You’ve all seen those posters and bumper stickers: “War is not the answer.”
You’ve also seen discussions of why those sporting them are incorrect; war has solved some things and provided answers to certain questions—such as whether, for example, there would be a 1000-year Reich.
I’ve spent some time puzzling over the use of the “war is not the answer” mantra. For some people—the less thoughtful—I think it’s merely a kneejerk catch phrase, a method to decorate a car in a way that says, “I’m a good person, not a bloodthirsty sonofabitch like those who advocate war.” This group (and I have no idea what percentage of the whole it might represent) has no particular understanding of history, especially the history of warfare, and no real thought about the limitations of the perfectibility of human nature.
And then there are those who really don’t have much interest in pacifism, but have an ultra-Leftist political agenda that an alliance with pacifists serves. These people see pacifists as a subset of the category “useful idiots” that they’ve found so very helpful over time.
That leaves us with the third category, the one that interests me most, the committed and relatively thoughtful and well-meaning people who sustain a hope that, although war will sometimes happen, they can promote a set of programs that will lead to a world in which war will be resorted to less and less. I will summarize their position by saying that, although they understand that war sometimes has provided short-term answers to certain questions (such as the one posited above about the Third Reich), it has never provided a long-term answer to the problem of human intra-species aggression on a large scale, and each war has introduced new problems in its wake that lead to further war.
In other words, when members of this third group say “War is not the answer” their accent is on the word “the.” War isn’t not the final answer to the problems of human conflict, and although it may appear to solve some things, other problems are bound to arise that will lead to future wars.
Well, excuse me but: duh. Or to put it more politely: there are no solutions to the problem of human conflict that will eliminate the need for force at times, just as there are virtually no large-scale societies that can do away with police or prisons.
The advent of the atomic age gave pacifists—and their hopes for a way to end war—a boost, and understandably so. As dreadful as war has been in the first half of the twentieth century, with the invention of nuclear weapons it became far worse to contemplate. Early on in the atomic age the hope was that nations would be sane enough that the prospect of mutually assured destruction would be a powerful deterrent to any war, and that therefore—paradoxically—the very power of the weapons would be the reason they were unlikely to be used in the future.
Amazingly enough, so far that hope has been borne out; Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still both the first and the last times nuclear weapons have actually been detonated on a populace.
But that does not mean war has ended; sub-atomic conflicts have regularly sprung up around the world, and many of those are presently of the asymmetrical variety, involving terrorism and/or guerilla warfare and insurgencies. Another common type of war in recent times has been the internecine inter-tribal, inter-ethnic, and/or inter-religious conflicts of the third world, particularly Africa.
As for nuclear weapons, unfortunately they have recently become tools that seem more likely to be used. We now have an enemy who is less obviously interested in life than in death, and motivated at least in part by apocalyptic religious thinking (example: Iran). We also have another and related enemy that is not a state and therefore has no nation of people to protect, would be difficult to trace a bomb back to, and is driven by the same aforementioned religious motivation and otherwordly emphasis, (examples: al Qaeda and its spawn).
All of this fuels the depth of the desire to find an alternative to war—an alternative that provides not only “an” answer, but “the” answer, in a way that war never can. If you go to websites that promote pacifism, such as this one run by a Quaker lobby, you’ll find attempts to explain what that alternative solution should be.
What you find there, of course, is not “the” answer, either. This is no surprise, because if you hold the more tragic (and, I believe, more realistic) view of human nature that I happen to, then you’re not looking for “the” answer, because you believe there never can be one.
There is really nothing so terribly wrong with the “solutions” offered there (except for reliance on the corrupt and/or incompetent UN), at least as far as they go, which isn’t all that far. The Quaker website stresses the idea of prevention, of nipping things in the bud before they ever get to that point. Nice idea, and I’m sure in some cases it works, but the programs described mostly focus on preventing one type of conflict, the so-called “mass humanitarian crises” such as the Rwandan slaughter. Although the role of the UN and NGOs in Darfur doesn’t indicate things have been going very well in this regard, there is some evidence of success (follow the link and scroll down to number four) in a very limited and circumscribed number of cases, none of which involve the so-called “war on terror” or Islamic totalitarianism.
But let’s not fool ourselves. Pope John Paul II negotiating a deal between Argentina and Chile over the Beagle Channel, or a social service society soothing the seething shantytowns of Ahmedabad in India through street plays and festivals—laudable though such things may be—aren’t about to give us “the answer” to the current question of what to do to counter the threat that militant Islamic fundamentalist totalitarianism represents now, including both its national and its terrorist manifestations.
Prevention is wonderful, and I’m all for it. It’s good to exercise aerobically, to eat healthfully, try to avoid carcinogens, and to get your vaccinations. The disease model dictates, however, that although an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, human beings rarely follow all the rules, and even those who do can end up with the shock of cancer or some other dread disease. When that happens, cure is worth many ounces of prevention, because prevention is no longer possible. And treatment must occur quickly.
Does that mean that someone who is diagnosed with cancer should give up practicing good health habits? Of course not; the two—prevention and treatment—work in tandem, and healthful practices can make treatment more effective. That’s why the “treatment” known as war does not preclude peace efforts such as those described on the Quaker website, as well.
War as a treatment? Yes—an exceptionally drastic one that should only be resorted to when there are no good alternatives, or when time has run out on the ones that might have worked in the past (the problem, of course, is deciding when that has happened). And like all drastic treatments it has many side effects, and can backfire and cause worse problems than those it attempts to address.
With war, every now and then there’s a cure, of course—World War II as a “cure” for Nazism, for example (although of course small pockets of that particular disease remain). But although World War II “cured” Nazism on a worldwide basis, the side effects were profound and devastating, and its aftermath fostered the growth of another already-existing disease: Communism.
Yes, indeed, war is not the answer to the problems that bring about armed conflict, and war is probably the least benign “treatment” on earth. But when prevention (and our very incomplete knowledge of how to accomplish it) has failed, sometimes it’s the only answer.
[ADDENDUM: In one of those examples of simultaneity in which the blogosphere is especially rich, Shrinkwrapped writes today on the psychological underpinnings of this sort of ultra-pacifist point of view.]