Chris Harman

Thinking it through

A drama without a plot

(December 2001)

From Socialist Review, No.258, December 2001.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

War raises the chaos of the capitalist system to new levels, argues Chris Harman

As I write this, the first phase of US imperialism’s war in Afghanistan has been drawing to a climax. But the wider war seems far from over, as the unexpectedly rapid capture of Kabul by the Northern Alliance throws up a mass of political questions the US has no quick answer to. And the impact of the war on people across the world is still enormous.

Any society proceeds most of the time according to routines that vary little from day to day. People eat, relax and sleep in order to work – and work in order to eat, relax and sleep. To a large extent they tailor their ideas of what is possible to these rhythms. Even those who want to change the system in its entirety can end up half accepting that things cannot be that different.

War disrupts these rhythms – even a war where the suffering is several thousand miles away as with the war against Afghanistan. Suddenly social and political developments are speeded up incredibly, following a logic that seems quite foreign to that of only days before.

Yet in class societies – and especially in capitalist societies – wars occur with horrifying regularity. There have been four involving Britain in just 19 years – and that is if you exclude the long drawn out near-war in Northern Ireland.

The strange logic of war is part of the wider logic of capitalism. ‘War’, as Von Clausewitz, the German military theorist of the 19th century, put it, ‘is the continuation of politics by other means.’ The same ruling groups that previously struggled for dominance using the methods of price cutting, technical advance, advertising and downright cheating now use crude force dressed up in language about national honour and human rights. Instead of parading their cotton goods or car models on the market, they send their tanks and bombers into action. They pursue the same aims with a different method. But the method of war speeds things up enormously, and in the process creates vast areas of unpredictability.

When they are engaged in economic competition with each other, capitalist groups usually bring in new products over time, carefully testing the market and preparing their sales pitch. They sometimes make enormous miscalculations – as we saw recently with firms like Marconi which threw hundreds of millions of pounds into telecom and hi-tech investments just as the market for these things became saturated. But usually things proceed slowly enough for them to be able to change tack and recover their balance.

By contrast, capitalist states have no way of really testing the efficacy of their weaponry or the manoeuvrability and morale of their troops except by engaging in armed hostilities. Only then can they see how their forces compare with those of their rivals. As Napoleon once put it, ‘No plan of battle survives the first engagement with the enemy.’

This means that huge miscalculations are inevitable – and the price of miscalculation can be utter defeat.

What begins as a calculated attempt by a government to increase its power can end up by seriously threatening to undermine that power completely. That is why, once a war is under way, the original war aims themselves can be virtually forgotten. Maintaining the momentum of military action becomes an end in itself.

One way to maintain momentum is to increase enormously the resources thrown into the war, even if doing so puts the national economy under enormous pressure. This process came to be know as ‘mission creep’ during the US’s war against Vietnam – what began with the dispatch of a few hundred military ‘advisers’ ended up with a half million strong army of occupation and a massive increase in the military budget. Another way is to draw allies – and even former enemies – into a coalition to wage the war. But the more this is done, the less control there is over the day to day conduct of the war, since these allies may make their own decisions as to when to advance or retreat, or even whether to fight at all. What is more, the price they demand for joining the coalition may be greater than any gains that might eventually accrue from the war.

So it is that wars often end up like car chases down mountain roads between vehicles without brakes, with those attempting to steer forgetting what their original purpose was as they desperately try to avoid a disastrous crash. There is a sudden acceleration of events, with unpredictable twists and turns, and the risk of terrifyingly bloody climaxes.

We’ve seen many of these elements in play during the last six weeks. US imperialism resorted to war after 11 September because it knew of no other way to respond to what it saw as a blow to its global prestige. It had to show that anyone, anywhere in the world, who challenged it would suffer terrifying retribution. As with its attacks over the last decade and a half on Grenada, Libya, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq and Serbia it was to be another step towards reasserting its claim to global hegemony.

But it faced a massive contradiction. It could not even guarantee quick success in Afghanistan without the assistance of other powers. It had to get Russia into line if it was to be able to attack the Taliban from the north – and that meant a possible sacrifice of some interests as it sought some sort of strategic agreement with Putin over the whole of central Asia. It had to somehow manage to get the backing of India and Pakistan, despite their confrontation in Kashmir and their nuclear weapons aimed at each other. It had to make a token gesture to the Arab states over Palestine while not upsetting the Israelis. And finally, despite its own fears of renewed instability inside Afghanistan, it had to throw its weight behind the Northern Alliance in order to finish off the Taliban in Kabul.

So the price it has paid for getting the Taliban out of Kabul is a mass of complications elsewhere. The whole region from the Atlantic to the Bay of Bengal is, if anything, more unstable than before. And the US cannot avoid the fact that the breeding ground for the bitterness that led to the suicide attacks on New York and Washington was not in Afghanistan at all, but several hundred miles away in Saudi Arabia, the country that sits on 25 percent of the world’s reserves of oil.

It is against this background that important voices in Washington say the only way to really show US power is to extend the war to Somalia or Iraq, a version of mission creep on a mega scale that must lead to still more instability.

We’re unlikely to have seen the last of the weird and devastating logic of capitalist war.

There have been four wars involving Britain in just 19 years

Last updated on 26 December 2009