Can Humanity Eliminate War?

Put in this way, the question suggests that humanity is an actor endowed with intentions and a range of capabilities for carrying these intentions out. The question is similar to questions like “Can John stop drinking?” or “Can Tokyo reduce traffic accidents?” These questions can be answered by “yes” or “no,” because both John  and Tokyo can be regarded as actors.

That John is an actor means that his predilections and intentions can be transformed into a decision, which he can implement. Whether John stops drinking depends on the strength of his will power compared with the strength of his addiction. So the question whether John can stop drinking (whatever be the answer) makes sense.

Tokyo has a city government composed of several individuals, each with his or her own intentions and preferences. But that government acts in accordance with certain rules that make it possible to collate all these different preferences into a decision, either to take measures for reducing traffic accidents or not to take such measures. So Tokyo (as represented by its city government) is also an actor, and it makes sense to ask what it will or will not do.

But “humanity” is not an actor. Humanity is composed of billions of individuals, each with his or her own predilections and intentions. Each of these individuals can act within the range of certain capabilities. But there is no way in which all these actions can be collated into a collective decision, implemented by collective action.

Some see this circumstance as the crux of the problem. Various proposals for a world government or a world federation have been made, presumably with the view of turning humanity into an actor, empowered to take measures toward eliminating war or at least toward reducing the incidence or the severity of wars in the way that the city of Tokyo is empowered to take measures toward reducing traffic accidents.

However, a little reflection shows that we are in a vicious cycle. It takes collective action to establish a world government. And it is precisely this that humanity cannot undertake. It is not an actor. If it were an actor, that is, in a position to take collective action, it could eliminate war whether there were a world government or not. So the whole question hinges on what sort of prospects there are for taking collective actions encompassing all of humanity. This, in turn, depends on the extent to which the understanding of the nature of war spreads through humanity. For war has become a threat to every one’s existence. No one can hope to escape annihilation if a nuclear war erupts. More than anything else the awareness of this common danger may turn humanity into an actor. It behooves us, therefore, to gain a better understanding of the nature of war and to help the spread of this understanding.

The first thing we must recognize is that the question “What is the nature of war?” cannot be answered in a sentence. There are three reasons why this cannot be done.

First, just because we use the same word, “war” to designate innumerable instances of organized mass violence does not mean that all these instances have a common origin or produce similar effects or that whatever resemblances they exhibit justify subsuming them under the same class of events.

Second, the origins of war, the events associated with it, and their effects have changed radically through history to the extent that, aside from the distinguishing features of mass violence, usually organized by governments, the various wars that have occurred in different historical eras have next to nothing in common.

Third, and perhaps most important, the nature of war depends substantially on the way it is perceived. That is, war does not have its own objectively definable “nature.” It is largely what people say or think it is.

This subjective component is what distinguishes the world of things from the world of human affairs. For example, the nature of the moon depends in no way on what I write, say, or think about it. It continues to be what it has been for countless centuries – a sphere made of rocks. But what I write, say, or even think about some aspect of social reality may significantly affect that aspect of reality, because what I write, say, or even think about it becomes part of that reality.

So it is with war. The nature of war is significantly affected by what people, especially people in positions of power or influence say or even think about it.

Keeping these three circumstances in mind, namely, the immense complexity of the wide range of phenomena that we subsume under the same word, “war,” the changing nature of these phenomena, and the subjective component that is inseparable from its manifestations, let us refrain from attempting to give a convincing-sounding “definition” of war. Instead, let us trace the part that various wars in various historical eras have played in human life.

The earliest wars were probably clashes between bands or tribes, each trying to appropriate a piece of territory. Such clashes probably became especially violent and protracted when agriculture replaced herding and hunting as the principal means of livelihood. This is understandable since unlike herders or hunters, who ordinarily led a nomadic life, tillers of the soil live on territories and derive a sense of ownership of these territories on which their lives depend. Conquest of territory was probably the earliest motivation of war and, of course, defence of territory is the obverse side of the same coin.

Wars among primitive tribes probably involved all able-bodied men. With the advent of “civilization,” i.e. extensive division of labour, special warrior castes evolved. Nevertheless, even if war became the business of a specialized profession, the outcome of a war in the early days of warfare affected everyone of the population engaged in it.

It is by no means true, however, that outcomes of wars have always affected entire populations. Let us look at the other extreme, for example, at the so-called “cabinet wars” of eighteenth century Europe. The professionalization of war had reached its peak in that era. Every prince had a standing army composed of highly trained professional soldiers. Training consisted of inculcating habits of instantaneous obedience to officers’ commands. This reflex-type obedience was necessary, because efficiency in battle depended on the execution of complex manoeuvers. Soldiers fought in close formations. Except for the bloodshed, the battlefield looked not very different from the parade ground. Loss of coordination usually meant a rout and the loss of a battle.

Moreover, the loss of a battle frequently meant the loss of a war. Capitulation was no disgrace. Wars, in fact, were fought “politely” for limited objectives, usually the conquest of a province or establishing the legitimacy of succession to a throne that had become vacant.

In that era of European history, the lives of ordinary people, most of whom were peasants, were least affected by wars. It did not matter much who won or who lost. Also, because the objectives of the wars were limited, they were not particularly bloody by today’s standards.

There was also another reason why the so called “cabinet wars” of 18th century Europe were not very severe by our standards. The professional armies were very expensive instruments. Once an army was lost, it could not be easily replaced, because it took a long time to train a soldier in those days. Not only did the soldier have to execute the intricate manoeuvers of battle formations. He also had to be turned into an automaton in order to suppress the natural instinct of self-preservation. Standing stiffly in formation, firing his musket only when commanded to do so by an officer, the soldier lost all resemblance to a normal human being.

This de-humanization was necessary, because the professional soldier of the 18th century had no stake in the outcome of a war. As a rule, he did not even know what the war was about. As for the generals, they did not care. They were specialists of their profession, nothing more. They freely passed from the service of one prince to that of another, much as corporation lawyers in America freely leave one corporation to serve another. Patriotism had not yet been invented in 18th century Europe.

The French Revolution changed all that. The revolutionary armies were citizen armies. They were easily assembled and did not undergo the grueling training that the Prussian or the Austrian soldiers underwent. This was not necessary for two reasons. First, the French soldier did know what he was fighting for. In the early phase of the Revolutionary Wars, he fought for the Revolution – for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Later, he fought for his emperor and for the glory of France.

Second, because the French soldier was infused with fervour and loyalty, he did not have to be turned into an automaton like his Prussian or Austrian colleague. This enabled Napoleon to develop completely new battle tactics. The soldier no longer had to fight in rigid formations to keep him from running away. Each individual soldier could act on his own. This greatly enhanced the flexibility of battle tactics.

Third and most important, the citizen-soldier was expendable. Casualties could be quickly replaced by recruits. The military potential of France became as great as her male population of military age. The war, at least on the French side, became a people’s war.

Inevitably, the new kind of warfare spread to other countries. Wars were now nurtured by patriotism. Nationalism, loyalty to one’s country, not merely obedience to superiors, became the psychological underpinning of the belligerency which we to this day often associate with war.

This belligerency reached its peak at the outbreak of World War I. Declarations of war triggered rejoicing. Strangers embraced each other. The streets of Berlin and Paris, of Vienna and St. Petersburg were lined with cheering crowds. Women threw flowers at soldiers departing for the front.

This enthusiasm did not last long. The war turned out to be quite unlike the war imagined by the young men in their patriotic fervour. The cavalry, once the symbol of gallantry and of masculine pride, turned out to be practically useless in trench warfare. Infantry charges against enemy positions ended in slaughter by murderous machine gun fire.

Four years of this horror was enough to extinguish the fires of militant patriotism. In a paroxysm of rage, the Russians put an end to monarchy. The soldiers turned their guns against their own officers and created a new enemy, the bourgeois, whether in the shape of the village store keeper or the legendary “capitalist” in his top hat and with his pot belly. The German Kaiser fled and Socialists came to power. The Austro-Hungarian empire fell apart. There were revolutionary rumblings in England and in France. The Americans were bitterly disillusioned with the results of a war, which, they thought, was fought “to make the world safe for democracy.”

In short, the years following the end of World War I witnessed a widespread disillusionment with war, at least in Europe and in America. Some dared to hope that humanity was “cured” of war. There was a timid beginning of institutionalizing a world federation, the League of Nations, which, however, soon proved itself too weak to rid humanity from the plague of war.

So it came to another bloodletting in Europe. A malignant form of nationalism was revived in Germany. The Germans, once thought to be among the most civilized people of the world, who had produced some of the most precious treasures of Western culture, went on a murderous rampage, having succumbed to the demagogic ramblings of a paranoid maniac.

Then this, too, was over. For a short time it seemed as if the new attempt in the direction of a world federation, the United Nations, would succeed where the League of Nations had failed.

The function of preventing and stopping wars was incorporated in the Security Council. The power of that body was for all practical purposes concentrated in the Big Five under the supposition that their unanimous decisions could be backed by their combined might. The victors of World War II were entrusted with the creation of a new world order based on renunciation of violence. Although war was not outlawed in the charter of the United Nations, nevertheless sovereign nations were enjoined to resolve their conflicts by peaceful means. Aggressive war, that is, war aimed at subjugating another nation or forcing its will on it was implicitly condemned.

It is noteworthy that this view of war was diametrically opposed to that of Carl von Clausewitz, the foremost philosopher of war of the nineteenth century. War, wrote Clausewitz in his famous treatise, is an act of violence by means of which we impose our will on our enemy. Or, to quote a more famous phrase of his, war is the continuation of politics by other means. It is difficult to imagine a more emphatic declaration that war is an inalie­nable right of a sovereign state. Nothing is said here about “self defence,” the only rationale of war recognized in the United Nations charter. War, according to Clausewitz, is the way a nation asserts its nationhood. It seems that if the charter of the United Nations reflects the spirit of our times, then humanity has come a long way toward eliminating war. For if “self defence” is the only legitimate justification of war, then, if all nations subscribe to this principle, war has become logically impossible.

But of course, the scourge of war is still with us. Ironically, it is the most powerful of the victorious allies, who were supposed to bring in an era of lasting peace by crushing the “aggressors,” who now stand poised to annihilate each other and carry the rest of humanity with them into extinction.

How did this come about? Various answers have been offered. Let us examine the most frequently offered ones. They are of three types. One explains the war-proneness of the human race by an inherent aggressive instinct. Some support this explanation by pointing out that fighting is natural among animals, at least among vertebrates and that it even has survival value, since when males fight for mates or for territory, the victory of the stronger confers upon him greater reproductive success, in the sense of guaranteeing more progeny, and so contributes to the vigour of the species. Others take seriously Freud’s theory of the “death instinct” which generates destructive compulsions in human beings.

Another type of explanation emphasizes clashes of incompatible ideology. According to orthodox Marxism, socialism is fated to triumph, and many in the capitalist West take this doctrine to imply that the Soviet Union is intent on conquering the world and imposing its ideology on it. According to this view, war preparations in the West are defensive measures against expected aggression. Needless to say the this view is faithfully mirrored in the Soviet Union. The Soviets view their military might    as a defence against expected aggression from the capitalist West, supposedly motivated by the necessity to eliminate socialism as the mortal danger to “free enterprise.”

The third type of explanation reverts back to the Clausewitzian model of international relations. International relations, according to this view, is a perpetual struggle for power, a war of everyone against everyone. There is no way of restraining states from pursuing their “national interests,” assumed to be essentially ambitions to enhance their power and to resist the expansionist drives of other states, except through superior force. Since the United States and the Soviet Union are the most powerful states, they need not yield to any “law.” Each will continue to pursue its “national interest,” which, as in Clausewitz’s day, is assumed to be the pursuit of power.

Explanations of war based on inherent aggressive instinct can be dismissed for lack of evidence. Indeed, if aggression against his own kind is natural in man, why must soldiers be trained to kill? Why is killing comparatively rare in ordinary life? How can we explain love of children, love of friends, cooperation of people who are no kin to each other in pursuit of common ends? There is also a more important reason to think that “aggressive instinct” has nothing to do with war, as it is conducted in our time. We shall come back to this point.

The ideological basis of war cannot be taken seriously today. If the present war-proneness were based on clashing ideologies, how can we explain the quarter of a century of bitter hostility between the Soviet Union and China? For many years the danger of war between those two Communist giants seemed greater than between either of them and the capitalist United States. Why does the present American administration rant against the Soviet Union but not against China? No, the days of religious wars are over. Even the present regimes of the United States and the Soviet Union, not noted for sophistication, cannot be assumed to believe seriously that either the “capitalist” or the “socialist” ideology can be imposed by force of arms. To be sure, “ideological incompatibility” is offered as a rationale for war preparations, but that is an entirely different matter.

Finally, the Clausewitzian explanation, based on the so-called “realist” interpretation of international relations as a perpetual struggle for power, fails in one important respect. In Clause­witzs model, war appears as only a means to an end. The “imposition” of one’s will on the enemy has political consequences, and the decision to go to war is based on weighing the opportunities offered by victory against the costs and risks of defeat. But what can “victory” possibly mean as an outcome of a nuclear war or, for that matter of a conventional war fought with modern weapons? So what political advantages can possibly justify the horrendous costs of a such a war both for the “victor” (assuming for the sake of argument that the term makes sense) and for the vanquished?

Having dismissed the three prevalent explanations of the present war-proneness of our species, I should, of course, offer an alternative one. First, however, I want to call attention to two things, namely, the alternation between a “democratic” and an “elitist” nature of war and the radically changing conceptions of war through the ages.

Warfare was in a “democratic” phase when every one had a stake in it, as in tribal warfare or in wars fueled by nationalist enthusiasms. Warfare was in an elitist stage when it was the business largely of professionals, as for example, in 18th century Europe.

Since World War II, war has been steadily reverting from the “democratic” to the “elitist” stage. This was due to two reasons. First, abhorrence of war, started already during World War I, has markedly increased. It has become impossible to “sell” war to populations, at least in Europe or in America, as a road to glory or as assertions of “national destiny.” These slogans have been thoroughly discredited. It is noteworthy that all the ministries of war have become ministries of defence. “Defence” can still be sold. And it is sold without flag waving, trumpet blaring, or drum beating. It is sold like insurance is sold. In supporting the bloated military establishments, the people of the United States and of the Soviet Union believe they are buying “security.”

Thus, the only emotion that serves as a driving force behind the rush toward war is fear – fear that unless one can show a war potential at least equal to that of the “enemy,” one is helpless, at the enemy’s mercy. And the enemy, being the enemy, has no mercy. This is the myth that threatens to become reality, and consequently cause the extinction of the human race.

Imagine two scorpions in a bottle. Neither stands to gain anything by stinging the other. But if scorpion A thinks that scorpion B is about to sting him (never mind why), he will most probably sting in self defence. And because both scorpions reason the same way, both may sting each other and die, even though neither gains anything from the other’s death. Both lose. And this is not all. Even if scorpion A does not think that scorpion B is about to sting him but thinks that scorpion B thinks that he, A, is about to sting him, then A must conclude that B is about to sting him “in self defence” and will feel compelled to sting first. This is the situation in which the two superpowers now find themselves. Mutual fear is, in my opinion, the most compelling explanation of the suicidal arms race. Is this fear justified? Yes and no. On objective grounds no, since neither superpower stands to gain anything even if it could destroy the other with impunity. On subjective grounds, yes. When two paranoiacs face each other, each is a realist.

Does any one stand to gain from this mutually reinforcing fear that may explode in a spasm of self-destruction? To answer this question, I will briefly outline the changes in the conception of war since the beginnings of warfare. There was a time when war was seen as a means of survival. Without arable land, a population depending on agriculture was doomed to die. There was a time when war was regarded as “the sport of kings,” something like hunting. In the heydays of nationalism, war was regarded as the highest expression of a people’s vigour. Since the disillusionment that set in in the wake of World War I and especially after World War II, war came to be regarded as a disaster, something like a flood or an epidemic.

It is this conception of war that stimulated the peace research movement. It was thought in the early days of peace research that once the “causes of wars” were sufficiently well known, war could be eliminated from human affairs as certain diseases became eradicated, once their specific causes became known.

The trouble with the disaster conception of war is that knowledge of causes by no means guarantees the eradication of war. The crucial difference between medical research and peace research is that there is an institutional infrastructure ready and able to translate knowledge emerging from medical research into action. Let a definite cause of some disease become known, and the means of combating the disease can be produced almost immediately. The medical profession, the boards of health, the pharmaceutical industries stand ready to do their part.

With regard to war, the situation is quite different. In fact, the necessary cause of wars, that is something without which modern wars could not be fought, is well known. It is weapons. It is therefore a simple matter to eliminate war, at least the totally destructive form of war that threatens civilization and the very life of humanity. One needs only to get rid of weapons. But where is the actor empowered and willing to do this?

This brings me to the conception of war which, in my opinion, is the most relevant in our present predicament. War is neither an expression of aggressive instincts, nor a romantic enterprise for attaining glory, nor a natural disaster, nor a “malfunctioning” of the international system, as some specialists in international relations picture it. War is an institution. Some institutions serve societies in which they are embedded. Others are parasitic on them, serving only those whose professional lives or careers depend on the continued existence of the institution. War continues to dominate society, at least the societies of the superpowers, because their war establishments have become entrenched as institutions.

The war establishments of the superpowers comprise much more than their military forces. Huge infrastructures of industrial, scientific and bureaucratic complexes nurture the war machines. I am not suggesting that the personnel of those institutions and enterprises have conspired to prevent the dismantling of the war machine or inhibiting its growth. It was once fashionable to blame the munition makers for promoting war in pursuit of profits. Surely this explanation is inadequate, since the war industries of the Soviet Union are not run for profit, yet flourish no less than in the West.

Not a conspiracy but institutional dynamics keeps the war machines growing. This is especially evident in the scientific-technological sector. We are witnessing what I like to call the technological imperative. Every advance in some sector of technology stimulates advances in other sectors. Thus, it is not only the advances in the military potential of the adversary but also one’s own that keep the arms race going.

Pride of achievement plays here no small role. A scientist working on some problem whose solution contributes to the efficiency of mass killing is stimulated by the challenge of the problem as strongly as one who works on a problem whose solution makes possible the eradication of a horrendous disease. Both work in environments that are insulated from the concrete situations in which their discoveries or inventions will be applied.

In seeking the roots of war, it is well to remember that hatred and aggression have ceased to be the necessary emotional ingredients of war. It is no longer necessary to hate any one in order to kill everyone. All that is needed is for everyone to do his or her job efficiently and conscientiously. None of these individual jobs suggests mass killing and total destruction. But they add up to mass murder and collective suicide.

Not passion but intellectual sophistication is the psychological requirement of modern war. War has become intellectualized. This is the increasing elitism of modern war. The design of weapons systems, the working out of strategies of their use, the abstract quantitative evaluation of their projected effects, all these intellectually sophisticated activities are totally insulated from the concrete events to which they are directed. Mass armies, mobilization of war hysteria, flag waving, trumpet blaring, and drum beating are no longer necessary. A nuclear war could be “fought” (if this term is at all applicable) by pretty young ladies sitting at consoles that resemble typewriters. War has become “sanitized.” As in the 18th century, war has become the business of professionals, with this difference, however. Hardly anyone but soldiers suffered in the “cabinet wars.” Everyone will be a victim in a war fought by modern specialists.

Let us now once again pose the question: Can humanity eliminate war? Yes, but only if there is sufficiently wide-spread awareness of what war has become in our nuclear age. The main problem is no longer that of enhancing people’s understanding of other people, turning people away from hatreds and prejudices toward tolerance and love, because total destruction need not be triggered by hatred, and the most perfect understanding among the people of East and West, North and South may have no effect on the self-propelling dynamics of the arms race. In fact, the final holocaust can be triggered by a malfunctioning computer.

The main problem is that of recognizing that the war establishments no longer perform the function they may have once performed – that of protecting populations against aggression. In effect, the war establishments of the superpowers have been fused into a single war machine. Each of its components nurtures the other. Neither could justify its existence without the other. They do not compete. They cooperate in promoting each other’s growth.

The war machine derives its legitimacy from the authority of the governments who represent the war machine as a protector, instead of the potential destroyer of populations which it is.

The inculcation of the awareness of what the institution of war has become, and of the fraud by means of which its legitimacy is maintained, ought to be, in my opinion, the first priority of peace movements throughout the world.

The sort of actions that will result from such increase of awareness depends, of course, on the political environment of the various peace movements. In some countries, vigorous political action can be undertaken. In others, where this is impossible, because all political dissent is ruthlessly persecuted, other techniques will have to be developed. Only practice can guide these developments.

The goal, however, must be a common one — the dismantling of the global war machine. This means that the legitimacy of the institutions that support the machine must be denied. In the past, other institutions once thought to be God-given or rooted in human nature, hence permanent, lost their legitimacy and disappeared. Absolute monarchy and chattel slavery come to mind.

War is not in the human heart. War resides in the institutions spawned by war, which, in turn, spawn wars.

Only if humanity becomes sufficiently aware of this to acquire the status of an actor, can the scourge of war be eliminated before war eliminates humanity.

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