During U of T’s Remembrance Day ceremonies, our news editor went out to find out whether or not students believe we have learnt lessons from the wars of the last century. The opinion of most students in the audience was that sadly, we have not.
There was a deep tone of despair contained in those responses—we believe we are unable to stop wars from occurring, yet realize that these wars accomplish nothing. Or, more accurately, while wars may rearrange the balance of power and may bring to an end to cruel, perhaps even genocidal regimes, they come at horrible costs, have uncertain ends and seem incapable of meeting that ultimate goal—the end of war itself.
With each decade we get better and better at snuffing out the lives of other human beings. Even before the present conflict in Afghanistan began, conservative estimates tell us that 1,000 military personnel and 5,000 civilians died each day in armed conflict around the world. This year, for the first time, those numbers have been put into perspective for our generation.
And it hurts.
The despair in our voices at this time of year comes from the fact that we are the ones who will inherit this mess. We’re not writing this to pour vinegar in the open wound. Nor are we about to propose we know how to solve this, mankind’s longest running problem. But we do hope that the people reading this, the soon-to-be-crowned economic and political elite, will manage to at least slow the speed at which we kill one another.
That can not happen until we address the global arms trade. We say this not to be preachy, but because it is a basic tactic for peace. If we all agree that we do not want war, we must at some point begin to dismantle the barriers to peace. And the biggest barrier is built of arms. And by big, we mean inconceivably huge—some $1 trillion sold internationally each year.
Guns kill people. Bombs kill people. Fighter jets, battleships, and tanks kill people. They cannot build. They only kill. And yet, these instruments of death are the most traded goods in the world. Once sold or given away—as they are now by the truckload to the Northern Alliance, for instance, or as they were by the U.S. in the ’80s to Osama bin Laden and his forces—these weapons do not stop being used after one conflict. They continue to kill and oppress for decades to come.
We have been conditioned to think this is the way it must be. That by dropping our weapons we will be trampled. Yet we now know that keeping our guns raised—as in the case of the US, with a full one-third of its budget devoted to military expenditure—does not protect us.
Besides, we are not even saying to drop the guns at this point. It would be a start just to stop making them. As long as new weapons are in continual development there will exist both the need for developed countries to unload their “older models” and also a need to test these new weapons in real world circumstances. The trade numbers don’t lie.
If stopping the weapons trade seems impossible, it may be helpful to recall the example of landmines—a matter where Canada, a small country without much military force, played a major role. Twenty years ago the campaign to halt landmines would have seemed foolish as well. Now, the only thing that seems foolish is the US’s refusal to sign on.
Couple gradual disarmament with true peacekeeping and you have a clearing on the long road to a lasting peace. By true peacekeeping what is meant is not more fearful, imposed stalemates, but a redirection of military effort toward ensuring our peacekeepers are intensively trained; able to know their history, know the language, and build the social infrastructure that doesn’t leave desperate people fighting for crumbs. Expensive? Not compared to the price of one F18.
It is not naïve to say that we can at least try to address the problem of war—to learn our lesson. What is naïve is to think if we produce $1 trillion in weapons each year that there will ever be lasting peace.