Remembering Anatol Rapoport: The Path to Peace

by Leonard V. Johnson*

During a sleepless night not long ago, I got up and played an amateur video of a 2007 commemoration of the late Anatol Rapoport’s life and his commitment to the abolition of war I remembered with pleasure the enlightenment I received during a long ago lecture that made me a disciple and devoted friend I hope my story will help to keep my beloved master’s cause alive. As Commandant of the National Defence College of Canada in 1983 I invited Professor Rapoport to provide fresh perspectives on conflict at an especially dangerous time of the Cold War. Beginning with the Prisoner’s Dilemma mind game on the superiority of cooperation over competition, he showed how the armed forces of contending states are, in fact, unwittingly cooperating to maintain the institution of war.

If war is to be abolished, as it must if there is to be a sustainable future for humankind, Anatol’s prescription is suffocation of the institution by denying it the resources on which its life depends. Canada, for example, could begin by keeping its vulnerable land forces out of combat. After the lesson of combat casualties in Afghanistan, it’s doubtful if any government will be able to send expeditionary forces into land combat for any conceivable purpose. In that case, suffocation can begin with abandonment of weapons no longer needed for land combat.

The institution of war depends on fear to achieve and maintain its power Promoting fear in one partner generates fear in the other, and attempts to achieve security through armed force lead to escalation and arms racing, ending in war or exhaustion and decline. In either case, we are all soon dead.

The nuclear arms race began in the United States with specious fear of Russian military intentions and escalated to a massive nuclear tinderbox that could have killed all living things. Those sentient beings who lived through the terror of the times can never forget it, but the present generations have no memory of it.

Although the scale of the threat has subsided, it has not gone away. It still exists at the top of the ladder of military escalation. It will be there forever unless the institution of war is suffocated and a stake driven through its heart.

People will say, “Yes but war is a permanent institution and it can never be abolished.” It’s true that wars could still be fought with machetes, swords, spears and other hand weapons, but they cannot spread or escalate without the effective and efficient killing machines of chemically-powered weapons and the logistics that support them. Without them, states would have to arm themselves with the warriors of Genghis Khan and the horses that carried them.

The biggest – and seemingly insurmountable – obstacle to change is belief implanted by the institution of war, which has become the conventional wisdom. Yet, confronted by climate change and its dire consequences, there is no alternative: the world cannot afford war if there is to be a future for humankind. People and their leaders, motivated by hope, must choose life, now.

Over time, the institution of war can be suffocated piecemeal. Armed forces could disappear through rust and attrition without replacement if governments kept their forces at home, limited to those needed, in Canada’s case, to implement a strictly Canada First policy. That doesn’t require negotiations or fanfare, but only tacit agreement among Canadians not to have any more soldiers coming home in body bags, missing limbs, or with post-traumatic stress disorder.

During the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt told his people that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The first step is to be deaf and blind to the fear mongers and their lobbyists, after which the path to safety runs through truth, courage, faith, hope, and resolve, ordinary human qualities.

When he left office in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against the growth of the “Military Industrial Complex,” which stoked fear in order to preserve and enhance the power it gained during the war just ended and which morphed into a Cold War with the chosen enemy, against whom were deployed new and ever more powerful weapons of terror. The United States has been brought to its knees by failure to heed that famous wartime general’s warning. 

Suffocation of the institution of war is no longer a fantasy of fiction or an impossible dream It’s no exaggeration to say that the future of humankind depends on it. 

The path to peace with security is open. Let hope be Anatol’s legacy to humankind.

Kingston, Canada, July 2012

* the author is a former Canadian soldier