Saturday, 14 February 2009

The Calculus of War

I have just read in quick succession Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves and A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin. The first gives you the experience of the common soldier, slithering about in the trenches, struggling to kill without being killed. The second whisks you up to the level of the ministers and generals, calculating in terms of fronts and divisions, ready to throw away half a million lives to gain a few miles. The big change since 1914-18 is that the leaders of the rich countries now reckon to be able to kill thousands of "the enemy" with remote controlled weapons that minimize losses on their own side; disproportionate suffering has become the norm. A few thousand Americans die in the killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Thousands of Palestinians die in retaliation for the killing of dozens of Israelis. Underneath is the same cynical calculus.

I also read Tom Brown's Schooldays and Tom Brown at Oxford by Thomas Hughes. Comparing the Rugby of the 1830s, which became the model for the English public schools, with the Charterhouse described by Robert Graves, and the Oxford of the 1840s with the Oxford that produced Tony Blair, one sees the same fundamental problem: these institutions turn out people who are convinced that it is for them to decide how the world is governed. Thomas Hughes' generation was the one that launched missionaries to convert the Hindus and Muslims of India, and which put down the resulting uprising by massacring the population of Delhi. The generation of Lloyd George thought it was the mission of Britain to reorganize the Ottoman lands, bringing 90 years of misery for Middle Easterners. Tony Blair and his contemporaries thought they could impose Western-style democracy on the Afghans and Iraqis: another 90 years of pain ahead?!

Perhaps it is not possible to have elite schools and universities without producing people who consider themselves superior to others. Given the role of money in paying for such institutions, it seems to be just one more way in which money rules the world.