Studies in War and Peace
Twentieth-century man is supposed to be more rational than his forefathers. He attempts to solve his problems by rational discussion. By the use of rational processes he has achieved almost unlimited power over nature. He understands the working of the universe. According to the psychiatrists he can even understand himself. Yet his greatest energies, no doubt most rationally directed, are devoted to the irrational activity of war. Twentieth-century wars have been more expensive and more destructive than all their predecessors put together. The more enlightened a government is in its social policy and the more democratic in its institutions, the more it spends on war or, as it is laughably called, defense. What is the explanation of this paradox? How does it happen that man, who can remove almost all other evils, is more entangled than ever with the worst social evil of all?
The easiest way out is to invoke original sin. Only the clever people who write history or sociology are truly rational. They know that war is evil and would like to avoid it. Their thin pipings are drowned by the roar of the multitude. Aggression and violence are intrinsic to man’s nature. The masses are captivated by irrational passions—nationalism, imperialism, class hatred. High-minded governments are swept into war much against their wills.
Of course this is all nonsense. Men do not fight in modern wars because they like it. They fight because they are told that it is their duty to do so. The clever people invent the excuses for war. The masses are, at worst, taken in by them. Usually they are not even taken in. “Better dead than Red,” for instance, was a fine slogan for those who coined it. It had no appeal to those who experienced it in practice. I was in Hungary soon after the Russian invasion of 1956. I asked many Hungarians: “Would you rather be dead than Red? Would you have liked Hungary to be obliterated with nuclear weapons?” None said yes. It is a safe guess now that all the Vietnamese ask of their liberators is to go away.
We need a more sophisticated answer. The clever people are not laggards in providing one. They reduce war to reason. They demonstrate the rational purpose of wars. They give wars a high place in political science. War, it seems, is just one of the activities of governments along with health and education. The subtlest apologists admit that wars, once started, get out of hand. Therefore they claim that the object of preparing for war is to avoid it. I can think of no other human activity where this is true. No one cooks a meal in order not to eat it. No one buys an automobile in order to stay at home. But the great virtue of guns and still more of nuclear weapons is that they will never go off. This, though maybe clever, is too clever for me.
The first clever man of this school …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.