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Keith Rankin's Thursday Column: Valuing Lives

Keith Rankin's Thursday Column

Valuing Lives

24 August 2000

The tragedy of the Russian submarine 'Kursk' reveals much about how our value systems have changed, for the better, in 100 years. Economic development, democracy, press freedom, and globalisation have created a world in which the slaughter of human beings (and, indeed, animals and ecosystems) is, increasingly, becoming unacceptable.

In the west, 100 years ago we (the British) invented concentration camps. 85 years ago we suicided our youth in places like Gallipoli and Paschendale. National prestige meant everything; human life meant virtually nothing.

In 1904, to show Europe that Russia had joined the industrial club of nations, the Russian navy sailed 270 degrees of the globe to kill some Japanese. Unfortunately for the Russian sailors, Japan had also industrialised, and it was thousands of young Russian men who lost their lives. Russia lost her whole navy to, they thought, a bunch of Asian easybeats. Men were physically expendable. In that era there were no tears for foreign deaths, and few public tears for suicided compatriots.

Russia changed less rapidly than most of the world last century. The gap between the value the Russian authorities placed on Russian lives and the values westerners placed on Russian lives could not have been more stark. The encouraging news is that the Russian people are rejecting the "young men are expendable" values of their leaders, dragging them into the 21st century. And the west defends itself by hurrying, without playing games, to Russia's aid. Openness is security.

Already most 20th century wars have become unthinkable. We could no longer turn a blind eye to the military slaughtering of thousands of soldiers and civilians, as in, for example, Spain (1930s), Algeria (1950s), Vietnam (1960s), Cambodia (1970s), Argentina ("Dirty War", c.1973-83), Lebanon (1980s). In New Zealand this year, one soldier's death has drawn more attention than any deaths in Vietnam ever did. In 1914-18, we even gave the British generals permission to shoot our soldiers.

It was only as far back as the 1950s that African Americans were hunted and lynched, much as English gentlemen used to (and a few still do) get their kicks from terrorising foxes.

We still have some way to go. Ethnic Europeans empathise more easily with drowning Russians than with macheted Rwandan peasants. And even this year Ethiopian soldiers were being slaughtered in their thousands as they were commanded to go "over the top" World War 1 style, in a series of battles for bits of real estate disputed with Eritrea.

Ethnic Europeans are however getting much better in their ability to empathise with black and brown people. East Timor certainly showed that in 1999. Contrast our indifference in 1975.

Civilising periods have existed in the past. But they haven't lasted.

Albert Hirschman wrote a brilliant book in 1977 ("The Passions and the Interests") about the promotion of commerce as a civilising influence from the time of Machiavelli (15th century) to the time of Adam Smith and the French/Scottish Enlightenments (late 18th century). Mammon, it turned out, had a civilising agenda.

As economies grew, people became wealthier. They had more to lose. And, as international trade progressed, national economic interests were mutualised. Interdependence emerged. Then the arrival of industrial capitalism coincided with the emergent nationalism arising from the Napoleonic Wars and later with racist social Darwinism. Each European country (and Japan and USA) sought to create a national military-industrial complex. Values of mutual respect for human life were discarded. Nations sought to carve the world into European empires.

Nationalist collectivism is one enemy of the kind of human enlightenment that distinguishes the 2000 'fin de siécle' from that of 1900. The other is 'barbarism'. By barbarism, I mean societies which reflect the values of Paschendale; the values which consign young men to their deaths as if they are just pawns to some strongman's ambitions of conquest.

History reveals plenty of examples of barbarian conquests of economically advanced societies. Even the unification of Germany was a hegemony over advanced western Germany by the economically backward Prussians who regarded human beings as expendable. 'Barbarians' are willing to sustain losses that civilised societies would never countenance.

It is so important, therefore, that the civilising process that has been going on through most of the 20th century is able to draw all nations into its fold. When Russian leaders value Russian lives as much as Western Europeans do, when China respects human rights, when sectarian murders in Algeria and Indonesia are no longer ignored by the rest of the world, then there will be no barbarians.

Long-run world peace depends on the emergence of an inclusive global community - a common-wealth - committed to, among other things, an unconditional respect for life. That represents a challenge to create a new world military order: to create peace, not war; to soften rather than to defend the physical and mental borders that separate 'nations'; to facilitate the emergence of an empathic multicultural world order.

New Zealand needs defence forces as much as ever. In East Timor, our army is engaged in forward defence. New Zealand soldiers are on the front line of the 'battle' to ensure the Javanese "Prussians of the East" will not lapse into a modus operandi that cheapens Indonesian lives.

Military adventuring is undertaken by societies divorced from the global economy, and who regard their own people as expendable. International security in the 21st century will be about promoting a universal respect for life. That means a willingness by nations to gift peace-making and peace-keeping forces to trouble-spots before they fester.

© 2000 Keith Rankin

Thursday Column Archive (2000):

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