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Sticks and Stones

by Rick Lewis

“I don’t know what weapons World War III will be fought with, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
(variously attributed to Albert Einstein, President Harry Truman and an unnamed US Army lieutenant at the Bikini Atoll A-bomb tests)

It’s always an advantage in any philosophical debate to have the last word. If civilisation gets wiped out in a nuclear war this month (and I’d love to believe that this is a far-fetched scenario) then perhaps future archaeologists, human or otherwise, will unearth a few scorched copies of this magazine in the topmost layers of debris. That seems a good enough reason for this issue to have a theme of war and peace.

War has been a topic of scholarship and discussion since ancient times. Some of the classic texts about it have been of the ‘How to’ variety: books of strategy like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in the 5th century BC, or Clausewitz’s On War in the 19th century. Philosophers have been more concerned with whether and when war should be waged. There have been the starkest disagreements among them. A few thinkers (usually not those of fighting age) have positively glorified war, or else argued that war being sometimes inevitable, it should be pursued ruthlessly and singlemindedly to attain swift victory. Conversely, there have been philosophers throughout history who have been pacifists of one kind or another, arguing that it’ wrong to resort to violence even under the severest provocation (see our article on non-violence in Eastern philosophical traditions).

Many major philosophers, though, have taken a middle position, deploring wars but hoping to influence rulers to avoid the worst excesses. In this spirit, in the Middle Ages Saint Thomas Aquinas and other philosophers developed a set of rules as to when it might be considered justified to wage war, and regarding conduct during wars too. This ‘Just War Theory’ remains influential in international law even today. We’ve printed a list of Aquinas’ rules. Do keep it somewhere handy in case you are ever attacked by an army of medieval monks – perhaps in a dream, or in a computer game, who knows? Anyway, Ziyad Hayatli in our lead article tells the history of the philosophy of war, and of philosophy engagement in international law, and brings it right up to the present.

To some extent it is a success story. Hayatli tells how Hugo Grotius in the 17th century saw the world as a loose society of nations; Immanuel Kant later made proposals for international rules to avoid war in his essay Perpetual Peace. They helped inspire the growth in international organisations and treaties and an international legal order, and the United Nations, all of which have certainly helped to avert particular wars. Maybe one day such institutions, and globalisation, and trade, will make war unthinkable. But we still have a long way to go, and we don’t know how much time we have left. So far we have been over-reliant on sheer luck to avoid disaster.

The approach of science and philosophy when confronted with some vast human problem is always first to try to understand it thoroughly, then on that basis find ways to overcome it. Things we comprehend can still kill us, but we stand a better chance against them. Unfortunately military technology has recently advanced much faster than our understanding of the social and psychological forces that lead us to go to war in the first place. But other advances are happening too, more quietly, such as the application of game theory to the prediction of military outcomes, and the study of how wars start, and of the most effective ways to stop them. We learn, gradually. Maybe we can understand human behaviour fast enough to avert our doom?

So how do wars break out? A pithy summary of the main ways can be found in a recent article by David Welch in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, in which he analyses the probability of war in Korea. He says, “Generally speaking, there are four pathways to war: states can choose them deliberately on the basis of a cost-benefit calculation; they can stumble into them inadvertently; they can be pushed into them by public opinion; and they can be pulled into them by allies.”

Why would anyone choose to go to war? Certainly fear or envy often plays a part. But given that war is death, maiming, destruction, bereavement, and horror, it’s enduring popularity is hard to fathom. Naturally, some philosophers have tried to fathom it anyway. Henri Bergson was France’s most famous philosopher a century ago, and is now sadly neglected. He thought in depth about these problems, and their connections with the nature of societies, and also believed we have an innate ‘war instinct’. (You can read more about his ideas in Carl Strasen’s article). Then there is patriotism; a force for social cohesion and pride perhaps, and certainly not responsible for all wars, but it equally certainly has fed support for many. Phil Badger in his article critically examines three models for understanding patriotism.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me, or so I’ve been told. There will always be conflict and tension; Heraclitus called war the Father of All because strife pushes change forwards. But nations and factions now need to pursue their conflicts in ways that stop short of war. Insults, ridicule, invective – the world can survive all these. Sticks and stones too. But if words between nuclear powers ever escalate to actions, then all our squabbles and speculations could come to an abrupt end.

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