Monday, May 20, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Wars are us

Is the desire for war innate for us?

Update : 24 Feb 2024, 09:57 PM

The allusion to the toy store, Toys-R-Us, in the phrase "wars are us" may initially seem like a trivialization of war. Far from it, I am thinking of wars and their consequences in society since today marks the solemn two-year anniversary of the commencement of the Russia-Ukraine war, which ignited on February 24, 2022. 

This conflict, often described as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, wasn't a sudden onslaught; rather, it was preceded by weeks and months of escalating tensions as Russia amassed troops along the borders shared with Ukraine. While some interpreted this build-up as a means to exert pressure on Ukraine, few foresaw the eruption of a full-scale war.

During the summer of 2022, I had the opportunity to witness the repercussions first-hand during an academic visit to Germany. Ukrainian refugees, displaced by the conflict, found home in Germany, where they were warmly welcomed. Engaging with some of the Ukrainians during train journeys, I observed first-hand the resilience and fortitude amidst adversity. Remarkably, this period coincided with Germany's initiative to promote sustainable transportation, symbolized by heavily discounted train tickets, fostering a sense of solidarity, and reducing reliance on fossil fuels, and consequently, diminishing dependence on Russia.

The other play of word has an allusion to the US which is a short-hand for the United States of America. However, it prompts deeper reflection on the United States' historical involvement in conflicts. Despite the nation's controversial participation in numerous wars, it stood on the right side in the two world wars of the twentieth century.

As Eric Hobsbawm put it, “without doubt the most murderous century of which we have recorded by the scale, frequency, and length of the warfare which filled it.” The two world wars not only caused immeasurable loss of life and economic devastation, but it also called into question the very idea of rational West and the supposed superiority of Western civilization.

Carl von Clausewitz famously stated that war is a continuation of politics by other means. While this observation doesn't justify war, it underscores the normalization of conflict. It provides a lineage to Hannah Arendt's concept of the "banality of evil."

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which commenced on February 24, 2022, wasn't a sudden event but rather the culmination of tensions brewing since the Maidan protests of 2013 and even earlier. The historical ties between Ukraine and Russia, dating back to the Russian Empire, further contextualize this conflict.

The rise of the military budget in Europe and worldwide is a direct consequence of war. The London-based IISS found that non-US members have collectively increased their military spending by 32% in the decade since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, with most of the growth occurring in the past two years.

Defence expenditure has been growing annually since the original commitment to a 2% target was agreed in 2014, but until the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 this increase had hovered around a $10 billion per year increase. 

The US Department of Defense's proposed budget for 2024 is $842 billion. That is about 3.5% of the U.S.'s GDP.  NATO also towed the line prescribed by the US and raised its military budget with a proposed 11% increase in defence spending across Europe and Canada across 2023, a year when 18 individual countries spent more than 2% of their GDP on defence projects. 

2024 is set to mark the second successive year with an increase in spending on defence of more than $30bn by European countries, going from $313bn in 2022, to $347bn in 2023, to $380bn in 2024.

Worldwide military spending surged by 9% year on year in 2023 to hit a record $2.2 trillion as multiple conflicts ratcheted up global insecurity, according to a new report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies released on February 13, 2024.

There is always a trade-off between defense spending and spending on development assistance. 

Total military spending for OECD countries increased by 3.7% between 2013 and 2022 reaching $1,320bn. During the same period, official development assistance (ODA) increased by 1% reaching $211.3bn. 

Of the global military expenditure of $2.2 trillion, the US accounts for 40.5%, the rest of NATO 17.3%, China 10%, Russia 4.8%, and the rest of the world accounts for the remaining 27.4% according to a recent paper published by the Stockholm-based International Peace Research Institute or SIPRI, a highly respected thinktank.

Is belligerence or war rooted in human nature? If we hold the view that war is embedded in our nature, we quote Thomas Hobbes who endorsed the view that life in the state of nature was a constant war of each against all. And those who take the view that human nature is peace-prone, they draw from Jean Jacques Rousseau who argued that in the state of nature, life was peaceful and cooperative. We were “noble savages.” How did we become hostile and belligerent savages? Is it greed, a lust for property?

Charles Tilly's assertion that state-making is intertwined with war-making suggests that conflicts are deeply embedded in our societal structures.

The phrase "wars are us" serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring prevalence and impact of warfare on human societies. As we live in an increasingly complex geo-political space, understanding the root causes and consequences of wars remains essential if we care for a more peaceful world.

Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociology professor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi who previously taught at the National University of Singapore.

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