Is War Finally Loosing Out to Peace?


Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity is convincing me that it is. Not yet half-way through and I'm finding his argument as robust as it is convincing.

Balancing (a lot of) statistical analysis with history, criminology and psychology, Pinker questions our assumptions about violence and his answers are illuminating. Was, for instance, the 20th century really "the most violent ever" as is commonly thought? Certainly it had two World Wars, Stalin and Mao's purges, and genocides to boot. But we have a myopic tendency to remember things that are closer to home. What of the 40 million slaughtered during the Moghul conquests of the 13th century, up to 36 million killed during the An Lushan Revolt in 8th century China, or the annihilation of 20 million Native American Indians?

Pinker not only carefully sets out the sources of his data and their interpolation, he also stresses the poor condition of the historical record which gets fuzzier and fuzzier the further you tread down the road of the past. Despite this, it remains hard to deny the many trends which point to the notion that violence and war are on the decline. A mere glance at attitudes towards them during the Middle Ages reveals the gulf between our moral compass and that of our distant cousins. Both in numbers and in our mindsets, violence is no longer what it used to be. That the world media reacted so strongly when a US drone inadvertently killed ten Afghan civilians during a military operation (February 2010) is testament to how far we've recently come. As Joshua Goldstein put it:

The point is not that killing ten civilians is OK, but rather that in any previous war, even a few years ago, this kind of civilian death would barely have caused a ripple of attention. Civilian deaths, in sizeable numbers, used to be universally considered a necessary and inevitable, if perhaps unfortunate, by-product of war. That we are entering an era when these assumptions no longer apply is good news indeed.

In the same chapter on changing attidues towards war and violence, Pinker shares a letter he received from a Canadian armed forces captain from Kabul in 2003. Again, something of this kind would be unthinkable in the times of traditional, regimented warfare.

During this morning's Kalashnikov concerto, I was waiting for the tower guards in our camp to open fire. I think they were asleep. That's par for the course. Our towers are manned by the Bundeswehr, and they haven't been doing a good job ... when they're actually there. I qualified that last comment because the Germans have already abandoned the towers several times. The first time was when we got hit by rockets. The remaining instances had something to do with it being cold in the towers. A German Lieutenant with whom I spoke about this lack of honour and basic soldier etiquette replied that it was Canada's responsibility to provide heaters for the towers. I snapped back by mentioning that it was Germany's responsibility to provide warm clothing to its soldiers. I was tempted to mention something about Kabul not being Stalingrad, but I held my tongue.

The German army of today is not what it once was. Or, as I've heard mentioned here several times: 'This ain't the Wehrmacht.' Given the history of our people, I can make the argument that that's a very good thing indeed. However, since my safety now rests upon the vigilance of the Herrenvolk's progeny, I'm slighty concerned to say the least.

Pinker's dollop of wit after 300-odd pages of serious enquiery is received with a smile, but the point is not lost. There are multiple causes for optimism, and Pinker makes solid ground for them. As of May 15, 1984, for instance, "the major powers of the world had remained at peace with one another for the longest stretch of time since the Romain Empire." And with the exception of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, not a single interstate war has been fought between countries in Europe since 1945. That's 69 years of peace - "Keep in mind that up until that point European states had started around two new armed conflicts a year since 1400."

This is not to say that all that matters is Europe or the great powers. It isn't hard to point to their wars in other countries to realize that they are far from being angels. But it is the case that wars between great powers are the deadliest. So a decline there is a decline in total deaths. So too has there been a decline in deaths when these nations do fight abroad - just think of the deathtoll in Vietnam as compared to those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, in understanding what factors lead to this "long peace", one might hope to spread its achievements elsewhere, and I'm eagerly approaching the latter half of the book which attempts to explain these factors in a bid to harness them. As he put it so well in the preface:

The shift is not towards complacency: we enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to reduce it, and so we should work to reduce the violence that remains in our time. Indeed, it is a recognition of the decline of violence that best affirms that such efforts are worthwhile. Man's inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization. With the knowledge that something has driven it down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, 'Why is there war?' we might ask, 'Why is there peace?' We can obsess not just over what we have been doing wrong but also over what we have been doing right. Because we have been doing something right, and it would be good to know what, exactly, it is.

Watch this space.

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