War! What is it good for?


War on the news, war in science fiction, Tony Chester finds it increasingly difficult to find where is the dividing line.


Any reader or watcher of SF will stumble across war as a major theme before too long has passed. The literature and cinema, not to mention TV, are full of it! Global conflicts, alien invasions, machines gone mad, inter-planetary, inter-stellar and inter-galactic dust ups, alternate histories, mutants, psi-wars and even time wars feature throughout the history of the genre. And why shouldn't it? If the essence of good fiction is conflict, then what epitomises it more than war? And it's not just a question of writers tackling an 'easy' theme - their motivations are as diverse as the genre itself - while some war stories can be pretty facile, others can have complex moral points to get across and those points, unsurprisingly, can themselves be extremely complex, depending on the individual writer's own experience (if any). And let's not forget that the genre is still relatively young (70-200 years old, depending on what you want to call SF and how you define it), during which time two World Wars have been fought, backed by a several millennia-long history of humankind's wars. It is doubtful that SF could ever have ignored war as a subject, if not down right impossible! In my own brief four-decades-plus of existence there has rarely been a night when I haven't been able to turn on a TV and watch some war or other on the news (perhaps a science fictional development in its own right). The fact is that we humans love killing each other. We've never stopped. Wars over land, resources, ideologies, religions; you name it, we'll kill for it. It'd make you proud if you could just stop being sick...

One of the first SF books I ever read was HG Wells' The War of the Worlds (1898) although at the time I was ignorant of his reason for writing it. Apparently his brother was boasting about a particularly vicious British victory abroad and was of the opinion that the British army could never be defeated. Wells decided to prick his brother's arrogance by writing a story in which the army proved ineffectual and, ultimately, the invaders from Mars are defeated not by men and machines, but by microbes. The tale has proved so popular that it has been adapted for radio, cinema, comics, television, theatre and even for a rock 'concept' album. Humans have been fighting off invasions ever since, not always successfully, and were still doing so as recently as the awful-but-mindlessly-entertaining 1996 film Independence Day. And kicking alien butt is clearly going to be a full-time occupation in the future, if SF has its way. Just check out AE van Vogt's The War Against the Rull (1959), Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (also 1959), Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1974), David Brin's The Uplift War (1987, plus surrounding novels), or Greg Bear's Anvil of Stars (1992). There's always some uppity, many-toothed thing out there that can't keep its slimy tentacles off our women, or something. That's always assuming we can get around to fighting them when we're not busy fighting off computers, as in DF Jones' Colossus (1966), their robot extensions, Terminator (1984), and bastard AIs in general, for instance in Dan Simmons' Hyperion et al (1989 onward).

Harlan Ellison had us fighting the Khyban, and Stephen Baxter the Xeelee, the Squeem and the Qax and, no matter how advanced and enlightened a civilisation becomes, they still get involved in war, for instance Iain Banks' Culture who fought against the religious fundamentalism of the Idirans in Consider Phlebas (1987). Space Opera was more or less invented by E. E. 'Doc' Smith in the 1930's with the Lensmen series, in which the super-advanced 'good' Arisians fight (through various alien and human proxies) the 'evil' Eddorians - almost certainly one of the precursors to the Vorlon/Shadow conflict of Babylon 5. Humans will fight among themselves on Earth, for example in Heinlein's Sixth Column (1941), and out among the stars, as in Frank Herbert's warring Great Houses of the various Dune novels (1965 onwards), and even in galaxies far, far away, Star Wars (1977 onwards). We'll also fight throughout time as well as space if Fritz Leiber's "Changewar" stories (1958-65) are anything to go by, always assuming we aren't already in an alternate history (currently Harry Harrison is playing havoc with past American conflicts, and Harry Turtledove is dropping aliens into the same mix). We'll have commando special forces for those pesky Aliens (1986), emerging psi-wars, as in Lucius Shepard's Life During Wartime (1987), revisionary histories of conflict, as in Jack McDevitt's A Talent for War (1989) and, of course, we'll have terrorism, as in Norman Spinrad's Pictures at 11 (1994). Make no mistake; war is here to stay.

According to SF the toys of war would get ever more sophisticated with the apparent aim of somehow rendering war a 'cleaner' enterprise, with a concordant reduction in the loss of innocent (ie. non-combatant) life. You've all seen the gadgets: infantrymen with night-sight goggles, GPS, laser-sighting, cameras and other comms equipment; then there are 'smart' bombs and cluster-bombs and radar-invisible planes. Ultimately we would also have high-energy lasers, masers and particle-beam weapons - though thankfully we don't really have any practical working ones yet... Some of this technological advance did indeed come about, but none of it worked quite as expected. Smart bombs routinely go astray, cluster bombs don't all go off leaving, effectively, minefields hanging around to slaughter innocents later on; the stealth plane got shot down by the Serbs (using good old line-of-sight), and our increased technological prowess is such that the West's greatest casualties of recent conflicts have been due to 'friendly fire' ((don't you just love these euphemisms?!)). Hardly a conflict goes by without some 'collateral damage', whether that be a convoy of refugees or the odd Chinese embassy. "Star Wars" from Reagan onwards has proved repeatedly unworkable, which doesn't stop our friend George Dubya from pursuing it; and our nuke-tipped anti-armour weapons are as likely to give a lingering death to our own soldiers as it is to do the job it was invented for. Seems to me like nothing about war is cleaner though, let's face it, it's not exactly what you'd call a clean business, is it?

I use the word 'business' deliberately. I mean, no one seriously doubts that we (the developed West) are the good guys, now do they? Why Britain even has an 'ethical' foreign policy! Which might make it hard to understand that the US and Britain are the number one and two arms exporting nations on the planet (with the French a close third). Arms sales account annually for about 4% of Britain's GDP all by themselves. So determined are we to hold onto our position that we'll even use our own tax pounds to keep those weapons exports rolling. If you don't believe me, check out the Export Credit Guarantee Department (part of the DTI). The ECGD was created by government to underwrite British exports abroad, should the purchasing parties renege on the deals and, on average, this has meant underwriting arms sales to the tune of 1 billion per year! That's a billion, every year, not spent on education, the NHS or whatever. OK, a billion isn't a lot, but you might want to think about it the next time some government tells you it needs to raise taxes or NI contributions to pay for 'essential' services. But whatever you think, it seems a bit rich to me that our governments continually tell us about what a dangerous world it is when they're the fuckers making it dangerous!

Oddly enough, leaving aside alien and robotic invasions, SF even managed to get the bad guys' weapons wrong. We were largely correct at thinking that we would have to face increasing terrorist-style threats, but we let our imaginations get the better of us. We thought we'd see increasing use of nerve gases and toxins but, aside from a little Saran attack down the Japanese subway, that doesn't seem to have happened. Then there were all the biological agents and plagues but, again, aside from a brief flirtation with Anthrax through the post, not much doing. The real scary threat, of course, was dirty nukes - the weapon of choice in Norman Spinrad's Pictures at 11. And it was (and is) a credible threat, though we didn't need the breakup of the former Soviet Union to spread weapons-grade plutonium around - as long ago as 1989 Concatenation was reporting (with help from Nature and Hansard) on the fact that between 2 and 13 tonnes of British plutonium had 'gone missing'. That's between 400-2600 warheads worth. Who knows what the figure is now, but we continue to wait for a satisfactory explanation for what we knew what was missing then. Not that the bad guys need plutonium - medical radioactive substances will do just as well. Well we haven't seen a dirty nuke yet, thank the gods, but lack of access to all these weapons has not stopped the bad guys. As the 21st century opened they went and flew a couple of planes into a couple of buildings. How low-tech can you get and still be science fictional?!

Apparently, in the wake of 11/9/2001, we and the US 'beefed up' airport security, which didn't seem to stop robbers from ripping off Heathrow or shoe-bombers getting onto planes. The US added $2.50 to the cost of air fares for increased security, but without addressing the fact that the FAA had already had $14 billion, post-Lockerbie, which they had so far failed to spend. Maybe they could increase the baggage-checkers pay from the ridiculous $7 per hour they were getting. Then there's the 'compensation' of $5 million paid to the airlines which, at the most generous of estimates, is about twice what the three days grounding of flights actually cost. Can anyone say, "My friends in the business community"? Does it all come down to money? Some would say yes. Let's look at some figures. In all the years since Vietnam various economists (including old-style supply and demand-ers and new-style complexity theorists, who rarely agree on anything) have agreed that it would have been cheaper to build a new house for every family in Vietnam and buy them a new car than it was to actually prosecute the war! Round costs for Afghanistan and both Gulf conflicts are about $1 billion per month (and that's just the US contribution). As for the next decade, Congress approved a hike in the defense budget from $4.2 trillion to $4.7 trillion, or $470 billion per year, every year, for the next ten years. That's about $18 billion worth of aid to the 25 poorest countries in the world every year for 10 years (or divide it how you feel). Now, if it's true that terrorist organisations recruit from these peoples, spinning lines about the Great Satan an' all that, it's hardly surprising (given the West's economic domination of the Third World) that there are plenty of such recruits. How much harder would the terrorists find their job if they were approaching peoples who had clean water from new wells, new schools and hospitals, food and shelter paid for by the West? A bit harder, don't you think? Maybe a lot harder. Ah but, well, that would fuck our economy, wouldn't it? Surely we need to keep those weapons rolling - it's good for the country, doncha know? I see. So it makes more sense to keep increasing our spending on 'defense' than to use that money on our own health and education and law & order, does it? Well I don't think so, but what do I know? I just read SF; I'm not a politician. I doubt I could be that hypocritical.

Hypocrisy is at the heart of war and always has been, but I'll restrict my comments to recent nastinesses to save time. Take Kosovo. Now I wouldn't dispute that Milosovic is a nasty piece of work who needed a good slap, but how and why did we go about it? Make no mistake, the KLA was and is a terrorist organisation, in part trained and funded by our old friend Osama bin Laden! At their heart they are a bunch of Albanian Muslims who, after being allowed to occupy part of a foreign country (as the situation was, leaving aside historical borders), then decided to secede from it. When they were told, rightly, to fuck off, they started a terrorist campaign against that country (by then, Serbia). What Milosovic then did 'wrong' was to institute an indiscriminate programme of genocide against that group, not a pleasant response. I doubt we'd do something so horrific ourselves, but consider that there are now parts of Britain where the 'ethnic' population now outnumbers the 'natives' and how we'd feel if, say, Leicestershire decided it wanted to be independent of the British government. I doubt we'd let them do it... What happened next, however, doesn't exactly show the West in a good light. We destabilised an already frought situation by illegally bombing a sovereign nation without a declaration of war, the agreement of Parliament, or so much as a by-your-leave from the United Nations, and created a refugee situation far in excess of that already in progress (not unlike the way our similar actions increased the flow of refugees fleeing Afghanistan to Pakistan). Though they haven't been in the news of late, the Kosovan refugees are still not resettled and are still dying in huge numbers, so what was gained? Well, ultimately, some good PR for Tony Blair, and Milosovic in court, but that's about all. But let's not forget that we always knew that Milosovic was a nutter, but that didn't stop us from brokering a peace with him and others during the Serb-Bosnian war. We indicted Slobo and others for war crimes later, but so far he's the only one to pay the price. If anyone thinks that Osama is going to be found anytime soon, I have just two words for you: Radovan Karadzic. Anyone knowing the whereabouts of this man, please tell the UN, 'cos they haven't got a fucking clue. Morally speaking the situation with Chechnya wasn't much different from Kosovo, but we didn't get involved there, largely because we knew that Russia wouldn't take that shit and, unlike Serbia, they could actually put up a fight. Anyone want to talk about moral cowardice?

Then there's Afghanistan itself. Oooh, the evil Taliban. Could that be the same Taliban that the US and Pakistan (with the tacit agreement of the West) put in place? Yep. Can anyone tell me how you stop terrorism by bombing a country into the stone age which, frankly, was already in the stone age? Until September 11th the US didn't seem to be particularly anxious to get involved with international affairs, in much the same way that they didn't appear particularly interested in WWII until Pearl Harbour. Now that there's weapons to be sold and budget appropriations to be had they can't get enough of it! And it's funny how the West declared victory by December 2001, but the killing goes on with our own puppet little better than another warlord, just backed by superior firepower, as though we hadn't learned any lessons from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And Osama? He's in a cave; no he's not, he's crossed the border into Pakistan; no he's not, he's in the south west of the country; no he's er... They seek him here, they seek him there... Once again there was no actual declaration of war and no UN backing, which isn't good for the captives at Camp X-Ray (nor later for those at Camp Delta following Iraq part two), so how good will that be for potential allied POWs in the future? Once again we made an ally of a country we were slagging off a short while previously - Pakistan not having an elected government at that time (but having nukes!). Seems they're our pals now that they're following the West's agenda. So the Taliban were the West's fault and, to quote SF author Kim Stanley Robinson in a Locus interview, "we can no longer just pay off puppet governments and ignore their mistreatment of their people and feel the problem has gone away. Trying to prop up a bad government that is sympathetic to our power structure, while ignoring the people underneath it, didn't work in Iran and it won't work in the future. It won't even work here in the States." All we seem to have done is to further destabilise a region that was pretty volatile to begin with.

How about our old friend Saddam Hussein and Iraq? Are we whiter than white as far as that situation is concerned. Let's see... Just a couple of decades ago, following the fall of the Shah of Iran (a Western puppet in the situation Kim refers to above), when the Ayatollahs were seen as the great threat, then Saddam was our friend. The Americans, the French and the British couldn't fall over themselves fast enough to sell him weapons. Talk about a situation of your own making... We were certainly justified, following the invasion of Kuwait, to kick his ass (and all credit to Stormin' Norman for stopping the slaughter when he did, despite the rabid outpourings of Thatcher, et al), but what about now? Why did we persecute him (taking as read that he was a bastard to his own population)? Well, there was that whole thing with the weapons inspectors. Funny though; Britain has signed up to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which requires routine inspection of the signatories' weapons but, so far, we haven't allowed one weapons inspector into, say, Porton Down, or anywhere else for that matter. The US wouldn't even sign up to the BTWC, and you can bet that even if they did, they wouldn't like anyone poking around in Nevada. As mentioned there was Saddam's treatment of his Kurdish population, but we let Turkey (an EU aspirant) get away with it, not least because they allow the West bases on their soil so that we can bomb, well, Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Then there was his non-compliance with UN resolutions, but we don't give the same treatment to Israel's Ariel Sharon (a war criminal since 1967, don't forget). Double standards, anyone? Could it be that the West are a bunch of hypocrites? You betcha. The fact is that nothing was going to stop Dubya, least of all the leader of the US inspection teams who asserted that Iraq's weapons capability had been degraded by 95% following Gulf War I and that they hadn't had time to re-arm to any significant degree; nor was Bush swayed by the CIA who had said that the stories from Iraq's defectors were not credible, and that they were only saying what they thought the US wanted to hear (often with the inducement of US dollars). Dubya just wanted to finish what daddy started (while, usefully, keeping the spotlight off domestic scandals like Enron and Worldcom. Bit of a coincidence...) after brother Jeb fixed the election for him ((Zimbabwe may be a more brutal fixing of an election, but a fix is a fix)). The plan for Gulf War II was written three years before Bush-baby's election in a document by the Writers for the New American Century (an ultra-conservative 'think tank'), and included contributions from Cheyney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowicz and Bremer, and that plan was (and is) about oil - the US being the most energy insecure nation on Earth - and money; can anybody say Haliburton? But things just didn't go according to plan, which is the dodgy thing about war (and peace), and no problems got solved.

That's because war does not solve anything, any more than terrorism or violence in general does. If it did solve anything how come Arabs and Israelis are still killing one another after millennia of conflict? If it did, how come after 17 years and 60,000 corpses nothing was settled in Sri Lanka until the parties stopped fighting? ((Not that it has stopped completely, and may well flare up again)) Pick a war, any war, and what you'll find at its heart is hypocrisy, stupidity, greed and intolerance. It's a business-as-usual world and very little changes. Here's Kim Stanley again: "It's interesting how little Sept. 11th changed anybody's point of view... Even though it was this horrific event... in the end everybody still came back with the same politics, the same solutions they had before. It didn't make any fundamental change." (my italics). He also makes comments relevant to what I was saying earlier about money: "In the 90's globalisation was the newest stage of capitalism, and the bulk of capital is in the West, so to much of the rest of the world it looks like a new form of imperialism. We may not have to send armies... out to our colonies, because we hold the mortgages on their lands and businesses. We get a big cut of their profits, and they are in debt to us. Their futures have been bought..." As you can see, not all Americans are stupid.

I called this piece "War! What is it good for?" (yes, after the line in the song) and it seems to me the answers are pretty apparent. War is good for: (i) Keeping those weapons exports rolling and the money coming in; (ii) Diverting attention away from embarrassing domestic situations in the West; and (iii) Producing lots & lots & lots of corpses (like some perverse form of population control). This is true no matter what conflict you look at, and there's no shortage of examples, sadly. Sierra Leone, Somalia, Rawanda, or the Democratic Republic of Congo; India and Pakistan having their own little Cold War; countries in South America, Africa, the Middle East (with Israel/Palestine taking centre stage); the Balkans, the former Soviet Union... The list goes on and on (and on and on and on). And, frustratingly, I doubt there's any solution. We just like killing each other too much. I can think of a couple of "no chance" SF solutions. My favourite (but least likely) would be if everybody in the world when told by a politician or soldier to go kill someone, instead killed that person, until there were no more fuckers left willing to tell you to go and kill. The second, given the current state of our culture, might be more attractive, taking my earlier comments about televised war into account. Take a nice big island, stick equal numbers of the warring factions at either end with equal amounts of weapons, and let them go at it for three months at a time. Televise the whole deal. Whoever has the greatest number of survivors at the end is the winner! Wow, just think of it! The viewing figures would be huge! What about a 'chainsaws only' month? The biggest problem here, I think, would be the size of the waiting list to get on the island, but perhaps I'm just being cynical...? Leaving such frivolities aside, perhaps the biggest failure of an SF/science perspective is that, despite genetics and beautiful space images of our lovely planet, sans the borders and place names of atlases, the people on that planet still fail to understand that we are all one people living on one home and that therefore there can be no enemies

War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Sing it again, chillun...

Tony Chester

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