Let’s Talk About War

What do we talk about when we talk about war? On the evening of Friday 28th February, a sizable crowd of activists, journalists and interested citizens converged on Amsterdam’s Pakhuis Zwijger to find out. The provocatively titled event “Let’s Talk About War” event which drew them there, co-organised by Stop Wapenhandel (Stop Arms Trade), Transnational Institute and Het Aktiefonds, served as an exploratory discussion of how the arms industry seeks to frame the major issues of our time as security problems. By posing these challenges as security issues, it was argued, the arms industry positions itself as an arbiter of the solutions. Carving out a space to challenge these prevailing narratives is therefore a vital first step in proposing alternative solutions. Moderated by Abulhassan Al-Jaberi, the event was split into two halves broadly corresponding to the problems of common security discourses and the potential methods of counteracting them. 

The first half of the evening considered “European security as we do not want it.” First to present on this topic was Wendela de Vries (Stop Wapenhandel), who drew a clear connection between the climate emergency and the arms trade. She posited that climate change was increasingly being viewed through the lens of security, in terms of its potential to generate instability and conflict, which transformed its victims into “threats” to be dealt with by military means. This highly problematic framing of the situation was no accident, she asserted, but rather the result of carefully orchestrated lobbying which was diverting environmental funds towards the arms industry. From this perspective, any talk of “greening” the arms industry and militaries is superficial at best and masking ulterior motives at worst. 

De Vries was followed by Djuna Farjon (Stop the War on Migrants). Her presentation on the militarisation of “Fortress Europe” was a logical progression from De Vries’ focus on the securitised discourse surrounding climate injustice. Farjon noted that the end of the Cold War marked a precipitous decline in demand for the goods offered by the arms industry, forcing them to look elsewhere for potential customers. This coincided with an expansion of Europe’s borders and, with it, new neighbours. The considerable growth of the Frontex budget since then has been reflected in a militarisation of European border control. This is of particular interest to scholars of remote warfare for two reasons. The first is the way in which European border security has been “externalised” over time by providing equipment and training to other countries, predominantly in North Africa. The second is that many of the technologies of remote warfare, such as drones, can be similarly used for remotely patrolling Europe’s periphery for threats.

Rounding off the first half of the evening was a highly insightful presentation from Laëtitia Sédou (European Network Against Arms Trade). Sédou drew clear connections between the myriad actors perpetuating the “EU Military-Industrial Complex.” Collectively, she argued, this assemblage of private companies, lobbyists, and think tanks were responsible for the year-on-year rise in EU research and development funding going towards the arms industry since 2015. However opaque the influence of the arms industry on EU policy may be, over and above what happens at the national level, it appears increasingly important to understanding the EU as a military actor at a time when the role of NATO is being openly questioned.

The second half of the evening left behind discussions of the problem in favour of more practical approaches towards the solution. To discuss this, Stefanie de Bock (Vredesactie Belgium) reflected on her own experiences of disrupting the points of production, decision and consumption essential to the functioning of the arms trade. To illustrate this, a short film was shown of Vredesactie’s efforts at preventing a ship bound for Saudi Arabia from leaving port in Antwerp with arms on board. To place her activism in its historical context, De Bock also screened a trailer for the documentary Nae Pasaran!, which tells the story of engineers in Scotland refusing to service parts for Chilean Air Force jets in the 1970s in order to deny General Pinochet their use. 

After her presentation, De Bock was joined on stage by fellow activists Peter Tkáč (Nesehnutí), Barbara Happe (Urgewald), Herman van Veelen (Ploughshares Support Group) and Arno van der Veen (Niet in Mijn Naam) to discuss their experiences protesting against the Military-Industrial Complex. This diverse coalition of activists represented a variety of organisations protesting the arms trade and militarism across Europe, each with their own means and methods, but with considerable common ground in their cause. 

Insightful contributions delivered by all the speakers, combined with a number of highly perceptive questions from the audience, led to some lively discussion at this event. If nothing else, the wide variety of issues covered made it abundantly clear that there is more than one way to talk about war.