Pride, Autocrats, Identity, Nationalism: The Anachronistic Follies of War
By Joshua Castellino, Executive Director
There have been many attempts to outlaw war in the history of international relations. Yet States have been reluctant to cede this ‘right’ to engage war, believing that retaining it will allow them to defend themselves when someone else attacks. So, despite gory human histories everywhere, this anachronism persists, and we are told that it will make us all safer. Like possessing nuclear deterrents. Apparently. Unable to reign in that ‘sovereign’ power, efforts in global society have instead turned to building collective security mechanisms and regional security alliances while articulating norms of law on the waging of war.
Today much of that seems meaningless in the face of the Russian onslaught on Ukraine.
Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish put it succinctly: The war will end. The leaders will shake hands. The old woman will keep waiting for her martyred son. That girl will wait for her beloved husband. And those children will wait for their heroic father. I don’t know who sold our homeland. But I saw who paid the price.
Histories and those with access to them can testify to the suffering caused by war in every part of the world and with every war waged. But all we have been able to do in response as a bulwark against this phenomenon, is to create norms. Then rely on ‘common-sense’ and ‘pragmatism’ with no teeth or meaningful safety valves to guarantee these aspirations. So, power talks to power and then rests content that supposedly adequate mechanisms are in place. Victims and those not deemed so yet, are in another place altogether. Far from being able to influence the direction of such discussions or benefit from any winds of change.
And here we will be again unless we make a commitment to system change. Getting bullies out of public life and marginalising them so that the damage they do may be limited to themselves will be a crucial start.
And this is not only about the leadership of Russia.
We have had a serious growth in something mistaken as ‘pride’. National pride it is apparently, and many worship at that altar. Nationalism of this kind is particularly useful in waging war. Harking back to a time that may never have existed, except in biased masculine narratives some powerful people told their kith and kin, as they rode roughshod over everything else in their wake, the environment included. But then they made that story ‘official’, taught it to others and deemed anyone questioning it as liars. They are still winning elections with it today. Women, minorities and many others described as vulnerable are used by these powerholders and their storytellers as excuses for waging war.
Of course, the blatant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty has understandably fuelled Ukrainian nationalism – allowing defenders to draw strength and inspiration from each other in the face of adversity. It will save some lives. It will put many in harm’s way.
It is said that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. Another justification offered for war today is one of ‘identity’. Apparently, this war is waged to ‘protect Russian minorities’. People said to be of one ethnicity, living as a numerically smaller group in the territory of another and needing salvation. A similar justification was heard in the second world war. Cross-border war in support of kin communities in another state, even where this may have been specifically called for, is a blueprint for continuous war. Human societies are too immersed and interconnected with each other through to delink the multiple identity strands that bind us. And the irony remains that this pretext is used for this invasion, while repeated actual genocides from Rwanda, through Iraq and Myanmar have failed to prompt any meaningful international collective action of any kind.
Singular identities that drive political movements in many places are an anachronism kept alive by those with an eye to seize power by identifying ‘others’. Contemporary identities, a bit like modern life, are complex and intersectional.
And so to war itself.
A macho battle predominantly featuring boys and lots of very large weapons built and sold at lucrative profits for a few. All are forced to stop and watch. Many will fall hapless victims. Nearly all will be relatively innocent. The damage to property will be immense. The environment, at the forefront of recent discussions, will not even feature.
Some are expected to applaud; others to take up arms. Many will stand in solidarity. Even more will reach out to help. Immense kindness will be shown, but this will also occur amidst callousness and hate. Pronouncements will be made; the seeds for future retaliations will be sown.
Yet we will not reflect on how anachronistic war is in the modern age. How outdated the idea of a ‘sovereign’ state is with no sovereign. How the narrowness of identity can be used to divide the human family to such an extent that the historical fraternities, proximities and cooperation between two identities as closely interlinked as Ukraine’s with Russia’s was inadequate in stopping this nonsense.
We deserve better. But to win that peace will mean ridding ourselves of the anachronistic assumptions that fuel our systems. Which seem so easy for bullies to capture. Everywhere.
Photo: Donbas region, Ukraine, 2019. Credit: Karol Grygoruk.