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John McMurtry's 'Understanding War': Foreword

Almost everyone is against war or at least says so. Conceptions of war, however, differ widely and generate different ideas about how wars can be prevented. Some of these ideas are complementary, some incompatible. Sorting out these ideas, analysing them, weighing them against each other, and evaluating them in terms of what we know or can learn about the history of humanity and its present condition should constitute a major part of peace education.

Many people deeply devoted to the cans,- of stable global peace believe that the main difficulty in achieving it lies in human nature. They may not share the defeatist attitude that aggressiveness is an irremovable component of the human psyche and that therefore there will always be wars. But they do place the problem deep within the human individual. Stable peace, in their estimation, can be achieved only if individual human beings become more peaceful.

The present paper does not challenge the idea that pacification of individuals may be a sufficient condition for a stable peace; but it implicitly challenges the idea that it is a necessary condition. The main thrust of the paper is embodied in the idea that stable peace can be achieved by deflecting human aggressiveness (if, indeed, it is an important component of human nature) from human enemies to other enemies. Enemies can be either naturally given or created. The argument here is that there are no naturally given human enemies. Rather, those who are perceived as enemies have become enemies because they were perceived as such. On the other hand, naturally given enemies of humanity are easily identifiable. They are pestilence, destitution, degradation of the environment and, of course, war. It is against these enemies that human aggressiveness should be mobilized. Such mobilization would enhance the chances of establishing a lasting peace, because nothing brings people together more than does the perception of a common enemy.

War is an easily identifiable enemy of humanity (along with pestilence, destitution, and degradation of the environment) in view of the obvious threat of literal extinction posed by already existing and soon to be created weapons of total destruction. However, a war against war is incomparably more problematic than a war against the other enemies. To launch a war against pestilence, degradation of the environment, etc. requires a great deal of political will but not a radical restructuring of deeply entrenched beliefs. Much technical knowledge is available that is known to be effective against pestilence or stopping the degradation of the environment, and methods of obtaining more knowledge of this sort are already in use. Waging war against these enemies does not require a demolition of superstitions. When it comes to action making an impact on the physical environment, humans rely on science and think in the problem-solving mode. Such action and such mode of thinking are not paralyzed by encrusted dogmas and rhetorical shibboleths. Launching a war against war, on the other hand, requires not only a formidable political will but also a demolition of pervasive superstitions, which have consistently blocked efforts to mobilize such political will. Among these superstitions are the identification of national security with military potential, the belief in the effectiveness of ‘deterrence’, the belief that dismantling military institutions must lead to economic slump and unemployment, the belief that military establishments perform a useful social function by ‘defending’ the societies on which they feed, and so on. All these beliefs qualify as superstitions by the usual definition of a superstition as a stubbornly held belief for which no evidence exists. If anything, historical evidence tends to support the opposite view, namely, that highly militarized states are rather less secure from the ravages of war, that ‘deterrence’ has often been a rationalization of aggression, and that a war economy eventually leads to impoverishment rather than to prosperity. Above all, the claim of military establishments that they serve to ‘defend’ a country is belied by the uses to which these establishments all too often have been put, namely, to intimidate or to perpetrate violence against their own populations. And surely the weapons of total destruction cannot possibly ‘defend’ anything or anyone. They can only destroy everything and kill everyone.

All of these points, forcefully brought out by John McMurtry, contribute to the enlightenment of all who are willing to give serious thought to these matters.

Another formidable obstacle to be overcome in launching a war against war is the tendency of humans to see other humans as a source of threat. Throughout history, social organization was stimulated not only by the advantages of cooperating in coping with the environment but also, perhaps predominantly, by the necessity of cooperating in protecting one’s own against marauders, as well as by the advantages of cooperating in engaging in similar enterprises against vulnerable outsiders, that is, exterminating, plundering, enslaving, or exploiting alien populations. This sort of cooperation reflects the tribal principle of social organization. It has persisted to the present day in the organization and internal cohesion of modern states.

Thus, the basic problem is that of erasing all we-they dichotomies: kin versus non-kin, believers versus non-believers, those who look alike versus those who look different, and so on. The stubborn persistence of such dichotomies, however, suggests that they fulfill some need. Perhaps the need to belong is fully satisfied only if it is made clear who does not belong. In launching a war against war, a natural dichotomy suggests itself. It has been drawn by Freeman Dyson in his book ‘Weapons and Hope’. The dichotomy is between warriors and victims. It cuts across all racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological boundaries. As McMurtry most emphatically points out, however, the dichotomy separates roles, not persons. In fact, the persons in the role of warriors are also in the role of potential victims, since weapons of total destruction do not differentiate.

The warrior roles are played not only by the uniformed professionals but also by their counterparts in war industries, in think tanks, in research institutes, in lobbies, in short by all having a stake in institutions engaged in the preparation of war and in nurturing the global war machine. A war against war entails an attack on the role of the warrior. It is to this attack that the Clausewitzian principle of ‘total war’, that is, a war aimed at destroying or incapacitating the opposing force, is most applicable.

The object of this war is to destroy the institution of war and thus to instigate the atrophy of the global war machine by cutting off its nourishment.

A war of this sort can be waged by victims with a clear conscience, since it entails no violence perpetrated on human beings. Only the roles of the warrior are to be destroyed, just as the role of the executioner is destroyed when capital punishment is abolished without the erstwhile executioner having to be harmed, not even by employment, since the abolition of capital punishment may well entail finding an alternative employment for the hangman. The abolition of the institution of war may incur an analogous obligation.

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