War: still turning a profit for the world’s elites

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Milena Abrahamyan

20178-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

It is an understood and agreed-upon phenomenon that war – as defined by direct violence between apparently opposing groups, be it civilians or armed groups, whether insurgent or state militias – can be the consequence of social and economic inequalities.

There is a plethora of studies whose compelling arguments and evidence point to poverty and inequality as major contributing factors to violent conflict and war. Where people live under dire economic and social conditions, it is easy to offer pay as an inducement, especially for young men, to join militaries and fight either for the state or for non-state actors.

This is especially the case in contexts where the dominant conception of masculinity is one in which male family members are expected to be breadwinners and take care of their families. Yet all too often, the cause they will be asked to fight for does not benefit people who are economically deprived. Moreover, the injuries and deaths that ensue merely deepen the economic and social distress of the families from which these army recruits came.

It is rare that we question the fact that so much money is being used to fund wars, when it could instead be used to fight poverty and inequality. Globally, most media are owned and dominated by a very few, very powerful corporations, and the messages they convey to the masses typically justify wars or military interventions as “necessary” for the “defence of the nation”. Since the rise of the so-called War on Terror, most military interventions by Western and non-Western all over the globe, and especially those in oil-rich Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya, have been in some way or another justified as necessary to tackle “the terrorist threat”.

But one glance in the direction of large weapons manufacturers – which, not surprisingly, tend to be based in the same Western or non-Western states waging the War on Terror around the world – makes it obvious that where there is a surplus of weapons produced, they will be used. And for the most part, it is the world's poor who end up using those weapons against other poor people, in war':

In her book Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, Judith Butler talks about how certain lives “matter”, while others do not. As she observes: “Specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living”. Where I come from, it is usually young men from rural areas who lack the economic opportunities and connections that protect them from being put in harm’s way, who end up carrying out their compulsory two-year military service in the most dangerous border posts.

In contrast, young men from better-off families have the kind of connections that either ensure their “comfort” in the army, or help to (illegally) buy their freedom from serving in the first place. These patterns can also be seen in contexts where military service is not mandatory, but where most members of the armed forces are recruited from poor and low-income families, as in the United States.

Uncritical minds may look at the facts above and attempt to argue that there are many ways in which militarisation and war can help solve economic and social inequalities. But a growing economy – which often results when powerful countries are at war – does not necessarily mean that economic and social inequalities will be reduced on a global scale. If you are benefitting from exporting weapons abroad, as the US, Israel, Russia and Saudi Arabia do, it means that you are sponsoring destructive violence elsewhere: in Iraq, in Palestine, in Libya or Syria or countless other less-powerful nations where destruction makes economic and social inequalities worse for all.

So why is it that we so rarely hear about how social and economic inequality can both create, and be a consequence of, war and militarisation? Perhaps because what we usually hear is served to us through dominant narratives about war as inevitable, necessary, and simply the way the world operates. To conceive of war differently, we must first become cognisant of all the ways in which the world has been militarised and continues to be militarised, and how most of us lack the ability to conceive of a non-militarised way of thinking, perceiving, knowing, being or living.

Much of the normative narrative on war is based on the realist school of conflict theory, which argues that war is inevitable, and that states are merely defending themselves by having armies and weapons and going to war. The majority of feminist theories on conflict, however, perceive this way of thinking and knowing as drenched in patriarchal and masculinist ideology.

The deeply gendered notion that the world is inherently hostile, and that one must defend oneself from perceived enemies or impending attack and demonstrate power by using violent force, is actively practiced as a generally accepted form of masculinity in most parts of the globe. Using this patriarchal and militarised lens, women are infantilised as incapable of protecting themselves, and masculinity justifies its need to “defend” its borders, inside of which women are possessions owned by men much like any other material goods and commodities under the system of capitalism that currently dominates the world economy. Under such a patriarchal, masculinist, capitalist and militarised system, violence is the means through which any result favourable to that system can be achieved. What’s more, violence in any society merely fragments that society, rendering some as “haves” and most as “have-nots”.

In their global study of the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) writes that militarism “serves to uphold and perpetuate structural inequalities... entrench exclusion and marginalisation and create ingredients for a platform of broader inequalities that increase the potential for violent conflict to occur”. Where there are large corporations manufacturing arms, there will be environments exploited to dig up the raw materials to produce those arms, there will be people exploited to use those arms against others, there will be human lives lost, and the powerful few will reap the benefits of all this destruction while the rest of us suffer the consequences. As global military spending rises year after year, governments allocate fewer resources to education, healthcare and the general well-being of their populations. It is a recipe for rising inequality and the perpetuation of violence, whether through militarised war, police brutality, brutal border controls, economic disparity, higher levels of debt and increased poverty.

War and militarisation are merely institutions of violence that benefit those who sell the means through which that violence can be committed against lives that are rendered less valuable. To participate in any narrative that valorises and romanticises war and the military industrial complex is to indirectly participate in that violence and destruction. If we want to change the world for the better, we must change the narratives that contribute to growing inequality, violence and militarisation. Most of us gain nothing and lose much as a result of living in an increasingly militarised world. If we don’t start changing the conversation on war and militarisation now, tomorrow may well be too late.


Milena Abrahamyan is a 2018-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity. She is a feminist justice and peace activist, and founder of the feminist trust and solidarity-building initiative Beyond Borders: Linking Our Stories with Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian women. She tweets at @MilenaAbrahamya

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Photo credit: Alisdaire Hickson CC-BY-SA 2.0