Saturday, July 29, 2017

Book Review--On the Origins of War by Donald Kagan

Despite most everyone understanding war is a horrific practice that slaughters the innocent and wastes resources that could be better used to promote life, humans can't seem to advance beyond resorting to it when problems seem intractable. Like John Steinbeck once said about war showing the failure of man as a thinking animal, many people continue to glorify conflict and make the case that the necessity of defeating the enemy du jour is a great way to advance technology. An easy statement to make when the fighting isn't destroying your own country or ruthlessly killing your children.

No, I'm not a whacked out pacifist desperate to ban the bomb or to cut the United States military to nothing in an insane attempt to get other powers to do the same. I fully recognize war is fact of human civilization and that our way of life, even with its numerous flaws, is worthy of being defended in the face of authoritarian adversaries who worship the pursuit of unrestrained power. This belief does make me a bit of an oddity since I am the stereotypical bleeding heart, tree hugging liberal who believes in social justice and who hopes that humanity will one day grow the hell up. There are far better things for us to do as a species than kill each other over religious, political, territorial, or ethnic disagreements.

The very fact that war will continue to be something with have to contend with means thinking people should understand the factors that push countries and empires into conflict. This requires the study of history which for me starts with Thucydides and his recount of the Peloponnesian War to the far more recent On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace by Donald Kagan.

In his work, Mr. Kagan attempts to connect the common threads linking the three main reasons for which peoples feel they have no other alternative than to go to war.

The first factor is fear of other political entities, the second being honor in the sense of gaining or restoring glory, and the third being interest in which a nation or empire feels their position would be endangered by the actions of other players. Simple enough concepts but things become difficult when you add the actions of human players who, for whatever reason, either rise up to manage the situation or fail thus resulting in war. Mr. Kagan does not offer a set playbook on how leaders should handle threats, each situation is different but they all require a country to act from a position of strength.

In his book, Mr. Kagan draws upon the histories of the Peloponnesian War, the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, both World Wars, and finally the Cuban Missile Crisis in an effort to illustrate his points. The one element common in each of the examples is that preserving the peace requires active effort in the way of maintaining alliances along with military readiness and ability to make your adversary understand war will be the result if they give you no other choice. In sober, but compelling prose Dr. Kagan lays out the repercussions for any power that fails to maintain the proper military and diplomatic stance.

Mr. Kagan is clearly endorsing the “peace through strength” philosophy in his book, which my liberal political comrades despise almost as much as the insane idea about preventive war being a credible way to keep the peace. As much as liberals hate the idea, peace through strength it is the only credible option when you are faced with authoritarian nations for whom force is the chief way they exert power in the world.

On a personal note, I have to add that from my perspective peace through strength has to be balanced with active participation with other nations in making the world a better place. If all a more powerful country does is bomb the crap out of a poorer nation the natives being killed aren't going to care if foreign jets in their skies or soldiers on the ground are fighting a just cause. Peace through Strength can easily morph into cruel occupation which will just breed hate and help your enemies recruit more fighters.

Published in the mid-1990's Mr. Kagan's book is even more relevant now with Russia attempting to reassert itself and redraw the geopolitical map while China is not so slowly becoming a major military power. It goes without saying that if there was ever a time the United States needed to learn the lessons offered in this book and stand firmly with its democratic allies it is now. Instead the current occupant of the White House has a bizarre, and possibly criminal. relationship with the thug in Moscow while he berates our allies and pursues delusions like voter fraud and border walls.

At least the current occupant of White House has relatively able men working to ensure our national security. It's his rabid and largely ignorant supporters that would be well served to read this book to get a real understanding of the dangers of undermining the very geopolitical structure the United States helped create after the end of the Second World War. Of course, that would require such individuals to already have a basic knowledge of history, not the propaganda offered up by right-wing news sources.

For everyone else I highly recommend this excellently written book that while painting a rather dire picture of human nature offers practical advice on how to keep the peace. Hopefully, one day far in the future such advice will no longer be needed.


sage said...

I like your insights into "peace through strength." I know there are some capable people that our current president have tapped but for how long? And not all are so knowledgable.

Pixel Peeper said...

Sadly, neither the current occupant of White House nor his rabid and largely ignorant supporters are reading, or at least not books.

Ranch Chimp said...

Thank You for the book tip and review with your input, of course, because you know something about military too ... many dont. When I was a kid Bum, I wanted to enlist ... not for war, but simply to get out of where I was living and try to get a life, I only knew the streets. I was pre- fixed on joining a Naval Seabee 6 year plan/ offer ... I failed my written test (I was a drop out, and fairly uneducated), I had to wait some months to retest (some rules), I was in jail nearly 2000 miles away when the time came, without a bond because I had detainer/ bench warrants on me in another state. When I got out, I simply signed up for my draft card (which you had to carry back then, and show to cops if you got pulled over). Knowing what I know today, my whole thinking has changed on our defense and involvement in these so called wars ... and frankly, if I was young today and knew what I know ... there is no way that I would want to enlist. Dont get me wrong guy, I am in big support for out military for defense and vets ... my dad and 2 uncles and 3 cousins were vets, I have a niece and nephew currently serving, and several buddies that are vets. I'm totally against what I see as far as our interventions and occupations these dayz ... I dont see it as defense or even spreading democracy ... nor do I call what we have today a democracy ... to me it's just corporate/ banking controlled neoliberalism ... I dont solely blame this on republicans these dayz either ... I think many key democrat establishment are in the same bed on some issues as republicans when it comes to this. I realize that you cant fully trust anyone, whether Russia, China or whoever, importance of allies, etc ... but I simply cant look at our interventions and occupations as spreading some kind of freedom ... I dont even see it as defending our own homeland ... I see it as fighting/ conquering for a bunch of billionaires basically. I'm outta here guy ... later

The Armchair Squid said...

Wow, heavy stuff. The political hawks scare me. Those who know war best hate it. Those in power should heed their warnings more often.

Thanks for stopping by today. Seeing your URL, I understand what drew you my way. Can't believe I neglected the obvious musical connection in my post!

And you're a Trek fan? I expect we'll get along well, sir.

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Spacer Guy said...

Well, it's like Marcus Aurelius said once if it's not right don't do it and if it's not true don't say it. People lie to impress I guess. It's just the world we live in. I heard some amazing krud today but you only live once. Still its no excuse. Marcus was right.