Behind me, as I write near midnight after a day of watching the news unfold in Gaza, sits a framed print. In the gloom you can make out that it is a copy of a charcoal painting that was crafted by the deft hand of German artist Käthe Kollwitz in 1924.
It is a scene of pain. It depicts a row of sallow-faced children, their dark round eyes filled with a black hunger that stands juxtaposed against the empty white of the bowls they offer up to a serving spoon. The sad promise of the picture is that the bowls will remain unfilled.
Kollwitz – one of the Weimar Republic’s most socially conscious artists – named this scene ‘Germany’s children starve!’ and its Dickensian horror serves not just as indictment of that terrible inter-war period, and what violence was born from the economic pain of Germany. But also as a reminder of what war does. To civilians. To children. To humanity.
Kollwitz once said of her work: “I felt that I have no right to withdraw from the responsibility of being an advocate. It is my duty to voice the sufferings of men, the never-ending sufferings heaped mountain-high.”
The urgency of Kollwitz’s purpose came to me last month as I walked the great halls of the Dockland’s Excel Centre. For there, in the second week of September, was the biannual event of the DSEI – the Defence and Security Equipment International exhibition. Europe’s biggest arms trade fair that generates billions of pounds in sales that flow from militaries to arms producers in closed meetings throughout the event.
I felt alone in the mass of men that shuttled to and fro. Men dressed in veteran-standard blue blazers and chinos, or male officers with sales on their mind, dressed in their military best with polished buttons and arcane insignia, or men in the perfect white thobes preferred by the Saudis and Omanis that were there with their promise of filled order books.
Officials had pulled me over when I first arrived at this arms fair and asked me polite, probing questions. Perhaps they were fearful of the pen that I carried with me, and the fragility of this world to criticism, with all of its tanks and missiles and bullets and machine-guns, still strikes as strange.
That the thing that could break down this edifice was the thing that was palpably absent: a reminder that these weapons have the terrible capacity to kill children.
The only reason for this Cathedral of munitions to exist is because it promises violence and chaos and murderous result for those who can afford it. But the exhibition itself was bloodless – exsanguinated and devoid of the word ‘civilian’.
In one corner of the exhibition was Israel’s stand. There was no place exhibiting a display for Gaza or for Palestine. But there was one for its neighbour.
Today, we are witness to the end product of that stand’s dark potential. Thousands upon thousands of children killed in the ruins that once was Gaza. And you can’t help but think: the British government approved that Israeli stand in the docklands. They traded with the State of Israel. They sold them weapons, and the allowed them to sell. They did not do the same to Palestine, so a decision was made.
Of course, there are many who will say: so what? Why can a nation not defend itself? War harms civilians. What else is new?
The hosting of any sale of weapons has to have some standards. Clearly, the standard was that Palestine should not be allowed to trade, but Israel should. There is a dogma to that decision. Even the mountain of dead children in Gaza will likely not change the British government’s mind on that. Just last year, quietly, the British government dropped Israel from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) list of human rights countries of concern, leaving Palestine alone on the ticket.
It is not, of course, just about Israel though. In the DSEI the reminder of what weapons can do – shatter families, destroy towns, kill children – was altogether absent.
Of course, we see its final product in the ruins of Gaza and Homs and Mariupol. But at the moment of sale, there are no children pleading for peace.
This, in the end, I guess is how the arms trade is able to live with itself.
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