-9/11 America, it is estimated 53% of all tax revenue in the United States was spent on defence in 2012. This amounts to a staggeringly huge amount of money – something to the tune of 1.6 trillion dollars4.

In 2017, the US signed an arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth 350 billion dollars over the next decade.5 This isn’t just a significant waste of money, but a hugely short-sighted waste of human resources too. For example, approximately 40% of top scientists are currently caught up working in defence. To quote Bob Hunter, co-founder of Greenpeace: ‘If there is intelligent life on this planet, it isn’t necessarily us.’

Imagine for one moment that we used the same money, skills and resources to rapidly decarbonise our global economy instead – within the same 10 year period. Coincidentally, this is approximately the same amount of time that scientists widely estimate we have left to prevent runaway climate change. The organisation known as Extinction Rebellion suggests a ‘WWII-scale total cross-sectional mobilisation’ is desperately needed to radically change how our economies and heavy industries function and achieve net-zero carbon emissions in such a tight timeframe; as Brian Eno once observed: ‘The military would be much better if they had something real to do.’6

Western troops may now be mostly withdrawn from Iraqi and Afghan soil. But the serial blunders of the politicians who sent them there have led to an increase in terrorist-related activity, which can now be seen working on a global scale. These miscalculations, combined with revelations that our governments lied to get us here, have contributed to a collective realisation that we as individuals can often act more responsibly than the politicians who supposedly represent us.

Add to this the 2008 banking collapse, subsequent world recession, BP gulf oil spill, natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the Fukushima disaster, and even human tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire. These events all appear to be leading us to a place where we trust old-world institutions less. Protests on the street are such a frequent occurrence that many don’t even make the headlines any more.

Carne Ross, an independent diplomat, and former Middle East expert in the UK’s delegation to the UN, points out: ‘One thing which is also undeniable is that we will face completely different circumstances in the 21st century than we did in the 20th century.’7 The ways in which acts of aggression, division or war manifest themselves over this next 100 years are guaranteed to play out differently. Population displacements caused by military action will eventually be over-shadowed by significant displacements caused by climate change inaction.

This is all before you factor the wholesale threat to our world’s remaining forests, or to the critical balance of overall biodiversity. Mass extinctions, and complete colony collapses such as those experienced by the emperor penguin in Halley Bay, or the loss of one third of the great barrier reef in 2016, become only ever more frequent. In the summer of 2019, reports emerged from Brazil that people living in cities ‘literally couldn't breathe’, as man-made fires throughout the Amazon burned out of control.8

Thus a growing consensus views the present system as one of never-ending aggression against both people and the planet.9 This rethink of our relationship with the natural world prompted Greta Thunberg to say on 28 August 2019 with perfect clarity: ‘Our war against nature must end‘. A myriad of incredibly difficult questions lie ahead, but no matter how events play out, they are all but guaranteed to lead us back to the same question already posed by singer Edwin Starr back in 1969 when he asked: ‘War. What is it good for?’

During the 1970s it was Bob Hunter who once said: ‘It was gnawing away at the back of our minds that humanity could do great damage to itself even without war.’10 This observation has the potential to become only increasingly poignant, unless we can begin to fundamentally change our collective attitudes and behaviour right now. This can only start with a wholesale redefinition of what the destructive and wasteful boundaries of war encompass.
Illustration: War - What’s it good for? Q&A.

Next ︎
Chapter 8 —
The Ulm Age of Methods

Credits & Notes

1 – 2
Global Peace Index 2016

Giada Zampano, Liam Moloney, Jovi Juan,
‘Migrant Crisis: A History
of Displacement’
Wall St Journal
(22 Sep 2015)

‘Al Jazeera Frames –
Tax Dollars at War’
Al Jazeera English
YouTube (2012)

Wikipedia Page
‘2017 United States –
Saudi Arabia arms deal’

Srećko Horvat & Brian
Eno in Conversation
EartH, Hackney
(May 2019)

Carne Ross
Accidental Anarchist –
Life Without Government
, BBC Storyville (2017)

Manuela Andreoni
‘Covering Climate Now:
A New Era for Journalism?’
Frontline Club (17 Sep 2019)

Andrew Anthony
‘Srećko Horvat:
The current system is more violent than any revolution’ The Observer (21 Apr 2019)

How to Change the World
Film written / directed by Jerry Rothwell (2015)

Wikipedia Page
‘Military budget of the United States’, wikipedia.org

‘How Large Are Global Fossil Fuel Subsidies?’


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