THE INVASION of Iraq is the third time in only six years that Tony Blair has sent British armed forces to war alongside the United States. Before Iraq were the wars in Afghanistan and the Balkans. And before those many can remember two more wars in which British forces have fought - the 1991 Gulf War and the 1982 Falklands War.
While Britain was waging these wars, there were also numerous other bloody conflicts raging around the world - in Algeria, Angola, Congo, Somalia, Rwanda, Chechnya, Azerbaijan and many other places. Indeed, when one looks back over the 20th century the world appears to have been more or less continuously at war.
The picture is dominated by the First and Second World Wars, which claimed approximately 16 million and 50 million lives respectively. But, prior to 1914, there were also the Boer War, the Russian-Japanese War, the Balkan Wars, the US-Spanish War over Cuba and numerous colonial wars. Between the world wars, there was the Russian Civil War (War of Allied Intervention), the Japanese War on China, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the Spanish Civil War.
After 1945 there was the overarching Cold War, and innumerable sub-conflicts in Korea, Malaysia, Aden, Greece, Cuba, Guatemala, Vietnam, Cambodia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Biafra, Ireland, El Salvador. The list is almost endless. At the start of every war, the leaders speak of fighting for peace, security, freedom, democracy.
At the end the peace proves only an interval before the next war. And so it is today. If Bush and Blair succeed in crushing Iraq, it will only be a matter of time before they turn their attentions elsewhere. What explains the prevalence of war, which destroys so many lives and involves such a vast waste of human resources?
Why, after thousands of years of history, centuries of so-called Western civilisation and enlightenment, is war still with us and, if anything, more common and terrible than ever? One can, of course, shrug one's shoulders and put it down to human nature. But this leads nowhere except to resignation or even justification for war. It is also false.
It cannot account for the fact that for tens of thousands of years human beings as hunters and gatherers lived virtually without war. Nor can it explain why some parts of the world live for long periods in peace (for example Scandinavia) while other parts like the Middle East are hotbeds of conflict.
With the exception of popular uprisings, wars are not waged by 'people', but by governments and states. Despite propaganda to the contrary, states act not on the basis of instincts, feelings or ideals, but overwhelmingly on the basis of vested interests. And not the interests of their populations, but the interests of the ruling classes who control the state.
To explain the unending sequence of wars in the modern world, we have first to grasp the fact that the economic system we live under, capitalism, has within it a built-in tendency to war. Capitalism is a system of competitive exploitation. Exploitation - the daily extraction of wealth by a minority from the labour of the majority - in itself generates bitter and permanent conflict.
To contain and repress this conflict the exploiters, the rich, create state machines - special bodies of armed men, prisons, police and so on - which stand above society. In addition to controlling their own people, these states have the capacity to wage war on other states and peoples for territory, trade, resources and so on. This is why there have been wars as long as there has been exploitation - about 5,000 years.
The emergence of capitalism, roughly 500 years ago, intensified this. Under capitalism every business is locked in permanent competition with other businesses. This competition runs through the whole system - the corner shop competes with the corner shop, the department store with other stores, the textile company with other textile companies.
Ultimately, the competition is about accumulation of capital. But it includes struggle over land, raw materials, labour, markets and everything which contributes to profit. This competitive drive made capitalism more dynamic than any previous economic system, such as feudalism, but also more destructive and dangerous.
WITHIN capitalist nations the state serves not only to hold down the workers but also, by and large, to keep the competition between capitalist firms within legal, non-violent limits. But the competition does not go away, it is channelled through the state and reproduced internationally, leading repeatedly to war.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries the British state fought a series of wars against France for the control of India, Canada, the West Indies and, ultimately, Europe. Britain's victory in these wars, together with the industrial revolution, ensured that in the 19th century it became the world's dominant state with the largest empire ever seen.
However, the horrific wars of the 20th century were a product not just of capitalism in general, but of the particular phase of capitalism, known as imperialism, which set in at the end of the 19th century.
By this time capitalist industry had spread to all Europe's major powers and had changed from competition between relatively small firms to competition between giant monopolies operating internationally. The result was the conquest and colonisation of almost all the rest of the world by the main imperialist powers.
In itself this process involved a host of colonial wars in which poorly armed 'natives' were slaughtered by immensely superior forces. But it also prepared the ground for war on a hitherto unimagined scale.
The fact that the world was already divided up meant that any change in the balance of economic and military power between the European states led to a struggle to redivide the world. In particular, Germany emerged as Europe's major economic power at the turn of the century.
Because it had only become a unified country in 1870, Germany had missed out on the 19th century drive for colonies. But it was determined to get its 'fair' share, either in Africa and Asia, or on central and eastern Europe. Britain, France and Russia were equally determined to stop it.
This was the real cause of the horrendous bloodbath of the First World War. The ruling classes of Europe sent their workers and young men to kill each other in their millions for the sake of colonies and profit. The Second World War was fundamentally a continuation of the First. The British government did not fight because they were opposed to fascism, but rather to defend the British Empire.
The US came into the war not to liberate the French people, but to defend its interests in the Pacific against the threat from Japan and because it feared an eventual challenge from Germany. The wars of the present period derive from the same fundamental imperialist drives for profit and conquest, now operating in the new situation created by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire in 1989-91.
The US ruling class sees this as an opportunity to establish a 'New World Order' dominated by American big business. Central to this project is control of the world's major oil supplies.
For the US state 11 September 2001 was a further 'window of opportunity'. It convinced people like vice president Dick Cheney, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, and those around them that they had a chance to pursue this strategy through aggression. Their aims are to gain control of Iraqi oil, to consolidate their hold on the Middle East and central Asia, and to send a message to the world that no state can defy American power or challenge it in the future.
This is what makes the present situation so dangerous. Our rulers in Britain, as usual, have positioned themselves as the key ally of the US on the world stage and its main agent in Europe. But neither France nor Germany, who aspire to lead Europe, Russia, or China (which is rapidly growing as an economic power), let alone the people of the Middle East and the rest of the world, are content to simply bow down before US capital.
The potential for future conflicts is horrific, and will remain so while capitalism survives. This is why, if we want a peaceful world, a world free of B-52s, cluster bombs, and the threat of nuclear holocaust, we have to both resist this war to the maximum and build a movement to end the capitalist system which breeds war by its very nature.
More on war
Socialism and War by John Rees, Bookmarks, £1
'Imperialism, Globalisation, the State and War' in International Socialism 93, £3
Both available from Bookmarks - phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com