On War and Peace

Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, 1212. Credit: Francisco de Paula Van Halen / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

As I wrote the title to this blog post, I thought to myself, “I should really read the book War and Peace”. A few years back, I did watch the excellent BBC mini-series based on Tolstoy’s famed novel and one of the most searing moments in that mini series is when the father learns that he has lost his son in battle. The father’s expression and his decline into deep depression and death brought home that no amount of glory, fame or merit can overcome the abyss of losing your child. As I write this, on father’s day, with two of my own boys, I cannot help but think of all the parents and family who send their children to war – voluntarily or not – and who may very well never hug them again. Why do we do this?

Everyone seems to agree that war ravages horrors on people, the environment, and particularly – the collective and the individual psyche. A war and its consequential traumas can easily cascade down generations, leaving debilitated populations who struggle to advance because they are trapped in the memories and losses of their ancestors. In struggles where no clear wrong party emerged, the sense and desire for vengeance can easily last hundreds of years. At the moment I am reading the excellent book, Bush Runner, the life of Pierre-Esprit Radisson which tells the tale of the french explorer Radisson. He roamed North America, Europe and the Caribbean in the 17th century and through his adventures we see the vengeful wars between the various tribes in eastern North America. The wars between the Iroquois and the Algonquin and Huron, like many wars, only ended when one size was utterly and completely destroyed. Like with all wars, there were too much death, maiming, torture and horror to count. 

It has been said that sport is very much like war, but without the killing. While I do think this analogy is correct, my take is that the way we can understand war best is by looking at sport. Humans love sports. The amount of money, time and resources allocated to training athletes, watching sports, talking about sports and betting on sports is truly stupendous. I could find the numbers somewhere online, but I think it is clear that competitive sports are deeply ingrained in the human identity. The comic Seinfeld poignantly explained that a set of sports fans seem to have no problem cheering on different people as long as they are wearing the same jersey. A player who was on an opposing team last year can very quickly become the hometown darling when he dons the right jersey. What we care about in sport is not the person, nor their history, but rather whether we win. Humans want to win. This competitive spirit can be found even among toddlers who have never been taught to win. My three-year-old insists that he must be the fastest, the strongest and the quickest – we never taught this need to win, it is in him and most other children. Our personal thirst for victory carries over to our favourite sports teams and to our armies. 

If we look to sports for an analogy, we can often see that parents are willing to sacrifice their children’s happiness to satisfy their own un-quenched thirst for glory. How many parents cheer on their kids at hockey games, football games or at the gymnasium to vicariously live their kid’s victory? How many parents who had hoped to go further in sports, secretly (or not so secretly) hope their offspring complete what the parents could not achieve? War is no different. Parents very often see their children not as separate and distinct individuals, but rather as extensions of themselves. The children must bring glory and respect to their parents and their families. In peaceful times this often means becoming a doctor, but in war this can mean heading to the front-lines to sacrifice themselves for country and family. 

Social pressure is perhaps the third most important factor in our willingness to die for war. No child wants to be seen as the wuss. Look at any group of children anywhere on the planet in any culture and we will quickly see that peer pressure and a desire to fit in are present. From the jungles of the amazon to the elite schoolyards of private schools – kids are driven by their peers. The same can be said of adults. So much of what we do, from the things we buy, the things we say, the places we go, and the drive to work are driven by what our peers do. We just want to fit in. When it comes to war, there is no greater glue to pull a society together than a shared life and death conflict. It need not be an existential threat, even a small scale war where our own society is not threatened will create social coalescence around the cause, the war, and the sacrificed children. If we look at sports, a hometown team that is going to a league championship will make sports fans out of nearly everyone in town, even if they had no prior interest in the sport of the players. In a conflict, when we come under physical and psychological attack, this desire to collectively seek vengeance is even stronger. We very rapidly gravitate towards the cultural centre and align with the leadership even if we previously detested them. The examples are too numerous to count – U.S. after 9/11, Germany after WWI and then again during the fire bombings of WWII, or the French after the Franco-Prussian war. We want victory, we want revenge.

This reality of competitiveness, projection and social pressure is the underlying structure for war. Breaking through this reality is the fundamental challenge of the non-violent movement and the anti-war movement. These two movements, which as distinct, have struggled to make progress lately and I would argue it is because many of the people involved in the fight against large scale violence fail to recognize how deeply ingrained and natural it is for humans to want to kill each other. The late and great Gene Sharp wrote extensively at the Albert Einstein Institute on how to effectively wage non-violent battles and even topple dictatorships without bloodshed. Books such as A Force More Powerful or Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea chronicle successful battles for dignity through non-violence, from the Maoris in New Zealand to the end of the U.S.S.R, but these books do not explain how we can shift society from our tendency to embrace war to a desire to engage in non-violence. Even the word non-violence is counter productive. Non-violence or even worse, pacifism, gives most people the impression of giving up, of surrendering to an enemy. As discussed above, human nature is such that victory is critical to identify and social cohesion is essential to life. Therefore, any concept that implies limp submission will receive vigorous antagonism on the part of mainstream society. Gandhi attempted to create a new word, Satyagraha, to denote a fight for truth, but the word never caught on. As an entrepreneur myself I can assure everyone of something self-evident: branding matters. The peace movement has a branding problem. 

Almost all wars in history, and there have been a lot, have been forgotten by most people. Who regularly thinks of the English Civil wars of the 17th century, the hundred year war between France and England, or the battles for the control of China in the 4th century BCE? Outside historians and history buffs, very few people would be able to identify who was the protagonist and antagonist in most human conflicts. Even more recent conflicts such as WWI, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the wars in the Congo, the wars in the Middle East, or the wars in Afghanistan are considered by most people to have been useless losses of life and resources. If we generally agree, as a society, that most conflict is ultimately pointless, why do we still cheer on our country or sports team when a new war breaks out? While most conflicts have been relegated to the dustbin of collective memory, there is one conflict that looms large in our memory: WWII. No one, anywhere on the planet is unaware of the second world war. And nearly no one can rapidly point out who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. 

If there is one war that had great branding it is most certainly WW2. I recently read a book titled Leaving World War II Behind which attempts to dispel the myth that WWII was a noble and good war or that it was an unavoidable war.  While I tend to agree with the premise, the book itself makes the error of relying on logic to argue its point. The author identifies the various tactics used by the U.S. to goad Japan into war, he points out how Hitler proposed mass deportation of Jews as an alternative to their murder, and how the measures used by the Allies, such as dropping atomic bombs on population centres and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians was far from moral. All of his points may be true and valid, but when it comes to cheering on the home-team – no one is going to say that Hitler and the Nazis did not need to be taught a lesson. Estimates of the number of dead in WWII are about 75-95 million, with over 25 million coming from Russia and 7 million Jews, homosexuals, and dissenters in the Nazi death camps. It is my firm conviction that Hitler could have been defeated and the death camps prevented if we had engaged in strong nonviolent action and non-cooperation in Europe and beyond. This is of course one of those un-provable historical “what ifs”, but how many strikers would have had to die, how many people who had had to sacrifice themselves in public view for us to change the trajectory of Germany – surely not 80 million. Regardless of this hypothetical viewpoint, the point I wish to make is that until we create a strong branding for the non-violent, non-cooperation movement, we will not be able to stop war.

The rallying of the western world to the side of Ukraine is testament to our deeply ingrained belief that war can still, despite all the evidence, be used for good. Putin is horrible, no doubt, but so is war. Violent conflict between states has only two possible outcomes. First, one side can be completely and utterly devastated to the point of submission (Germany and Japan in WWII, the Britons in France, the Palestinians in Palestine, the Huron in Canada,…) or secondly, a negotiated peace settlement can be made (Germany in WWI, Ireland independence, Indian independence, U.S. independence). Some peace settlements are better than others, but at least they are peace settlements without complete devastation of one side. As Margaret Thatcher used to hammer home, there is no alternative. War only ends in one of these two outcomes. The question of what brings people to the peace table is documented in the book How Wars End by Dan Reiter. Ending war is not easy, fun or straightforward, but it must always happen. The choice we must make is how much death must happen before it ends. In the case of Ukraine, I do not know how this will end, but as long as Ukrainians are willing to die with western weapons and training and as long as Russians are willing to to die, the war will continue. Ukraine is unlikely to invade Moscow and destroy Russia and Russia is unlikely to settle a peace that leaves Nato in Ukraine – so the war must continue. This simple logic is true of all conflicts. 

 What is the point of all this? The historian John Keegan outlines his view of our relationship with War in his lecture series War and Our World and basically outlines how war is “collective killing for collective purpose” and comes from our group hunting skills that allowed groups of people to cooperate for the good of the tribe. There is nothing more fundamental than working together to bring food to the table. Undoing the human spirit is hopeless. We must therefore turn to the only way we have ever achieved progress: education. It has been said by the great H.G. Wells, that “Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. Let us learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow. For the truth is the greatest weapon we have.” As with Gandhi, who preached satyagraha – roughly translated to truth force – human society and civil society must find a way to teach the power of non-violence, the fallacy and consequences of armed conflict and educate children that justice is best achieved through the painful, difficult and counter-intuitive practice of negotiating with people we do not like or respect. Breaking free of our natural tendencies and elevating the better angels of our nature is hard work. To make this shift to non-violence compelling, we must use the same sophistication in marketing and communication that the war mongers use. We must find a way to link victory through non-violence with glory. 

Part II : Glorious Victory and Peace (coming soon)

Published on June 18, 2023