Swans Commentary » swans.com August 10, 2009  



Babies, Arms Fairs, And Voices Of Reason


by Charles Pearson





(Swans - August 10, 2009)   This time of the year, even when the weather has made a mockery of the forecasters' talk of a barbecue summer for Britain, we can't go far without seeing announcements of fetes, carnivals, and fairs organised for our enjoyment and particularly for children. But a very different kind of fair is to take place in a few weeks' time in London; one of the biggest events on the international arms fair circuit, the Defence Systems Equipment International (DSEi). It takes place every two years, but this time there has been a change of organisers. After many protests, prominently by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), which I referred to in a previous article (How do they sleep at night?, Swans Commentary, December 3, 2007), Reed Elsevier were persuaded that involvement in an arms fair was not compatible with their better known business of publishing medical textbooks. CAAT's role in getting Reed to put morals (or expediency) above the bottom line has been highlighted recently, as its press officer at the time, Andrew Wood, won a victory for civil liberties when the Court of Appeal ruled that the police had illegally photographed him and kept his photos on a police file after he attended Reed Elsevier's Annual General Meeting.

Unfortunately, the incompatibility situation, more accurately described as hypocrisy, was not lessened when Reed Elsevier sold DSEi and two other arms fairs to Clarion Events. The wide range of exhibitions and trade fairs run by Clarion include -- wait for it! -- the Baby Show and the Spirit of Christmas.

Despite strong criticism from its customers, Clarion has continued to expand its arms fair portfolio and vigorously defend it. Astonishingly, it has tried to resurrect the claim that DSEi is not an "arms fair" but a "trade exhibition." I am happy to leave such linguistic distinctions to experts like Noam Chomsky, but DSEi themselves publicly promote the fair as "a place to do business." This immoral, lethal business is given the appearance of legitimacy because of the continued support of the UK government. It serves "only the legitimate global defence industry." No mention, naturally, that the more than one-third of the world's governments that are likely to be represented at the fair will certainly include those involved in wars of one sort or another and human rights abuses, as well as countries with desperately under-funded development needs. Adversaries will shop side-by-side for weapons to use against each other. In 2007, China, Libya, Columbia, and Saudi Arabia were among those invited. The fair will host over 1,350 companies, selling small arms, missiles, planes, tanks, and warships. Surveillance and riot control equipment will also be on show and likely to be in great demand in attempts to pacify the millions enraged by the escalation of sackings and unemployment worldwide.

A government department, UK Trade & Investment's Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO), exists to help private companies promote arms and make sales. Its support of DSEi is crucial to the fair's success. Even when abbreviated to UKTI DSO this department's name is quite a mouthful. The names seem to get longer but some things remain constant. Always "Defence," never, say, Promotion of Offensive Operations Department, or even War Department as in the old, more honest name. The modern term "Security" is meant, of course, to reassure us that we are in safe hands. I think just one more example of UKTI DSO's activities will be sufficient to illustrate why it should be abolished. Angola is one of the world's most war-ravaged countries -- over 40 years of wars, a more accurate term than "conflict" so often used these days. But despite this and the desperate poverty in the country, UKTI DSO is not only promoting military exports to Angola, it boasts about it.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has just published its 2009 yearbook, essential reading (at least part of this massive tome) for anyone interested in military spending in this debt-ridden world of ours. (1) The UK is fourth on the list of top spenders for 2008, $65bn, not much more than a tenth of the USA's expenditure, but more than half on a per capita basis or as a percentage of GDP. Shocking at a time when it has just been announced that the UK government's outstanding debt has risen to 56.6% of GDP, the highest since records began in 1974. More relevant to the arms fair scandal is the fact that the UK sits proudly in fifth place in the list of suppliers of major conventional weapons for 2004-2008.

Five Middle Eastern countries were amongst the top ten arms importers. SIPRI points out that although much media attention was given to arms deliveries to Iran, mainly from Russia, deliveries from the USA and European countries to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were significantly larger. Worryingly, these included long-range conventional strike systems. Another table in the SIPRI yearbook is of interest in relation to the reoccurring Korean crisis. South Korea is fourth in the list of recipients of major conventional weapons in 2004-2008, the great majority of them supplied by the USA, and its total military spending in 2008 was $24.2bn. It is difficult if not impossible to find reliable figures for North Korea's military budget (I believe I have seen estimates of 2 to 5bn dollars), but because its GDP is only a fraction of the South's (a twentieth a few years ago) and as it has only half the population, we can be sure it is well behind the South in that respect. When we add to the equation the overwhelming backing of the South by the USA, with both conventional and nuclear weapons, it seems strange that the impoverished North should be regarded as a threat. It is much easier to understand why the isolated North should feel threatened and cling to a nuclear deterrent, although I hope, like me, all Swans readers would love to see a world free of all such weapons. Nuclear deterrents, however, we are supposed to believe, are only a rational choice for major powers, restrained by their peace-loving citizens who are really in charge of their "democratic" governments. I think future historians, assuming there is much of a future, will find it hard to understand how double standards of this magnitude could still have been widely accepted in the 21st century. Unless they have learned who owned and controlled the mass media.

Sadly, there are few signs of significant challenges to the power and influence of armed forces worldwide; rather the reverse seems to be happening, including the growth of private armies. Just over ten years ago Nares Craig published a book, Alternative World, which I consider is still one of the best of its type. (2) A tank commander in WWII, he had first hand experience of the horrors of war, as did his wife who was a nurse in the Spanish Civil War. In the last chapter of his book he called for a worldwide movement to support a Manifesto that DEMANDED, not appealed for, the total destruction and permanent abolition of weapons of every size and type. Ironically, he thought the choice of January 1, 2001, for "D-Day" would have psychological advantages. It would have, but I don't think many people read his book and we all know that what happened in 2001 led to the seemingly never ending slaughter in the manufactured "War on Terror," a predictable outcome of the xenophobic "Clash of Civilizations" propaganda disseminated in the 1990s by Samuel P. Huntington and his supporters.

Eight years later, any rational person should wonder why Craig's idea seems too idealistic, even fanciful. Man's warlike nature? But as Craig pointed out, warfare has only been known to have taken place during the last 2% of the duration of mankind's existence. Anthropological evidence has increasingly revealed that cooperation between humans, rather than destructive competition, has been dominant in man's development. (3) Many neuroscientists now believe, since the discovery of the mirror neuron system, that we are "hard-wired" to care and connect. In a memorable comment primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal asserted, "You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions." (4) You can't get much more extreme than the shock and awe of death delivered from thousands of feet above virtually defenceless men, women and children, not to mention the incarceration for years, without trial but sometimes with torture, of people suspected of fighting back. And I think it is extreme for "armies of business" to fuel the holocaust in the Congo, so they can seize gold, diamonds, and coltan. (5) The rise in the profitable market for mobile phones, which require coltan, caused a surge in the killings, where already over 5 million had died.

Cindy Sheehan's recent book, (6) published as an e-book to avoid corporate involvement, is as anti-war as Craig's and also calls for action by citizens, but of a generally less ambitious kind, although if large numbers of US citizens followed her lead of refusing to pay income tax (she indicates how the personal risks of that action can be assessed) it could well stop the military machine in its tracks. Her call to oppose recruitment to the military, including the "economic draft," is also a valuable idea. However, if it was acted upon by sufficient numbers, I fear the state would react with force, i.e., conscription.

The stand taken by this courageous and resourceful woman is inspiring. Just as important as Sheehan's antimilitarism, provoked by the death of her son in Iraq, is her loud and clear message about who is most to blame for all the slaughter. She and Craig agree about that too, because as a class the biggest culprits were the same before 2001 as after -- the people who profit from wars as they also profit, but not often as quickly, in peacetime, from the exploitation of the rest of us in the capitalist system. Cindy Sheehan labels them the Robber Class, a down-to-earth description of those more often referred to as the power elites, ruling class, and masters of the universe. It links nicely with the infamous Robber Barons of the 19th century. And if they are the Robber Class we are the Robbed and, as emphasised in her book, it is high time we stopped helping them to maintain that power. An important factor in that power is the way money is created through loans and I was glad to see that covered in the book. (7)

As I wrote in my e-mail requesting the book, I wish there were more people like her. We should also greatly value American organisations of people who share at least some of her views, particularly Vets for Peace. I don't seem to have heard of anything comparable to that in the UK. On the other hand, Chomsky once lamented that the USA did not have something like our CAAT. Canada has the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade.

A few days ago, Harry Patch, the oldest British survivor of the trench warfare of WWI, died at the age of one hundred and eleven. Predictably, famous people from the Queen downwards (though it irks me to use a phrase like that) paid tribute to Harry, who was undoubtedly a remarkable man. What none of them mentioned, as far as I know, was that after refusing to talk about the war until he was a hundred years old, Harry Patch not only categorically condemned any war, he also attacked the hypocrisy associated with the national Remembrance Day. As I watched on TV our prime minister and foreign secretary pay homage to the war veteran, I experienced rage mixed with nausea, that two more actors in the age old game of power politics and war can still get away with such duplicity. Contrast this episode with what has filled our news bulletins recently; squabbles between the politicians about whether our troops in Afghanistan have enough helicopters. Nary a word about bringing the troops home, which Harry Patch would surely have advocated.

Craig's and Sheehan's proclamation of the futility of war echoes the declarations of more famous figures from the past, particularly Einstein, Mark Twain, and Marine Corps Major-General Smedley Butler. (8) When are enough people going to heed their words -- and act on them? If we don't, the alternative might be, "it's just gonna go on for ever or until they find some way to kill everybody." (9)

Cindy Sheehan ended her book with the words of the Beatles song "Revolution," but I want to finish with what was for me the most important of her statements:

The Robber Class is our enemy, not the Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Gazans or Venezuelans or whomever ...




1.  www.sipri.org. Last visited July 29, 2009.  (back)

2.  Nares Craig, Alternative World, Housmans Bookshop Ltd., London, 1997.  (back)

3.  Chris Harman, A People's History of the World, Verso, London, 2008, Prologue.  (back)

4.  Quoted by Gary Olson in, "Capitalism Short Circuits Our Moral Hard-Wiring," www.commondreams.org Dec. 20, 2008. Last visited July 29, 2009.  (back)

5.  Johann Hari, "How We Fuel Africa's Bloodiest War," The Independent Oct. 30, 2008.  (back)

6.  Cindy Sheehan, Myth America: 10 greatest Myths of the Robber Class and the Case for Revolution! 2009, www.CindySheehansSoapbox.com. Last visited July 30, 2009. The book can be downloaded if a donation is made to the site.  (back)

7.  Myth America pp. 43-48. Also see recent article by James Robertson, "Money from Nothing," Yes! Magazine, Summer 2009.  (back)

8.  A new edition of Smedley Butler's War is a Racket together with Mark Twain's The War Prayer is available via www.lexrex.com. Last visited August 4, 2009.  (back)

9.  Gloomy prediction of Asch, a character in Richard Bausch's remarkable novel Peace Tuscar Rock, (a new Atlantic imprint), 2009.  (back)


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About the Author

Charles Pearson worked as a research biochemist in British Universities and then in Canada at the University of Alberta. He retired early and settled with his wife in a small village near Cambridge, England. He writes short stories, mostly humorous, which have been published in small press magazines. Pearson is passionately interested in politics, but as a socialist he feels disenfranchised in the UK.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published August 10, 2009