The Need For War
issue 163 - September 1986
Dr Strangelove and Mr Geldof
Everybody is in favour of peace. But Lindsey Hilsum argues
that sometimes the best way to attain it is by using guns.
'BREAD not bombs,' says the slogan. But the equation is not always so simple.
Look, for instance, at Mozambique. There has been famine in parts of that country since 1983. The causes are multiple: drought, poverty and economic collapse. Also war. A group calling itself Renamo, backed by Mozambique's powerful and hostile neighbour, South Africa, is trying to overthrow the country's socialist government. Bands of armed men are not only killing people, but also contributing to the famine as they attack peasants tilling the land, burn down granaries and destroy fields of standing corn.
The Mozambican Government is too poor to cope alone, so it asked the rest of the world to help. And organisations such as OXFAM have given food, seeds, tools and medicine, Yet, without military assistance, it is hard to get those supplies to the people.
Renamo has turned convoys of lorries carrying food and medical supplies into prime targets for attack. During 1984, Inhambane province was one of those worst affected by famine. The Swedish Government donated 30 desperately needed trucks to distribute food aid. Within a few weeks, half a dozen of those trucks had been blown up and had their contents looted by Renamo. One aid worker commented: 'What we needed was a couple of helicopter gunships to protect the trucks'.
A briefing paper for the International Year of Peace informs us that 'A modern tank may cost around $1.5 million. This is enough money to provide storage for 100,000 tons of rice, or classrooms for 30,000 children'. Yet if the rice store is going to be dynamited and the classrooms destroyed, then the government is going to have to spend money on defence as well.
If we really want to help the people of Mozambique, military aid may even be the best kind to give. If the Mozambican army were better trained and equipped, it would be able to protect the peasants growing their own produce. Then there would be less need for food aid in the first place.
Behind this argument lies the assumption that the Mozambique Government is better than Renamo. That's called political choice. While the Mozambique Government is not perfect, I believe that if it gave up fighting and allowed Renamo to take over the country, the people would suffer more. The white South Africans who back Renamo would obviously disagree.
The peace movement in the West does not make such political choices - it is not for one side or the other. It focuses on the immorality of the weapons themselves and thus avoids questions of justice and self-determination. Very few people like war, or think it is desirable, but in certain circumstances it may be the only path to change.
In some parts of Latin America, for example, ordinary people have decided to fight rather than passively accept the power of rich landowners in collusion with right-wing military dictatorships. Their decision has led to war in countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador.
A Salvadorean peasant explained to US pacifist Charles Clements why the poor do not always choose peace, and why they sometimes resent the anti-war stance of concerned foreigners. 'You gringos are always worried about the violence done with machine guns and machetes. But there is another kind of violence that you must be aware of too,' he said. 'To watch your children die of sickness and hunger while you can do nothing is a violence of the spirit. We have suffered silently for too many years. Why aren't you gringos concerned about that kind of violence?'
In the West today the peace movement is primarily concerned with the issue of nuclear weapons and the East/West conflict. Yet today's wars are being fought in the Third World with conventional weapons. Some of these are being financed and encouraged by the superpowers. In other cases, it's hard to understand all the arguments - there is not always a 'right' and a 'wrong' side, and it is by no means always appropriate for outsiders to interfere. Yet there are wars where fundamental issues of justice and independence are at stake, and it's not enough to suggest that everyone drops their weapons and gets on with development.
In 1985, that did happen briefly in El Salvador. UNICEF negotiated a three-day ceasefire between Government troops and the guerillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) while the country's children were immunized against five killer diseases. The result was both positive and negative.
On the one hand, over 200,000 children were vaccinated on each day of the campaign. Many of those children would otherwise have died of measles or whooping cough, or been disabled by polio.
On the other hand, the campaign changes nothing. Why is immunization coverage in El Salvador so low? Because the succession of right-wing governments which have run the country have not provided adequate health-care facilities. And - even worse - because the army is persecuting and killing nurses, doctors and paramedical staff. In June 1985, police and national guards stormed five hospitals and 20 clinics in the capital, San Salvador, pulling patients from their beds, tying them up and forcing them to lie on the floor. This year, health workers caring for civilians displaced by the war have been targeted by Government-supported death squads, while the army claims to have destroyed 23 clinics and hospitals in FMLN-held territory between January and May 1986.
The immunization campaign diverts our attention from the systematic destruction of what little health-care service there was, and allows us to think that maybe the Salvadorean government and army are 'not so bad really -
While supporting efforts to provide humanitarian assistance during war, I do not think we should allow our attention to be diverted. We should not only be concerned that one day the Bomb may drop on us, but also about the issues which force the poor - like the people of El Salvador - or the besieged - like the Government of Mozambique - to take up arms.
Lindsey Hilsum is a freelance journalist based In Nairobi, Kenya.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.