The outbreak of war in Lebanon got me to wondering about the roots of the modern Middle East and its conflicts. Sitting on our bookshelf was A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, by David Fromkin, which Jenny had thought was quite good.
So I started in on that, but I hadn’t gotten very far before I realized that in order to understand it, I would need a clearer sense of what World War I was all about. So I backtracked to John Keegan’s The First World War. As one might expect from a historian of warfare, The First World War is very much a military history, with a fair description of the political crisis that precipitated the calamity and a great deal to say about specific battles and tactics. But any military study of World War I inevitably leads one to ask deep and difficult questions about the nature of warfare itself, not to mention questions about the political and social motivations behind this particular war. The Germans intended to take Paris and the French Berlin, but what did they hope to do when they got there? Why were societies willing to mobilize such massive armies to fight with tactics that were understood at the outset to involve massive casualties? Why were men willing to advance in ordered ranks under shelling and machine-gun fire that spelled certain death? Why did none of the armies pull back from the stalemated front lines to fight a guerrilla war? Why did everyone agree to show up and play by the spectacularly murderous yet orderly rules established by Clausewitz in On War? There seemed to be a great deal Keegan was leaving unsaid.
This is presumably because his answers to these larger questions can be found in his masterwork, A History of Warfare, a trenchant exploration of the roots and ritualizations that have characterized war throughout history. A sustained criticism of Clausewitz, the book argues that war is usually fought by tactics that are dictated as much by cultural preference as by any absolute material aims. Military culture, Keenan suggests, ossifies at the moment of its greatest glory and is extremely resistant to change, which helps explain why Mameluke horsemen continued to confront riflery long after such attacks were proved futile, why the Ottoman Empire had such a difficult time adjusting to the military imperatives of modern Europe, and why the United States continues to send armored divisions against every enemy, from Communist-tainted jungle hamlets to Branch Davidian compounds to insurgent-permeated Iraqi cities.
Keegan also makes the point that every sort of war — 20th-century Clausewitzian massive wars, Maoist “protracted” wars involving forced politicization of civilians, the primitive warfare of the Yanomamo — is incredibly brutal and loathed by most of its participants. Protracted war, moreover, though often successful on its own terms — Mao, Tito and Ho Chi Minh did take power eventually, and the ongoing terrorist struggles in the Middle East have certainly strengthened the hands of men like Nasrallah — they do so at an extraordinary cost in civilian deaths and typically for the purpose of installing a repressive regime that quickly succumbs to rampant corruption.
The news of late reinforces the sense that war is inevitable and getting worse, but that turns out to be false. In an enlightening and encouraging article for Science and Spirit, science writer John Horgan presents this arresting statistic:
Hard as it may be to believe, humanity as a whole has become much less violent than it used to be. Despite the massive slaughter that resulted from World Wars I and II, the rate of violent death for males in North America and Europe during the twentieth century was one percent. Worldwide, about 100 million men, women, and children died from warrelated [sic] causes, including disease and famine, in the last century. The total would have been 2 billion if our rates of violence had been as high as in the average primitive society.
This calculation is so counterintuitive because in primitive societies, warfare rarely results in more than one or two casualties at a time, whereas modern wars can reduce whole cities in an instant. But the populations involved in modern war (and peace) are also drastically larger, and relatively few countries have face more than two or three high-casualty wars in a century, whereas many primitive societies are in a state of endemic tit-for-tat warfare.
I’m not sure how encouraging all this is for the Lebanese or Iraqis at the moment, but I am coming to the view that while war has been with us throughout history, its forms and purposes are widely varied and amenable to adjustment, even to elimination. Keegan reminds us that until quite recently, slavery, infanticide, dueling and cannibalism were all also practices that had remained a part of human culture since the dawn of our existence, but they have largely been eliminated. Of course, I don’t think war will be eliminated easily or soon. But is it possible? In theory at least, I would have to say yes.