Taking war seriously
Steering at night
This is the penultimate piece for 2022, and is meant as a companion to yesterday’s note.
I am in the final week of teaching an undergraduate course on peace and conflict. One of the starting points for it is a recognition of how deeply war has shaped, and is present, in how our world is structured. War is productive in the sense of producing outcomes. This might seem obvious, but it can be oddly overlooked or underappreciated. In the introduction to her excellent book on the topic, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, Margaret MacMillan rightly notes that, ‘we do not take war as seriously as it deserves.’
Certainly this year people have become more aware of war and how far its consequences can spread. It is unsurprising that in a public vote for the Japanese character that best represents 2022, the kanji selected was ‘sen’ (戦), meaning war, battle or match. Yet are we taking war sufficiently seriously? I still doubt so. The constant presentation of the Ukraine conflict as if it is a sporting match, along with the prevalence of simplistic, binary narratives, all work to downplay the true weight of the events, and the potential ramifications of further escalation. MacMillan offers a clear rationale for why we war deserves our sustained attention:
We need to remember war, not so we can draw from it lessons about how to use it and how to win, but to understand how easily it can happen and escape control and how hard it can be to end in a way that gives some basis for a lasting peace. We really do need to think about war if we want to avoid it.
War is a strange creature. It is not inevitable or determined; it is shaped by surprise, chance and contingency. In their conclusion to The Oxford Handbook of War, the editors Julian Lindley-French and Yves Boyer observe, ‘the very fact that war and its consequences are unpredictable remains one of the few great constants in international relations.’ This amplifies the enduring insights of Clausewitz:
Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war…
Further, every war is rich in particular facts; while, at the same time, each is an unexplored sea, full of rocks, which the general may have a suspicion of, but which he has never seen with his eye, and round which, moreover, he must steer in the night.
Carl von Clausewitz, On War
Certainly there are patterns and regularities that reappear in conflict, and some factors are generally more determinative than others. Lawrence Freedman’s invaluable commentary is an exemplar of using history and theory to see through the ‘fog of war’, to take another image from Clausewitz.
What I have instead sought to emphasise in my notes related to the war (March, September) is another constant present: death and destruction. A simple, enduring observation that deserves emphasis. Lives lost, worlds wrecked, this is what war entails.
This person had just been smiling, smoking – and now he's gone. Disappearance was what women talked about most, how quickly everything can turn into nothing during war.
Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War
Part of taking war seriously means focusing on its consequences, moving from the macro to the micro and back again, and in doing so, recognising the damage and harm done. Reckoning with the destruction, the unexpected and unwanted consequences of war, is a weighty counter to the still dominant trajectory of tacit support or acceptance for escalation. As we reach the end of a year full of nasty shocks, we need to be wary of collectively heading down a path that will increase the likelihood of considerably worse outcomes.
Returning to the course that I am now teaching, a point I try to convey to my students: over my years researching and studying about world politics, I have become increasingly sceptical about what force can achieve, and much more attuned to all the demons that it lets loose. One of the clearest and most direct renditions of what it actually means is the title given to the two decades of conflict that engulfed Colombia: ‘La Violencia’, simply ‘The Violence’.
In ‘Neither Victims nor Executioners’, a series of articles published in November 1946, Albert Camus presented his disquiet with a world marked by fear, terror and force. His words still resonate:
…we live in a world of abstraction, a world of bureaucracy and machinery, of absolute ideas and of messianism without subtlety. We gasp for air among people who believe they are absolutely right, whether it be in their machines or their ideas.
Camus further noted a tendency by those who rationalise the use of violence to ‘lack imagination when it comes to other people’s deaths’. This problem endures. With social media, we might be able to receive a constant stream of updates and depictions of the conflict, but it still requires our attention to comprehend what it means. We need to awaken our imagination.
But the problem is not how to carry men away; it is essential, on the contrary, that they not be carried away but rather that they be made to understand clearly what they are doing…
We are asked to love or to hate such and such a country and such and such a people. But some of us feel too strongly our common humanity to make such a choice. Those who really love the Russian people, in gratitude for what they have never ceased to be - that world leaven which Tolstoy and Gorky speak of - do not wish for them success in power politics, but rather want to spare them, after the ordeals of the past, a new and even more terrible bloodletting. So, too, with the American people, and with the peoples of unhappy Europe. This is the kind of elementary truth we are liable to forget amidst the furious passions of our time.
Fortunately, our present is very different from when Camus was writing, which was in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the most destructive conflict humans have visited upon themselves. That his words were forged in such difficult circumstances should encourage us to consider them carefully.
All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice. After that, we can distinguish those who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their force and being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it will be a gain if it be clearly marked.
Formulating the problem in this manner is - to reuse Clausewitz’s formulation - ‘very simple … but the simplest thing is difficult.’ Resisting passions and abstractions - enflamed through social media and distance - while earnestly and honestly facing the destruction that war brings - might help us forestall ‘a new and even more terrible bloodletting’.