So, are we left to expect war without end?

February 23, 2003|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

REMEMBER THE little summer that followed the Cold War's end, when the sun shone bright on a Pax Americana, and market capitalism advanced behind a worldwide drift toward democratic governance?

Optimism was rife, inspired by the coming new millennium.

We were leaving behind what Raymond Aron, the French philosopher and writer, described as the "century of total war" - 10 decades of disaster piled upon disaster: the massacre of the Armenians, two world wars, the Holocaust, the crimes of the Soviets, the Khmer Rouge, the Red Guards of China, Vietnam.

In The End of History, Francis Fukuyama found in liberal democracy, the "final form of human government" and consigned the bad old times forever to the past.

Not likely, warned essayist Verlyn Klinkenborg.

"There will be no getting out of the twentieth century without carrying it with us," he wrote in 1996. "You will hear, as the new year in the new century in the new millennium approaches, an enormous sigh of relief and optimism, as though something shameful had been left behind and some deliverance or retribution were now at hand."

Some deliverance, indeed. Since the fall of the USSR, Europe has experienced three wars; genocide raged in Africa; the encounter between Israel and its neighbors has grown more horrific; religious extremism, always a problem in the Middle East, is virulent in Asia as well; a nuclear exchange is at least possible between India and Pakistan. Terrorists have struck the United States, hard; in response Washington has made war in Afghanistan, and lays plans for other crusades.

The current archenemy of civilization is international terrorism, in general, and Iraq in particular. Americans, it seems, are left to expect war without end.

Ahead one sees the same that one sees looking back, a circle most vicious, which suggests that maybe history is truly revolutionary, that it goes round and round, never advancing toward a better estate.

Many believe there is no way out, that human beings are flawed, their will to war ingrained. In the academic world of international relations theory, these people call themselves "realists."

Their opposite, often called "liberals," are those who believe human beings have an inherent capacity for improvement, and that the incidence of war can be sharply curtailed much in the way human slavery - once widespread and thought an inalienable impulse of human beings - has been minimized throughout the world.

Such people who believe that history is open and directional, rather than closed and circular, have always been among us in greater or lesser numbers. They were especially numerous in the West at the outset of the 20th century, before the horror that became World War I began in August of 1914, and exploded many of their hopes.

After that, as war followed upon war, a disillusionment set in. The ideal of permanent peace withered, though it never died out, and may even be making a comeback.

To accept that war is an unbreakable habit of human beings, or worse, a reasonable continuation of national policy, was always dangerous.

Today, it veers close to madness, if only because of the way the destructive power of war has been enhanced by nuclear technology. What is inevitable, what is unstoppable, is the proliferation of that technology. Eventually nearly everybody will have it, including some determined to even the score. These are not the times to be making war. These are the times to be making peace, building alliances, making friends.

In a recent essay, the Italian author Umberto Eco described war as perpetual, not sequential, something happening all the time, somewhere in the world: in Africa (Angola), South America (Nicaragua), the Middle East (Iran-Iraq), Asia (Afghanistan). It is not the exception we have always thought it to be, but the norm.

Americans have always given faint attention to these conflicts, thinking they could have little effect on their everyday lives, even though our own government was usually a player in them. What we experienced on 9/11 was terrorism, indeed. It also was blow-back.

Perhaps a new perception of war is needed; perhaps one is already forming, and driving the unexpectedly vigorous anti-war movement here and abroad, an understanding that war can never be defeated by resort to war.

Many people have understood this for a long while, ordinary people with little power, people like the 19th-century Scottish poet, John Davidson.

To express that understanding, Davidson wrote "War Song":

Some diplomat no doubt

Will launch a heedless word,

And lurking war leap out.

And blood in torrents pour

In vain - always in vain,

For war breeds war again.

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign editor and foreign correspondent for The Sun.

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