War, Peace, and Human Nature

Congresswoman Barbara Lee has proposed a new federal Department of Peacebuilding. Aside from the problem that we don’t need another federal department of anything at a time of serial $1 trillion deficits and nearly $17 trillion in aggregate federal debt–and aside from the fact that Congresswoman Lee probably does not mean training occupation troops to follow combat units to quickly help in pacification and rebuilding in the fashion that we did not in Iraq in spring 2003–why is her proposal mostly asinine?

In the past I’ve probably written too much about why we have too many peace-something programs and not enough inquiry into the history of what causes wars and how they are prevented or their effects ameliorated. The nuclear sword of Damocles, the rapidly changing world of technology, the enormous increases in both Western affluence and leisure, and the explosive spread of universities and colleges all contribute to the notion that wise men and women can teach their inferiors not to act so irrationally as to revert to our primitive selves.

In a word, peace studies is a well-intentioned, therapeutic exercise—based on a misunderstanding of human nature, and fueled by the common post-Enlightenment notion that with enough education, money, government power, and good intentions elites can eliminate, often by fiat, distasteful elements of the human experience, war especially.

The Versailles Treaty, Wilson’s 14 Points, the League of Nations, and the reasoned dialogue of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain should have precluded the horrors of World War II. The United Nations and the collective wisdom of the Security Council should have ensured that post-war violence was rare (more were killed cumulatively in wars during the 50 years following World War II than in the war itself). And given the recent proliferation of Peace Studies programs throughout the Western World (nearly 200 on American campuses) and the triumph of the therapeutic mindset, we should have developed the skills and patience to reason with Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gadhafi, Slobodan Milosevic, Manuel Noriega, or the Taliban rather than having to drive them out of power or kill them.

Unfortunately, until human nature itself changes, there will always be particular powers that, for a variety of reasons that transcend even desires for material gain (more land, more natural resources, more subjects)—including a Thucydidean sense of fear, honor, and perceived self-interest—will risk wars, in the belief that what is to be gained is well worth risking what might be lost. Perceived grievances are often as powerful as real ones, and are reified the more they are advanced without opposition. Equally unfortunately, such adventurists are checked only by deterrence (itself obtained by greater military power, alliances, balance of power, etc.) that reminds them that their grand agenda leads to ruin and surely is not the worth the gamble of war.

Congresswoman Lee, of course, would find this acknowledgment retrograde, when wiser people, like herself, could use their superior reason, morality, and education to adjudicate disputes by parley and diplomacy. It is not as if these well-intentioned ideas, of course, cannot serve by side-by-side formidable military power. No one discounts the value of diplomacy and speaking softly while carrying a big stick. But one senses that the Lees of the world see their Departments of Peacebuilding as replacements for military deterrence, as if their right thinking and ample resources can persuade bad actors to be good; as if deterrent military power is either unnecessary or itself provocative.

Nor does Barbara Lee understand that war colleges and academies study military history not to glorify killing or to discover new ways of starting or engaging in wars, but to remind ourselves how to avoid them if possible, and, if impossible, to win them as quickly and at as little cost as possible.

Tragically, Barbara Lee is likely to see some of her views become policy, at least in the sense that the military budget will be substantially cut in the next four years, the global presence of the U.S. military curtailed, and the willingness of America to stand alongside our allies in times of crisis and to deter our enemies lessened. I am afraid that we will learn soon whether John Kerry’s lectures about global warming and Barack Obama’s apologies for past American transgressions and the limitations of American power and morality will make the world a safer—or a more dangerous—place.

For now, the Arab winter, the Islamization of northern Africa, the reset of reset by Vladimir Putin, the Chinese belligerency toward Japan, the new round of lunacy from North Korea, and Iranian obduracy do not reflect the success of the ongoing therapeutic approach.

Finally, throwing money at problems without understanding their origins often only makes things worse: if the shell of Detroit now looks like a Hiroshima of 1945, and contemporary Hiroshima like a once booming wartime Detroit, then we can acknowledge that bad ideas are sometimes more lethal than atomic bombs.

  1. George Savage
    C

    Beautifully written, Professor Hanson.  Thank you.

  2. John Walker

    It’s hardly a deep thought (I got it from a Tom Clancy novel), but I’ve found it useful to think of aggressive war simply as various kinds of crime committed by state actors rather than individuals or bands of criminals.  Both war and crime have been part of the human condition through all of recorded history and probably since the origin of our species, and nothing in the human experience indicates they can be eliminated, although deterrence in various forms can reduce their incidence and preparation for an active defence can reduce the consequences of aggression.

    I was about to ask how many people who argue that abolishing the military would put an end to war also believe that getting rid of the police would eliminate crime, but sadly I have encountered people who do actually believe both propositions.

  3. Man With the Axe

    In the same spirit I’d like to propose that we do away with the:

    • Department of Agriculture  • Department of Commerce • Department of Education • Department of Energy • Department of Health and Human Services  • Department of Housing and Urban Development • Department of Labor  • Department of the Interior  • Department of the Treasury • Department of Transportation 

    as well as the Council of Economic Advisors and the Federal Reserve, and replace them with the new:

    “Department of Prosperity.”

  4. Bill Nelson

    Maintaining peace is far more difficult than waging war. The idea that we can save on the military via a “peace dividend” is demonstrably untrue. I am a big fan of Winston Churchill (who wrote some of the more self-serving histories to be found) because he understood what moved nations and peoples.

    I am continually amazed at the lack of understanding that Pres. Obama has of history. His initial Cairo speech was filled with fallacy and fantasy.

    On a side note: Churchill was right on the India question.

  5. Merina Smith

    I swear, the left is like a whole party of beauty pageant contestants with a platform of “world peace,” blissfully unaware of human nature and the causes of war, and equally unaware that they are unaware. 

  6. Xennady

    Barbara Lee is surely gifted with a surfeit of stupidity, but I take her latest foolishness as a sign of just how far American governance has drifted from reality.

    It isn’t just her, of course. There are a vast number of people who, noticing that the United States has been the richest and most powerful nation in history, have the assumption carved into their souls that there is infinite wealth available to be extracted from the country for whatever purpose their witless heads desire.

    The $17 trillion in debt, the ruins of Detroit, the fast-fading status of the US dollar as reserve currency cause them no worry, because they live in the United States.

    What could go possibly go wrong?

    This mindset isn’t new, unfortunately- although it seems to have reached new heights of idiocy lately.

    But Barbara Lee is only able to reach her own unique heights of idiocy because she stands upon the shoulders of great idiots past.

    In a well-run country she would have no more chance of sitting in Congress than she would have to win the Nobel Prize for physics.

    Unfortunately for us, she lives in the United States. Alas.

  7. Kervinlee

    I live in Barbara Lee’s district and have never, nor will ever, vote for her (although the California Republican Party never seems to even contest for her seat). Out here she’s the cat’s meow, especially for her single vote against the authorization of action in Iraq. “Barbra Lee speaks for me” said the groupthink bumper-sticker in those days. 

    When I write to her I sometimes wish her a happy retirement soon in Cuba, as she is a champion of the Island Prison from her days running with former congressman and absentee mayor, Ron Dellums.

  8. Bob W

    Well put VDH, well put! I particularly like the last paragraph. So many refuse to look at results. Detroit is such a graphic example of the policies expounded by the left.

  9. wmartin
    I’malogger: Well put VDH, well put! I particularly like the last paragraph. So many refuse to look at results. Detroit is such a graphic example of the policies expounded by the left. · 5 minutes ago

    Detroit isn’t Detroit because of liberalism. If it was, then Portland and Seattle would look that way too.

  10. Frank Soto
    C

    Outstanding as always.

  11. Frank Soto
    C
    wmartin

    I’malogger: Well put VDH, well put! I particularly like the last paragraph. So many refuse to look at results. Detroit is such a graphic example of the policies expounded by the left. · 5 minutes ago

    Detroit isn’t Detroit because of liberalism. If it was, then Portland and Seattle would look that way too. · 10 minutes ago

    They will soon enough.

  12. Richard Fulmer

    After World war I, politicians accused companies such as Dupont as being “merchants of death” who, because they profited from the war, created the war.  This is of a piece with the belief that it is the weapon that causes the murder.  Lee appears to share this mindset.

  13. Devereaux
    Frank Soto

    wmartin

    I’malogger: Well put VDH, well put! I particularly like the last paragraph. So many refuse to look at results. Detroit is such a graphic example of the policies expounded by the left. · 5 minutes ago

    Detroit isn’t Detroit because of liberalism. If it was, then Portland and Seattle would look that way too. · 10 minutes ago

    They will soon enough. · 1 hour ago

    And you can toss in Chicago. There has been a net loss of 100,000 people from Chicago last year (or perhaps it was 11), and nothing is better to suggest that one should stay. I keep urging my son to leave.

  14. Eeyore

    Peacebuilding as replacements for military deterrence, as if their right thinking and ample resources can persuade bad actors to be good.

    A number of times I have had the misfortune to have been involved with groups operating by consensus. This led me to formulate a number of Myths of Consensus. One is: There  are no bad actors – only bad process. No situation is so problematic that it cannot be solved be just the right workshop or just the right professional facilitator.

    Unfortunately, the sorts of people who live this way are so committed to their mythology that no matter how many bad actors commit how many misdeeds, the solution to any problem would have been just one more workshop on [X] or a professional facilitator, and things would certainly have worked out for the best.

  15. Richard Fulmer

    If VDH is right, a Federal Department of Peacebuilding is far more likely to increase the chances of war than to decrease them.  And, of course, those who oppose its creation will be accused of wanting war. 

  16. Neolibertarian

    Please write here more often.

  17. barbara lydick
    Bill Nelson: Maintaining peace is far more difficult than waging war.  7 hours ago

    Paraphrasing Dennis Prager, there is maintaining the peace and attaining peace.  Unfortunately, as he tells us, maintaining peace sadly leaves too many people under the yoke of evil tyrants… But with respect to the aticle, as George Savage said, “Beautifully written, Professor Hanson. Thank you.”
  18. Roberto

    The only lasting peace is peace through superior firepower and we already have a Department tasked with achieving this goal.

    Thank you for suggestions Congresswoman Lee but no.

  19. Chris Campion

    This is a perfect illustration of saying something out loud that sounds like a reasonable idea, but inevitably its practice or implementation would achieve none of its stated goals.  Ask the UN how peacekeeping’s gone this past half-century.

    Ben and Jerry’s had a “1% for Peace” PR campaign some time ago (before they cashed out to Unilever), meaning 1% of the defense budget should be spent on peace…things.  I loudly suggested to anyone in VT advocating such an idea that we’re already spending that 1% on peace – through superior firepower. 

    I also suggested that I support their desire to raise the defense budget 1%, in the interests of peace.  It’s fun to watch hippies pull their own hair out in frustration.  Man.

  20. Neolibertarian

    Roberto:

    The only lasting peace is peace through superior firepower and we already have a Department tasked with achieving this goal.

     This seems to be relying on the the top stair that isn’t there anymore. You’ll get tripped up.

    Willingness is the key to everything else:

    “Sometimes it isn’t being fast that counts, or even accurate; but willing. Most men will draw a breath or blink an eye before they shoot. I won’t.”

                 —John Brooks (The Shootist, 1976)

    To put Eisenhower in the best possible light, his too-famous farewell address was a call to have a public debate. Because the US was not able to de-mobilize after Korea, we had a sticky problem on our hands.

    Rather than take up the challenge, Congress and the intelligentsia demonized their political opposition, scoring political points now and again, and desperately ignored, as they always do, the 600 lb Gorilla.

    Hence the riots, campus insurrections, and eventual radicalization of American politics.

    We still haven’t had the debate after all these decades. You’re sure the opposition has no legs to stand on, and they feel the same about you. So what purpose is there to debating?

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