Thank you, Joe and all people who left comments. It has been an extremely thought-provoking discussion, so I thought it’s worth a separate blog to address the issues that most resonated with me.
Let me start by repeating that the title, “War! What is It Good For?” was not mine, but Ian Morris’s. It’s not how I would choose to frame the issue. However, I admit that when I saw it first, I thought it was very clever, because it plays on the tension between ‘war’ and ‘good’, which was clearly designed to catch people’s attention and sell books. In retrospect, and especially after reading Joe’s article, I believe the title misfired. The ideas in Ian’s book are good, but they probably needed to be framed in a different way to make an impact on the broad audience, instead of a narrow circle of those who have trained themselves to step outside the imposed frames.
Also in retrospect, juxtaposing war (tacit or outright approval of violence that causes deaths) and Things-That-Are-Good (to follow Joe’s excellent analysis) is especially dangerous in the American context. Both Ian and I are not native Americans, so we may have missed this important point. In America there is an influential intellectual strand that glorifies war and actively promotes a ‘muscular’ foreign agenda. In the last decade or so, the most prominent group that is identified with this strand is the so-called neocons. However, Anatol Lieven in his America Right or Wrong traces this strand deep into American history (think Andrew Jackson).
Andrew Jackson and his ragtag band of Americans repel the British at the Battle of New Orleans, Jan 8, 1815. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.
Let’s not forget that we spend as much on what is euphemistically called defense as the rest of the world put together. Also, since World War II the United States started more foreign wars than any other nation on earth, the Soviet Union included. As William Blum writes in Rogue State:
From 1945 to the end of the century, the United States attempted to overthrow more than 40 foreign governments, and to crush more than 30 populist-nationalist movements struggling against intolerable regimes. In the process, the US caused the end of life for several million people, and condemned many millions more to a life of agony and despair.
One may quibble with Blum’s numbers, but clearly there is a gulf between the US and such European countries as Germany or Denmark that, to my knowledge, did not start any wars since 1945 (although the gulf becomes more shallow if we add UK and France to the comparison).
In my personal politics I am very much in tune with the American officer-turned-scholar Andrew Bacevich; see in particular his New American Militarism.
I believe that war can never be good. It is evil.
Having said that, I also believe that there can be even greater evils than war. I’ll give a personal example. We know what was to happen, had the Nazi Germany won its war against the Soviet Union. The Germans had a detailed plan, which they actually started implementing even before they won the war. All Jews, Communists, and any potential leaders were to be executed. The Russian culture was to be destroyed and the Russian population moved from the cities to the countryside, where they would be put to work on plantations under the supervision of the German masters. So had the Germans won, either my parents would be killed, or at best I would grow up as an illiterate agricultural slave.
I think most of my readers would agree that a war can be a lesser evil, given such an alternative. But now I want to enter a more perilous area.
I am currently working on a book that tries to answer the question of how we came to live in huge, complex, wealthy, cooperative—and peaceful societies. My answer is: competition between societies. And during most of human history, this competition took the form of warfare (this logic is explained in this post).
My analysis shares some common ground with that of Ian’s, and differs significantly in other ways. But I agree with him that it was war that created large cooperative societies. So when we abolish war, as I believe we must, we also need to be careful not to be hit by unintended consequences.
Suppose that Alpha Centaurians arrive in the Earth’s orbit, and effectively stop all interstate wars. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Yes, for a while. But if the Centaurians do not implement an effective alternative mechanism for peaceful intersocietal competition, the utopia will gradually evolve into a dystopia.
Without intersocietal competition that eliminates dysfunctional states, they will start losing their capacity for internal cooperation. This will, most likely take the form of power elites becoming more selfish and making arrangements that would enrich them at the expense of the common people (does this sound familiar?). Eventually, the population will stop cooperating with the elites, while the elites will fission and stop cooperating among themselves. Eventually, if this process will be allowed to go unchecked, the society will implode and descend into war of small bands against each other.
The economy will crumble, homicide rates will spike, and the human life will become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Sounds fanciful? You tell me.