The Sunday Essay: Why substitutes for war are making real war more likely.

Global communications and cyber technology have acted as catalysts for fanaticism in all its forms

If the First World War was the start of mass killing on a frightening scale, World War II was the start of Total War. By Total War, I mean genocide, attacks applied to combatant and non-combatant alike, the bombing of innocent civilians, and in the end – at Hiroshima and Nagasaki – an attack where almost all those killed were outside the military.

All wars since then – Korea, Vietnam, African conflicts, and the two Iraq conflicts – have followed the post 1939 paradigm. There is no news in this: but I wonder how many of our post-1970 half-educated adults understand that before 1914, casualties were limited to the military….and even those killed were a tiny fraction of the total population. Until 1916, in fact, the military fighters were all volunteers or mercenaries. For most of our modern history from 1485 until the Twentieth Century, war was something in which at least 95% of the population was entirely uninvolved.

Before then, Kings and regional nobles often sorted out quarrels on the basis of champions. Goliath of Gath is probably the earliest recorded example of this, although doubtless there were others before him. But the idea of just one person deciding the outcome of a Sovereign quarrel is not only strangely attractive: it also explains why – once war took on an obscene scale – other sublimations of conflict took off dramatically.

Sport is by far the most eagerly followed form of these surrogate conflicts. The modern Olympics didn’t really take off until after 1945, the first soccer World Cup was in 1932, and international club football was rare until the mid 1950s. Today there are eight major league and knockout soccer competitions on three continents, the Olympics is a truly global media event, and cricket, ice hockey and rugger have all become keenly fought international sports.

Economic and commercial competition, however, has taken on the life-and-death nature of international conflict more than anything else. After 1973 – once the insane idea of globalism gained an undeserved philosophical respectability – the addition of deregulated market economics was the missing link required to make business competition a seemingly perfect replacement for military conflict.

But economics and war (it goes without saying) have never been mutually exclusive. Over the millennia, we have seen tribal, then civil, next national, then religious, then economic – and eventually philosophically based war, the philosophy nearly always pertaining to economics.

When I was at University in the 1960s, the general view was that economic philosophy and practice had replaced war, because the invention of nuclear weapons and their associated delivery systems ensured mutually assured destruction – or MAD. One day – it was confidently predicted – Communism would prevail, and we would all live happily ever after in some sort of Hippy Comintern.

But today we are experiencing economic strategy as war. Currency manipulation is used not just for one’s own gain, but to destabilise (perhaps even ruin) potential competitors. The EU claims to be for Free Trade, but within and without it is riddled with hypocrisy, deals and secret tariffs. China in turn insists that it welcomes foreign firms, but has developed a hundred ways of being awkward towards outsiders doing business there. And now, most larger powers have been caught raiding internet communications, and disabling information traffic-flow, as a means towards the end of both industrial and sovereign espionage. It is only a matter of time now before the mercantilist zero-sum game produces overt trade barriers.

In doing this, the human race has perhaps kidded itself into believing that war will never again become a last resort of international relations. But once the line between trade and military war is blurred by technology, such optimism is unjustified. Not only can escalation so easily career out of control in specific instances, two other factors combine to make it a very dangerous game.

The first is that energy, raw material and water depletion – alongside the global population explosion – have themselves become life-and-death issues. Without war – or more likely, the threat of it – effective economic activity will for some nations become impossible.

The second concerns the reinvention of religion as a ‘reason’ for war…..and the desire of religious fundamentalists to position their religion as under attack from all sides.

Global awareness and communications have galvanised Islamic radicals like nothing that came before. Global economic theories and multinational companies have made data about competitive performance a 24/7 reality from which there is no rest. And above all, uncontrolled population growth will ultimately make everything we need for life a subject for rationing, and a rationale for imperialism.

It seems to me that awareness of their significance has stopped world leaders from grasping why these realities threaten us all with extinction. We appease radicals, deny the dysfunction of globalist business, and refuse to even acknowledge the existence of the approaching population crunch.

The World Cup bid process has shown both the corrupt hubris and warlike nature of soccer’s aristocracy for what it is: a grisly metaphor for humanity. Sport and business have not replaced war: if anything, they are fanning its flames; and religions founded on ending violence have been perverted until they are petrol cans about to explode on that conflagration.

How much safer our planet would be if all sides could simply have a champion – Richard the Lionheart and Saladin going ten rounds of wrestling, two falls or a submission deciding the fate of the world. Goldman Sachs and Al Qaeda playing a cyber-war game for real could easily fill every stadium on Earth, as could a Superbowl final between The American Dreamers and the Chinese Prospectors.

But that isn’t going to happen. Without a lot of care and wisdom over the next five years, Homo sapiens is going to die of denial and delusion.