The Worst Is Behind Us

21 Aug

Achieving Peace Through War Sarah Miller asks, if “the worst of war is behind us”?

Although war may create a strong sense of emotional and spiritual satisfaction, it also creates repulsion in those who fight and in wider society. The euphoria at the beginning of WWI turned into repulsion with the war and war in general; the nationalism and intolerance of dissent in the US in the early days of the 2003 Iraq War gave way to widespread disgust with the war and questioning of American motives. The myth of war sooner or later gives way to the sensory reality of war, and when it does, the public no longer celebrates but rather condemns the violence (Hedges, 2002). Furthermore, in the past century there does seem to have been a transformation in how people think of war. War in general is no longer glorified as an honourable practice, but is instead criminalized, with those who initiate it seen as rogue actors (Mandelbaum, 1998). Ray attributes this change to modern ideas about the value of the individual human life, which are expressed not only in changing attitudes toward war, but also in changes toward capital punishment and human sacrifice (Ray, 1989), and perhaps the rise of the global human rights regime. A parallel could be made with slavery: a shift in attitudes about the morality of slavery was instrumental in its demise as an accepted practice (Ray, 1989), and while slavery still exists today, it is a criminal enterprise that is rejected by public opinion and by law. There is an important difference between institutionalized legal slavery and criminalized slavery, and similarly there is a difference between these two types of war.

The outcome of this modern moral shift toward war, given the fact that war continues to exert an emotional pull on people and societies, is arguably neither the disappearance of war, nor the continuation of business as usual, but rather the transformation of war. War, a ‘protean activity’ (Keegan, 1998), has transformed in order to remain acceptable to modern attitudes. In response to the almost universal repulsion with long and bloody wars, the destructiveness of war has been limited through technologies and tactics (Coker, 2008). So, for example, there has been increasing development and use of precision weaponry to minimize civilian casualties, as well as unmanned technology such as drones to lessen, and one day perhaps eliminate, military casualties on our own side. Warfare has become increasingly constrained by laws prohibiting the use of certain weapons. Similarly, war is justified through rhetoric of self-defence or humanitarianism, not in terms of the national interest or honour and glory for the nation. The requirement, by domestic opinion and international law, that wars be “just” in their means and in the reasons for waging them, is a serious constraint on the ability and willingness of states to go to war for classical national interests.

The objection may be raised that, while conventional inter-state war between states may be cleaner and less frequent than ever before, unconventional war and war in much of the developing world is dirtier and more prevalent. Therefore the worst of war may be behind us in the Western or developed world, but for people in the non-Western, developing world, war is perhaps worse than ever. The brutality of the wars in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and Uganda, for example, seem to support this claim. These types of conflicts thrive in states with weak, kleptocratic, or illegitimate governments (Coker, 2004; Keegan, 1998), where criminal elements in society perpetrate and prolong the fighting (Mueller, 2004; Hedges, 2002) because they stand to gain economically and politically (Ray, 1989). This suggests that improved governance and economic development has the ability to reduce these conflicts. The fact that, as Mandelbaum says, the practice of war is now the tactic of the weak of the international system instead of the prerogative of the strong (1998), suggests that the path of progress and development is not in war’s favour.

One can define the worst of war by number, as in how many states, or how many people, are involved in fighting. It can also be defined by kind, thus one can see the worst of war as the Battle of Verdun in WWI, where each square metre of the battlefield received 1,000 shells (Coker, 2008), or as the bombings of London, Dresden, Tokyo, or Hiroshima in WWII, or as sending children into battle. In number and in kind, it seems that the trends of the past 100 years mean that the worst of war is, most likely, behind us. A change in how war is perceived in the developed world has forced war to become cleaner and less frequent, in order to remain acceptable in the eyes of publics. The dirty wars that are still prevalent in much of the developing world are vulnerable to political and economic progress, and it does not seem too naïve to say that overall, the global trend is toward wars that are less destructive and less frequent. Thus, although war is not on a trajectory toward disappearance, it can be argued that the worst of war is behind us.

If the focus is Europe and the U.S., excluding non-state violence in Mexico, I agree, that wars will be shorter and less frequent. But, in other region, such as Africa and throughout most of the Eurasian landmass between Europe and China, I’m not as certain. Globalization has created new markets for weaponry, and, as countries develop economically, states will have more authority and funds, to punish opponents, who will also resort to violence, to push their demands. R2P has morphed from an humanitarian doctrine designed to thwart the worst effects of war on civilian populations into a justification for intervention in civil wars. War will become a distant tragedy lamented and derided at home, but ever more frequent “abroad”.

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