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WHAT makes you safe? What makes you secure? There are many likely answers during the coronavirus crisis: the NHS, regular hand-washing, the support of family and friends.
Many would feel safer if the NHS were better funded, if social care were more readily available, if mental health services were not woefully inadequate.
But who would say that safety can be found in bombs and guns and a nuclear-armed military alliance?
For years, “security” and “defence” have been euphemisms for war and preparations for war.
The so-called Ministry of Defence ensures, for example, that the Royal Air Force trains Saudi forces who are killing thousands in Yemen through aerial bombardment, and many more indirectly through hunger, poverty and preventable disease.
Who or what is “defended” by such practices, other than the profits of arms dealers?
The coronavirus crisis is a fatal reminder that security, safety and defence cannot be found in armed force.
The British government maintains the seventh-highest military budget in the world.
Some justify this on grounds of “security” and protecting Britain from invasion — even though it is largely used to fund military action overseas.
Such arguments imply that an invasion has been more likely than anything else that threatens the security of people in Britain.
In reality, the government’s own researchers have long recognised that this is not the case.
In 2010, the coalition government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review identified likely threats to the British public — and to people globally — including climate change and possible pandemics.
The rest of the review largely ignored these findings by focusing overwhelmingly on armed force.
Five years later, the Tories’ Strategic Defence and Security Review again identified possible pandemics as a realistic threat — and again this was ignored as “defence” and “security” policy followed the usual militarist line.
By 2018, government researchers appeared even more aware of real threats.
The National Security Capability Review placed such emphasis on the possible spread of fatal diseases that the Daily Telegraph — hardly known for challenging militarist assumptions — focused on this aspect in its report of the review.
The government’s Risk Register of Civil Emergencies has been listing epidemics and pandemics as major possibilities since 2008.
In 2017, the Risk Register stated there was a “high probability” of a major epidemic (although it was considered likely that it would be a new strain of flu).
The register spoke of the possibility of “up to 50 per cent of the UK population experiencing symptoms, potentially leading to between 20,000 and 750,000 fatalities and high levels of absence from work.”
It cannot be said that successive British governments did not realise that a pandemic was a serious possibility. They knew, and did virtually nothing about it.
This refusal to recognise real threats is tied to a militarist mindset that is so focused on violence and power that it cannot imagine threats that do not originate with armed force.
Ceri Dare, a public health researcher who is a member of the Peace Pledge Union, says that we could be facing this crisis “with the weapons we truly needed to win.”
This would include a resilient NHS, effective social care and decent pay and job security for care workers, cleaners, delivery drivers and all the other workers we rely on.
“Instead of this,” says Dare, “we are armed only with the useless weapons of war.”
The Daily Mail has ludicrously suggested that troops could be used to enforce physical distancing and guard supermarkets.
This would only add to social tension and panic. In any event it would be impossible, as British armed forces personnel, quite rightly, have no power to arrest civilians.
Nonetheless, armed forces personnel, like everyone else, can help with tackling the crisis.
The government is making military personnel available for tasks such as driving oxygen tanks and delivering medical supplies.
This is welcome at a time when we need all the the help we can get.
“Defence” Secretary Ben Wallace has misleadingly claimed that the “entire” Ministry of Defence is working to tackle the crisis.
In reality, while some troops are delivering medical supplies, other British troops will be taking part in Nato exercises, stirring up military tension with Russia.
While most major events have been cancelled, the Nato exercises have only been scaled back.
Meanwhile, the British government’s nuclear submarines will continue to patrol, useless and powerless to halt coronavirus.
Like most people, I am very grateful to everyone who helps with tasks such as food delivery, whether they are armed forces personnel or not.
Imagine how much more these people could help if they were part of a civilian emergency service, trained for this sort of task as their regular work, with no need for weapons and military hierarchies.
Imagine how much better we might manage if we funded services that were prepared for real threats to our security, rather than for war.
The use of troops for logistical tasks must be the first step in diverting military budgets and resources to civilian use.
In this crisis, money diverted from military budgets could contribute towards NHS and social care costs as well as assisting people who are losing their jobs or struggling to pay the rent, or to support people whose mental health is affected by isolation.
In the long term, we must put our resources into addressing real threats, not into the waste and destruction of war.
Militarism cannot defeat coronavirus. To get through this, we need values of co-operation, human dignity and mutual support between people who treat each other as equals.
These are the very opposite of the violent and hierarchical values of militarism. As Dare puts it, “The lies of ‘defence’ ring hollow now. We need what we have always needed, to love and care for one another, to work together as neighbours, as communities, as nations, and we need that more than we ever have before.”
Symon Hill is campaigns manager of the Peace Pledge Union and a history tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association.
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