War: The Chronic Condition

If you don’t want to read this whole essay: tl;dr war isn’t going anywhere.

I feel like I’ve already said this ad nauseum in the first few essays I’ve posted here – and rest assured, it is not going to be the last time I say it. But after thinking about both of those points, I decided it was worth dedicating a piece solely to that point, seeing that it’s so central to why I started this site and began writing about war from a leftist perspective to begin with.

The nature of war may change over time, yes – the tools and techniques used to fight it will certainly change, as they already have throughout history and are doing right now. But whether its war between states or within them, it’s my belief that war in all of its forms will remain a constant factor in our lives and in the lives of whoever follows after us.

This is not something I take pleasure in saying. I don’t feel a sense of smug satisfaction in pointing this out like I imagine most newspaper columnists and foreign policy talking heads probably do when they’re lecturing to us about how we should just accept the state of the world as it is (which conveniently leaves them in a very advantageous position). I don’t feel an inflated sense of self-importance typing all of this out and I hope it doesn’t come across as that.

If anything, what I feel is fear and frustration and borderline depression in the fact that I even need to say any of this. In the time I’ve been involved with the left it feels like the few voices that exist talking about war and international relations seem to think that there’s a way to magically make war disappear. I think that is a dangerous line of thinking; one that would put the type of system we’d all like to see at risk if we’re ever finally able to create it. We need to accept the persistence and permanence of war, be knowledgeable about it and be ready to deal with it.

Politics as Usual

I want to preface this section by saying I hate Carl von Clausewitz with a burning passion.

I had to read On War in grad school and it was a painful experience.

I memorized only enough in order to pass my comprehensive exams and get my master’s degree and since then I have quickly forgotten most of it. If you ever see me quoting him or referencing him, 99% of the time it’s probably ironic.

However, among the overused statements of Clausewitz’s that still trapped in my brain folds in a non-ironic way, is his oft-repeated comment that “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.”

While I still cringe whenever I hear someone repeat that overused quote – often in a way that makes no sense or has no real meaning – I still have to begrudgingly admit there is some truth in that statement (this is somewhat awkward for me, seeing that I want to write about how I think Prussian influences in military thought are harmful and dangerous – but that’s for another day). The phrase retains its meaning – or even reinforces it – in an alternate translation, that says rather that “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.”

We on the left, though sharing a sense of solidarity and unity against fascism, imperialism, authoritarianism and all the other -isms I’m probably missing, are well known for our almost comical degree of division and disagreement with one another. We argue and squabble with one another over just about everything you can possibly imagine. We’re no strangers to disagreements on politics and policy within our own world. Leftists in the past have even come to blows over it – often to their own detriment as other enemies than swoop in to divide and conquer the left as its factions eat one another.

The reason I bring this up though is not to just dunk on my fellow leftists, but to drive home a point. The world already has a great number of political and policy differences. Even if the world were predominately governed by leftists states – or, for any anarchist readers, a world simply populated with leftists individuals and communes and what have you – as long as political and policy differences of one kind or another exist, the potential for them to escalate to the extent of going to war will always exist. As long as humans exist, politics will exist in some shape or form. So, we can be pretty sure that war will still continue to exist in some shape or form too.

Despite this, any predictions have been made in the past of the coming end to war. This isn’t exclusively a leftist problem by any means and has been seen with theorists and thought leaders all across the political spectrum from left to right. World War I was supposed to be the “war to end all wars” – which it famously wasn’t. With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama famously declared “the end of history, claiming that liberal democracy would be universalized as the final form of government – bringing about an end to war on the basis of democratic peace theory. Clearly that never panned out either – especially since he’s had to come back and ‘amend’ his statements decades later (oopsy).

Some have made more toned down but still ridiculous predictions, claiming that while war as an overall concept won’t go away, that the age of major wars between nations with large armies is over and that the future of war will be “shadow conflicts” fought by special forces and spies on the periphery of great powers – the same imperialism we’ve come to know and love but with a bold new taste! To them I’d say that clearly no one told the rest of the world, which are still producing, buying, and selling the weapons needed to fight one another in a conventional war, like tanks, combat aircraft, and more at a brisk pace – all while interstate tensions rise in places like the Caucasus, the Indian-Subcontinent, the Far East, and many more locales worldwide.

On the topic of weapons, to anyone arguing that a specific new weapon or emerging domains of warfare like cyberwarfare will make an entire way of war obsolete, I’d point to the interwar military theorists like Italian General Giulio Douhet who believed the advent of the bomber would essentially phase out the need for ground warfare (spoiler alert: it didn’t). Going back even further in history, Polish theorist Jan Gotlib Bloch, who wondered in 1899 if the growing deadliness of weapons would keep war from occurring (spoiler alert: that was wrong too). In that vein, while the advent of the atomic bomb has contributed to preventing another war on the scale of the World Wars, it certainly hasn’t prevented other smaller but still sizeable conflicts from breaking out since 1945.

I feel like I’m just rambling, so I’ll try and get back to something resembling a point. While I’m not in the Fallout school of “war never changes”, you should always take anyone telling you that war is “going away” or changing in a way that conveniently allays your fears of large-scale death and destruction with a massive barrel of salt as those predictions have a demonstrably bad track record when it comes to bearing out. To explain away war on a massive scale is dangerous wishful thinking, no matter what political ideology the person doing the explaining holds.

The Part Where Savage Gets Existential

From here on in, I make a bit of a personal digression that I wasn’t expecting to make – but bringing up the topic of war and its persistence made me do some deep introspection.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my profession and the relationship between it and the values I hold – especially in the last year. In particular, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I feel about war itself in a personal sense.

One worry I always have is maybe I’m “in love” with war, to put it bluntly. I’ve spent so much of my adult life studying it, learning about it, consuming media about it in all shapes and forms – I wonder sometimes if I’m some kind of armchair war junkie and if I’m part of the problem. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a strange feeling whenever a new crisis or conflict broke out and I begin tracking down the latest news and updates on it. I always worry that feeling is a sense of joy or happiness, thinking back to George C. Scott as George S. Patton in the eponymous biopic, where he’s surveying the corpse strewn battlefields of World War II and proclaims “I love it, God help me I do love it so.” That is one of my worst fears, that I am in effect a war-crazed sociopath that is contributing to a darker and deadlier world.

Thinking about it deeper, I don’t think it’s that I feel joy or happiness when some new war breaks out somewhere (at least I hope to God it isn’t). I do feel some degree of exhilaration, but I think that is more so in that suddenly I feel useful. Many people – even those that have participated in it directly at a micro level – don’t necessarily understand the ins and outs of war in a big picture sense. When a new conflict breaks out, I suddenly feel like I am contributing to something by trying to help people understand what is going on and why. That is why I started this blog after all, trying to see if my rantings and ravings can help other leftists understand war (or at the very least, push them to come up with something better to prove me wrong. The main event that catalyzed me into finally buying a WordPress site and starting writing was posting news updates and analysis to friends in a discord server as war played out between Armenia and Azerbaijan recently.

Maybe that sense of usefulness, that sense of somehow contributing and maybe helping people understand a complex but commonplace phenomena, is maybe why I sometimes feel a sense of existential dread when I think about a theoretical world without war. After all, if the world had no war, what use would there be for me? It’s not even the fear necessarily that I’d be out of a job – I’d like to think that in such a society I’d be well taken care of if I suddenly became unemployed – but that basically that the field I had pursued for my entire life would suddenly be meaningless and irrelevant, and by extension so would I. I feel a sense of shame for even thinking that, but I’d like to think people would understand why I and others would have these kinds of complex feelings.

I want to believe that sense of existential dread about becoming irrelevant is not the reason that I believe why war will always be a concern. I accept that that fear is a part of me and something I’ll need to deal with, but I don’t think my thoughts on the persistence of war is purely me trying to keep war alive by force of will in order to feel special and appreciated. The other part is looking at the world around us both past and present and thinking about all the factors at play in how war occurs, looking forward into the future and thinking about how some realities will never change or not change as much as we’d like no matter what systems we put in place.

Really, thinking about what it might take to end war on Earth creates another sense of fear. Ending war would likely require the most deadly and destructive conflict in human history if you wanted to remove anyone or anything capable of starting it. That would be the case whether if you wanted to replace all states with one global superstate, or create an anarchic world without states or governments as we understand them now. Even if one of those goals was achieved – and if anyone were left alive afterwards, who is to say that decades or centuries later, some charismatic leader wouldn’t try to raise up a new army and change the new status quo and start the cycle anew? If you wanted to stop that, you’d likely have to create a new system of oppression much like the ones we all seeking to disband or demolish. War is like water; one way or another, it will find cracks and it will leak through and you’ll need to start mopping up.

Maybe I’m wrong. Let’s be real, it would absolutely be 100% better for the world if I was wrong. Regardless of whether it would make people like me irrelevant, a world without war would be objectively better for everyone on the planet and people like me would just have to find a new phenomenon to study. A peaceful world is what anyone with any degree of empathy or sanity should want. But as a wise philosopher once said: “you can’t always get what you want.” And while a planet with a terminal case of war isn’t “what you need” – to complete the thought –  it’s what we have now. We need to understand that and learn to deal with it going forward in our efforts at trying to create a better world for everyone.

I’ve previously described war as a man-made disaster, explaining that those can never be 100% avoided – just as a natural disaster cannot. Perhaps another apt comparison would be to call war one of humanity’s chronic conditions. It’s not a fatal one if properly treated, but it is none the less incurable. At times it can be debilitating, and while there are often ways to lessen the occurrence of its symptoms or their effects, the symptoms and effects are still unavoidable and sooner or later they are going to flare up. The best we can hope for is to do everything we can in order to lessen the frequency and impact of war when it does rear its ugly head, and power through it as best we can when it inevitably does show up uninvited. It may not be the utopian solution that many anti-war activists may dream of, but at the very least it is something that is in the realm of the possible when dealing with an intractable problem like war.

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