My very personal response to PS21 Event April 17  —  ‘Changing Face of Conflict’.

First published in May 2018.

People like war.

The first time I heard someone say this, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.

How can anyone like war? Death, devastation, unbearable suffering that echoes down the generations?

In my mind, I heard the voices of my uncles and aunts, each of them maimed by war in their souls and some of them in their bodies. And behind them, the ghostly voices of those I never met, of those who were killed in the wars before I was born.

But the person who said it, many years ago, was a much admired teacher of psychotherapy. Someone who has devoted his life to trying to create new ways of processing conflict, so that it doesn’t lead to war.

So I listened. And tried to understand what he was saying. Some people like war.

This came back to me when I attended the PS21 event ‘Changing Face of Conflict’ on 17 April of this year inside Whitehall. I meant to write about it earlier but my fingers froze every time I tried to make them type this.

Let me say first that I really appreciate events like these. I can see how much effort goes into them. I appreciate being able to go to places that are usually closed to someone like me. I appreciate getting the opportunity to listen to experts in their fields, people who have achieved so much more than most of us ever will.

But... but still I have to write this.

It was exciting.

‘Ah  —  you have trouble with your pass.’ said the very tall, impeccably dressed gentleman. To me and another woman, both of whom happened to be Europeans but hopefully he couldn’t tell just by looking at us, or could he?

‘No’, I said, almost automatically and very firmly. ‘We are on the list.’ Somehow that felt important, being on the list, inside the doors of Whitehall.

Whatever it was, he fixed it. That happens to me again and again, when visiting places of power. Nice, well dressed gentlemen fixing things. Is this what they do all day? But back to my excitement.

It was exciting for me, and for many of us, to be led, at the tall gentleman’s long-legged pace, through the halls and wide imperial rooms of Whitehall, into beautiful courtyards with decorated columns and stylish horizontal waterfalls that reflected the clouds over London. He even escorted us to the (doors of) the ladies’ toilet.

It was exciting for me, a total outsider, and exciting for the two young fellow attendees I talked to, a student of international politics, and a PhD in war studies.

I was more than a little overwhelmed by the size and style of the buildings we traversed. They reminded me a bit of the English grammar school I attended many years ago, a little bit too grand for the current size and significance of the institution and oddly yet proudly run down in a shabby chic sort of way.

Because, of course, the buildings of Whitehall used to administrate a vast empire. Now they serve a medium sized country in economic and political decline, determined to decline itself even further in the near future.

Not that you would have guessed that if you had, for example, attended the event as a visitor from Mars instead of from anywhere on this planet.

The meeting was opened by Peter Apps, a charming and persuasive speaker, who told us straightaway that he was an active soldier in the Army Reserve and exchanged a smile with the gentleman nearest to him on the panel, Lt Gen Sir Graeme Lamb, whom he introduced as one of Britain’s best soldiers. This was the first of many such smiles and nods of mutual admiration between them, signaling membership in the same club, the club of killing.

And this is why I have to mention these smiles and nods. They were very much part of the presentation.

People like war  —  that quote came back to me right then.

I still don’t really understand it, but I could see it, right there in front of me. That sense of ownership of the planet, that sense of ‘we’  —  ‘our’ enemies, ‘our’ interests, ‘our’ response  —  yes, these were people who like war.

You may think I am biased.

Yes, I am biased.

But how can they like it? How can they speak so fondly of something so abhorrent?

Lt Gen Sir Graeme Lamb, Britain’s best soldier, was an excellent speaker.

He told us that there was a war going on already, and until lately it had only been fought on one side  —  on the ‘other’ side, against us. But now maybe ‘we’ had woken up which meant that ‘we’ had engaged with that war (meaning we were now fighting it too?). Finally and fortunately.

This man scared me, and he continued to scare me, in his well-muscled imperial way. He had great stage presence, very alert and engaged. That scared me even more  —  the fact that men like him have power. The fact that they are admired.

Two of the other speakers were experts on a specific aspect of war.

Stefan Soesanto, non-resident James A. Kelly Fellow (Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic and International Studies) gave an interesting summary of the current state of cyber war (hasn’t really started yet), and Emily Knowles, Programme Director, Remote Warfare Programme who mainly spoke of administrative matters, which were also very interesting except that I couldn’t forget what was being administered here. But again, the true nature of war was never mentioned.

She also spoke of the great ‘we’ but it seemed that women were still a little on the fringes of that warrriorly ‘we’  —  and I’m not sure what I was supposed to think about that.

The final speaker was an interesting addition. Zoha Waseem, PhD candidate on Urban Security, Policing, Terrorism and Religious Extremism (King’s College London) spoke impressively about the urban war scene in Karachi, a subject that didn’t seem to quite fit with the rest. It wasn’t integrated into the main discourse, at least not verbally.

But, in another way, of course it fit very well. I only had to look around and remember where we were. These were the very buildings that oversaw the atrocities of the British Empire, including, of course, Indian partition. Including the history of Karachi.

Of course not all problems in Pakistan and the region originate from the British Empire but the entire panel sat there, right there in the imperial buildings of Whitehall, and pontificated about British pluck and courage in winning the Second World war, Britain being a power of war for the good of humanity, on a panel that included that excellent expert on urban violence in Karachi, and didn’t even mention that British Empire ONCE... not once...

I don’t know what to say.

But I can tell you what it looked like.

To a visitor from Mars (without prior briefing by a civil servant of course…) it would have been clear that Britain (‘we’) was responsible for keeping the world in order, but had nothing to do with empires. It would have been clear that the only wars Britain had ever been involved in were the First and Second World Wars, mentioned frequently with a nostalgic smile, which it both won and was proud of and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the 20th century which ‘we’ somehow were forced into.

The Martian would have been completely unaware of the fact that the British Empire fought and created endless wars and conflicts, many of which are still ongoing. Wars and conflicts which killed and devastated many people.

The Martian would also have easily concluded that, at least based on the panel, humans like war. Nobody mentioned the reality of war. The death, the suffering that rings down the generations. Only I could hear it, in the remembered voices of the ghosts of my family.

How I wished to be a Martian then.

The evening was concluded by our host, Peter Apps, saying, in the direction of his warrior brother and Stefan Soesanto, whose ‘new war science’ they had been admiring throughout the panel (while the Soesanto himself downplayed its significance, depicting it in a somewhat downmarket fashion, telling us repeatedly that cyberwar is actually really cheap), ‘when I’m training my young soldiers, I feel that a bit like the generals before the First World War, training on horses while the planes and tanks were just beyond the horizon. I feel I can’t quite see it but I can sense it.’

Yes he was talking about new war technology which he seemed to be very excited about, but what I heard was the other part of what he said, accompanied by exchanging more nods and smiles with Britain’s best soldier.

What I heard and saw was the perceived glory of war, self-congratulatory nostalgia of Britain as a Major War Power with, of course, a silent, compliant empire at his feet, kept in its place through war and centuries of atrocities.

People like war. But not the people who have it inflicted on them.🔷

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[This piece was originally published on the PMP Blog! and re-published in PMP Magazine on 25 May 2018. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Unsplash/Neil Thomas - Wide angle shot of a war veteran cemetery filled with white crosses.)