David Swanson: War Can Be Ended — And No, the US Civil War Was Not About Slavery and Not Worth the Human and Other Enduring True Costs

Cultural Intelligence, Peace Intelligence
David Swanson
David Swanson

War Can Be Ended

Part I Of BOOK: War No More: The Case For Abolition

Slavery Was Abolished

In the late eighteenth century the majority of people alive on earth were held in slavery or serfdom (three-quarters of the earth’s population, in fact, according to the Encyclopedia of Human Rights from Oxford University Press). The idea of abolishing something so pervasive and long-lasting as slavery was widely considered ridiculous. Slavery had always been with us and always would be. One couldn’t wish it away with naive sentiments or ignore the mandates of our human nature, unpleasant though they might be. Religion and science and history and economics all purported to prove slavery’s permanence, acceptability, and even desirability. Slavery’s existence in the Christian Bible justified it in the eyes of many. In Ephesians 6:5 St. Paul instructed slaves to obey their earthly masters as they obeyed Christ.

Slavery’s prevalence also allowed the argument that if one country didn’t do it another country would: “Some gentlemen may, indeed, object to the slave trade as inhuman and evil,” said a member of the British Parliament on May 23, 1777, “but let us consider that, if our colonies are to be cultivated, which can only be done by African negroes, it is surely better to supply ourselves with those labourers in British ships, than buy them from French, Dutch or Danish traders.” On April 18, 1791, Banastre Tarleton declared in Parliament—and, no doubt, some even believed him—that “the Africans themselves have no objection to the trade.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, slavery was outlawed nearly everywhere and rapidly on the decline. In part, this was because a handful of activists in England in the 1780s began a movement advocating for abolition, a story well told in Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. This was a movement that made ending the slave trade and slavery a moral cause, a cause to be sacrificed for on behalf of distant, unknown people very different from oneself. It was a movement of public pressure. It did not use violence and it did not use voting. Most people had no right to vote. Instead it used so-called naive sentiments and the active ignoring of the supposed mandates of our supposed human nature. It changed the culture, which is, of course, what regularly inflates and tries to preserve itself by calling itself “human nature.”

Other factors contributed to the demise of slavery, including the resistance of the people enslaved. But such resistance was not new in the world. Widespread condemnation of slavery—including by former slaves—and a commitment not to allow its return: that was new and decisive.

Those ideas spread by forms of communication we now consider primitive. There is some evidence that in this age of instant global communication we can spread worthy ideas much more quickly.

So, is slavery gone? Yes and no. While owning another human being is banned and in disrepute around the world, forms of bondage still exist in certain places. There is not a hereditary caste of people enslaved for life, transported and bred and whipped openly by their owners, what might be called “traditional slavery.” Sadly, however, debt slavery and sex slavery hide in various countries. There are pockets of slavery of various sorts in the United States. There is prison labor, with the laborers disproportionately being descendants of former slaves. There are more African-Americans behind bars or under supervision by the criminal justice system in the United States today than there were African-Americans enslaved in the United States in 1850.

But these modern evils don’t convince anybody that slavery, in any form, is a permanent fixture in our world, and they shouldn’t. Most African-Americans are not imprisoned. Most workers in the world are not enslaved in any type of slavery. In 1780, if you had proposed making slavery the exception to the rule, a scandal to be carried out in secret, hidden away and disguised where it still existed in any form, you would have been considered as naive and ignorant as someone proposing the complete elimination of slavery. If you were to propose bringing back slavery in a major way today, most people would denounce the idea as backward and barbaric.

All forms of slavery may not have been completely eliminated, and may never be. But they could be. Or, on the other hand, traditional slavery could be returned to popular acceptance and restored to prominence in a generation or two. Look at the rapid revival in acceptance of the use of torture in the early twenty-first century for an example of how a practice that some societies had begun to leave behind has been significantly restored. In this moment, however, it is clear to most people that slavery is a choice and that its abolition is an option—that, in fact, its abolition always was an option, even if a difficult one.

A Good Civil War?

In the United States some may have a tendency to doubt the abolition of slavery as a model for the abolition of war because war was used to end slavery. But did it have to be used? Would it have to be used today? Slavery was ended without war, through compensated emancipation, in the British colonies, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and most of South America and the Caribbean. That model worked also in Washington, D.C. Slave owning states in the United States rejected it, most of them choosing secession instead. That’s the way history went, and many people would have had to think very differently for it to have gone otherwise. But the cost of freeing the slaves by buying them would have been far less than the North spent on the war, not counting what the South spent, not counting the deaths and injuries, mutilations, trauma, destruction, and decades of bitterness to come, while slavery long remained nearly real in all but name. (See Costs of Major U.S. Wars, by the Congressional Research Service, June 29, 2010.)

On June 20, 2013, the Atlantic published an article called “No, Lincoln Could Not Have ‘Bought the Slaves’.” Why not? Well, the slave owners didn’t want to sell. That’s perfectly true. They didn’t, not at all. But the Atlantic focuses on another argument, namely that it would have just been too expensive, costing as much as $3 billion (in 1860s money). Yet, if you read closely—it’s easy to miss it—the author admits that the war cost over twice that much. The cost of freeing people was simply unaffordable. Yet the cost—over twice as much—of killing people, goes by almost unnoticed. As with well-fed people’s appetites for desserts, there seems to be a completely separate compartment for war spending, a compartment kept far away from criticism or even questioning.

The point is not so much that our ancestors could have made a different choice (they were nowhere near doing so), but that their choice looks foolish from our point of view. If tomorrow we were to wake up and discover everyone appropriately outraged over the horror of mass incarceration, would it help to find some large fields in which to kill each other off in large numbers? What would that have to do with abolishing prisons? And what did the Civil War have to do with abolishing slavery? If—radically contrary to actual history—U.S. slave owners had opted to end slavery without war, it’s hard to imagine that as a bad decision.

Let me try to really, really emphasize this point: what I am describing DID NOT happen and was not about to happen, was nowhere remotely close to happening; but its happening would have been a good thing. Had slave owners and politicians radically altered their thinking and chosen to end slavery without a war, they would have ended it with less suffering, and probably ended it more completely. In any case, to imagine slavery ending without war, we need only look at the actual history of various other countries. And to imagine big changes being made in our society today (whether it’s closing prisons, creating solar arrays, rewriting the Constitution, facilitating sustainable agriculture, publicly financing elections, developing democratic media outlets, or anything else—you may not like any of these ideas, but I’m sure you can think of a major change that you would like) we don’t tend to include as Step 1 “Find large fields in which to make our children kill each other in huge numbers.” Instead, we skip right by that to Step 2 “Do the thing that needs doing.” And so we should.

Existence Precedes Essence

To any philosopher sharing Jean Paul Sartre’s outlook on the world there is no need to demonstrate the virtual abolition of slavery in order to be convinced that slavery is optional. We’re human beings, and for Sartre that means we’re free. Even when enslaved, we’re free. We can choose not to speak, not to eat, not to drink, not to have sex. As I was writing this, large numbers of prisoners were engaged in a hunger strike in California and in Guantanamo Bay and in Palestine (and they were in touch with each other). Everything is optional, always has been, always will be. If we can choose not to eat, we can certainly choose not to engage in the extensive effort, requiring the collaboration of many people, to establish or maintain the institution of slavery. From this viewpoint it is simply obvious that we can choose not to enslave people. We can choose universal love or cannibalism or whatever we see fit. Parents tell their children, “You can be anything you choose to be,” and the same must also be true of the assembled collection of everyone’s children.

I think the above viewpoint, naive as it may sound, is essentially right. It doesn’t mean that future events are not physically determined by past ones. It means that, from the perspective of a non-omniscient human being, choices are available. This doesn’t mean you can choose to have physical abilities or talents you don’t have. It doesn’t mean you can choose how the rest of the world behaves. You can’t choose to have a billion dollars or win a gold medal or get elected president. But you can choose to be the sort of person who wouldn’t own a billion dollars while others starved, or the sort of person who would do just that and focus on owning two billion dollars. You can choose your own behavior. You can give winning a gold medal or getting rich or getting elected your best effort or a half-hearted effort or no effort at all. You can be the sort of person who obeys illegal or immoral orders, or the sort of person who defies them. You can be the sort of person who tolerates or encourages something like slavery or the sort of person who struggles to abolish it even as many others support it. And because we can each choose to abolish it, I will argue, we can collectively choose to abolish it.

There are a number of ways in which someone might disagree with this. Perhaps, they might suggest, some powerful force prevents us all from collectively choosing what we might each choose as an individual in a moment of calm clarity. This force could simply be a sort of social irrationality or the inevitable influence of sycophants on the powerful. Or it could be the pressure of economic competition or population density or resource shortages. Or perhaps some segment of our population is sick or damaged in a way that compels them to create the institution of slavery. These individuals could impose the institution of slavery on the rest of the world. Perhaps the slavery-inclined portion of the population includes all males, and women are unable to overcome the masculine drive toward slavery. Maybe the corruption of power, combined with the self-selection of those inclined to seek power makes destructive public policies inevitable. Maybe the influence of profiteers and the skill of propagandists render us helpless to resist. Or perhaps a large portion of the globe could be organized to end slavery, but some other society would always bring slavery back like a contagious disease, and ending it simultaneously everywhere would just not be feasible. Maybe capitalism inevitably produces slavery, and capitalism is itself inevitable. Maybe human destructiveness targeted toward the natural environment necessitates slavery. Maybe racism or nationalism or religion or xenophobia or patriotism or exceptionalism or fear or greed or a general lack of empathy is itself inevitable and guarantees slavery no matter how hard we try to think and act our way out of it.

These sorts of claims for inevitability sound less persuasive when addressed to an institution that has already been largely eliminated, like slavery. I’ll address them below with regard to the institution of war. Certain of these theories—population density, resource scarcity, etc.—are more popular among academics who look to non-Western nations as the primary source for war making. Other theories, such as the influence of what President Dwight Eisenhower called the military industrial complex, are more popular among discouraged peace activists in the United States. It’s not unusual, however, to hear supporters of U.S. wars cite the supposed need to fight for resources and “lifestyle” as a justification for wars that have been presented on television as having entirely different motivations. I will hope to make clear that claims for the inevitability of slavery or war have no basis in fact, whichever institution they are applied to. The plausibility of this argument will be helped if we first consider just how many venerable institutions we have already left behind.

Blood Feuds and Duels

Nobody in the United States is proposing to bring back blood feuds, revenge killings of members of one family by members of a different family. Such retaliatory slaughters were once a common and accepted practice in Europe and are still very much around in some parts of the world. The infamous Hatfields and McCoys have not drawn each other’s blood for over a century. In 2003, these two U.S. families finally signed a truce. Blood feuds in the United States had long since been effectively stigmatized and rejected by a society that believed it could do better and has done better.

Sadly, one of the McCoys involved in signing the truce made less than ideal comments, while the United States waged war in Iraq. According to the Orlando Sentinel, “Reo Hatfield of Waynesboro, Va., came up with the idea as a proclamation of peace. The broader message it sends to the world, he said, is that when national security is at risk, Americans put their differences aside and stand united.” According to CBS News, “Reo said after Sept. 11 he wanted to make an official statement of peace between the two families to show that if the most deep-seeded [sic] family feud can be mended, so can the nation unite to protect its freedom.” The nation. Not the world. “Protect freedom” in June 2003 was code for “fight war,” regardless of whether the war, like most wars, reduced our freedoms.

Have we remade family blood feuds as national blood feuds? Have we stopped killing the neighbors over stolen pigs or inherited grievances because a mysterious force that compels us to kill has been redirected into killing foreigners through war? Would Kentucky go to war with West Virginia, and Indiana with Illinois, if they couldn’t go to war with Afghanistan instead? Is Europe finally at peace with itself only because it’s constantly helping the United States attack places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya? Didn’t President George W. Bush justify a war on Iraq in some part by alleging that Iraq’s president had tried to kill Bush’s father? Doesn’t the United States treat Cuba as though the Cold War never ended largely because of sheer inertia? After he killed a U.S. citizen named Anwar al-Awlaki, didn’t President Barack Obama send another missile two weeks later that killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, against whom no accusations of wrong doing have ever been made? If—bizarre coincidence though it would be—the younger Awlaki was targeted without having been identified, or if he and the other young people with him were killed through pure recklessness, doesn’t the resemblance to blood feuds still hold?

Certainly, but a resemblance is not an equivalence. Blood feuds, as they were, are gone from U.S. culture and many other cultures around the world. Blood feuds were, at one point, considered normal, natural, admirable, and permanent. They were required by tradition and honor, by family and morality. But, in the United States and many other places, they are gone. Their vestiges remain. Blood feuds appear again in milder form, without the blood, sometimes with lawyers substituted for shotguns. Traces of blood feuds attach themselves to current practices, such as war, or gang violence, or criminal prosecutions and sentencings. But blood feuds are in no way central to existing wars, they don’t cause wars, the wars don’t follow their logic. Blood feuds have not been transformed into war or anything else. They’ve been abolished. War existed before and after the elimination of blood feuds, and had more similarities to blood feuds prior to their elimination than after. The governments that fight wars have internally imposed a ban on violence, but the ban has only succeeded where people have accepted its authority, where people have agreed that blood feuds must be left behind us. There are parts of the world where people have not accepted that.

Dueling

Revival of dueling seems even less likely than a return to slavery or blood feuds. Duels were once commonplace in Europe and the United States. Militaries, including the U.S. Navy, used to lose more officers to dueling among themselves than to combat with a foreign enemy. Dueling was banned, stigmatized, mocked, and rejected during the nineteenth century as a barbaric practice. People collectively decided it could be left behind, and it was.

No one proposed to eliminate aggressive or unjust dueling while keeping defensive or humanitarian dueling in place. The same can be said of blood feuds and slavery. These practices were rejected as a whole, not modified or civilized. We don’t have Geneva Conventions to regulate proper slavery or civilized blood feuds. Slavery wasn’t maintained as an acceptable practice for some people. Blood feuds were not tolerated for certain special families who needed to be prepared to fend off the irrational or evil families who couldn’t be reasoned with. Dueling has not remained legal and acceptable for particular personages. The United Nations doesn’t authorize duels the way it authorizes wars. Dueling, in the countries that formerly engaged in it, is understood to be a destructive, backward, primitive, and ignorant way for individuals to try to settle their disputes. Whatever insult someone may hurl at you is almost certain to be milder—as we view things today—than an accusation of being so stupid and vicious as to participate in duels. Therefore dueling is no longer a means to protect one’s reputation from insult.

Does the occasional duel still happen? Probably, but so does the occasional (or not so occasional) murder, rape, and theft. No one is proposing to legalize those, and nobody is proposing to bring back dueling. We generally try to teach our children to settle their disputes with words, not fists or weapons. When we can’t work things out, we ask friends or a supervisor or the police or a court or some other authority to arbitrate or impose a ruling. We haven’t eliminated disputes between individuals, but we have learned that we’re all better off settling them nonviolently. At some level most of us understand that even the person who might have been victorious in a duel but who loses in a court ruling is still better off. That person does not have to live in as violent a world, does not have to suffer from his “victory,” does not have to witness the suffering of his adversary’s loved ones, does not have to seek satisfaction or “closure” in vain through the elusive sensation of vengeance, does not have to fear any loved one’s death or injury in a duel, and does not have to stay prepared for his own next duel to come.

International Duels: Spain, Afghanistan, Iraq

What if war is as bad a way to settle international disputes as dueling is to settle interpersonal disputes? The similarities are perhaps sharper than we care to imagine. Duels were contests between pairs of men who had decided that their disagreements could not be settled by speaking. Of course, we know better. They could have resolved matters by speaking, but chose not to. No one was obliged to fight a duel because someone he was arguing with was irrational. Anyone who chose to fight a duel wanted to fight a duel, and was himself—therefore—impossible for the other person to talk to.

Wars are contests between nations (even when described as being fought against something like “terror”)—nations unable to settle their disagreements by speaking. We ought to know better. Nations could resolve their disputes by speaking, but choose not to. No nation is obliged to fight a war because another nation is irrational. Any nation that chooses to fight a war wanted to fight a war, and was itself—therefore—impossible for the other nation to talk to. This is the pattern we see in many U.S. wars.

The good side (our own side, of course) in a war, we like to believe, has been compelled into it because the other side understands only violence. You just can’t talk to Iranians, for example. It would be nice if you could, but this is the real world, and in the real world certain nations are run by mythical monsters incapable of rational thought!

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that governments make war because the other side won’t be reasonable and talk to them. Many of us don’t actually believe this is true. We see war-making as driven by irrational desires and greed, war justifications as packages of lies. I actually wrote a book called War Is A Lie surveying the most common types of lies about wars. But, for the sake of a comparison with dueling, let’s look at the case for war as a last resort when talking fails, and see how it holds up. And let’s look at cases involving the United States, as they are most familiar to many of us and somewhat familiar to many others, and as the United States (as I’ll discuss below) is the world’s leading maker of war.

Spain

The theory that war is a last resort used against those who cannot be reasoned with does not hold up well. The Spanish-American War (1898), for example, doesn’t quite fit. Spain was willing to submit to the judgment of any neutral arbiter, after the United States accused the Spanish of blowing up a ship called the U.S.S. Maine, but the United States was insistent upon going to war despite having no evidence to support its accusations against Spain, accusations that served as the war’s justification. To make sense of our theory of war we have to place Spain in the role of rational actor and the United States in the role of lunatic. That can’t be right.

Seriously: it can’t be right. The United States was not run by and was not inhabited by lunatics. Sometimes it can be hard to see in what way lunatics could do worse than our elected officials are doing, but the fact remains that Spain was not dealing with subhuman monsters, merely with Americans. And the United States was not dealing with subhuman monsters, merely with Spaniards. The matter could have been settled around a table, and one side even made that proposal. The fact is that the United States wanted war, and there was nothing the Spanish could say to prevent it. The United States chose war, just as a dueler chose to duel.

Afghanistan

Examples spring to mind from more recent history too, not just from centuries gone by. The United States, for three years prior to September 11, 2001, had been asking the Taliban to turn over Osama bin Laden. The Taliban had asked for evidence of his guilt of any crimes and a commitment to try him in a neutral third country without the death penalty. This continued right into October, 2001. (See, for example “Bush Rejects Taliban Offer to Hand Bin Laden Over” in the Guardian, October 14, 2001.) The Taliban’s demands don’t seem irrational or crazy. They seem like the demands of someone with whom negotiations might be continued. The Taliban also warned the United States that bin Laden was planning an attack on U.S. soil (this according to the BBC). Former Pakistani Foreign Secretary Niaz Naik told the BBC that senior U.S. officials told him at a U.N.-sponsored summit in Berlin in July 2001 that the United States would take action against the Taliban in mid-October. He said it was doubtful that surrendering bin Laden would change those plans. When the United States attacked Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, the Taliban asked again to negotiate handing over bin Laden to a third country to be tried. The United States rejected the offer and continued a war in Afghanistan for many years, not halting it when bin Laden was believed to have left that country, and not even halting it after announcing bin Laden’s death. (See Foreign Policy Journal, September 20, 2010.) Perhaps there were other reasons to keep the war going for a dozen years, but clearly the reason to begin it was not that no other means of resolving the dispute were available. Clearly the United States wanted war.

Why would someone want war? As I argue in War Is A Lie, the United States wasn’t so much seeking vengeance for Spain’s supposed destruction of the Maine as grabbing an opportunity to conquer territories. Invading Afghanistan had little or nothing to do with bin Laden or a government that had helped bin Laden. Rather, U.S. motivations were related to fossil fuel pipelines, the positioning of weaponry, political posturing, geo-political posturing, maneuvering toward an invasion of Iraq (Tony Blair told Bush Afghanistan had to come first), patriotic cover for power grabs and unpopular policies at home, and profiteering from war and its expected spoils. The United States wanted war.

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper. (See Scientific American, September 14, 2012.) That state of affairs cannot be indefinitely continued through diplomacy. “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U.S. Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps,” says hidden hand enthusiast and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. But greed is not an argument for the other guy’s irrationality or viciousness. It’s just greed. We’ve all seen young children and even older people learn to be less greedy. There are also paths toward sustainable energies and local economies that lead away from wars of greed without leading to suffering or impoverishment. Most calculations of large-scale conversion to green energy don’t take into account the transfer of enormous resources from the military. We’ll discuss what ending war makes possible below. The point here is that war does not deserve to be considered more respectable than dueling.

Was war inevitable from the point of view of Afghans, who found the United States uninterested in negotiations? Certainly not. While violent resistance has failed to end the war for over a decade, it is possible that nonviolent resistance would have been more successful. We can benefit, as those in centuries past could not, from the history of nonviolent resistance in the Arab Spring, in Eastern Europe, in South Africa, in India, in Central America, in successful efforts by Filipinos and Puerto Ricans to close U.S. military bases, etc.

Lest this sound like I am just offering unwanted advice to Afghans while my government bombs them, I should point out that the same lesson can apply in my country as well. The U.S. public supports or tolerates the spending (through a variety of departments—consult the War Resisters League or the National Priorities Project) of over $1 trillion every year on war preparations precisely because of the fear (fantastical though it may be) of an invasion of the United States by a foreign power. Should that happen, the foreign power involved would likely be destroyed by U.S. weapons. But, were we to dismantle those weapons, we would not—contrary to popular opinion—be left defenseless. We would be able to refuse our cooperation with the occupation. We could recruit fellow resisters from the invading nation and human shields from around the world. We could pursue justice through public opinion, courts, and sanctions targeted at the individuals responsible.

In reality, it is the United States and NATO that invade others. The war on and occupation of Afghanistan, if we step back from it just a little, appears as barbaric as a duel. Punishing a government willing (on certain reasonable conditions) to turn over an accused criminal, by spending well over a decade bombing and killing that nation’s people (most of whom had never heard of the attacks of September 11, 2001, much less supported them, and most of whom hated the Taliban) doesn’t appear to be a significantly more civilized action than shooting a neighbor because his great-uncle stole your grandfather’s pig. In fact war kills a lot more people than blood feuds. Twelve years later, the U.S. government, as I write this, is trying to negotiate with the Taliban—a flawed process in that the people of Afghanistan are not well-represented by either party in the negotiations, but a process which could have better taken place 12 years earlier. If you can talk to them now, why couldn’t you talk to them then, prior to the elaborate mass-duel? If a war on Syria can be avoided, why couldn’t a war on Afghanistan?

Iraq

Then there’s the case of Iraq in March 2003. The United Nations had refused to authorize an attack on Iraq, just as it had refused two years earlier with Afghanistan. Iraq was not threatening the United States. The United States possessed and was preparing to use against Iraq all sorts of internationally condemned weaponry: white phosphorous, new kinds of napalm, cluster bombs, depleted uranium. The U.S. plan was to attack infrastructure and densely populated areas with such fury that, contrary to all past experience, the people would be “shocked and awed”—another word would be terrorized—into submission. And the justification put forth for this was Iraq’s supposed possession of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately for these plans, a process of international inspections had rid Iraq of such weapons years before and confirmed their absence. Inspections were underway, re-confirming the complete absence of such weapons, when the United States announced that the war would begin and the inspectors must leave. The war was needed, the U.S. government claimed, to overthrow the government of Iraq—to remove Saddam Hussein from power. However, according to a transcript of a meeting in February 2003 between President George W. Bush and the Prime Minister of Spain, Bush said that Hussein had offered to leave Iraq, and to go into exile, if he could keep $1 billion. (See El Pais, September 26, 2007, or the Washington Post of the following day.) The Washington Post commented: “Although Bush’s public position at the time of the meeting was that the door remained open for a diplomatic solution, hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops had already been deployed to Iraq’s border, and the White House had made its impatience clear. ‘Time is short,’ Bush said in a news conference with [Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria] Aznar the same day.”

Perhaps a dictator being allowed to flee with $1 billion is not an ideal outcome. But the offer was not revealed to the U.S. public. We were told that diplomacy was impossible. Negotiation was impossible, we were told. (Thus, there was no opportunity to make a counter offer of a half a billion dollars, for example.) Inspections hadn’t worked, they said. The weapons were there and could be used at any moment against us, they said. War, regretfully, tragically, sorrowfully was the last resort, they told us. President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke at the White House on January 31, 2003, claiming that war would be avoided if at all possible, just after a private meeting in which Bush had suggested flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in U.N. colors, and hoping Iraq would fire on them, as that would supposedly have been grounds to start the war. (See Lawless World by Phillipe Sands, and see the extensive media coverage collected at WarIsACrime.org/WhiteHouseMemo.)

Rather than losing a billion dollars, the people of Iraq lost an estimated 1.4 million lives, saw 4.5 million people made refugees, their nation’s infrastructure and education and health systems destroyed, civil liberties lost that had existed even under Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule, environmental destruction almost beyond imagining, epidemics of disease and birth defects as horrific as the world has known. The nation of Iraq was destroyed. The cost to Iraq or to the United States in dollars was far more than a billion (the United States paid over $800 billion, not counting trillions of dollars in increased fuel costs, future interest payments, veterans’ care, and lost opportunities). (See DavidSwanson.org/Iraq .) None of this was done because Iraq couldn’t be reasoned with.

The U.S. government, at the top level, wasn’t motivated by the fictional weapons at all. And it’s not actually the place of the U.S. government to decide for Iraq whether its dictator flees. The U.S. government should have worked on ending its support for dictators in many other countries before interfering with Iraq in a new way. The option existed of ending the economic sanctions and bombings and beginning to make reparations. But if the United States’ stated motivations had been its real ones, we could conclude that talking was an option that should have been chosen. Negotiating Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait had been an option at the time of the First Gulf War as well. Choosing not to support and empower Hussein had been an option earlier still. There is always an alternative to backing violence. This is true even from the Iraqi point of view. Resistance to oppression can be nonviolent or violent.

Examine any war you like, and it turns out that if the aggressors had wanted to state their desires openly, they could have entered into negotiations rather than into battle. Instead, they wanted war—war for its own sake, or war for completely indefensible reasons that no other nation would willingly agree to.

War Is Optional

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union actually shot at and, in fact, shot down a U2 plane, the very act that President Bush hoped would launch a war on Iraq, but the United States and the Soviet Union talked the matter over instead of going to war. That option always exists—even when the threat of mutual annihilation is not present. It existed with the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crises. When warmongers in President John F. Kennedy’s administration tried to trap him into a war, he chose instead to fire top officials and continue to talk to the Soviet Union, where a similar push for war was playing out and being resisted by Chairman Nikita Khrushchev. (Read James Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters.) In recent years, proposals to attack Iran or Syria have been repeatedly rejected. Those attacks may come, but they are optional.

In March 2011, the African Union had a plan for peace in Libya but was prevented by NATO, through the creation of a “no fly” zone and the initiation of bombing, to travel to Libya to discuss it. In April, the African Union was able to discuss its plan with Libyan President Muammar al-Gaddafi, and he expressed his agreement. NATO, which had obtained a U.N. authorization to protect Libyans alleged to be in danger but no authorization to continue bombing the country or to overthrow the government, continued bombing the country and overthrowing the government. One may believe that was a good thing to do. “We came. We saw. He died!” said a triumphant U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, laughing joyfully after the death of Gaddafi. (Watch the video at WarIsACrime.org/Hillary.) Similarly, duelists believed shooting the other guy was a good thing to do. The point here is that it was not the only available option. As with dueling, wars could be replaced with dialogue and arbitration. The aggressor might not always get out of diplomacy what the insiders behind the war-making secretly and shamefully want, but would that be such a bad thing?

This is true with the long-threatened possible U.S. war on Iran. The Iranian government’s attempts at negotiation have been rejected by the United States for the past decade. In 2003, Iran proposed negotiations with everything on the table, and the United States dismissed the offer. Iran has agreed to greater restrictions on its nuclear program than required by law. Iran has attempted to agree to U.S. demands, repeatedly agreeing to ship nuclear fuel out of the country. In 2010, Turkey and Brazil went to a great deal of trouble to get Iran to agree to just what the U.S. government said was needed, which resulted only in the U.S. government expressing its anger toward Turkey and Brazil.

If what the United States really wants is to dominate Iran and exploit its resources, Iran cannot be expected to compromise by accepting partial domination. That goal shouldn’t be pursued by diplomacy or war. If what the United States really wants is for other nations to abandon nuclear energy, it may find it difficult to impose that policy on them, with or without the use of war. The most likely path to success would be neither war nor negotiations, but example and aid. The United States could begin dismantling its nuclear weapons and power plants. It could invest in green energy. The financial resources available for green energy, or anything else, if the war machine were dismantled are almost unfathomable. The United States could offer green energy assistance to the world for a fraction of what it spends to offer military domination—not to mention lifting the sanctions that prevent Iran from acquiring parts for windmills.

Wars Against Individuals

Examining wars fought against individuals and small bands of alleged terrorists also shows that talking has been an available, albeit rejected, option. In fact, it’s hard to find a case in which killing appears to have been the last resort. In May 2013 President Obama gave a speech in which he claimed that of all the people he’d killed with drone strikes only four had been U.S. citizens, and in one out of those four cases he had met certain criteria he’d created for himself prior to authorizing the killing. All publicly available information contradicts that claim, and in fact the U.S. government was trying to kill Anwar al-Awlaki before the incidents occurred in which President Obama later claimed Awlaki played a part that justified his killing. But Awlaki was never charged with a crime, never indicted, and his extradition never sought. On June 7, 2013, Yemeni tribal leader Saleh Bin Fareed told Democracy Now that Awlaki could have been turned over and put on trial, but “they never asked us.” In numerous other cases it is evident that drone strike victims could have been arrested if that avenue had ever been attempted. (A memorable example was the November 2011 drone killing in Pakistan of 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, days after he’d attended an anti-drone meeting in the capital, where he might easily have been arrested—had he been charged with some crime.) Perhaps there are reasons for the preference of killing over capturing. But, then again, perhaps there were reasons why people preferred fighting duels to filing law suits.

The idea of enforcing laws against individuals by shooting missiles at them was transferred to nations in the August-September 2013 push for an attack on Syria—which was to be attacked as punishment for the alleged use of a banned weapon. But, of course, any ruler evil enough to have gassed hundreds to death would be unlikely to feel punished when hundreds more were killed, as he remained unhurt and unindicted.

The Really Good War in the Future

Of course, cataloging the wars that might have been replaced with dialogue or by altering policy goals can hardly persuade everyone that a war won’t be needed in the future. The central belief in the minds of millions of people is this: One could not speak with Hitler. And its corollary: One cannot speak with the next Hitler. That the U.S. government has been misidentifying new Hitlers for three-quarters of a century—during which time many other nations have found the United States to be the nation you can’t talk to—hardly addresses the notion that a Hitler might return some day. This theoretical danger is answered with incredible investment and energy, while dangers like global warming must, apparently, be proven to have already entered an unstoppable cycle of worsening catastrophe before we act.

I will address the great albatross of World War II in Section II of this book. It is, however, worth noting for now that three-quarters of a century is a long time. Much has changed. There has been no World War III. Wealthy armed nations of the world have not gone to war with each other again. Wars are fought among poor nations, with poor nations as proxies, or by wealthy nations against poor ones. Empires of the old variety have gone out of fashion, replaced by the new U.S. variation (military troops in 175 countries, but no colonies established). Small-time dictators may be very unpleasant, but none of them are planning world conquest. The United States has had an extremely difficult time occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S.-backed rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen have had a hard time suppressing nonviolent resistance by their people. Empires and tyrannies fail, and they fail more quickly than ever. The people of Eastern Europe who nonviolently got rid of the Soviet Union and their communist rulers will never be traded away to a new Hitler, and neither will any other nations’ populations. The power of nonviolent resistance has become too well known. The idea of colonialism and empire has become too disreputable. The new Hitler will be more of a grotesque anachronism than an existential threat.

Small-Scale State Killing

Another venerable institution is going the way of the dodo. In the mid-eighteenth century proposing to eliminate the death penalty was widely considered dangerous and foolish. But most of the world’s governments no longer use the death penalty. Among wealthy nations there is one exception remaining. The United States uses the death penalty and is, in fact, among the top five killers in the world—which isn’t saying much in historical terms, the killing has dropped off so dramatically. Also in the top five: the recently “liberated” Iraq. But most of the United States’ 50 states no longer use the death penalty. There are 18 states that have abolished it, including 6 thus far in the twenty-first century. Thirty-one states haven’t used the death penalty in the past 5 years, 26 in the past 10 years, 17 in the past 40 years or more. A handful of Southern states—with Texas in the lead—do most of the killing. And all the killings combined amount to a small fraction of the rate at which the death penalty was used in the United States, adjusted for population, in previous centuries. Arguments for the death penalty are still easy to find, but they almost never claim that it can’t be eliminated, only that it shouldn’t be. Once considered critical to our security, the death penalty is now universally considered optional and widely considered archaic, counter-productive, and shameful. What if that were to happen to war?

Other Types of Violence Declining

Gone in some parts of the world, along with the death penalty, are all sorts of horrific public punishments and forms of torture and cruelty. Gone or reduced is a great deal of violence that was part of everyday life in centuries and decades gone by. Murder rates, in the long view, are declining dramatically. So are fist fights and beatings, violence toward spouses, violence toward children (by teachers and parents), violence toward animals, and public acceptance of all such violence. As anyone knows who tries to read to their children their own favorite books from childhood, it’s not just the ancient fairy tales that are violent. Fist fights are as common as air in the books of our youth, not to mention classic movies. When Mr. Smith goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart tries the filibuster only after punching everyone in sight fails to solve his problems. Magazine advertisements and television sit-coms in the 1950s joked about domestic violence. Such violence isn’t gone, but its public acceptance is gone, and its reality is on the decline.

How can this be? Our underlying violence is supposed to be a justification for institutions like war. If our violence (at least in some forms) can be left behind us, along with sentiment about our alleged “human nature,” why should an institution founded on belief in that violence remain?

What, after all, is “natural” about the violence of war? Most human or primate or mammalian conflicts within a species involve threats and bluffs and restraint. War involves an all-out attack on people you’ve never seen before. (Read Paul Chappell’s books, [PBI: for example, The Art of Waging Peace: A Strategic Approach to Improving Our Lives and the World] for excellent further discussion.) Those who cheer for war from a distance can romanticize its naturalness. But most people have nothing to do with it and want nothing to do with it. Are they unnatural? Are the majority of humans living outside “human nature”? Are you yourself an “unnatural” human because you don’t fight wars?

Nobody has ever suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from war deprivation. Participation in war requires, for most people, intense training and conditioning. Killing others and facing others trying to kill you are both extremely difficult tasks that often leave one deeply damaged. In recent years, the U.S. military has been losing more soldiers to suicide in or after return from Afghanistan than to any other cause in that war. An estimated 20,000 members of the U.S. military have deserted during the first decade of the “global war on terror” (this according to Robert Fantina, author of Desertion and the American Soldier 1776-2006). We tell each other that the military is “voluntary.” It was made “voluntary,” not because so many people wanted to join, but because so many people hated the draft and wanted to avoid joining, and because propaganda and promises of financial reward could induce people to “volunteer.” The volunteers are disproportionately people who had few other options available. And no volunteer in the U.S. military is permitted to quit volunteering.

Ideas Whose Time Has Come

In 1977 a campaign called the Hunger Project sought to eliminate world hunger. Success remains elusive. But most people today are convinced that hunger and starvation could be eliminated. In 1977, the Hunger Project felt obliged to argue against the widespread belief that hunger was inevitable. This was the text of a flyer they used:

Hunger is not inevitable.
Everyone knows that people will always starve, the way everyone knew that man would never fly.
At one time in human history, everyone knew that …
The world was flat,
The sun revolved around the earth,
Slavery was an economic necessity,
A four-minute mile was impossible,
Polio and smallpox would always be with us,
And no one would ever set foot on the moon.
Until courageous people challenged old beliefs and a new idea’s time had come.
All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.

That last line is of course borrowed from Victor Hugo. He imagined a united Europe, but the time hadn’t yet come. It later came. He imagined the abolition of war, but the time hadn’t yet come. Perhaps now it has. Many didn’t think land mines could be eliminated, yet that’s well underway. Many thought nuclear war was inevitable and nuclear abolition impossible (for a long time the most radical demand was for a freeze in the creation of new weapons, not their elimination). Now nuclear abolition remains a distant goal, but most people admit that it can be done. The first step in abolishing war will be to recognize that it, too, is possible.

War Less Venerable Than Imagined

War is alleged to be “natural” (whatever that means) because it has supposedly always been around. The trouble is that it hasn’t. In 200,000 years of human history and prehistory there is no evidence of war over 13,000 years old, and virtually none over 10,000 years old. (For those of you who believe the earth is only 6,500 years old, let me just say this: I’ve just spoken with God and he instructed us all to work for the abolition of war. He did, however, also recommend reading the rest of this book and purchasing many more copies.)

War is not common among nomads or hunters and gatherers. (See “Lethal Aggression in Mobile Forager Bands and Implications for the Origins of War,” in Science, July 19, 2013.) Our species did not evolve with war. War belongs to complex sedentary societies—but only to some of them, and only some of the time. Belligerent societies grow peaceful and vice versa. In Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace, Douglas Fry lists non-warring societies from all over the globe. Australia for some time before the Europeans came, the Arctic, Northeast Mexico, the Great Basin of North America—in these places people lived without war.

In 1614 Japan cut itself off from the West, and experienced peace, prosperity, and the blossoming of Japanese art and culture. In 1853 the U.S. Navy forced Japan open to U.S. merchants, missionaries, and militarism. Japan has done well with a peaceful Constitution since the end of World War II (although the United States is pushing hard for its repeal), as has Germany—apart from assisting NATO with its wars. Iceland and Sweden and Switzerland haven’t fought their own wars in centuries, although they have assisted NATO in occupying Afghanistan. And NATO is busy now militarizing the north of Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Costa Rica abolished its military in 1948 and put it in a museum. Costa Rica has lived without war or military coups, in stark contrast to its neighbors, ever since—although it has assisted the United States’ military, and although the militarism and weaponry of Nicaragua have spilled over. Costa Rica, far from perfect, is often ranked as the happiest or one of the happiest places to live on earth. In 2003 various nations had to be bribed or threatened to join in a “coalition” war on Iraq, and with many those efforts were unsuccessful.
In The End of War, John Horgan describes efforts to abolish war undertaken by members of an Amazonian tribe in the 1950s. Waorani villagers had been warring for years. A group of Waorani women and two missionaries decided to fly a small plane over hostile camps and deliver conciliatory messages from a loud speaker. Then there were face-to-face meetings. Then the wars ceased, to the great satisfaction of all concerned. The villagers did not return to war.

Who Fights the Most

As far as I know, nobody ranks nations based on their predilection to launch or participate in war. Fry’s list of 70 or 80 peaceful nations includes nations that participate in NATO wars. The Global Peace Index (see VisionOfHumanity.org) ranks countries based on 22 factors including violent crime within the nation, political instability, etc. The United States ends up ranked in the middle, and European countries toward the top—that is, among the most “peaceful.”

But the Global Peace Index website allows you to change the rankings by clicking only on the single factor of “conflicts fought.” When you do this the United States ends up near the top—that is, among the nations engaged in the most conflicts. Why is it not at the very top, the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called it? Because the United States is ranked based on the idea that it has engaged in only three conflicts during the past 5 years—this despite drone wars in several nations, military operations in dozens, and troops stationed in some 175 and climbing. Thus the United States is outranked by three nations with four conflicts each: India, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even by this crude measurement, however, what jumps out at you is that the vast majority of nations—virtually every nation on earth—is less involved in war making than the United States is, and many nations have not known war the past five years, while many nations’ only conflict has been a coalition war led by the United States and in which other nations played or are playing small parts.

Follow the Money

The Global Peace Index (GPI) ranks the United States near the peaceful end of the scale on the factor of military spending. It accomplishes this feat through two tricks. First, the GPI lumps the majority of the world’s nations all the way at the extreme peaceful end of the spectrum rather than distributing them evenly.

Second, the GPI treats military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) or the size of an economy. This suggests that a rich country with a huge military can be more peaceful than a poor country with a small military. Perhaps that is so in terms of intentions, but it is not so in terms of results. Is it necessarily even so in terms of intentions? One country desires a certain level of killing machinery and is willing to forego more to get it. The other country desires that same level of military plus much more, although the sacrifice is in a certain sense less. If that wealthier country becomes even wealthier but refrains from building an even bigger military purely because it can afford to, has it become less militaristic or remained the same? This is not just an academic question, as think tanks in Washington urge spending a higher percentage of GDP on the military, exactly as if one should invest more in warfare whenever possible, without waiting for a defensive need.

In contrast to the GPI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) lists the United States as the top military spender in the world, measured in dollars spent. In fact, according to SIPRI, the United States spends as much on war and war preparation as most of the rest of the world combined. The truth may be more dramatic still. SIPRI says U.S. military spending in 2011 was $711 billion. Chris Hellman of the National Priorities Project says it was $1,200 billion, or $1.2 trillion. The difference comes from including military spending found in every department of the government, not just “Defense,” but also Homeland Security, State, Energy, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Veterans Administration, interest on war debts, etc. There’s no way to do an apples-to-apples comparison to other nations without accurate credible information on each nation’s total military spending, but it is extremely safe to assume that no other nation on earth is spending $500 billion more than is listed for it in the SIPRI rankings. Moreover, some of the biggest military spenders after the United States are U.S. allies and NATO members. And many of the big and small spenders are actively encouraged to spend, and to spend on U.S. weaponry, by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. military.

While North Korea almost certainly spends a much higher percentage of its gross domestic product on war preparations than the United States does, it almost certainly spends less than 1 percent what the United States spends. Who is therefore more violent is one question, perhaps unanswerable. Who is more of a threat to whom is no question at all. With no nation threatening the United States, the Directors of National Intelligence in recent years have had a hard time telling Congress who the enemy is and have identified the enemy in various reports merely as “extremists.”

The point of comparing levels of military spending is not that we should be ashamed of how evil the United States is, or proud of how exceptional. Rather, the point is that decreased militarism is not only humanly possible; it is being practiced right now by every other nation on earth, that is to say: nations containing 96 percent of humanity. The United States spends the most on its military, keeps the most troops stationed in the most countries, engages in the most conflicts, sells the most weaponry to others, and thumbs its nose most blatantly at the use of courts to restrain its war-making or even, any more, to put individuals on trial who can just as easily be hit with a hellfire missile. Lessening U.S. militarism would not violate some law of “human nature,” but bring the United States more closely into line with most of humanity.

Public Opinion v. War

Militarism is not nearly as popular in the United States as the behavior of the U.S. government would suggest to someone who believed the government followed the will of the people. In 2011, the media made a lot of noise about a budget crisis and did a lot of polling on how to solve it. Almost nobody (single-digit percentages in some polls) was interested in the solutions the government was interested in: cutting Social Security and Medicare. But the second most popular solution, after taxing the rich, was consistently cutting the military. According to Gallup polling, a plurality has believed the U.S. government is spending too much on the military since 2003. And, according to polling, including by Rasmussen, as well as according to my own experience, virtually everyone underestimates how much the United States is spending. Only a small minority in the United States believes the U.S. government should spend three times as much as any other nation on its military. Yet the United States has spent well over that level for years, even as measured by SIPRI. The Program for Public Consultation (PPC), affiliated with the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, has tried to correct for ignorance. First PPC shows people what the actual public budget looks like. Then it asks what they would change. A majority favors major cuts to the military.

Even when it comes to specific wars, the U.S. public is not as supportive as sometimes thought by U.S. people themselves or by citizens of other countries, especially countries invaded by the United States. The Vietnam Syndrome much lamented in Washington for decades was not an illness caused by Agent Orange but rather a name for popular opposition to wars—as if that opposition were a disease. In 2012, President Obama announced a 13-year, $65-million project to commemorate (and rehabilitate the reputation of) the war on Vietnam. The U.S. public has opposed U.S. wars on Syria or Iran for years. Of course that could change the minute such a war is launched. There was significant public support at first for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. But fairly quickly that opinion shifted. For years, a strong majority favored ending those wars and believed it had been a mistake to begin them—while the wars rolled “successfully” along in the supposed cause of “spreading democracy.” The 2011 war on Libya was opposed by the United Nations (whose resolution did not authorize a war to overthrow the government), by the U.S. Congress (but why worry over that technicality!), and by the U.S. public (see PollingReport.com/libya.htm ). In September 2013, the public and the Congress rejected a major push by the president for an attack on Syria.

Human Hunting

When we say that war goes back 10,000 years it’s not clear that we’re talking about a single thing, as opposed to two or more different things going by the same name. Picture a family in Yemen or Pakistan living under a constant buzz produced by a drone overhead. One day their home and everyone in it is shattered by a missile. Were they at war? Where was the battlefield? Where were their weapons? Who declared the war? What was contested in the war? How would it end?

Let’s take the case of someone actually engaged in anti-U.S. terrorism. He’s struck by a missile from an unseen unmanned airplane and killed. Was he at war in a sense that a Greek or Roman warrior would recognize? How about a warrior in an early modern war? Would someone who thinks of a war as requiring a battlefield and combat between two armies recognize a drone warrior seated at his desk manipulating his computer joystick as a warrior at all?

Like dueling, war has formerly been thought of as an agreed upon contest between two rational actors. Two groups agreed, or at least their rulers agreed, to go to war. Now war is always marketed as a last resort. Wars are always fought for “peace,” while nobody ever makes peace for the sake of war. War is presented as an undesired means toward some nobler end, an unfortunate responsibility required by the irrationality of the other side. Now that other side is not fighting on a literal battlefield; rather the side equipped with satellite technology is hunting the supposed fighters.

The drive behind this transformation has not been the technology itself or military strategy, but public opposition to putting U.S. troops on a battlefield. That same repulsion toward losing “our own boys” was largely what led to the Vietnam Syndrome. Such repulsion fueled opposition to the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. Most Americans had and still have no idea about the extent of the death and suffering borne by people on the other sides of the wars. (The government is disinclined to inform people, who have been known to respond very appropriately.) It’s true that U.S. people haven’t consistently insisted that their government present them with information on the suffering caused by U.S. wars. Many, to the extent that they do know, have been more tolerant of the pain of foreigners. But the deaths and injuries to U.S. troops have become largely intolerable. This partially accounts for the recent U.S. move toward air wars and drone wars.

The question is whether a drone war is a war at all. If it’s fought by robots against which the other side has no ability to respond, how closely does it resemble most of what we categorize in human history as war-making? Is it not perhaps the case that we have already ended war and now must end something else as well (a name for it might be: the hunting of humans, or if you prefer assassination, although that tends to suggest the killing of a public figure)? And then, wouldn’t the task of ending that other thing present us with a much less venerable institution to dismantle?

Both institutions, war and human hunting, involve the killing of foreigners. The new one involves the intentional killing of U.S. citizens as well, but the old one involved the killing of U.S. traitors or deserters. Still, if we can change our manner of killing foreigners to render it almost unrecognizable, who’s to say we can’t eliminate the practice altogether?

Do We Have No Choice?

Although we might each individually be free to choose to end war (a different question from whether you do at the moment choose to) is there some inevitability that prevents us from making that choice together collectively? There wasn’t when it came to chattel slavery, blood feuds, duels, capital punishment, child labor, tar and feathering, the stocks and pillory, wives as chattel, the punishment of homosexuality, or countless other institutions past or quickly passing—although for many years in each case it seemed impossible to dismantle the practice. It is certainly true that people often collectively act in a manner opposed to how a majority of them each individually claim they would like to act. (I’ve even seen a poll in which a majority of CEOs claim they’d like to be taxed more.) But there is no evidence that collective failure is inevitable. The suggestion that war is different from other institutions that have been eliminated is an empty suggestion unless some concrete claim is made as to how we are prevented from ending it.

John Horgan’s The End of War is well worth reading. A writer for Scientific American, Horgan approaches the question of whether war can be ended as a scientist. After extensive research, he concludes that war can be ended globally and has in various times and places been ended. Before reaching that conclusion, Horgan examines claims to the contrary.

While our wars are advertised as humanitarian expeditions or defenses against evil threats, and not as competition for resources, such as fossil fuels, some scientists who argue for war’s inevitability tend to assume that war is in fact competition for fossil fuels. Many citizens agree with that analysis and support or oppose the wars on that basis. Such an explanation for our wars is clearly incomplete, as they always have numerous motivations. But if we accept the claim for the sake of argument that current wars are for oil and gas, what can we make of the argument that they are inevitable?

The argument holds that humans have always competed, and that when resources are scarce war results. But even proponents of this theory admit that they are not really claiming inevitability. If we were to control population growth and/or shift to green energy and/or alter our consumption habits, the supposedly necessary resources of oil and gas and coal would no longer be in scarce supply, and our violent competition for them would no longer be inevitable.

Looking through history we see examples of wars that seem to fit the model of resource pressure and others that don’t. We see societies burdened by resource scarcity that turn to war and others that do not. We also see cases of war as a cause of scarcity, rather than the reverse. Horgan cites examples of peoples who fought most when resources were most plentiful. Horgan also cites the work of anthropologists Carol and Melvin Ember whose study of over 360 societies over the past two centuries turned up no correlation between resource scarcity or population density and war. Lewis Fry Richardson’s similarly massive study also found no such correlation.

In other words, the story that population growth or resource scarcity causes war is a just-so story. It makes a certain logical sense. Elements of the story have in fact been part of the narrative of many wars. But the evidence indicates that there is nothing there in the way of a necessary or sufficient cause. These factors do not make war inevitable. If a particular society decides that it will fight for scarce resources, then the depletion of those resources makes that society more likely to go to war. That is indeed a real danger for us. But there is nothing inevitable about the society’s making the decision that some type of event will justify a war in the first place, or acting on that decision when the time arrives.

Puppets of Sociopaths?

What about the idea that certain individuals dedicated to war will inevitably drag the rest of us into it? I’ve argued above that our government is more eager for war than our population. Do those who favor war overlap heavily with those who hold positions of power? And does this condemn us all to war-making whether we want it or not?

Let’s be clear, first of all, that there is nothing strictly inevitable about such a claim. Those war-prone individuals could be identified and altered or controlled. Our system of government, including our system of funding elections and our system of communications, could be altered. Our system of government, in fact, originally planned for no standing armies and gave war powers to Congress for fear that any president would abuse them. In the 1930s Congress almost gave war powers to the public by requiring a referendum before a war. Congress has now given war powers to presidents, but that need not be permanently so. Indeed, in September 2013, Congress stood up to the president on Syria.

In addition, let’s keep in mind that war is not unique as an issue on which our government diverges from majority opinion. On many other topics the divergence is at least as pronounced, if not more so: the bailing out of banks, the surveillance of the public, the subsidies for billionaires and corporations, the corporate trade agreements, the secret laws, the failure to protect the environment. There are not dozens of urges overpowering the public will through the power-grabbing of sociopaths. Rather, there are sociopaths and non-sociopaths falling under the influence of good old-fashioned corruption.

The 2 percent of the population who, studies suggest, fully enjoy killing in war and do not suffer from it, do not move from euphoria to remorse (see Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society), probably do not overlap much with those in power making decisions to fight wars. Our political leaders do not take part in wars themselves anymore and in many cases evaded wars in their youth. Their drive to power may lead them to attempt greater domination through warfare fought by subordinates, but it wouldn’t do so in a culture in which peace-making increased one’s power more than war-making did.

In my book, When the World Outlawed War, I told the story of the creation of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which banned war in 1928 (it’s still on the books!). Frank Kellogg, the U.S. Secretary of State, was as supportive of war as anyone else until it became clear to him that peace was the direction for career advancement. He began telling his wife he might win the Nobel Peace Prize, which he did. He began thinking he might become a judge on the International Court of Justice, which he did. He began responding to the demands of peace activists he had earlier denounced. A generation earlier or later, Kellogg would probably have pursued war-making as the path to power. In the anti-war climate of his day he saw a different route.

The All-Powerful Military Industrial Complex

When war is viewed as something done exclusively by non-Americans or non-Westerners, the alleged causes of war include theories about genetics, population density, resource scarcity, etc. John Horgan is right to point out that these alleged causes don’t make war inevitable and don’t in fact correlate with the likelihood of war.

When war is understood as also, if not primarily, something done by “developed” nations, then other causes emerge that Horgan never looked at. These causes also bring no inevitability with them. But they can make war more likely in a culture that has made certain choices. It’s critical that we recognize and understand these factors, because a movement to abolish war will have to address itself to war making by the United States and its allies in a manner different from what would seem appropriate if war were exclusively a product of the poor nations in Africa where the International Criminal Court manages to find virtually all of its cases.

In addition to being immersed in a false world view of war’s inevitability, people in the United States are up against corrupt elections, complicit media, shoddy education, slick propaganda, insidious entertainment, and a gargantuan permanent war machine falsely presented as a necessary economic program that cannot be dismantled. But none of this is unalterable. We’re dealing here with forces that make war more likely in our time and place, not insurmountable obstacles that guarantee war forevermore. No one believes the military industrial complex has always been with us. And with a little reflection no one would believe that, like global warming, it could create a feedback loop outside of human control. On the contrary, the MIC exists through its influence on humans. It didn’t always exist. It expands and contracts. It lasts as long as we allow it to. The military industrial complex is, in short, optional, just as the chattel slavery complex was optional.

In later sections of this book we’ll discuss what can be done about a cultural acceptance of war that draws less on population growth or resource scarcity than on patriotism, xenophobia, the sad state of journalism, and the political influence of companies like Lockheed Martin. Understanding this will allow us to shape an anti-war movement more likely to succeed. Its success is not guaranteed, but it is without any doubt possible.

“We Can’t End War If They Don’t End War”

There is an important difference between slavery (and many other institutions) on the one hand, and war on the other. If one group of people makes war on another, then both are at war. If Canada developed slave plantations, the United States wouldn’t have to do so. If Canada invaded the United States, the two nations would be at war. This would seem to suggest that war must be eliminated everywhere simultaneously. Otherwise, the need for defense against others must keep war alive forever.

This argument ultimately fails on several grounds. For one thing, the contrast between war and slavery is not as simple as suggested. If Canada were using slavery, guess where Wal-Mart would start importing our stuff from! If Canada were using slavery, guess what Congress would be setting up commissions to study the benefits of reestablishing! Any institution can be contagious, even if perhaps less so than war.

Also, the argument above is not for war so much as for defense against war. If Canada attacked the United States, the world could sanction the Canadian government, put its leaders on trial, and shame the entire nation. Canadians could refuse to participate in their government’s war-making. Americans could refuse to recognize the authority of the foreign occupation. Others could travel to the United States to aid the nonviolent resistance. Like the Danes under the Nazis, we could refuse to cooperate. So, there are tools of defense other than the military.

(I apologize to Canada for this hypothetical example. I am, in fact, aware which of our two countries has a history of invading the other [See DavidSwanson.org/node/4125].)

But let’s suppose some military defense was still believed necessary. Would it have to be $1 trillion worth each year? Wouldn’t U.S. defense needs be similar to the defense needs of other nations? Let’s suppose the enemy is not Canada, but a band of international terrorists. Would this change the needs for military defense? Perhaps, but not in a manner to justify $1 trillion per year. The nuclear arsenal of the United States did nothing to dissuade the 9/11 terrorists. The permanent stationing of a million soldiers in some 175 nations doesn’t help prevent terrorism. Rather, as discussed below, it provokes it. It may help us to ask ourselves this question: Why is Canada not the target of terrorism that the United States is?

Ending militarism need not take many years, but it also need not be instantaneous or globally coordinated. The United States is the leading exporter of weapons to other nations. That can’t be very easily justified in terms of national defense. (An obvious actual motive is money making.) Ending U.S. weapon exportation could be accomplished without impacting the United States’ own defenses. Advances in international law, justice, and arbitration could combine with advances in disarmament and foreign aid, and with a growing global cultural revulsion against war. Terrorism could be treated as the crime that it is, its provocation reduced, and its commission prosecuted in court with greater international cooperation. A reduction in terrorism and in war (a.k.a. state terrorism) could lead to further disarmament, and the limiting and ultimate elimination of the profit motive from war. Successful nonviolent arbitration of disputes could lead to greater reliance on and compliance with the law. As we’ll see in Section IV of this book, a process could be begun that would move the world away from war, the world’s nations away from militarism, and the world’s enraged individuals away from terrorism. It is simply not the case that we must prepare for war out of fear that someone else might attack us. Nor must we abolish all tools of war by next Thursday in order to commit to never fighting a war again.

It’s in Our Heads

Here in the United States, war is in our heads, and our books, our movies, our toys, our games, our historical markers, our monuments, our sporting events, our wardrobes, our television advertisements. When he searched for a correlation between war and some other factor, Horgan only found one factor. Wars are made by cultures that celebrate or tolerate war. War is an idea that spreads itself. It is indeed contagious. And it serves its own ends, not those of its hosts (outside of certain profiteers).

The anthropologist Margaret Mead called war a cultural invention. It is a kind of cultural contagion. Wars happen because of cultural acceptance, and they can be avoided by cultural rejection. The anthropologist Douglas Fry, in his first book on this subject, The Human Potential for Peace:An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence, describes societies that reject war. Wars are not created by genes or avoided by eugenics or oxytocin. Wars are not driven by an ever-present minority of sociopaths or avoided by controlling them. Wars are not made inevitable by resource scarcity or inequality or prevented by prosperity and shared wealth. Wars are not determined by the weaponry available or the influence of the profiteers. All such factors play parts in wars, but none of them can make wars inevitable. The decisive factor is a militaristic culture, a culture that glorifies war or even just accepts it (and you can accept something even while telling a pollster you oppose it; real opposition takes work). War spreads as other memes spread, culturally. The abolition of war can do the same.

A Sartrean thinker arrives at more or less this same conclusion (not that war should be abolished but that it could be) without Fry’s or Horgan’s research. I think the research is helpful for those who need it. But there is a weakness. As long as we rely on such research, we must remain concerned that some new scientific or anthropological study could come along to prove that war is in fact in our genes. We should not get into the habit of imagining that we must wait for authorities to prove to us that something has been done in the past before we attempt to do it. Other authorities could come along and disprove it.

Instead, we should come to a clear understanding that even if no society had ever existed without war, ours could be the first. People invest great effort in creating wars. They could choose not to do so. Transforming this glaringly obvious observation into a scientific study of whether enough people have rejected war in the past to reject it in the future is both helpful and harmful to the cause. It helps those who need to see that what they want to do has been done before. It hurts collective development of innovative imagining.

Mistaken theories about the causes of war create the self-fulfilling expectation that war will always be with us. Predicting that climate change will produce world war may actually fail to inspire people to demand a sane public energy policy, inspiring them instead to support military spending and to stock up on guns and emergency supplies. Up until a war is launched it is not inevitable, but preparing for wars does indeed make them more likely. (See Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence by Christian Parenti.)

Studies have found that when people are exposed to the idea that they have no “free will” they behave less morally. (See “The Value of Believing in Free Will: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating,” by Kathleen D. Vohs and Jonathan W. Schooler in Psychological Science, Volume 19, Number 1.) Who could blame them? They “had no free will.” But the fact that all physical behavior may be predetermined doesn’t change the fact that from my perspective I will always appear free, and choosing to behave badly will remain just as inexcusable even if a philosopher or scientist confuses me into thinking I have no choice. If we are misled into believing that war is inevitable, we will think we can hardly be blamed for launching wars. But we will be wrong. Choosing evil behavior always deserves blame.

But Why Is It in Our Heads?

If the cause of war is the cultural acceptance of war, what are the causes of that acceptance? There are possible rational causes, such as misinformation and ignorance produced by schools and news media and entertainment, including ignorance of the harm wars do and ignorance regarding nonviolence as an alternative form of conflict. There are possible non-rational causes, such as poor care of infants and young children, insecurity, xenophobia, racism, subservience, ideas about masculinity, greed, lack of community, apathy, etc. There may, therefore, be root contributors (not strictly necessary or sufficient causes) of war to be addressed. There may be more to do than making a rational argument against war. That does not mean, however, that any of the contributors is itself inevitable, or that it is a sufficient cause for war-making.

See Also:

Comparing the Costs of America’s Wars (NYT Graphics)

Worth a Look: Book Review Lists (Positive Future-Oriented)

Worth a Look: Book Review Lists (Negative Status-Quo)

Worth a Look: Book Reviews on Intelligence (Most)

Worth a Look: Book Reviews on Corruption 2.0

Worth a Look: Book Reviews on Democracy Lost & Found