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.