Out there: What is it good for?

The British arms industry is run by a cartel of wealthy industrialists, government ministers and senior military personnel. And the Faustian bargain is that we pay these men to take care of our dirty business, no questions asked
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"What is war for? Humans spend $1 trillion a year on war. If you earned $10,000 a day, the going rate for Claudia Schiffer, it would take you almost 300,000 years to make that much money."

With these words, Colors, the Benetton-sponsored "magazine about the rest of the world", opens its latest issue, which is devoted to war. The facts beggar comprehension: 2,700 people die in wars every day, about one every 30 seconds; Third World countries spend $125 billion annually on defence, a fraction of which could pay for universal health care in those same countries; the world's biggest suppliers of arms - the US, the UK, Russia, China and France - also comprise the UN's so-called Security Council (conflict of interest here, or what?).

The pictures in Colors are even harder to assimilate: a child's face almost bisected by a machete blow; a man's head opened like a tin can by a single shot from an assault rifle; bloody ganglia of flesh, muscle and naked shin bones of a land mine victim who has lost his feet.

Colors' war issue coincides neatly with the aftermath of the Scott report and its attendant breast-beating. Because amid all the denials and supposed debate about ministerial and governmental accountability, no politician, of whatever political hue, once asked the real question at issue. Namely, what the hell are we doing selling weapons to anybody, let alone to a psychopath like Saddam Hussein?

Why do we develop, manufacture and supply ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction? Who profits? The British arms industry is run by a cartel of wealthy industrialists, government ministers and senior military personnel, who decide how our annual military budget of pounds 23.4 billion is spent. Of this, 40 per cent - that's pounds 9.6 billion - goes on hardware. They choose what weapons our forces buy, and our arms industry manufactures. They dictate the increasingly remote and dehumanised nature of warfare.

In the film A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson shouts at Tom Cruise words to the effect that, "We live in a world with walls, son, and some men have to guard those walls so that people like you can sleep sound in your beds at night." And that's the Faustian bargain, right there. In effect, we pay these men to take care of our dirty business, no questions asked, so that we can look the other way. Because these men are "respectable", we call the business "defence". But if we were honest, we'd call it a protection racket. After all, we're paying pounds 9.6 billion a year to make sure our weapons are just that bit more dangerous than the ones our "defence industry" sold to Johnny Foreigner last year, right? We're paying for that critical edge.

I was mesmerised by that "smart bomb" footage on television. War has become a TV spectacle: at best I fret and murmur, before changing channel. But Colors destroys the cosy, consensual notion that war is something happening out there, perpetrated by people who lack our fundamental sense of decency.

Once, warfare was conducted on a human scale, hand-to-hand. The invention of firearms meant the enemy was depersonalised - you could kill at long range, without the messy psychological business of confronting your victim. Modern warfare is so indiscriminate, so devastating, so inhuman in its scale, that even reading about it in a magazine disturbs us. We'd like to wish it away and get on with our relatively safe, privileged European lives. But we live in a country that is the world's second largest exporter of weapons - which are increasingly directed against civilian targets.

Ironically, perhaps the only way to reign in an otherwise uncontrollable arms trade is to embrace militarism. We need armed defence, and a military capability that can offer protection to the oppressed in distant countries. But does that mean we must tolerate the genocide committed in our name, with the assistance of our politicians, using our hardware?

Maybe we should introduce War Studies in our schools. A form of universal military training that grounded our adolescents in the truth of war might make us less laissez-faire about our arms trade. It might even introduce some ethical discipline into a confused, violent and alienated society. It's not a pleasant thought, I know, but I'd rather my taxes were spent on a humanised militarism than, for example, on building prisons that will eventually be privatised anyway. If it's a choice between smarter soldiers or more desperate recidivists, I know which I'd prefer.

War is too important to be left to the arms trade cartel. All right, we live in a world with walls, blah, blah, blah. But the darkness is full of screaming children and we're waiting for a dawn that may never arrive. Forget about sleeping, Jack - when are we going to wake up?