‘It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.” This passage from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian may baffle enlightened readers. After all, many people in the modern world imagine, in pointed contrast to the unflinching judge in McCarthy’s harrowing novel, that war is an aberration that emerges only out of the bad character and selfish judgment of rulers wedded to hidebound traditions and obsolete principles for their own power and profit.
It is a fact of nature, however, that man is only partially rational and labors under deeply held (and nonscientific) beliefs and ideas that give rise to competition and conflict. This helps explain why the whole squalid and brutal business of violent human confrontation on a mass scale endures.
Today, a “curious neglect” has overtaken the natural human interest in war, observes Margaret MacMillan in her new book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us. MacMillan, a professor at both Oxford and the University of Toronto, finds our inattention curious, given that we still live in a world profoundly and intimately shaped by war. Everything from the borders we inhabit to the games we play to the language we speak bears the imprint of conflict among and within nations. And yet the study of war has largely been ignored in our time, beginning in the academy, where the degeneration of historical pedagogy is an old story. History now accounts for a smaller share of undergraduate degrees than at any time since 1950. The eclipse of military history has been particularly acute.
MacMillan explains this late aversion to one of the enduring subjects for human inquiry by pointing to the now-widespread revulsion to taking up arms. “Our horror at the phenomenon itself has affected the willingness to treat it as a serious subject for scholarship,” she writes. “An interest in war is somehow conflated with approval for it.” She conveys the point by describing an encounter with an educational consultant while teaching in her first history department. After she laid out plans to teach a course called “War and Society,” the forlorn consultant, whose brief was to make courses more appealing to students, proposed to use the title “A History of Peace.” Her judgment, of the consultant and of society at large, is unsparing: “We do not take war as seriously as it deserves.”
That war is an activity poorly understood nowadays might have something to do with its diminished prevalence in the modern world. As the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has documented, we are living in perhaps the most peaceable age in the history of our species, marked by a conspicuous absence of war among great powers. Relying on a vast body of research, Pinker argues that deaths in war, as a proportion of humans alive at the time, are approaching a historical nadir.
Those of us who have been fortunate enough to live through the “Long Peace” should not revel in it. Large tracts of the world have not yet entered the liberal order, and some lands—from Syria to Somalia to Sudan—have been marred by the most savage conflict. The inhabitants of these unhappy places can be forgiven should they raise a skeptical eyebrow at the idea that the world has become a tranquil place thanks to man’s evolution into a civilized species. Nonetheless, a considerable weight of data gives the lie to the argument that the world remains as dangerous and brutal as it was in the not-too-distant past.
The trend away from mass violence may have been in train for centuries, but it has gained unmistakable momentum since the end of World War II. The nations of Western Europe, having been responsible for two new wars a year for 600 years, have not started a single one since 1945. And so there is a deep and ahistorical tendency in the West to regard warlike behavior as a fleeting rather than an integral part of the human experience. This is where MacMillan comes in. Her book conveys uncomfortable truths about war at a time when too many others either do not or will not, and provides a welcome corrective in the midst of mounting great-power competition—since the potential of using military force to ensure certain vital national interests has to be considered seriously and not just deplored. This means, to begin with, grasping “the inheritance that evolution has left us,” which include impulses and emotions and needs and desires that are not so conducive to prolonged peace. Indeed, they are often what MacMillan dubs “the midwives of war.”
This evolutionary inheritance tips the balance in an antique argument revolving around two European thinkers about whether war or peace was the natural condition of mankind. The assumption that humans are inherently innocent and peaceful—or, with the right prodding, can be made so—carries strong echoes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed the state of nature was harmonious before organized societies appeared on the scene. Human beings, he held, were naturally good until society made them corrupt. The acquisition of property by certain individuals and groups helped turn society into an unequal and hierarchical place that promoted war. Thomas Hobbes had a very different outlook. In his state of nature, humans lived precariously and were locked in an eternal struggle for survival. Life, he said, was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The way to ensure peace was not—per Rousseau—to build states that voluntarily submitted to a common social contract, but to fashion a big and powerful polity—what Hobbes called Leviathan—to tame man’s anarchical nature.
MACMILLAN has some sympathy for the Rousseauian version of human history—arguably too much so—but concedes that the archeological and historical record firmly resolves the dispute in favor of Hobbes’s contention that war arising from a host of motives is a “long-standing and integral part of human experience.” This helps her avoid the common mistake of believing war to be an anomaly or an anachronism. She doesn’t believe that the head trumps the heart in human affairs, as if we were enlightened rational animals rather than fallen social animals. Instead, MacMillan treats human existence with the complexity and gravity it deserves. She even accedes to the judgment of the archaeologist Ian Morris that war has actually brought peace and progress for societies, since it enables the state, at its best, to burnish its authority and provide for the general welfare.
In the opening pages of War, MacMillan cites one of the most famous observations of the German theorist Carl von Clausewitz: “War is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” This is the essential insight originally gleaned by the ancients, who did not presume the abolition of war to be feasible. Conflict was too close to the human surface to be deemed unnatural or alien. Fighting war can be about survival or conquest, but it can also involve less tangible motives such as fear, interest, or honor. In classical Greece, these aspects of human nature were regarded by Thucydides as spurs to war and competition, accounting for the anarchic “human condition.” The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus declared that war is the father of us all. “Homer was wrong,” wrote Heraclitus. “Homer was wrong in saying: ‘Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!’ He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away.”
This tragic understanding has gone out of fashion in our postmodern—dare we say, post-heroic—world, when it is commonly believed that war is unnatural and immoral. Not for us moderns is Frederic Manning’s illusion-free awareness in The Middle Parts of Fortune that war is waged by “men” and not “by beasts, or by gods.” While this “peculiarly human activity” is certainly hell, it isn’t remotely bewildering: “To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime.”
To the degree that war has become rare, it shouldn’t be mistaken for evidence of mankind’s waning susceptibility to mobilizing organized violence. There is one irreducible objection to the exquisite rationality underlying notions of a general law of social progress: The imperfect but discernible “peace” constructed and nurtured since 1945 has been the product of power, especially American power. Although MacMillan doesn’t make much of it, America’s bid for global leadership rests as much on the fact of its military supremacy as on its moral prestige. Put differently, America’s moral credibility in the world would have been for naught save for its military primacy. The architects of American power decided reluctantly but firmly that the United States could not defend its way of life unless it also became fit for war.
The first essential step to escaping the tragic historical cycles of warfare that long plagued Europe and East Asia was the destruction—by air, land, and sea—of the Axis powers. The next was to prevent their return to mastery. Since then, the United States has been the predominant power on earth, keeping large numbers of its legions on permanent station thousands of miles away from home. By means of this immense military strength and deep global involvement—and only by these means—has the United States managed, in concert with its allies and partners, to keep the peace.
By imposing democracy through force and prolonged occupations of its defeated enemies, the United States effectively put long-standing aggressors out of the business of making war and compelled those nations to direct their considerable energies toward commerce and global trade. In league with much of the free world and some decidedly unfree regimes as well, the United States then spent the better part of a half century containing Soviet Communism. This long twilight struggle had some brutish consequences in the Third World, but it culminated in the relatively peaceful dissolution of the evil empire, lifting the specter of nuclear holocaust in the postwar era.
For more than three-quarters of a century, the United States has performed the role of an international police power, deterring and, when necessary, punishing aggression. It has intervened in failed or delinquent states, albeit inconsistently, to prevent or curtail ethnic cleansing. Although most Americans are loath to conceive of themselves as an empire, what has arisen and flourished under American auspices is a classic imperium. As Virgil has it in the Aeneid, “Remember, Roman, it is for you to rule the nations with your power (that will be your skill), to crown peace with law, to spare the conquered and subdue the proud.”
It is this radical—and contingent—transformation in the global configuration of power, rather than any transformation in human behavior, that accounts for men and women across the globe seeming to realize Pinker’s “better angels of our nature.” The prevalence of violence and war in the past and their persistence in the present, even if attenuated, give ample reason for anxiety should the therapeutic vision of the present triumph for much longer over the tragic vision that made it possible.
A while back, Michael Ignatieff observed a great truth when he argued that “liberal civilization” is not the norm of international relations. It “runs deeply against the human grain and is achieved and sustained only by the most unremitting struggle against human nature.” If human nature remains red in tooth and claw, who doubts that, bereft of the entrance of the United States into a permanent security role in the world, there would have been a considerably higher butcher’s bill since the Second World War: more aggression, more ethnic cleansing, and more territorial conquest? The indelible dark stain on human nature will ensure that malevolent forces, unless checked and suppressed by constant vigilance and superior power, will grow to imperil the peace of the world.
The general ignorance of war in our time is inextricably connected with a callous insouciance about war that paradoxically makes it much more likely to erupt. This failure to take war’s true measure, to account for its proper causes and purposes, has bred a recurring pattern among the educated and the elite in many nations for more than a century: confident predictions about war’s obsolescence, which is then followed, invariably and tragically, by the march of armies.
The belief in the permanence and ubiquity of war may be a pitch-black proposition, but it can hardly count as an unreasonable one, given that it spans the memory of time and on a sober analysis shows no sign of abating. The best hope of keeping our powder dry is to assume—and act on the assumption—that war is the father of us all and could break out again when we least expect it. Margaret MacMillan’s book is a superb introduction to the difficult truth about this enduring, central, and necessary evil.
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