May 07, 2004 | Graham

Why we must go to Athens – sport has become war by other means

Maybe I am reading this incorrectly, but I sensed relief in the media when it was determined that the bombs that exploded in Athens were from locals, not Al Qaeda, as though this should somehow matter.
The other night Phillip Adams had three experts on Late Night Live who argued that Al Qaeda didn’t really exist as an organization, but more as a form of inspiration. I like to think of it as being a bit like Olympic sport. With 9/11 Bin Laden broke the four-minute mile of terrorism. If you are in the terrorism business these days, it is not good enough to bomb a police station, you have to do much more. The World Trade Center had a population about the size of Warwick, so to beat that you have to take out a whole town, or an electricity grid, or something on that scale, and sooner or later, someone will.
At the same time as Bin Laden has provided new quantitative benchmarks he has also established new qualitative ones. During the last couple of centuries it has become common to think of war as being something which generally occurs between state actors, and for national purposes. This is contrary to most of the history of war. Throughout history war has been a way of appropriating what belonged to someone else and legitimizing your subsequent ownership of it. Most governments up until the present century started off as little more than kleptocracies, and many conquests were begun by sub-state actors, such as for example Ghenghis Khan, (some of whom eventually became almost supra-state actors).
How was it that Alexander the Great, for example, conquered and then held such large swathes of country with such a relatively small army? Easy, the peasantry and the town-dwellers were resigned to being ruled by the people who lived in the fortresses and they didn’t really care who they were as long as they didn’t charge too much for the “protection” they provided and left them alone to graft a living.
As a result war was effectively commerce by other means with many soldiers in standing armies being essentially mercenaries who did it for plunder and booty and the chance of ransoming someone rich. Keith Suter in his latest article in On Line Opinion argues that war seldom works for the aggressor, but Keith is talking about Twentieth Century Wars where the conquest is of technologically advanced societies in an era of increasingly sophisticated ideas about human rights. Taken over the sweep of history, Keith’s argument is wrong, as the colonial empires of the Europeans from Greece to the late Nineteenth Century demonstrate.
These types of wars meant that it was not uncommon for sub-national groups to be at war with each other. The Viking occupation of Northern and Eastern England is a good instance of this (not dissimilar in many ways to our own colonization of Australia).
Bin Laden’s actions have returned the concept of war to the sub-national level. As it has become unthinkable that any advanced Western Country could fight a war with any other, because the costs so far outweigh the benefits (Keith is right on this point), in a sense war in these countries has only become possible at a sub-national level. Ironically the complexity of modern society and technology makes this easier than it has been for some centuries. In this sort of war everyone becomes potentially a front-line troop.
Which is why it is very important that our Olympic Team goes to Athens. Just as the terms and reasons for prosecuting war have changed with the Al Qaeda innovations, so have the weapons. The American occupation of Iraq, and the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan, shows just how difficult it is to use arms and armies to quell these sub-national forces, even ones that are conventionally armed.
Despite the exaggerated claims for military intelligence and military might, we will never be able to pre-empt or foresee all acts of terrorism. However, we may forestall them by showing that we are not afraid and that we believe that they will in due course prove to be ineffective. This needs to be demonstrated in the most obvious way. We frequently refer to our sportspeople in martial terms, and see them carrying the banner for our country in a way which in previous years we would have been accorded our armed forces. This year, in a very real sense, the image is the reality. This Olympics we have the opportunity to make sporting achievement speak national values. Sport and politics do mix, they always have, but now there is an urgent need to demonstrate just how effectively one can speak for the other. This year sport is war by other means.

Posted by Graham at 2:08 pm | Comments Off on Why we must go to Athens – sport has become war by other means |
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