Tuesday, December 7, 2010

George Orwell on War

George Orwell is one of the greatest 20th century novelists, famous for such works as "Animal Farm" and "1984". The latter especially is wrenching, and the film (starring John Hurt as Winston Smith) even moreso. The setting for the film is a bombed out city in Oceania - one of the principal regions of the world - which has been fighting a war with Eurasia for decades. It shows. The homes, most, are bombed out shells, the roads are nearly impassable and the people live in stark poverty. What else could it be when most resources are consumed for the endless war?

The saddest spectacle is to behold poor, emaciated Winston going to his work -place "The Ministry of Truth" each day and writing lies and propanda for the consumption of the masses. His job is also to erase all real events (in what media or reports there are) and replace them with fictitious events. In this way, the people's minds are deformed by Newsspeak.

In this perpetual war state, the people have become mere cogs for a brutal war machine. Long ago they've lost any semblance of individuality or rights - they are now part of the war industry that enables Oceania to continue its endless battles with Eurasia.

Orwell expressed compelling thoughts on the dangers and costs of war, as manifested in his book, 1984. The following are extracts from those ruminations:

The primary aim of modern warfare... is to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living... From the moment when the machine first made its appearance it was clear to all thinking people that the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent for human inequality, had disappeared.

If the machine were used deliberately for that end, hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy, and disease could be eliminated within a few generations. But it was also clear that an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction -- indeed, in some sense was the destruction -- of a hierarchical society.

In a world in which everyone worked short hours, had enough to eat, lived in a house with a bathroom and a refrigerator, and possessed a motor-car or even an aeroplane, the most obvious and perhaps the most important form of inequality would already have disappeared. If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction. It was possible, no doubt, to imagine a society in which wealth, in the sense of personal possessions and luxuries, should be evenly distributed, while power remained in the hands of a small privileged caste.

But in practice such a society could not long remain stable. For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away.

In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance... The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. Goods must be produced, but they must not be distributed. And in practice the only way of achieving this was by continuous warfare.

The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labour power without producing anything that can be consumed...

In principle the war effort is always so planned as to eat up any surplus that might exist after meeting the bare needs of the population. In practice the needs of the population are always underestimated, with the result that there is a chronic shortage of half the necessities of life; but this is looked on as an advantage.

It is deliberate policy to keep even the favoured groups somewhere near the brink of hardship, because a general state of scarcity increases the importance of small privileges and thus magnifies the distinction between one group and another.

War, it will be seen, accomplishes the necessary destruction, but accomplishes it in a psychologically acceptable way. In principle it would be quite simple to waste the surplus labour of the world by building temples and pyramids, by digging holes and filling them up again, or even by producing vast quantities of goods and then setting fire to them. But this would provide only the economic and not the emotional basis for a hierarchical society.

What is concerned here is not the morale of masses, whose attitude is unimportant so long as they are kept steadily at work, but the morale of the Party itself. Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph.

In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. In past ages, a war, almost by definition, was something that sooner or later came to an end, usually in unmistakable victory or defeat. In the past, also, war was one of the main instruments by which human societies were kept in touch with physical reality... But when war becomes literally continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous.

When war is continuous there is no such thing as military necessity. Technical progress can cease and the most palpable facts can be denied or disregarded... The war, therefore, if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture... War, it will be seen, is now a purely internal affair... war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.

-George Orwell

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