Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Why War?"

For all the good it does, everyone is against war. The more we say that war is bad, the more wars there are. Or so it seems.

Visions of world peace may well inhabit the minds of adolescents, but adults ought to know better.

In the years between the unspeakable carnage of World War I and the unspeakable carnage of World War II, the soon-to-be-doomed League of Nations asked Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud to put their heads together and figure out how we could end war. The result was a book called: Why War?

For Freud’s contribution, follow this link.

Of course, this project was about as effective in preventing war as the League of Nations itself.

Why would anyone assume that a physicist and a neurologist would know enough about politics, history, and economy to divine the root causes of the human lust for war? Or to be able to know how to resolve international disputes short of going to war.

Apparently, the human tendency to worship genius is about as resilient as the human capacity for warfare.

Why would anyone imagine that discovering why nations and peoples go to war would in any way deter them from indulging the activity.

The history of psychoanalysis is witness to the fact that understanding why you get it wrong will in no way induce you to get it right.

Be that as it may, when serious thinkers ask themselves why there is war, and why, even though everyone is against war, violent conflicts still continue to ravage the human species, they garb hold of Freud’s fallback position: human beings fight wars because they are instinctively compelled to do so.

Human beings have an instinct for destruction and that instinct demands satisfaction. Until the human race become metamorphosed into a band of angels, this law of destruction will prevail.

People destroy other people, places, and things because they like to or want to or are compelled to.

So much for the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Freud may not have known much about politics or history, but he still pretended to offer something of a solution to the problem of war. Freud thought that it would be a good idea to give a single authority complete power to adjudicate disputes.

For the record, Freud wrote: “Wars will only be prevented with certainty if mankind unites in setting up a central authority to which the right of giving judgement upon all conflicts of interest shall be handed over.”

Who decides who is going to occupy this position? What reward does he receive for undertaking this arduous task? Why would we assume that his decisions will all be just or acceptable? What makes you think that nation states are going to abrogate their authority to define and defend their own interest?

If you read through Freud's essay you will see that he has deduced his theory from a basic proposition. He is presenting this idea as though it were a self-evident truth, but it is an opinion.

Freud proposes this view of human nature: “It is a general principle, then, that conflicts of interest between men are settled by the use of violence.”

Here, Freud is simply wrong. In reality, the vast majority of conflicts of interest between men are settled by negotiation, by finding a middle ground. It is more economical to come to an agreement, the better to avoid violence.

As opposed to Freud's, this theory is more Aristotle than Plato, more Locke’s social contract than Hegel’s master/slave dialectic.

I would maintain that  people are prone to cooperate, to work together, to settle their disputes among themselves without handing power over to an outside authority.

But, this notion would seem to make it even more difficult to explain the prevalence of warfare.

Yet, it leads us to see war as something other than mindless destruction, and to see human beings as noble creatures.By contrast, the world famous Viennese neurologist saw human beings as mindlessly destructive and ignoble.

For a more reasonable definition of war, I offer a statement that Walter Russell Mead made in a column today: “War is in some ways the most human of activities: it is about defining and achieving objectives in cooperation with some people, all-out opposition from others, in a contest that draws on every talent and tests every virtue that we have.” Link here.

I would add that in war people compete for the highest stakes and incur the highest risk. If you have a few competitive genes, and you are young and male, you will likely see some value in proving yourself in the ultimate test... in war.

Were it not for the high stakes and the ultimate risk, war would be morally equivalent to competition in business.

So said William James in his essay: “The Moral Equivalent of War.”

James wrote a truly great essay; it is well worth a careful reading.

James recognized that war enhanced and engaged martial virtues. You may not like it, but war builds character. If you don’t think so, consider the example of the American cohort dubbed “the greatest generation.”

Since James wants to prevent wars, he recommends that we find ways to inculcate the same set of martial virtues through business and commerce. And yet, he was not optimistic about our ability to find a moral equivalent to war.

In his words: “The virtues that prevail, it must be noted, are virtues anyhow, superiorities that count in peaceful as well as in military competition; but the strain is on them, being infinitely intenser in the latter case, makes war infinitely more searching as a trial. No ordeal is comparable to its winnowings. Its dread hammer is the welder of men into cohesive states, and nowhere but in such states can human nature adequately develop its capacity.”

Unfortunately, only warfare entails so high a risk that it stands as the ultimate form of human competition.


Anonymous said...

Every Pacifist is a guy who wants to pork your wife without getting stabbed and be applauded for it.

That description certainly fits Einstein and Freud....

War is politics conducted by Fuck You!


JP said...

Another question is why is there a "war cycle".

There hasn't been a spike of combat in the West since about WWII.

The last time we went this long was between Napoleon and WWI.

The problem is that we now have nuclear weapons.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Surely, the advent of nuclear weapons has provided something of a respite in the war cycle. Yet, we have still been involved in any number of wars.