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.