Lead book review

When will we ever learn?

6 May 2017

9:00 AM

6 May 2017

9:00 AM

In 2012, sugar became more dangerous than gunpowder. According to the historian Yuval Noah Harari, of the 56 million people who died that year, 620,000 did so by the hand of their fellow humans: 120,000 in war and 500,000 from crime. By contrast, 1.5 million died from diabetes. Harari’s wry observation adds weight to Steven Pinker’s assertion in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) that humans are on a trajectory towards peace and non-violence.

But wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan, across the Sahel and Yemen; Russian and Chinese irredentism; nuclear threats from North Korea; Trump’s belligerency, not to mention the asymmetry of terrorism, render urgently relevant the continued study of war.

In War: An Enquiry, the philosopher and ethicist A.C. Grayling examines the opposite to his 2015 exploration of Friendship – enmity. Defining war as ‘a state of armed conflict between states or nations, or between identified and organised groups of significant size and character’, he differentiates it from human violence that lies below what he calls the ‘military horizon’.

Grayling’s penetrating book seeks to establish why we make war and what can be done to mitigate, if not eliminate, its scourge. A gallop through 10,000 years of warfare and a review of the evolution of military theory serve as scene-setters.

Careful to distinguish between idiosyncratic reasons for war and its universal causes, reviewing the evidence, Grayling enters the nature–nurture debate. Does our DNA predispose, and therefore doom, us to war? Or is our otherwise natural inclination to friendshipand co-operation subverted by cultural structures at state and international level? His position inclines heavily towards the latter.

The archaeological record reveals little to support warfare as a human activity before the agrarian revolution shackled us to land — condemned to spiralling population growth and competition for resources. War, Grayling suggests, is unique to the last 10,000 years of our evolution. With its ever-increasing technological sophistication and cost, it is now, he argues, unquestioningly accepted, economically planned for and rationally embarked on: ‘Aggression is a feeling in an individual, but it is a choice in a state.’


Peace-preserving mechanisms, he argues, are those that bind us in mutually beneficial structures. Capitalism rather than democracy emerges from his analysis as the essential glue. Grayling sees less national sovereignty and more supra-national integration as our saviour. He may be right. But he errs in citing the EU as the guarantor of peace in Europe: peace was, and is, preserved through the collective security provided by Nato.

As to the effects of war, he lists the obvious: death, destruction and trauma that drain treasure and arrest progress. Rape is highlighted as its most horrifying and enduring hallmark. He qualifies Pinker’s assertion that humanity’s trajectory is increasingly less violent, acknowledging that while there are fewer interstate wars century on century, they are increasingly more lethal: of the estimated 500 million humans killed in action in the last 10,000 years, 100 million died in the 20th century — 20 per cent in the last 1 per cent of the epoch of warfare.

So, what can be done? Attempts to limit war’s excesses found their expression in Christianity’s quest for ‘wriggle room’ in the development of the just war doctrine. But its seven informal principles moderating war, Grayling argues, often contradict or nullify themselves in the modern age. International humanitarian law offers more formal accountability, but falls short of deterring war because of its uneven application and perceived bias, while the League of Nations and United Nations have, thus far, proved largely ineffectual as deterrents.

Casting an eye over the future and the development of autonomous weapons, Grayling suggests that the need for an enduring solution to war is ever more urgent. But his concluding remarks proffer solutions more wishful than hard-nosed and practical. That is not to diminish the importance of his book. It is exceptionally incisive on the causes of war and peace.

While Grayling surveys war’s swamp from a bird’s-eye view, the Israeli academic Martin Van Creveld wades neck-deep through it. More on War’s title is a twist on Carl von Clausewitz’s famous 1832 treatise On War. ‘I yield to nobody in my admiration for Sun Tzu and Clausewitz,’ Van Creveld declares of the sixth-century BC Chinese commander and sage and the 19th-century Prussian soldier-philosopher.

Although the essence of war remains immutable, its serious study must embrace developments in many fields that simply didn’t exist in Sun Tzu’s and Clausewitz’s time, or to which they paid little or no attention. Van Creveld also points out that ‘many young people find both authors hard to understand’. He’s right. I too struggled with Clausewitz’s ‘abstractions’ and Sun Tzu’s ‘aphoristic style’ in The Art of War.

Van Creveld sets out to produce a short, modern and jargon-free compendium of war to aid its understanding by a broad readership. Many areas that he covers in concise yet eloquently explained chapters were omitted by Sun Tzu and Clausewitz for obvious reasons: naval, air and space, nuclear, asymmetric and cyber. Others were either ignored or glossed over for less obvious reasons: causes, economics, legalities, logistics and strategy. These become discrete chapters in an essentially linear narrative that updates earlier military theories. But this is no dry treatise. Van Creveld’s judicious use of historical examples enlivens a text that is both authoritative and thought-provoking.

He offers no single definition of war but, like Grayling, differentiates it from other acts of violence that lie below the military horizon. His opening chapter on causes also considers individual and societal drivers. That ‘war is the product of man’s innate wickedness’ or ‘pugnacious instinct’ can be said also of crime and does not fully explain ‘the highly organised, and often coolly and deliberately planned and executed, activity known as war’. In this respect, Van Creveld and Grayling are in accord, broadly echoing Thucydides — that we go to war for one of three reasons: fear, interest or honour.

Didactic more than inquisitorial, Van Creveld admirably achieves his aim of updating the theory and practice of war. At his most powerful in the final chapter on perspectives, he challenges both Pinker and Harari: ‘Where may the better angels of our nature be found?’ Acknowledging that conflict between big powers ‘has become all but extinct’ he points to over 200 wars fought since 1945 and an estimated 250 million dead in the 20th century from ‘politicide’, far eclipsing Grayling’s 100million. Ominously, unlike Grayling, he offers no solutions.

Pitched at different levels of abstraction yet complementary, War and More on War are essential texts for its study. As a former professional soldier and no stranger to conflict, I regret not having had access to them when it mattered.

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