Thursday, 5 April 2012

War, Peace and Cups of Tea

An overcast late afternoon in traffic-choked Jakarta. What better time to sit around in a cafe with a couple of friends over pots of Jasmine tea and hot chocolate and talk about, war? My friend Connie, long haired, with an attractive face, lively eyes and an intelligence that is matched by her articulacy, decries the country’s abysmal spending on defense. At the moment, less than 1%, when ideally it should be 5%.

I look at her ingenuously. And what can 5% do that less than 1% cannot? (I’ve never been very good at math). A lot. She explains. Our military can buy better fighter planes to defend our motherland and better warships to patrol our seas. From America? I ask. So we can have as good fighter planes as the US? Yes, from America, and no, we can’t buy the ones as good as they have. They will only sell us the not-so sophisticated versions.

How about if we buy the planes from China? Will they sell us their best fighter planes? They will sell us their planes, but not as good as the ones they have. By now, I’m thoroughly confused. So, what good are having all these fighter planes if we can’t protect ourselves from America or China? These planes are important to defend our territory from the enemies, Connie explained patiently. The strength of a country is measured by the strength of her defense. Besides, we’re friends of America and China. They see us as very strategic.

Bill, my other friend, who’s been listening with interest, interjects. Well, if they think that this country is of strategic interest, they wouldn’t let anyone attack us. They would defend us with their sophisticated war machines. We wouldn’t need to buy weapons from them. How about if we leave the defense to them and use that extra spending she proposes for something else a lot more useful, like health and education?

But I’m still curious about the idea of defense. Who are we defending ourselves against? Who, these days, are our enemies, really? Fortunately Connie is patient with her answers. There is of course the threat of radicalism and terrorism, the threat of national disintegration and the country imploding due to internal conflicts and tension, other people stealing our resources, global warming etc.

Can the military with their expensive war weapons deal with that? I ask, trying to imagine how the expensive fighter planes fit into the scenario. Isn’t it more of a question of strengthening the community, creating a feeling of inclusion and a sense of common objective as well as better policing with very little expensive arms needed?

Actually, Connie confesses, defense in this country is separate from security. We have the military dealing with defense and the police with security. It’s all very confusing and inefficient, especially when you can’t tell whether something is a security issue or a defense issue. These are things that the country still needs to solve. Our problems are still at the level of lack of basic capacity. In any case, we’re talking about spending money that we don’t have.

We go back to defense spending. Connie tells me that wars in the twenty-first century will be fought over religious conflicts, energy and trade. The world’s largest spending is on the military. Meanwhile, spending on things like basic health, water sanitation, women reproduction and education, is infinitesimal by comparison. On the global level, humans spend huge amount of money to allay their imaginary fears rather than on efforts that would better their daily lives.

Bill has a point. Perhaps it’s time to think out of the box. Instead of imagining war, why not imagine peace and do away with the need for the military altogether? My inner hippy embraces this idea. Resources, trade, energy, religious differences need not be fought over. They can and should be shared, while differences resolved peacefully, just like our mothers taught us. Spending money on so-called human security ultimately only buys us further insecurity as we create for ourselves a world built on suspicion and fear. And this kind of world we all know, is not a pleasant one to live in.

What would the results have been in Afghanistan, says Bill, if 10% of the Allies war expenditure had been divided up and given in cash to each person in Afghanistan with a message “This is for you to prosper, we hope you will remember that health and education are the cornerstones of development – and that war kills innocent people. With love from your white cousins overseas.”

Just like the John Lennon song, we can all imagine living in peace. Actually, looking back at our long and bloody history, these days we’re all leading a much more peaceful life on the global scale than we have ever experienced before, with less and less countries at war with one another. The era of the arms race should be well behind us by now. Our global challenges are less the rogue countries with warlike tendencies, but poverty, inequality, over population and climate changes where arms and military solutions may not be the answer.

And yet the selling and buying of arms continue, with the weapons and war machines becoming more and more sophisticated and expensive. Because fear and imaginary threat is good for business. Especially if you’re in the lucrative arms trade.

(Desi Anwar: first published in The Jakarta Globe)

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