Bruce Bisset: War - what is it good for?

By Bruce Bisset

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John Key's casual absolution of the US for killing a New Zealand citizen in Yemen on the grounds he was a suspected terrorist is chilling, says Bruce Bisset. Photo / Glenn Taylor
John Key's casual absolution of the US for killing a New Zealand citizen in Yemen on the grounds he was a suspected terrorist is chilling, says Bruce Bisset. Photo / Glenn Taylor

A century after the "war to end all wars" began, what have we learned about conflict and how best to resolve it?

Given more people have died in wars since the start of World War I than arguably in all wars before, the answer is: absolutely nothing.

Right now there are dozens of wars being fought all over the globe: some international conflicts, some civil insurrections, some more shadowy ill-defined acts of terror and counter-terror.

And for all the new-fangled technology and constantly-upgraded armaments that are employed, the essential nature of war remains: people killing other people for reasons prosaic and insane.

Prosaic because picking up a gun and shooting your neighbour because you disagree with him or her seems almost a matter of instinct; insane because the only lasting outcome is a deep abiding enmity that fuels a resumption somewhere down the track.

I am always conflicted by the Anzac Day remembrances and the call to honour the "glorious dead". Nothing about war is glorious, regardless of who wins; and if the dead could speak, their first utterance would be to ask why.

No war is "good" or "just" or "necessary" from the standpoint of the aggressor, though those assaulted may have excuse to apply such tags in defending themselves.

Unfortunately since the mass of humanity seems inclined to take up arms on the flimsiest pretext, the warlords and demigods of hatred find war all too easy to pursue.

At base, in one form or another, all wars share the same trigger: greed.

The "war against terror" is no different. Rooted in an ancient conflict, twisted out of all rationality by religion, the born-again Crusaders and their mostly-Muslim foe battle for territory that is resource-full and strategic. Be that the deserts of the Middle East, the rainforests of Southeast Asia, or the varied landscapes of sub-Saharan Africa.

Like it or not, that war is coming home to us here. The SAS, with their history of covert operations across Borneo and Bougainville and Afghanistan, have inexorably drawn New Zealanders into the nebulous game of terror and counter-terror - on both sides.

Or should I say, the SAS at the behest of the politicians, who see "trade benefits" (yes, greed) in helping the war-mongers.

And when Kiwis are killed in action? If they're obedient uniformed soldiers, they're praised and decorated. If their conscience dictated they should refuse to fight or, worse, join the other side, they're vilified.

John Key's casual absolution of the US for killing a New Zealand citizen in Yemen on the grounds he was a suspected terrorist is chilling for two reasons: first, being outside any legal process that "suspicion" was not (and apparently never will be) tested; and second, because if the Government condones arbitrary murder in one place, it is a small step to condoning it anywhere.

Recall the CK Stead novel Smith's Dream - and the movie Sleeping Dogs, based on the book - with its armed "Specials" lethally enforcing the dictates of a neo-fascist government.

Given we've already had the botched "terror" raids in the Urewera Ranges, and the Dotcom mansion being stormed under US advisement, would Key call in US special forces if a genuine terrorist threat existed here?

Quite possibly.

So while it may be drawing a long bow to compare Key's position with that of Volkner, the fictional Prime Minister in Smith's Dream, this anonymous death in Yemen is a step in the same direction.

And who will remember his death, today?

"War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing." (Edwin Starr, 1969)

That's what must be remembered.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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