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Saturday, March 19, 2022

The Permanence Of War - The Perfect Storm Of Human Nature, Historical Imperative, And Cultural Destiny

‘The War to End All Wars’ was the hope of everyone after World War I, but that optimism was based only on the carnage, the almost unimaginable loss of life, and the horrifying conditions of battle.  This war simply had to end all wars.  Of course this hope was unfounded, for as much as men and countries wished for peace, it was not to be.  

The Twentieth Century knew just as much if not more mayhem and death than any other before it.  Stalin alone accounted for as many deaths – over 60 million - as Genghis Khan and his Mongol armies.  Add to that the killing of Hitler and Pol Pot and the death toll rose even higher.

Image result for images wwi trenches

The Twentieth Century was supposed to be an evolved century, one in which liberal democracy took hold in much of the world and progress would be made in many others.  Capitalism, opportunity, and private enterprise were supposed to raise all ships, ensure prosperity for those in poverty, and secure a strong state.  What happened? How was it that after the slaughter in trenches of France, men and nations were still bent on murder?

The answer is simple – human nature, as aggressive, territorial, self-interested, and defensive as it ever was, a nature expressed at every level of society.  The same patterns of behavior are seen in toddlers, children, adolescents, adults, and political jurisdictions.  The same fights between siblings, classmates on the playground, or in the bedroom are played out on an international scale. The need to expand perimeters, increase wealth and influence, and to dominate others is permanent.

The war in Ukraine – or rather Russia’s military invasion of that country – took many by surprise.  It was unthinkable that war could break out in Europe among supposedly civilized nations.  Differences should be able to be solved peaceably through diplomacy, negotiation, and compromise.  However, although the same human nature might be behind both childhood scuffles and international incidents, war is of another order.  Not only is there more to gain and to lose, but the weight of history impels bloody action. 

The Serbs in their assaults on Bosnia and Kosovo recalled iconic battles of the past as justification for their territorial claims.  Of these the most important was the Serbian fight against invading Ottoman armies in Kosovo in 1389, and the Battle of Kosovo has remained particularly important to Serbian history, tradition and national and ethnic identity.  The Battle of Waterloo and the English victory over Napoleon, and the English defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588 were no less important to British national pride and sovereignty.  

The defeat of the Saracens by Charles Martel at Poitiers in 739 so significant that that the French from then on considered themselves la fille ainee de l’Eglise – the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church, the country that saved Europe from Islam.

Image result for images victory of charles martel at poitiers

The tales of former glory and their importance to nationhood, cultural identity, and national pride are legion.  Every country has its historical imperative, its reason for being, and reason for fighting.

Add to this the legacy of empire – Russian, Persian, Chinese, Indian, Ottoman, Japanese, or British – and the reasons for defending, expanding, or acquiring territory and increasing power expand exponentially.  Russia has a storied Czarist history, centuries of Russian imperial glory, influence and power – a history that cannot simply be dismissed and forgotten as irrelevant in the modern, liberal, democratic era.  

Especially in a culturally homogeneous country like Russia (its small ethnic minorities have been isolated and controlled) where there is a widespread respect for the imperial past, the verses of history cannot be forgotten.  Oddly but understandably, the Soviet Union which assumed power and established regional hegemony after the Bolshevik Revolution which killed Nicholas II and dismantled the monarchy, is considered by many as the legitimate heir to Russian imperial glory.  

Image result for images peter the great of russia

As fanciful as this might seem to the West, and as much as it might be the fancy of an increasingly delusional leader, Putin’s advances into Ukraine are are at least in part motivated by a sense of historic destiny; and as such, the Russia of Putin should not be surprising.  Perhaps most importantly when human nature – that ineluctable engine of self-interest and territorial aggression – and an iconic cultural and historic destiny are combined, it is the perfect storm.

Tolstoy understood, as he expressed in his Second Epilogue to War and Peace, that history would endlessly repeat itself in predictable patterns, and that war was and would always be inevitable; but that unique, powerful individuals would both take advantage of this historical imperative and exacerbate the conflicts and mayhem it caused.  

Napoleon might have been a product of serendipity – the famous case of the lost Battle of Borodino because of the Emperor’s bad cold and clouded thinking – but he was a Colossus, rising above ordinary men.  Like ordinary men, however, his arrogance and assumptions of invincibility were his downfall.   Vladimir Putin is of the same ilk – motivated by human nature and Russian historical destiny, fueled by the arrogance of complete power, he may likely have overreached and sealed his fate.

Image result for images napoleon by david

Shakespeare understood this phenomenon better than most, and his insights into the permanence of war fueled by human impulse, impelled by the inertia of history, and led by fallible men are seen in all of his Histories, which, if lain down in chronological order would display the same, predictable, events.  Like Tolstoy, for Shakespeare the delight was in exactly how this predictable destiny was replayed.

It is hard for Americans to appreciate this calculus.  They have no real weight of history behind them, no empire, no cultural foundation.  America is a nation of process – rights, opportunity, competition, and the process to adjudicate the inevitable disputes arising among them.  For them there is no Battle of Kosovo, no Roncesvalles, no Poitiers, no Stalingrad.   There were no early Christian evangelists like Paul who built the Christian Church throughout Turkey, the Middle East and parts of Europe.  No Saint Columba and Saint Patrick who assured its foundation in Ireland.  No Charlemagne or Charles Martel.

The United States had no Sun King, no Henry VIII, no shoguns, Mandarin emperors, or shahs to build and extend the glory of Western and Eastern civilization.  It was always on its own, picking and choosing from Europe, building from scratch and dependent on ingenuity, ambition, and enterprise much more than cultural longevity. 

So it is not surprising that US President Biden takes everything on face value, with little understanding of or patience for the Ukrainian war’s antecedents.  Putin is simply a tyrant, an autocratic bully, a war criminal worse than Stalin and Hitler.  It is autocracy, and the corruption of autocratic power which corrupts absolutely.  Nothing more to get, nothing more to parse or fit into complex algorithms.

This of course is a simplistic reprise of the old adage about people who ignore history are bound to repeat it.  The lesson of history seems to be that wars will always occur for the same predictable reasons, and the only way they can be prevented is by anticipating conflict – i.e.  by appreciating the cultural history and human nature behind them - and matching strength with strength.  The Cold War, as uneasy a peace as it might have been given the threat of nuclear war, was a period without major conflict.

The Roman approach took this calculus a step further. The Romans expanded their territories militarily, then completely controlled them as occupied, client states.  In so doing they ensured a Pax Romana that lasted for over 200 years.

Image result for imges pax romana

In this era of matched strength  - there is not just one superpower, but a number of them – all one can hope for is a Cold War.  American presidents Nixon and Reagan understood this completely. Both, but especially Ronald Reagan, knew that the military might of the Soviet Union had to be matched and surpassed.  Peace would only be possible either with continued parity or the demise of America’s enemies through the economic pressures of military buildup.

Progressives, on the other hand, always hoping for conciliation, fraternity, compromise, and good will will always contribute to war, not prevent it.  The dictators of the the world and the autocratic leaders of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran look at such foreign policy as a sign of weakness.  War is inevitable they all know, and wars are for winning.  

To deny this inevitability is simply whistlin’ Dixie. Once the war in Ukraine has ended, there will be others to follow. 

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