Military history


Clausewitz’s belief in the primacy of politics rather than culture was not, however, personal to him. It was the position of Western philosophers from Aristotle onward and it received in Clausewitz’s own lifetime powerful reinforcements from the spectacle of pure political ideas — themselves the product of living philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau — in free action against passion and prejudice in the streets of Paris. The wars Clausewitz knew, the wars in which he fought, were the wars of the French Revolution, and the ‘political motive’ for which he always looked as the precipitating and controlling factor in warmaking was, at the outset at least, always present. Europe’s dynastic states correctly feared that the French Revolution was a threat to monarchy; war clearly appeared to be ‘a continuation of politics’.

It must also be recognised that Clausewitz as a historian had nothing to guide him toward the importance of cultural factors in human affairs. Comparative history, of which cultural history is the child, was not an approach adopted by any of the leading historians whom he might have taken as model. Sir Isaiah Berlin in one of his salutes to the father of comparative history, Giambattista Vico, perfectly sums up the spirit of the Enlightenment as a belief that ‘a universally valid method had been found for the solution of the fundamental questions that had exercised men at all times — how to establish what was true and what was false in every province of knowledge’.47

The greatest publicist of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, even while he advocated the widening of historical inquiry to embrace social and economic activities and their effects, strongly believed that the only objects worthy of historical study were the peaks, not the valleys, of the achievements of mankind … ‘If you have no more to tell us’, Voltaire declared, ‘than that one barbarian succeeded another on the banks of the Oxus or Ixartes, what use are you to the public?’48

Where Voltaire led, who was Clausewitz not to follow? In the decades of the nineteenth century after his death, German historians became pioneers of the comparative method in history and politics, but in his lifetime, the Enlightenment ruled. ‘We see, therefore, that under all circumstances war is to be regarded not as an independent thing, but as a political instrument; and it is only by taking this view that we can avoid finding ourselves in opposition to all military history,’ he wrote.49 What more perfectly Enlightenment, more purely Voltairean view could possibly be expressed?

Yet Voltaire, in his contemptuous dismissal of the importance of events on the banks of the Oxus, strikes Clausewitzian theory a blow. Military historians now recognise that the banks of the Oxus are to warfare what Westminster is to parliamentary democracy or the Bastille to revolutions. On or near the banks of the Oxus — the river that separates Central Asia from Persia and the Middle East — man learned to tame the horse, to harness it for driving, and eventually to ride it under a saddle. It was from the Oxus that conquerors rode forth to found ‘chariot empires’ in China, India and Europe. It was on the Oxus that the cavalry revolution, one of the two indisputable revolutions in warmaking, took place. It was across the Oxus that successive waves of Central Asian conquerors and despoilers — Huns, Avars, Magyars, Turks, Mongols — broke into the Western world. It was at Samarkand, just north of the Oxus, that Tamerlane, the most pointlessly destructive of the horse chieftains, began his reign of terror. The early caliphs recruited their slave soldiers on the Oxus; so too did the Ottoman sultans. The Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683, threatening the heartland of Christendom, remained the most disruptive military episode in the memories of Clausewitz’s contemporaries. A theory of war that did not take into account the Oxus and all it stood for was a defective theory. Clausewitz constructed such a theory, none the less, and with calamitous effects.

In the years after the First World War, radical military writers held Clausewitz circumstantially if not directly responsible for the recent carnage. The British historian B.H. Liddell Hart, for example, inculpated him of urging the largest possible offensive with the largest possible numbers as the key to victory. But in the years after the Second World War, he was raised to new heights, in a virtual apotheosis, as the greatest military thinker, past, present and — here was the indication of the infatuation he had rekindled — future also. Academic strategists of the Cold War years proclaimed that, in the gloom that a nuclear winter threatened, Clausewitz offered a guiding light of universal truth. His detractors were given short shrift: Liddell Hart’s notorious attack on him was dismissed, for example, as a ‘caricature’.50

The academic strategists were conflating an observation with a hypothesis. The observation is that war is a universal phenomenon, practised at all times and all places since the retreat of the last Ice Age; the hypothesis is that there is a universally true theory of the objects of war, and of how those objects may best be achieved. It is easy to see why they were seduced by Clausewitz: under threat of nuclear attack, a state has no option but to align its foreign policy as closely as possible with strategic doctrine, and to extrude from the interstices all modifying qualifications. A nuclear state must appear to mean what it says, since deterrence depends upon convincing an adversary of one’s fixity of purpose, and mental reservation is the enemy of conviction.

Nuclear deterrence was and is abhorrent to humane sentiment, however, since it implies that a state, if required to defend its own existence, will act with pitiless disregard for the consequences to its own and its adversary’s peoples. Little wonder that, in the Western world at least, where politics in the last 2000 years has institutionalised the Judaeo-Christian belief in the unique value of the individual, deterrence theory evokes the deepest repugnance, often from patriots devoted to the national defence, even from professional warriors who have shed their own blood for their countries.

To invent a philosophy that would integrate nuclear-deterrence theory and the common morality and political ethics of the democratic states was a task that might well have defeated the ingenuity even of the cleverest theorists. But they did not need to do this. In Clausewitz they found ready to hand a philosophy and vocabulary of military extremism to which history had given currency. With nuclear weapons, ‘real war’ and ‘true war’ were believed to be the same thing; and the contemplation of the horror of such an identification was believed in itself to guarantee that war would not occur.

There was a double weakness in this logic, however. First, it was entirely mechanistic; it depended upon the procedures of deterrence working faultlessly in all circumstances. Yet if there is one observable truth of politics, it is that mechanistic means have a poor record of controlling the behaviour of governments. Second, it required the citizens of states with nuclear weapons to cultivate a schizophrenic outlook on the world: while sustaining their beliefs in the sanctity of human life, respect for the rights of the individual, tolerance of minority opinion, acceptance of the free vote, accountability of the executive to representative institutions and everything else that is meant by the rule of law, democracy and the Judaeo-Christian ethic — nuclear weapons were deployed to protect these values — they were at the same time expected to acquiesce in the code of the warrior, of which physical courage, subordination to the heroic leader and ‘might is right’ are the ultimate values. This schizophrenia, moreover, was to be permanent since, in the catchphrase of the nuclear theorists, ‘nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented’.

Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in President John F. Kennedy’s administration, epitomised Clausewitzian deterrent logic in a speech he gave in 1962 at the University of Michigan, in the heartland of American humanist values. ‘The very strength and nature of the alliance [NATO, but essentially American] forces makes it possible for us to retain, even in the face of a massive surprise attack, sufficient reserve striking power to destroy an enemy society if driven to it,’ he said.51 This threat to visit ‘true war’ on an enemy that initiated ‘real war’ had a philosophical purity that Clausewitz might well have cheered. But the cheer would have been a cry from the past. For Clausewitz, as I have said, was even in his time an isolated spokesman for a warrior culture that the ancestors of the modern state were at pains to extirpate within their own borders. Naturally they recognised its value for state purposes, but they allowed it to survive only by localising it within a collection of artificially preserved warrior bands; the regiments were wholly different in ethos from that of the civil society in which they were garrisoned.

In earlier times European society had been heavily suffused by warrior values and practices; then, from the seventeenth century, through a sustained policy of depriving the population of firearms, destroying the castles of the provincial grandees, appropriating their sons as regular officers, creating specialist corps of artillerists officered from the non-warrior classes and monopolising the production of battlefield weapons in state arsenals, the sort of governments of which Clausewitz was a servant effectively demilitarised European society everywhere west of the Oder and Drava rivers, that is to say from Berlin and Vienna to the Atlantic.

When in response to forces released by the French Revolution, European states were progressively impelled to remilitarise their own populations, they did so from above, and it was accepted with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Universal service eventually came to be associated, entirely understandably, with suffering and death: there were 20,000,000 deaths in the First World War, 50,000,000 in the Second. Britain and America abandoned it altogether after 1945; when it was reintroduced by the United States in the 1960s, to fight what became an unpopular war, the eventual refusal of the conscripts and their families to ingest warrior values caused the Vietnam War to be abandoned. Here was evidence of how self-defeating is the effort to run in harness in the same society two mutually contradictory public codes: that of ‘inalienable rights’, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that of total self-abnegation when strategic necessity demands it.

Indeed, all attempts to bring about profound social change from above have proved difficult in the modern world; many have failed altogether, notably those seeking to alter rights of private property or the relationship of the cultivator with the land. Social change engineered from below — the forte of reformist religious movements — has had a better record of success. It is instructive to follow, therefore, the course of twentieth-century efforts to remilitarise societies from below, of which two deserve particular attention. They are those of Mao Tse-tung in China and his followers in Vietnam, and of Tito in Yugoslavia. Both were rooted in Marx’s directive to ‘create popular armies’ as a means to bring forward the inevitable revolution; both followed remarkably similar patterns; both brought about the political results to which they were directed; neither had anything but calamitous cultural effects.

In the years after the dethronement of the last emperor in 1912, China descended into an anarchy in which a nominally sovereign republican government disputed authority with local warlords in all the provinces. A third party to the conflict was the nascent Communist party, one of whose leaders, Mao Tse-tung, early put himself at cross-purposes with the Central Committee and its Russian mentors. His opponents were set upon capturing cities. He, by close study of the real grievances of the rural populations among whom his soldiers moved, decided that the best means of capturing cities was by permeating the countryside that surrounded them with revolutionary guerrillas. Out of such guerrilla forces, he came to believe, victorious armies could be created. In a memorandum he wrote in 1929, he described his methods:

The tactics we have derived from the struggle of the past three years are indeed different from any other tactics, ancient or modern, Chinese or foreign. With our tactics, the masses can be aroused for struggle on an ever-broadening scale, and no enemy, however powerful, can cope with us. Ours are guerrilla tactics. They consist mainly of the following points: Divide our forces to arouse the masses, concentrate our forces to deal with the enemy … Arouse the largest number of the masses in the shortest possible time.52

Mao was wrong about the unique nature of his tactics. In their emphasis on isolating towns by dominating the surrounding countryside, they derived directly from the methods of the horse peoples who had been such peristent enemies of China for nearly two thousand years. But there were novel features in Mao’s methods: first, his belief that the ‘classless’ — ‘soldiers, bandits, robbers, beggars and prostitutes’ — were grist to the revolution’s mill, ‘people capable of fighting very bravely and, if properly led, a revolutionary force’; second, his perception that in the face of a more powerful enemy a war could nevertheless be won if one had the patience to avoid seeking a decision until the enemy’s frustration and exhaustion robbed him of the chance of victory.53 This theory of ‘protracted war’ will be remembered as Mao’s principal contribution to military theory. After his triumph over Chiang Kai-shek in China, it was adopted by the Vietnamese in their wars, first against the French, then against the Americans.

Between 1942 and 1944 Josip Broz Tito, General Secretary of the Yugoslav Communist Party, also used this process in the mountains of Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Axis occupiers of Yugoslavia were already engaged against a guerrilla army loyal to the royal government in exile, Mihailovic’s Chetniks. Chetnik policy was to lie low until the Axis had been sufficiently weakened in the war outside Yugoslavia for a general national rising to succeed. Tito would have none of that; for a variety of reasons, including the hope of relieving pressure on the Soviet Union but also his policy of implanting a Communist party apparatus throughout Yugoslav territory, his Partisans campaigned as widely and actively as they could. ‘Wherever the Partisans … occupied a region, they … organised committees of peasants to run local affairs and to maintain law and order. Even when the Partisans lost control of an area, these political auxiliaries remained active.’54 Sir William Deakin, then a British liaison officer with Tito, thus described his observation of the process in action soon after a successful German sweep against Tito’s headquarter brigade in 1943: ‘In the immediate moment of our tired escape from destruction, [Milovan] Djilas [a leading Communist intellectual but also a warrior who had killed Germans] departed with a handful of companions southwards to the desolation of the battlefield. It was an unwritten rule of Partisan war that in a lost free territory the bare elements of Party work must continue, and cells be re-formed in anticipation of a future return.’55

This ‘heroic’ aspect of the Partisan struggle, deeply inspiring to scholars-turned-soldiers like Deakin, reads well on the page. But in practice the policy of waging a politico-military campaign over the length and breadth of Yugoslavia brought untold suffering to its peoples. Their history was already one of bitter and violent rivalry, which the war had reawoken. In the north leaders of the Catholic Croats had taken advantage of Italian sponsorship to unleash a campaign of expulsion, forced conversion and extermination against the Orthodox Serbs. Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina took a hand in the civil war also, while in the south the Serbs of Kossovo were attacked by their Albanian neighbours. The Chetniks, for their part, contested authority in the Serb lands with the Partisans, with whom they had failed to agree a joint strategy, but did not open war with the German occupiers lest that provoke reprisals. Tito hardened his heart against reprisals; indeed, he saw Axis atrocities as a spur to recruitment. He deliberately drew the Germans after him in seven so-called ‘offensives’ that left the countryside through which his Partisans marched a wasteland. The villagers had either to follow the Partisans ‘into the woods’ (a traditional description of the whereabouts of resisters to the Turks) or stay and await reprisals. Kardelj, Tito’s deputy, was emphatic about the desirability of confronting the uncommitted with such a dilemma: ‘Some commanders are afraid of reprisals and that fear prevents the mobilisation of Croat villages. I consider the reprisals will have the useful result of throwing Croatian villages on the side of Serb villages. In war we must not be frightened of the destruction of whole villages. Terror will bring about armed action.’56

Kardelj’s analysis was correct. Tito’s policy of superimposing a pan-Yugoslav, pro-Communist, anti-Axis campaign on the web of local ethnic and religious, collaborationist and anti-collaboration conflicts already raging, but also of disrupting all truces where he found them, did indeed have the effect of turning many small wars into a single large war, in which he became the principal commander on the anti-Axis side. At his behest most Yugoslav males, and many Yugoslav women, were forced to choose sides. The population was indeed remilitarised from below. At the war’s end, at least 100,000 of those who had chosen the wrong side were as a direct consequence killed by the Partisans, joining in death the 350,000 Serbs killed by the pro-Italian Croats. Yet, since the Royal Yugoslav Army had collapsed in only eight days in 1941, most of the 1,200,000 other Yugoslavs who died between 1941 and 1944, in a total of 1,600,000, must be reckoned active or passive victims of the policy of Partisan warfare. It was a terrible price to pay so that Tito should make his political point.

The externals of such warfare — whether Yugoslav, Russian, Chinese or Vietnamese — have made arresting raw material for the art of Socialist Realism. The life-size bronze of the young defiant, trembling with the urge to die for his country, that dominates the central hall of the Yugoslav military museum in Belgrade, brilliantly dramatises the idea of popular resistance; in a different mood so too do Sergei Gerasimov’s canvas of the Partisan Mother, pregnant with a new combatant, impassively confronting the German soldier who has burnt her house, Tatyana Nazarenko’s The Partisans Have Arrived, an ironic pietà of help brought too late to a scene of German atrocity, and Ismet Mujesinovic’s Liberation of Jacje, which, through an episode of Tito’s war, evokes Géricault’s magnificent denunciations of Ottoman oppression painted during the Greek War of Independence. There is much in the same, if very imitative, vein from Mao’s and Ho Chi Minh’s wars in the east: People’s Army men, in neat, worn campaign dress, comforting the victims of Chiang Kai-shek, working shoulder to shoulder with peasants to gather the harvest from their threatened fields, or massed for the advance to final victory under the Red Dawn.57

Partisan art is, nevertheless, the art of the freeze-frame, literally the cliché, a moment of apparent realism plucked from an entirely contradictory reality. Indeed, the experience of popular struggle, of forcing peaceable and law-abiding citizens to bear arms and draw blood against their will and in defiance of their interests, is unspeakably awful. The people of the West were mostly spared it in the Second World War, the Americans and British absolutely. The few who witnessed what it meant in practice have left gruesome records of what they saw. William Deakin, a young historian from Oxford who parachuted into Yugoslavia to join Tito in 1943, described an encounter with some captured Chetniks:

During the action that night, Partisan troops captured the commander of the Chetnik Zenica odred, Golub Mitrović, and two of his staff. I was faced with this group of prisoners in a woodland clearing. It was proposed that I should interrogate them personally. This was the first, and only, occasion that such a situation arose. I refused. The British could not be a party to civil war. The evidence was clear. It was beyond my responsibility to to be implicated in questioning Chetnik prisoners about to be executed. I turned away and walked through the trees. A short burst of rifle fire closed the incident. We advanced past the three bodies a few minutes later. This episode was ill-received by the Partisan command. I had long anticipated such a confrontation, and knew that I should have to assume such an attitude, from which I never deviated — at the price of lack of comprehension and a certain ill-will on the part of our Partisan allies. They felt that we were fighting another war.58

So, indeed, he should have been. There are no circumstances, in any code of justice which the British army recognises, that justify the shooting of unarmed men, not convicted of capital crimes by a court of law, who have fallen into one’s power.

Milovan Djilas had the honesty in his magnificent memoir of the realities of the Partisan experience, Wartime, to disclose how much more deeply he had been corrupted by the code of guerrilla combat. This is how he, for his part, treated unarmed prisoners who fell into his hands:

I unslung my rifle. Since I didn’t dare fire, because the Germans were some forty yards above — we could hear them shouting — I hit the German over the head. The rifle butt broke and the German fell on his back. I pulled out my knife and with one motion slit his throat. I then handed the knife to Raja Nedeljković, a political worker whom I had known since before the war, and whose village the Germans had massacred in 1941. Nedeljković stabbed the second German, who writhed but was soon still. This later gave rise to the story that I had slaughtered a German in hand-to-hand combat. Actually, like most prisoners, the Germans were as if paralysed, and didn’t defend themselves or try to flee.59

The brutality that Djilas learned in the mountains of Yugoslavia was taught to tens of millions wherever ‘people’s war’ was practised. Its cost in lives scarcely bears contemplating. Tens of millions died, either as participants or more often as unhappy bystanders, in China, Indo-China and Algeria. On Mao’s Long March from south to north China in 1934–5, only some 8,000 of the 80,000 people who set out survived; those who did were to become, like Djilas, pitiless executives of a social revolution which measured its thoroughness in the number of ‘class enemies’ it did to death.60 About one million ‘landlords’ were killed in the year after the Communists came to power in China in 1948, usually by their fellow villagers at the instigation of party ‘cadres’, often survivors of the Long March. This holocaust was inherent in the doctrine of people’s war from the outset.

Perhaps most tragic of all remilitarisations from below was that played out between 1954 and 1962 in Algeria, where veterans of the first Indo-China war — French officers on one side, ex-soldiers from the French Algerian regiments on the other — inflicted the doctrine of people’s war on whichever sections of the population they managed to bring under control. The Army of National Liberation, in conscious imitation of Mao, deliberately implicated villagers in acts of rebellion wherever they could. Selected French officers (many of whom had been forced to study Marx in Vietnamese prison camps) responded by training ‘their’ villagers as counter-insurgents and swearing with their lives that the loyalists would never be abandoned by France. When the moment of abandonment came, at least 30,000 and perhaps as many as 150,000 loyalists were murdered by the victorious ALN. It had lost 141,000 killed in combat and, during the eight years of war, had itself killed 12,000 of its own members in internal purges, 16,000 other Muslim Algerians and presumably another 50,000 enumerated only as ‘disappeared’. The Algerian government itself today sets the cost of the people’s war at 1,000,000, out of a pre-war Muslim population of 9,000,000.61

The warrior generations to which the remilitarisations gave birth in Algeria, China, Vietnam and what was once Yugoslavia, are growing old today. The revolutions for which they and millions of unwilling participants paid such a terrible price in blood and anguish have withered at the roots. South Vietnam, the prize of Ho Chi Minh’s long war, has refused to abandon its capitalist habits. The Chinese greybeards of the Long March have preserved the authority of the party only by conceding economic freedoms wholly at variance with Marxist doctrine. In Algeria a spawning population looks for a solution to economic hardship either in Islamic fundamentalism or in emigration to the richer world on the other side of the Mediterranean. The peoples of former Yugoslavia whom Tito sought to unite by bloodying their hands in a common struggle against the Axis now bloody their hands against each other in a struggle reminiscent of nothing so much as the ‘territorial displacement’ anthropologists identify as the underlying logic of much ‘primitive’ warfare in tribal society. In the borderlands of the dissolved Soviet Union, from which modern revolutionaries took their inspiration, a similar pattern discloses itself, as newly independent ‘minorities’ use their freedom from Russian control to revive ancient tribal hatreds and to re-fight wars, sometimes within rather than between tribes, which to outsiders appear to have no political point whatsoever.

As we contemplate this end-of-the-century world, in which the rich states that imposed remilitarisation from above have made peace their watchword and the poor states that suffered remilitarisation from below spurn or traduce the gift, may war at last be recognised as having lost its usefulness and deep attractiveness? War in our time has been not merely a means of resolving inter-state disputes but also a vehicle through which the embittered, the dispossessed, the naked of the earth, the hungry masses yearning to breathe free, express their anger, jealousies and pent-up urge to violence. There are grounds for believing that at last, after five thousand years of recorded warmaking, cultural and material changes may be working to inhibit man’s proclivity to take up arms.

The material change stares us all in the face. It is the emergence of the thermonuclear weapon and its intercontinental ballistic missile-delivery system. Yet nuclear weapons have, since 9 August 1945, killed no one. The 50,000,000 who have died in war since that date have, for the most part, been killed by cheap, mass-produced weapons and small-calibre ammunition, costing little more than the transistor radios and dry-cell batteries which have flooded the world in the same period. Because cheap weapons have disrupted life very little in the advanced world, outside the restricted localities where drug-dealing and political terrorism flourish, the populations of the rich states have been slow to recognise the horror that this pollution has brought in its train. Little by little, though, recognition of the horror is gaining ground.

There was little television coverage of the war in Algeria, which ended in 1962, but a great deal of the war in Vietnam, where the effect of the medium worked largely to reinforce the resistance of men of draft age and their families, rather than to mobilise repugnance for war itself. But the televised spectacle of starving Ethiopians fleeing from soldiers scarcely better-fed than themselves, of the savageries of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, of the wholesale slaughter of Iranian child soldiers in the marshes of Iraq, of the destruction of Lebanon as a society and of a dozen other squalid, cruel and pointless conflicts has had a different result. It is scarcely possible anywhere in the world today to raise a body of reasoned support for the opinion that war is a justifiable activity. Western enthusiasm for the Gulf War dissipated in a few days when visual evidence of the carnage it had caused was presented.

Russell Weigley, in an important recent study, has identified the onset of what he calls an impatience with the ‘chronic indecisiveness of war’. Taking as his subject of study the period from the early seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries, when states had at their command reliable instruments of military power in a condition of technical equipoise, he argues that war showed itself not as ‘an effective extension of policy by other means … but the bankruptcy of policy’. The frustration engendered by the failure to achieve a decisive result led on, he implies, to ‘the calculated and spontaneous resort to deeper and baser cruelties’ in succeeding centuries, ‘to the sack of cities and the ravishing of countrysides both in search of revenge and in the usually vain hope that larger cruelties [would] break the enemy’s spirit’.62 The trend of his argument and that advanced in this chapter lie in the same direction. It may be summarised in the following terms.

In the century that began with the French Revolution, military logic and cultural ethos took divergent and contradictory courses. In the developing industrial world, conditions of growing wealth and the rise of liberal values encouraged the expectation that the historic hardship under which mankind had laboured was on the wane. That optimism proved insufficient, however, to alter the means by which states settled disputes between themselves. Much of the riches that industrialism generated went, indeed, to militarise the populations that it benefited, so that when war came in the twentieth century its ‘recalcitrant indecisiveness’, as Weigley observes, reasserted itself with even greater force. The reaction of the rich states was to embark on an ever more intense militarisation of their populations from above, in an attempt to break the deadlock. As the tide of war spilled over into the poor world, militarisation began from below, as the leaders of movements dedicated to winning freedom from European empires and an equivalent to Western economic well-being compelled peasants to become warriors. Both developments were fated to end in frustration. The appalling human cost of mass militarisation suffered by the industrialised states in the second of the two world wars led to the development of nuclear weapons, designed to end wars without the commitment of manpower to the battlefield, but proving once deployed to threaten the end of everything. Mass militarisation in the poor world resulted not in liberation but in the entrenchment of oppressive regimes raised to power at the cost of widespread suffering and death.

It is in this state the world finds itself now. Despite confusion and uncertainty, it seems just possible to glimpse the emerging outline of a world without war. It would be a bold man who argued that war was going out of fashion. The resurgent nationalisms of the peoples of the Balkans and of former Soviet Transcaucasia, which have found expression in warmaking of a particularly abhorrent kind, give the lie to that. Such wars, however, lack the menace raised by similar conflicts in the pre-nuclear world. They provoke not the threat of sponsorship by opposed great-power patrons, with all the danger of ramification that such sponsorship implies, but a humanitarian urge to intervene in the cause of peace-making. Prospects of peace-making may be illusory. The Balkan and Transcaucasian conflicts are ancient in origin and seem to have as their object that ‘territorial displacement’ familiar to anthropologists from their study of ‘primitive’ war. Such conflicts by their nature defy efforts at mediation from outside, since they are fed by passions and rancours that do not yield to rational measures of persuasion or control; they are apolitical, to a degree for which Clausewitz made little allowance.

Yet the fact that the effort is being made betokens a profound change in civilisation’s attitude to war. The effort at peace-making is motivated not by calculation of political interest but by repulsion from the spectacle of what war does. The impulse is humanitarian, and though humanitarians are old opponents of warmaking, humanitarianism has not before been declared a chief principle of a great power’s foreign policy, as it has now by the United States, nor has it found an effective supranational body to give it force, as it has recently in the United Nations, nor has it found tangible support from a wide body of disinterested states, willing to show their commitment to the principle by the despatch of peace-keeping, and potentially peace-making forces to the seat of conflict. President Bush may have overreached himself in proclaiming the appearance of a New World Order. The elements of a new world resolution to suppress the cruelties of disorder are, nevertheless, clearly visible. Such resolution, if it persists, is the most hopeful outcome of the events of our terrible century.

The concept of cultural transformation has pitfalls for the unwary. Expectations that benevolent change — rising living standards, literacy, scientific medicine, the spread of social welfare — would alter human behaviour for the better, have so often been dashed that it may seem unrealistic to foresee the arrival of effective anti-warmaking attitudes in the world. Yet profound cultural changes do occur and their occurrence can be documented. As the American political scientist John Mueller has observed,

the institution of human slavery was created at the dawn of the human race, and many once felt it to be an elementary fact of existence. Yet between 1788 and 1888 the institution was substantially abolished … and this demise seems, so far, to be permanent. Similarly the venerable institutions of human sacrifice, infanticide and duelling seem also to have died out or been eliminated. It could be argued that war, at least war in the developed world, is following a similar trajectory.63

Mueller, it must be said, is a disbeliever in the proposition that man is biologically disposed towards violence, one of the most fiercely contested issues in behavioural science, from which most military historians prudently distance themselves. It is not necessary, however, to take the disbelieving view in order to be impressed by the evidence that mankind, wherever it has the option, is distancing itself from the institution of warfare.

I am impressed by the evidence. War, it seems to me, after a lifetime of reading about the subject, mingling with men of war, visiting the sites of war and observing its effects, may well be ceasing to commend itself to human beings as a desirable or productive, let alone rational, means of reconciling their discontents. This is not mere idealism. Mankind does have the capacity, over time, to correlate the costs and benefits of large and universal undertakings. Throughout much of the time for which we have a record of human behaviour, mankind can clearly be seen to have judged that war’s benefits outweighed its costs, or appeared to do so when a putative balance was struck. Now the computation works in the opposite direction. Costs clearly exceed benefits. Some of these costs are material. The superinflationary expense of weapon procurement distorts the budgets even of the richest states, while poor states deny themselves the chance of economic emancipation when they seek to make themselves militarily formidable. The human costs of actually going to war are even higher. Rich states, as between themselves, recognise that they are not to be borne. Poor states which fall into war with rich states are overwhelmed and humiliated. Poor states which fight each other, or are drawn into civil war, destroy their own well-being, and even the structures which make recovery from the experience of war possible. War truly has become a scourge, as was disease throughout most of human history. The scourge of disease has, almost within living memory, been very largely defeated and, though it is true that disease had no friends as war has had friends, war now demands a friendship which can only be paid in false coin. A world political economy which makes no room for war demands, it must be recognised, a new culture of human relations. As most cultures of which we have knowledge were transfused by the warrior spirit, such a cultural transformation demands a break with the past for which there are no precedents. There is no precedent, however, for the menace with which future war now confronts the world. Charting the course of human culture through its undoubtedly warlike past towards its potentially peaceful future is the theme of this book.

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