THE FUTILITY OF WAR
We’ve all likely seen or read about scientific studies of aggression and violence in that otherwise intelligent and loveable species, chimpanzees. Some even take these observations as a kind of biological justification of war. But intellects able to understand other species and responsible for the magnificent thing we call civilization surely give us the capacity to rise above the behavior of chimpanzees.
Advanced societies have begun to acknowledge the counterproductive nature of violence. Even in the United States, where lethal injection, guns in the street, and belly-over-the-belt attitudes still hold considerable pride of place, it is, for example, universally illegal for teachers to strike students. In some states, it is also illegal for parents to strike children. It is illegal for a husband to strike his mate, and in some jurisdictions, police officers called to a scene of domestic violence, routinely arrest a man who has committed an assault on his mate, an act that not many years ago was virtually ignored and treated as “a private family matter.”
Even America’s Catholics, inclined by the very nature of their faith to accept authority, have finally spoken up over the matter of child abuse by unsuitable priests, something that had gone on quietly and with few consequences for as long as anyone can remember.
So why is it that Americans believe that bombing and shooting and burning people in Iraq or Afghanistan can produce anything of value? You might think the ghostly screams of three million murder victims occasionally wafted in on Pacific breezes from Vietnam would serve as terrifying reminders of the futility of war.
Why are the civilized tools of patient diplomacy and international organizations held in contempt by many Americans?
Quite apart from all the weighty concerns of morality and human civilization, the truth is that war almost never solves anything.
I do not question self-defense, but most people can distinguish an act of genuine self-defense without hearing from official spokespersons and propagandists and advertising hucksters. I suspect that most of the world’s people recognize that much of what the United States is doing today has little to do with self-defense. This instinctive judgement is reinforced by all the choking smog of explanations coming from Washington.
The First World War grew out of the inability of France and Britain to accept economic and political decline relative to a rising Germany. Also, contrary to unexamined slogans about peace through military preparedness, a direct cause of the First World War was precisely that all the powers of Europe were heavily armed, requiring just the smallest disturbance to tip them into destruction.
About twenty years later, the mass slaughter in the trenches and the treaty-makers’ failure to establish institutions adequate to peace had set conditions for the Second World War, the most destructive event in human history – the rise of Hitler being only possible from the ashes, ruin, and despair of the First World War.
As soon as the Second World War ended, the U.S. worked diligently to resurrect Germany, even sometimes using former Nazis in the effort. World War II had created conditions for the Cold War, that long, immensely costly, and largely pointless crusade against an economic system always destined to die of its own false premises.
Genuine, permanent peace in Europe has been achieved through the very diplomacy and international organizations so despised by many Americans – that is, through fifty years of statesmanship in building the European Union. Major war in Europe today is inconceivable, and there is little doubt that the united super-state emerging will one day provide a needed counterbalance to the United States in world affairs.
History is littered with examples of the futility of war. Americans would have achieved independence without the Revolutionary War, because every other part of the British Empire gradually and peacefully did so.
Contrary to popular belief, America’s Civil War was not about slavery, although the measures necessary to protect and extend slavery had generated the tensions and hatreds behind the war. Had the South been permitted peacefully to secede, the institution of slavery would just as surely have come to an end, as it did throughout South America and the Caribbean.
The entire mystical legend of “the cause,” of a glorious South fighting for freedom and gracious old ways would never have been born. Instead, there would be only the memory of a squalid, provincial slave state.
Likely, too, the non-industrial South would have returned, hat in hand, after some period to rejoin the Union. The terms of re-entry might well have spared us the century of human degradation that replaced slavery in a defeated South. We might also have been spared the political dominance of the South, a result of some of the more anti-democratic provisions of the American Constitution favoring small and rural places, and something that has given America many leaders and policies better consigned to the dustbin of history.
Under Mr. Bush, the terrible example of Israel has become something to imitate rather than condemn. Israel maintains a constant state of war against the people with whom it is destined to share its geography. Not a week passes but we read of Palestinians shot in the streets, houses bulldozed, suspects assassinated, and an entire people humiliated with the West Bank reduced to a prison. So simple an act as Mr. Arafat’s attending a Christmas service is arrogantly forbidden.
And has a half century of savage policy produced anything positive? Of course not. It produces new generations of young people with minds tortured by hate, and it unavoidably deadens the very consciences and idealism of Israelis themselves. What a remarkable example Israel might have set had she instead invested an equivalent effort on assisting and educating the Palestinians, on generously forming bonds of friendship and peace.
Mr. Bush adopts this same attitude towards Iraq and many others who object to America’s arrogant and often harsh policies. Somehow, they are all reduced to the poorly-defined status of terrorists, and they are all subject to military attack, assassination, embargo, and every kind of interference in their private affairs it is possible to conceive. It is impossible to see how the long-term results of such a policy can be anything but vicious, dangerous, and destabilizing.
War is a vestige of our common ancestry with the apes, one that we can deliberately shed as surely as that vestigial, unnecessary organ, the appendix. But we need to be seriously dedicated to the task, and we need to commit serious resources to it. For now, the reality is that the people who have great power only hypocritically talk of peace while spending $400 billion each year on ways to kill people.