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07 January 2014

The legacy of war- last 100 years of war

In unforgettable encounter in Graham Greene`s The Quiet American set in the 1950s, during waning French colonialism in Indochina finds the protagonist Thomas Fowler, a middle-aged, cynical British journalist, accompanying French pilot Captain Trouin as an observer on a B-26 sortie in Northern Vietnam. Fourteen times Trouin and Fowler`s B.26 dive-bombs a target nestled deep amidst mountains, before climbing back up and aligning for the next strike. Bombs are released, machine guns roar and the smell of cordite fills the cockpit as Fowler feels the weight lift of f his chest and his stomach fall away,`spiralling down like a suicide to the ground.

Although this continues for 40 minutes, Fowler`s lofty view from 3,000 meters gives no indication of the target, whether it is hit, or of the casualties.

His job done, Captain Trouin turns the B-26 towards home, when without warning, the protagonist finds the plane diving again, tearing away from the `gnarled and fissured forests` and screaming over `neglected rice fields,` aimed like a bullet at a lone sampan idling on the river.

`The cannon gave a single burst of tracer, and the sampan blew apart in a shower of sparks.`The plane gained altitude for the final time, and again set a course for home having added its `little quota to the world`s dead.` Satisfied, Captain Trouin addresses Fowler: `We will make a little detour. The sunset is wonderful on the calcaire. You must not miss it.` Fowler describes him as a `kindly host ... showing the beauty of his estate, and for a hundred miles we trailed the sunset over the Baie d`Along.

This encounter, although understated when compared to the grisly descriptions of war, is startling in its binaries: French imperialism (by the late 1940s increasingly financed by the United States) verses a primordial Vietnamese impulse for selfdetermination; the idyllic sampan symbolising an age-old affinity between humans and Asia`s life-sustaining rivers versus the fighter-bomber, a product of the Western war-making machinery; the merciless extermination of an unthreatening boat followed by an act as genteel as enjoying a sunset. And yet, when scrutinised carefully, these same binaries essentially, the choosing of war versus not appear not as opposites, and more as shards fused across the torn and shattered landscape of the last 100 years of human history, a continuum in which war and non-war sometimes occur simultaneously, other times have one giving way to the other, all the time remaining part of macro-historical processes that made the modern world: industrial expansion, imperial exploitation, transnational capitalism, virulent nationalism, ideological and religious fundamentalisms.This year the world shall mark one hundred years to the start of the First World War (1914-1918), the first conflict in history that claims to have singularly engulfed much of humanity. Twenty-fourteen shall also herald the rollback of foreign militaries from Afghanistan, an event of extreme regional importance, and of no small global significance, either. As we pause to take stock of these two pivotal events separated by a century and along the way reflect on literally what are countless acts of violence against humanity in between one thing that shall be starkly clear is that this was humanity`s most violent century. As authors and humanists, we need to ask: how do we explain this? Conventional explanations for war invariably return to the Westphalian idea of state sovereignty, a concept that came about following the namesake treaty in 1648 that temporarily brought respite to a Europe torn apart by decades of war; from the Treaty of Westphalia on, war was increasingly seen as resulting from aberrations of state sovereignty. But Westphalian ideals of sovereignty tend to compartmentalise war, where each conflict is seen to stem from a series of events unique to it: the First World War from alliances between the Great Powers (Britain, France, Germany, the Ottoman Empire and Russia) and the murder of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914; the Second World War from the rise of the National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s and Japanese imperialism in Asia beginningwith the establishment of a puppet regime in Manchuria Manchuguo in 1931; the Korean War with the crossing of the 38th parallel in the summer of 1950; the Vietnam War with the Gulf of Tonkin `incident` in August 1964, and so on. Put another way, our conventional understanding of war describes it as a process with a cause, a beginning, and an end.

My purpose is not to dispute wellestablished causes of war, nor to reduce this centenary to a symbolic passage of time. Rather, as a historian I am perplexed that the First World War at the time dubbed as `the war that will end all war` by author H.G. Wells in fact, gave way to a hundred years in which we, as humanity, scarcely had a moment`s peace.

Furthermore, given how organised violence by or against the state has emerged as a permanent backdrop to our lives the ubiquitous `new normal` should we not rethink war as an aberration of state sovereignty and as an event with a beginning and an end? Instead, should war not be a process that has played as a background throughout our wretched century, a process of modernity where the early-20th century ratio of one civilian death for every ten soldiers` death would reverse itself a hundred years later? Should not the dirty wars of South America, the resource wars of central and west Africa, the proxy wars of southern Africa and in the Horn of Africa, the genocidal exterminations of indigenous people in Central America in the 1980s, the out-of-control and undeclared `9/11 wars`across Afro-Eurasia, the pogrom against religious and ethnic minorities in so many parts of the world, including Pakistan, all be considered global wars in how they were triggered and sustained by global processes? Is this not the most enduring legacy of this century of war? The centenary of the First World War shall sooner or later turn to the issue of casualties, of which there were about 20 million. When added with the casualties of the Second World War (1939-1945) and those from the 20th and 21st century conflicts that followed, the number of war casualties between 1914 and the present creeps upward of 150 million. The horror of these statistics aside, I am compelled to note as historian and humanist that an endearing legacy of our century of war is how commonplace war has become. `I wanted to live outside of history,` the protagonist in J. M. Coetzee`s Waiting for the Barbarians reflects remorsefully, `I wanted to live outside the history that Empire imposes on its subjects.` But like the magistrate in Coetzee`s masterful novel, this luxury is not ours, and likely shall not be in this lifetime. As a humanity, our plight is perhaps more like Thomas Fowler`s on the homeward flight of the B-26, looking wistfully out of the cockpit, trailing a sunset along the limestone cliffs of the Ha Long Bay as the `wounds of murder cease to bleed.` E Hasan H. Karrar is an Assistant Professor of History at the Lahore University of Management Sciences


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