To hell with war

Jonathan Power
Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power

By : Jonathan Power

:: Frederick the Great of Prussia was a friend of Voltaire, and enjoyed ribald evenings with the philosopher discussing the intricacies of life’s dos and don’ts. Before becoming king, Voltaire persuaded him to become a pacifist, but on ascending to the throne he became the most ferocious and successful of Europe’s warrior leaders. He said of himself that he was “doomed to make war just as an ox must plow, a nightingale sing and a dolphin swim in the sea.”

So far, the 21st century has been far more peaceful than the 20th. No world wars have taken place or are likely to, even though the great powers might have the occasional confrontation. Some say we are overwhelmed by small wars, understandably so since the media, especially the fickle eye of television, picks up on every altercation.

As Francis Bacon wrote, there has never been, nor will there ever be, a shortage of “seditions and troubles.” But in this century there have been no interstate wars and civil wars are down in number, way below their Cold War total when the big powers stoked their fires.

Perhaps war is sometimes necessary and just. Most people will say that of the American civil war, when President Abraham Lincoln led the northern states against the slave-holding south, and of World War II when Hitler killed millions.

But a closer look at history can raise a question mark there. Yes, slavery would have continued without the north’s victory, but most slaves simply became serfs. The vote and other advances that Lincoln gave them were whittled away by southern legislatures and courts.

Not until Martin Luther King was true freedom realized in the 1960s and the US, for the first time in its history, could claim to be a democracy. Lincoln did not do half as much for black people as President Lyndon B. Johnson.

As for World War II, was it necessary? Hitler never wanted to fight Britain or Poland. He wanted the Polish-occupied port of German-speaking Danzig. He also wanted a free route to East Prussia via the Polish “corridor.”

It would have been politically cheaper for Britain if it had pushed Poland to make that concession than to go to war, which Britain decided to do after Hitler, frustrated over his modest demand not being met, invaded Poland. Before World War II, there were times when Hitler thought Germany would fight the Soviet Union one day, but not Britain or Poland.

There are always alternatives to war if we think ahead and are prepared in some cases to spend time, money and political capital on pre-emptive action.

Jonathan Power

Most people abhor war, but there has always been a minority who like it. In Europe in the 19th century, it was regarded as a rite of passage for upper-class young men to captain wars and duel. The well-regarded English poet Siegfried Sasoon described the opening days of the murderous Battle of the Somme as “great fun,” adding that “the act of slowly walking forward, showing ourselves openly” resulted in “extraordinary exultation.”

The great American novelist Ernest Hemingway, who volunteered to fight in the Spanish civil war, wrote that he revelled in the “dry-mouthed, fear-purging ecstasy.” On the eve of World War I, Winston Churchill told his wife how much the gathering storm excited him.

There are always alternatives to war if we think ahead and are prepared in some cases to spend time, money and political capital on pre-emptive action. A good example is the way the US has helped North Korea.

It has built half of a peaceful nuclear reactor. For a time, North Korea was America’s biggest aid receiver in East Asia. In return, Pyongyang was prepared to suspend its nuclear bomb research. Why has this not worked? Because every time, Republicans in the US Congress have sabotaged political deals that were meant to compliment the aid-giving.

In the last century, hundreds of millions died unnecessarily, and if US President Donald Trump misplays his hand with North Korea, millions more may soon die. Western countries throughout their long history have fought more wars and killed more people than the world’s other nations.

Most Enlightenment thinkers agreed with Jean-Jacques Rousseau that man’s basic nature is neither good nor bad. Events can turn good people into bad. Presidents Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are not bad men, but they unnecessarily led their countries back into a hostile relationship. They should read more history.

Jonathan Power is a British journalist, filmmaker and writer. He has been a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune for 17 years.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.

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