Century of slaughter

A system that breeds bloody wars

"I HAVE seen refugees in Africa, but when you see crying refugees with shattered lives in central Europe at the end of the 20th century, it almost beggars belief." They are the words of a BBC reporter about Kosovo.

The NATO bombing and its horrific consequences show that the 20th century is ending as it began—punctuated by war. The century opened with promises from the leaders of the world's empires about a new dawn of peace and prosperity. But every decade for the last 100 years we have seen ordinary men and women slaughtered, maimed, and psychologically shattered by the effects of war. Millions have also died from the side effects of war—from disease, famine and the mass migration of refugees.

Each time the world's powers and their warmongers in the press present their goals in the most noble of lights. They say their wars are against tyranny and evil, and for democracy and liberation. The reasons change over the years. But each time lies are pumped out to mask the truth of what all wars are about—power, control, and the ability of the world's rulers to carve up the globe and make profit. And in every war the rich and powerful of each nation send ordinary working class soldiers to die for them.

The vietnam War was justified as a fight against tyranny and for democracy. One million people died

Capitalism is the most bloody society in history. From its beginning capitalism has spawned wars for colonies, gold, slaves, oil, opium, cheap labour and "strategic advantage". Competition between rival capitalists drives them ever onwards in the pursuit of profit. This is not a peaceful process. As rivals go bust and capitalist concerns get bigger, they increasingly rely on using the state and the military machine for their own advance. The 20th century has been the most bloody because, alongside the competition for markets and resources, capitalism also creates the technology and the weaponry of death on an enormous scale.

The First World War of 1914-18 was a war for colonies. Britain ruled a third of the world while France controlled half of Africa and Indo-China. The German ruling class came later to the race, and so had only a few colonies and wanted more. The British government knew it could only get ordinary people to back war if it convinced them terrible horrors were being committed against innocent people. It did everything to demonise the German ruling class and its army. There were lies in the press about German soldiers in Belgium raping nuns and mutilating children. A committee of lawyers and "historians", headed by former US ambassador Lord Bryce, stated: "Murder, lust and pillage prevailed over many parts of Belgium on a scale unparalleled in any war between civilised nations during the last three centuries."

Later investigations could not corroborate a single story. The committee's findings were based on statements from unnamed Belgian refugees who had not witnessed these events and all the statements mysteriously "disappeared" from the Home Office. At the same time the government censored pictures of dead troops, news of defeats and the reality of the trenches.

Ten million were left dead by the First World War. A new international order was declared by the victorious powers—Britain, France and the US. They said it was the war to end all wars. But within 20 years the world was torn up again on an even bigger scale by the Second World War of 1939-45. A massive slump in the 1930s intensified economic competition between the world's big powers.

Today the war is celebrated as a war against fascism and Hitler's dictatorship in Germany. Ordinary soldiers were rightly motivated by the fight against Hitler and the Nazis. They saw it as a war for democracy. But the world's rulers fought for their own interests. The British ruling class fought to maintain the British Empire, particularly in the Middle and Far East. The US wanted to replace Britain as the world's dominant power, and wanted to fight off competition from the Japanese ruling class in the Pacific. The rulers of Japan wanted colonies in Indonesia, Malaya and South East Asia for their oil supplies. The result was 50 million dead.

If the great powers were interested in defeating Nazism, why did they not bomb the railroads to the gas chambers? Why did they not allow Jews fleeing Hitler free entry into Britain? One of the final acts of the Second World War was the US dropping an atomic bomb on an already beaten Japan that the US knew was about to surrender. The end of the Second World War ushered in the era of the Cold War. Competition between the old Soviet Union and the West led to more war.

Within five years of the end of the Second World War there was war in Korea. The US said it was a war against communism and for freedom as the country entered the McCarthy era of witch hunts against anyone on the left. In reality the US and the Soviet Union fought out a bloody episode of the Cold War at the expense of the people of both North and South Korea. The US used saturation bombing and the chemical weapon napalm in Korea. Around two million civilians were killed in Korea, and 100,000 children were left orphaned. Initially the military authorities were slow to introduce censorship. One shaking US soldier was reported saying, "Are you correspondents telling the people back home the truth? Are you telling them that we have nothing to fight with and that it is an utterly useless war?" The army quickly moved to rule out any criticism of decisions made by United Nations commanders or the conduct of allied soldiers on the battlefield.

The Korean War was quickly followed by the Vietnam War. Again the US said it was a war against dictatorship for democracy and civilisation. In the name of "civilisation" the US dropped more bombs on Vietnam than it did during the whole of the Second World War. The US rained down bombs on Vietnamese civilians and sprayed chemical weapons napalm and Agent Orange over fields and villages. One million died in Vietnam. Another million died when the US spread its bombing to Cambodia. Some 55,000 US troops lost their lives.

At the end of the Cold War in 1989 we were again promised a new world of progress and peace. Yet within a year Saddam Hussein was proclaimed the "new Hitler". The press fed out stories about how Saddam's army raped air hostesses in Kuwait and ripped babies from hospital incubators. Only a handful of people challenged these stories. Later it was revealed that they were all lies. Children did die from the allied bombing raids and are still dying as a result of sanctions. The multi-billion pound arms business guzzles resources whilst babies die for lack of nourishment, the old and the sick go without care, and the homeless and the poor suffer.

The century has seen the repeat of a terrible cycle. Lies are poured out to excuse the killing. Then a few years later it is often hard to find anyone to defend the slaughter. Today many politicians, historians and military figures say the First World War was senseless. It is difficult to find defenders of Thatcher's war in the Falklands. Many people now say the Gulf War of 1991 was a war for oil. But at the time the government and the press whipped up war fever, denouncing anyone who opposed those wars.

It is not good enough to oppose wars years after they have finished. Opposition must be immediate. There is also another side to the terrible cycle of war. Each time those who fight are hailed as heroes, only to be abandoned once they are no longer necessary. Many soldiers of the First World War went from the trenches to the dole queues or begging in the streets. Vietnam veterans were left rotting in dilapidated hospitals and today those who suffer from Gulf War syndrome are ignored.

Capitalism breeds war. But it also breeds revulsion at war. Opposition to the Vietnam War in the 1960s helped radicalise a generation. Today we must do everything in our power to oppose NATO's war in the Balkans but also to tie that opposition to the system that breeds war, and to the fight for a better world that can end war altogether.