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The myth of progressive war

About the author
Martin Shaw is research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (IBEI) and the University of Sussex, and professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at the University of Roehampton. His books include War and Genocide: Organised Killing in Modern Society (Polity, 2003); The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005); and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). His website is here

When it comes to war, we do not need myths. The myth of a "liberal peace", in which pacified societies bring about unbounded freedom and progress, may be as illusory as Christopher Cramer suggests in his openDemocracy article "The sense that war makes" (5 October 2006). But the myth that he himself propagates, of war as an agent of change that is likely to have as progressive as destructive consequences, is a dangerous one based on a perverse reading of contemporary politics.

Let me state first where I agree with Cramer. Certainly it is true that war is not merely caused by demonic individual leaders, although many such, like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, play very destructive parts. Mostly war is indeed not mindless, since it is usually pursued by states and movements whose leaders have clear, if not usually progressive, political goals. And the consequences of war are not always wholly negative. The second world war, for example, rid the world not only of fascism, but also spurred the removal of the antiquated system of rival empires that had largely caused it in the first place. In Britain, it created the conditions for the most important reforming government of modern times, which introduced the national health service and consolidated the welfare state.

Martin Shaw is professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex, where he teaches on the MA in war, violence and security. He is the author of Dialectics of War (Pluto, 1988), War and Genocide: Organised Killing in Modern Society (Polity, 2003), The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq
(Polity, 2005), and What is Genocide? (Polity forthcoming, December 2006). His personal website is at

Also by Martin Shaw in openDemocracy:

"The choice for protestors: anti-war or peace?"
(20 March 2003)

Martin Shaw is responding to the following openDemocracy article:

Christopher Cramer, "The sense that war makes"
(5 October 2006)

However if some wars then "come to be seen eventually as positive," this is the result of selective memory and ideological appropriation, not balanced historical judgment. We increasingly remember the 1939-45 war as a struggle between good and evil - the latter represented by the extermination camps. Yet we forget that the victorious allies had ignored the camps, and kept their knowledge from the world, during the period of their greatest murderousness. Liberating the camps was not what the allies' war was about. We gloss over the immense human suffering that resulting from their campaigns as well as from those of the Axis powers, and the fact that the war helped consolidate communist totalitarianisms in eastern Europe and China, quite as brutal as their Nazi counterpart.

Thus, even if some wars have some "progressive" political consequences, this does not vindicate them. By-products like greater democracy and the emancipation of women in British society - benefits not shared by all countries involved - do not justify the huge slaughter and suffering of the second world war. Cramer's celebration of contemporary wars in the global south as agents of "primitive accumulation", "class formation", "state formation", and "facilitators of capitalist development", sounds almost Stalinist in its subordination of human life to historical "progress".

The work of war

In any case, from the perspective of world history, there are reasons to believe that these dialectics of war, which produced some of its more progressive outcomes in the past, have begun to falter. Nuclear war, whether involving some of the new proliferators like North Korea and Iran or the old nuclear powers like the United States and China, is hardly likely to continue the forward march of history.

Most contemporary wars, while not simply criminal, nevertheless involve huge criminality. The tendency for wars to become genocidal, directly targeting civilian populations (as in Darfur at the present time), suggests a profound degeneracy that will have few positive consequences.

An alternative perspective is that the most important progressive consequence of the last century of war is the growing awareness that war is socially destructive, often counter-productive towards its professed aims, and, yes, often criminal. The anti-war consciousness that grew from the disillusionment with the great war of 1914-18, the Vietnam war, the danger of nuclear war, and now Iraq, is a sign of social maturity. The enhancement of the laws of war after 1945, with the Geneva conventions' new protection of civilians and the genocide convention, offers a possibility of criminalising war which is an important step forward for humankind, even if the struggle to implement it is an uphill one.

Thus it will not do for Christopher Cramer to tick off the United Nations Security Council for referring to the "mindless violence and carnage" in Rwanda in 1994. "Mindless" was indeed inaccurate, but the need to condemn the appalling violence and carnage was real. The more pertinent criticism, of course, concerned the UN's failure to follow up its words with effective action to protect the hundreds of thousands of threatened civilians.

Likewise, Afghan warlords may indeed "in some cases" be "showing an interest in peace when this underpins economic activity", and maybe there are no better options than to encourage this. But this hardly offsets the record of terrible damage to society as a result of thirty years of war and warlordism. This is the principal lesson we need to learn from Afghanistan.

The problem with Cramer's argument is that while correcting some of the flaws of liberal views of war, he provides sustenance for the view that war works. His recipe to policymakers - which includes "encouraging" processes such as "coercive capital accumulation" so that they they are "more likely to facilitate capitalist development than to get stuck in a rut of accumulation tussles" - cuts across a century's lessons. These have shown that for every "positive" effect of war there are many, more profound, features of social degeneration.

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