have been big news this week. First the Irish Republican
Army ditched theirs, putting a reported 650 Kalashnikovs,
50 heavy machine guns, 40 rocket launchers, six
flame throwers, one surface-to-air missile, three
tonnes of Semtex and various other weaponry 'beyond
use permanently'. News reporters described it in
breathless tones as an 'historic day'. One of the
priests selected by the IRA to witness the historic
moment said: 'There was silence. We were taking
the gun out of Irish politics.' (1)
the same day, it was reported that UK prime minister
Tony Blair recently held talks with Saudi officials
to firm up an arms deal worth £40billion.
Britain is hoping to sell military equipment to
the Saudis, including some of BAE Systems' state-of-the-art
Typhoon fighter planes (2).
Some commentators grumbled that, just as Britain
had helped to take the gun out of Irish politics,
it was putting more guns into Middle Eastern politics.
One described BAE Systems as 'merchants of death'
and said it should change the slogan on its stall
at this week's Labour Party conference from 'Adding
advantage to the UK Skills Base' (which, admittedly,
is rather bizarre) to 'Adding to Middle Eastern
arsenals and making a mint' (3).
Nicholas Cage is enjoying box-office success in
the USA playing an illegal arms dealer in Lord
of War. His character sells all sorts of guns
to every tinpot dictator or guerrilla outfit that
wants them, saying: 'There are over 550million firearms
in worldwide circulation. That's one firearm for
every 12 people on the planet. The only question
is: how do we arm the other 11?' One film critic
says the movie reveals a 'basic truth: we Americans
are the biggest arms dealer of all' (4).
this obsession with weapons? From the IRA's disarmament,
to the response to Blair's Saudi deal, to the handwringing
about the West arming wicked states, these are not
debates about politics or international relations,
or attempts to explain why some states (like Saudi
Arabia) use extreme force against their citizens
and other states (like those mysterious African
ones depicted in Lord of War) end up clashing with
neighbouring states or non-state forces. Rather,
they are discussions about things: about aeroplanes,
guns, rocket launchers and bullets, as if such inanimate
objects were an evil force, the cause of conflict.
This points to a spectacular naivety about politics
and war. The popular obsession with arms and arms
trading festishises weapons, elevating The Gun to
centre stage, while denigrating the human: the politics,
passions and problems that can lead to armed conflict.
the yelps of joy (from everyone except Ian Paisley)
that greeted news of the IRA's disarmament. The
clichéd response was to say that 'the IRA
has finally taken the gun out of Irish politics'
(5). One report claimed that
it was the fact that the IRA remained heavily armed
over the past 10 years, during what was supposed
to be a peace process, which 'perhaps more than
prevented peace' (6).
Anyone would think that it was the mere existence
of IRA weapons that started the war in Northern
Ireland and kept it going for 25 years (from 1969
to 1994). This overlooks one small fact: the IRA
had virtually no weapons when the conflict began.
IRA split in late December 1969, when its Dublin-based
leaders refused to send weapons to aid beleaguered
nationalist communities in Northern Ireland, which
was fast descending into violent conflict between
Catholics and allied Unionist and British forces.
The Official IRA stayed in Dublin, while the Provisional
IRA, with a new leadership in Belfast, set about
acquiring weapons (even relying, at one stage, on
officials in the Dublin government to smuggle handguns
north of the border). So the Provisional IRA didn't
even come into existence, much less start arming
itself, until a year-and-a-half after the violent
clashes over Catholic civil rights in 1968 and four
months after the British Army was deployed in August
1969. The Provos first shot and killed a British
soldier in February 1971, a full 18 months after
the British Army's arrival.
focus on numbers and types of IRA weapons, with
those scary photos of IRA arms caches that apparently
did so much to 'prevent peace', overlooks the fact
that some of the fiercest clashes in Northern Ireland
- such as the three-day Battle of the Bogside in
Derry in August 1969 - involved stones and petrol
bombs, not Kalashnikovs smuggled from overseas.
Even the Provisional IRA itself remained as reliant
on homemade devices as it did on traditional weaponry.
It used 'coffee-jar bombs' against the RUC and British
soldiers; in one of its most audacious attacks,
when in 1991 it launched mortars at 10 Downing Street
while then prime minister John Major was holding
a Cabinet meeting to discuss the Gulf War, the mortars
were fired from specially reconstructed drain pipes
from the back of a van parked on Whitehall.
for all the claims about Libya and other dodgy foreign
elements arming the Provisional IRA to the teeth
in the 1980s, in fact the list of its arms - as
obsessed over in newspapers following the news of
disarmament - looked remarkably small. Apparently
the IRA had 650 Kalashnikovs, which is not that
much, when you consider that at one point there
were 32,000 British security forces, all of whom
were armed, in Northern Ireland.
is bizarre to claim either that it was the IRA who
put the gun into Irish politics or that it was the
existence of guns that kept peace at bay. There
was violent conflict in Northern Ireland before
there were IRA guns, and that conflict often involved
unarmed citizens throwing whatever they could get
their hands on at RUC officers or British soldiers.
It was politics that drove the conflict, and arms
were only acquired as part of that political clash.
To reduce the Troubles to a question of guns, semtex
and mortars - and to claim that it was a great groundbreaking
moment when those guns, semtex and mortars were
put beyond use - is to depict the conflict as some
kind of macho outburst, where all that was required
was to remove the toys from the boys. It rewrites
a clash between a group of people with political
aspirations and state forces with very different
aspirations as a problem of there being too many
guns lying around for idle hands.
similar super-reductive approach to war informs
today's anti-arms trade movement. They, too, focus
myopically on weapons - and often on certain kinds
of weapons that they find particularly offensive.
So they responded to the news that Blair had struck
a multi-billion pound arms deal with the Saudis
by describing, in great detail, what exactly a Typhoon
fighter plane can do (in a nutshell: a lot of damage),
and by asking whether it is responsible to arm anti-democratic
and illiberal states such as Saudi Arabia. This
highlights two grating things about the anti-arms
trade camp: it also fetishises weaponry, and it
implicitly accepts that Britain has the moral right
- no, responsibility - to decide which regimes can
have guns and which cannot.
course, Britain and other Western powers have a
murky history of arming those they considered friendly
states, while trying to cut off arms to their foes.
And as part of that process the West armed states
with dire human rights records - including, recently,
China and, of course, Saudi Arabia. Their overriding
concern during the Cold War era in particular was
not whether the guns would be used by dictators
against civilians, but whether said dictator was
'our bastard' or 'their bastard' - and if he was
ours, then he could have all the guns he needed.
Such intervention and arms trading often prolonged
conflicts and had disastrous consequences for people
in the third world.
today's campaigns against the arms trade are less
about holding the West to account and challenging
its interventions abroad than they are concerned
with encouraging the West to act more responsibly
in international affairs in order to keep those
trigger-happy types in the third world in their
place. So the British-based Campaign Against the
Arms Trade, which has been around since 1974, says
it wants 'to end all international arms sales',
yet it 'focuses' in particular on 'exports to oppressive
regimes and developing countries' (7).
It encourages people in Britain to write letters
to their MPs requesting that Britain stop sending
weapons to such regimes. Comedian Mark Thomas, who
has made opposing arms trading his big thing, once
said that Britain has helped to arm just about every
'crazy fucker' in the third world. The campaigners'
demand is clear: Western governments should behave
more cautiously and avoid arming and antagonising
those fuckers in the developing world.
campaigners focus on certain kinds of weapons. So
when Thomas protested at the big Defence Systems
and Equipment International arms fair in London
earlier this month, he was especially drawn to 'stall
704' run by an Israeli company called TAR Ideal
Concepts Ltd (8). That stall
was offering stun guns, stun batons and leg-irons
for sale to governments and police forces. Why was
Thomas more disgusted by these items (which are
not even used to kill) than he was by other stalls
selling machine guns or rocket launchers and the
like? Firstly, he explained, because stun devices
are 'banned in the UK', and secondly, probably,
because such torture devices tend to be used in
those crazy developing countries and were being
sold by those nasty Israelis. Here, Britain is cast
as the good guy for banning such wicked weapons,
while the bad guys are the foreigners who make and
peace movement has long festishised weapons - at
the expense of offering a serious political challenge
to Western wars of intervention. So from the late
1950s to today, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
(CND) has obsessed over nuclear weapons, in a time
when there have been no nuclear wars but plenty
of 'ordinary' wars to get agitated about. During
the conflict in Northern Ireland, the Labour-left
Troops Out Movement campaigned against British forces'
use of plastic bullets in riot control - though
why they should find these devices, aimed at incapacitating
individuals, any more objectionable than live bullets
is anybody's guess. Princess Diana made landmines
the big issue of the 1990s and led the campaign
for a ban - as if removing that one weapon from
warzones would make everything hunky dory.
anti-weapons campaigning was always more moral than
it was political; it was about expressing individual
revulsion with certain kinds of guns or bombs or
torture devices, rather than mounting a political
opposition to the ends and aims that such weapons
were used for. As a result, this middle-class moralistic
campaigning was largely ineffective. In fact, it
was worse than that: by accepting that the West
has a moral responsibility to control arms trading,
ban certain weapons and keep guns away from crazy
people in the third world, the weapon fetishists
ended up boosting the moral authority of the best
armed nations in the world to tell some of the weakest
states on Earth how to conduct their military affairs.
just last week, UK foreign secretary Jack Straw
lectured Iran over its 'nuclear ambitions' and earlier
this year he brought in new arms controls to restrict
the flow of guns to war-torn developing nations.
That is where pacifist weapon festishism gets us:
to a situation where even dozy Straw can lecture
the third world.
Straw's global gun law, by Josie Appleton
was silence. We were taking the gun out of Irish
politics', Lucy Bannerman, Herald (Glasgow),
27 September 2005
'agreed in secret' to expel Saudis during £40bn
arms talks, Ewen MacAskill and Rob Evans, Guardian,
28 September 2005
Giles Foden, Guardian, 28 September 2005
of war' takes over the screen, Cate Marquis,
College Publisher, 26 September 2005
was silence. We were taking the gun out of Irish
politics', Lucy Bannerman, Herald (Glasgow),
27 September 2005
IRA and us, Jerusalem Post, 28 September 2005
See the Campaign
Against the Arms Trade website
'Selling torture in London's Docklands', Mark Thomas,
New Statesman, 26 September 2005
This article was first carried in Spiked
Online and is carried here with the permission
of the author.