With United States President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un doing their best emulation of the Collins-Thomson drum-duel – sadly to the beat of war – enduring questions are emerging about war. Will we ever see war again? By this I mean a large-scale war among great powers or large countries with vast militaries? If so, what will it look like? How long will it last? Will it be the type of war that effects global systemic change – as did the Second World War? Will it be a just war? Will it be proportional; we know, for example, that the United States’ war against the Afghan people was disproportional and its legality has been questioned. All of this notwithstanding, and setting aside conflicts that range from Central Africa across the Middle East, in Asia and in South America, most of which can be described as civil wars, or conflict arising from state collapse, violent oppression of minorities or so-called drug wars, will we ever see war (among heavily militarised states) again? Well, yes, but it will not be long and drawn out and spread horizontally (across territories), but probably short and swift – maybe even vertically, should a nuclear device be detonated.
If there is one lesson that can be drawn from history is that war cannot be wished away. The most pacific among us may heed the words attributed to Leon Trotsky: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’ We cannot wish war away.
I was reminded of this by poster in the basement of a restaurant/laundromat I recently visited in Reykjavik, The Laundromat which boldly stated that “War is Over: If you want it” – the message that John Lennon and Yoko Ono sent out to the world as a Christmas greeting in 1969. Most people of a certain age and sensibilities may have seen the poster before, or at least recocgnise the slogan. Last month, looking again at the poster in The Laundromat – which is quite possibly my favourite restaurant in Reykjavik – the poster seemed terribly idealistic and romantic. In terms of its layout and presentation, the slogan is also terribly misleading. It avoids philosophical and historical questions. Surely not intentionally, it seems to rely on a belief that nobody really likes war, insinuating that some people may actually like it. Anyway, in bold letters, the poster carries a simple slogan: “War is Over” and below the line, so to speak, in really small letters, is an almost theatrical chaser: “If you want it.” It has a Nancy Reaganesque, “just say no” ring to it.
A Pico-History of War
Let us deal with the historical matter, first. The sub-headline, above, should make it clear that this is a rather small historical overview. It may not rest easy with most of us but much of the history of the world, to paraphrase the British historian, Michael Howard, on war and the history of Europe, has been ‘hammered out on the anvil of war’. It is as true, of course, that trade across vast stretches of the world served progressive and integrative purposes, and it played a formative role in settlement and nomadism across continents. The end of the feudal period gave rise to greater economic forces in state formation – not all of which avoided large-scale mercenary warfare. It is, nonetheless, not terribly outlandish to make the claim, also, that there are very few modern states, at least not since the Westphalian Peace, that have avoided war or any kind of conflict at the time of their formation. In the now famous words of Charles Tilly, “war made the state and the state made war”. Personally, I would like to believe that humans have an inherent drive towards collaboration and co-operation. I should not be trusted with predictions, though.
For instance, one of my greatest miscalculations (about war) came while sitting in the bar of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in January 1991. A reporter from the US asked me if I thought that his country would go to war. Filled with romantic idealism, and a fair amount of that other stuff, I said: ‘No!’ I explained that the Cold War had ended, and that peace was breaking out around the world. (I really said that) I went to bed at around midnight, and was awoken by the ring of a telephone a couple of hours later, in the very early hours of 17 January, and told that the US had pulled the trigger against Iraq…. So much for my own idealism, then.
War is what we do, as humans
I can say with some confidence then, that I don’t believe that we have seen the end of war. It is, in some ways quite central to human organisation and reorganisation of society, and therefore, part of our evolution, of our inheritance and our cultures – notwithstanding how diverse cultures may be across time and place. It is too simple, according to my favourite former professor, Christopher Coker, to see war as completely right or wrong, and as the opposite of peace. I agree. War is as much a part of who we are as peace, and we cannot simply wish it away. What has changed over the centuries, is the way we have fought wars, and the changing ethos (and ethics) of war. This much is apparent in our cultures, very many of which have evolved through war and shaped our humanity – or lack thereof. To be sure, a survivor of the Holocaust or the genocides of Rwanda and Srebrenica, may have a different view of war than the young women and men who enlist to fight wars in foreign lands for some idea or another idea planted in their minds by politicians.
One of the most important books I prescribed to students was Chris Hedges’ book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. Somewhere on one of its pages, Hedges wrote: ‘The enduring attraction of war is that even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.’
In Hedges’ view war is a deadly addiction, an unmatchable intoxication and a thrill that frees us from the boredom and sameness of everyday life and becomes a unifying force that provides a sense of meaning, purpose, and self-sacrifice. This meaningfulness is part of the myth that has been created around war; it remains, nonetheless, the basest form of aggression. War he explained is ‘organised murder’. It is what we do, and it has become part of our culture.
In his research Coker (who is, in my view, the pre-eminent scholar of the history of war and warfare) covers war and the warriors that wage war from ancient Greece to the Iraq War. He drew particular attention to culture; to the way war has influenced culture and culture has influenced war and the “warriors” who fight wars. Evolution, at the level of human culture, has been driven by war, and war, he explained, in great detail and supported by masses of evidence, that war itself has evolved with humanity. Culture and war, he postulated, shared a fertile relationship, where war inspires art and art in turn can inspire the warrior mentality. Coker draws attention to the way that popular culture, such as films or computer games, evidence the enduring presence of the warrior mentality. The same may be said, of course, about technology and geopolitics in that war may, someday, be fought by robots (a natural extension of today’s ‘drones’) and the geography of war may be changing – soldiers can drop bombs using drones from a computer thousands of miles away – but war itself remains. I am partial to Coker’s summation that we are rapidly approaching a period of post-human technology in warfare where ‘warrior geeks’ represent the ultimate amorality of a dystopian war. In such a war things like courage, cowardice, patriotism, or even pacifism will lose meaning. We will be faced with casual death, a rather boring sort war that is played out on a screen in a non-descript building anywhere in the word. Far from where drones drop their deadly bombs. In historico-normative terms, then (looking at the history of war as a means to learn how we may avoid it in the future), there is little to suggest that war is, actually, over.
Back to the Future
So what next, then? As I write, we have on the one hand, Kim Jong-Un who has promised to deliver ‘an unimaginable sea of fire’ on the United States mainland. Donald Trump first said a North Korean attack would be met by ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’. Then, of course, Trump told the United Nations General Assembly that the US would ‘totally destroy’ North Korea. We have reached a point, then, where the hawks, especially those in the US, believe that war between the two countries is, now, inevitable. We should probably not forget that there are people who think war can be a good thing, or necessary or useful. Anyway, the current climate is all too reminiscent of 1914, when Europe ‘slithered into war’, of which Ian Kershaw, in his masterful work, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914 – 1949, wrote ‘for all the genuine hopes of most decision-makers that a general conflagration could be avoided, for all the confusion, hesitation prophecies of doom and last-minute cold feet… the will for war outweighed the desire for peace’.
To the extent that predictions can or should be taken seriously, if a war between the US and North Korea does break out it will be a short, bloody and very destructive war with masses of displaced people. It would be messy, geo-politically, in the sense that China and probably Japan, and most definitely South Korea would be drawn into the conflict. Domestically the peninsula’s divisions appear to be two-sided – and so it may well be. Internationally, is six-sided, between two Koreas, China, the US, Japan and Russia
If Washington does decide to attack Pyongyang, the physical destruction will be enormous, and probably be directed at taking out North Korea’s strategic resources. This would include, specifically, communications and transportation networks, and zoom in on removing Kim Jung-Un and his closest circle. I will venture a wild guess and say that we may get to see a remake of the rather dramatic opening of the palatial residence of Victor Yanukovych, when the Ukrainian leader was overthrown in 2014. We saw similar revelations when Nicolas Ceausescu and Saddam Hussein were overthrown. We should make no bones about the fact that any war against North Korea will be to remove Kim Jong-Un, as a first order priority, second to neutralise his nuclear capabilities and ultimately to re-unite the peninsula.
This is the only possible glimmer of good news that may come from such a war. Now, on paper, that (re) unification may seem as straight-forward and progressive as the reunification of Germany was a generation ago. Unfortunately, though, political economic and geostrategic transformations are easier to explain on paper than they are to effect on the ground. The social, cultural and customary difference between the two societies may be vast. North and South Korea have several things in common, not all of which are pleasant. The peninsula has for very many decades been a pawn of great powers. The end of nineteenth century was a particularly period for Korea, when it was a battlefield for the Sino-Japanese War, and then the Russo-Japanese War. At the start of the twentieth century, the Koreans people fell under Japanese colonial rule, and almost half a century later, at the end of World War Two, Koreans were liberated from Japanese rule only to be divided and occupied by either the US or Soviet Army.
Hope for re-unification rose after the historic summit of South and North Korean leaders in June 2000. The Japanese and North Korean foreign ministers met in October 2000 in Beijing. In the following year, the leaders of powerful countries were busy exchanging visits with their counterparts in the North and South Korea. President Vladimir Putin of Russia visited to South Korea in February. Seoul received another official visit from former Chinese Premier Lipung in March. Also in March, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung met President Bush in Washington. In April North Korean leader Kim Jung-il paid visited Russia. A lot has happened between then and now; enter Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un, and the threat of war.
The beating of war drums between the two countries may go silent, but they will most likely be replaced by the sounds of war. Try as we might, we can’t wish war away.