Want to send this page or a link to a friend? Click on mail at the top of this window.

More Special Reports

Posted February 5, 2007
nytlogo.gif (3067 bytes)
ny times magazine.gif (913 bytes)
the peace.jpg (26387 bytes)
The Peace Paradox How an urge to end war can lead to more war. By David A. Bell

Historical analogies have always been popular in foreign-policy debates, and the present day is no exception. For liberals, the best description of our current situation is “Vietnam II” (as Maureen Dowd dubbed it in a Times column): another ghastly quagmire from which we can do little but walk away. Nonsense, reply conservatives. It’s really “World War IV” (the words of Norman Podhoretz, who counts the cold war as III): another deadly struggle against totalitarianism for which we must mobilize every possible resource. As for the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, writing in Vanity Fair, the best analogy is what could be called Rome II. We are another colossal empire, perched on the brink of decline and fall.

Yet since history never repeats itself so neatly, the most useful historical analogies are not those that promise to predict the future but those that may reveal unexpected things about the present. Consider, for instance, a parallel rarely cited in current debates: the one between the post-cold-war period and the age of the French Revolution. Both began (by coincidence, in years numbered ’89 and ’90) with moments of extraordinary elation and hope. A powerful and much-loathed regime (the U.S.S.R., the French absolute monarchy) not only collapsed unexpectedly but did so with surprisingly little violence. So transformative did the change appear that many advanced thinkers predicted nothing less than an age of democracy in which warfare would have no place. In our own day, Francis Fukuyama famously spoke of “the end of history,” by which he meant an end to conflicts over the proper form of society. Two hundred years before, the fall of the French Old Regime led to surprisingly similar visions. In 1790, the new French Revolutionary state even renounced aggressive war, in what became known as its “declaration of peace to the world.” A French legislator promised giddily that from now on the human race would form “a single society, whose object is the peace and happiness of each and all of its members.”

Yet in both cases, disillusion followed with cruel speed. In our own time, of course, there were the wars in the Balkans and the gulf, followed by the global upheaval triggered by 9/11. In the 18th century, less than two years after the declaration of peace, there began a series of wars that would drag in all of Europe’s major powers, take millions of lives and continue, with only small breaks, for more than 23 years, until France’s final defeat in 1815. They would make possible the career of a man whose name is synonymous with military hubris: Napoleon Bonaparte. In short, the Enlightenment vision of perpetual peace gave way rapidly to a conflict in which states directed every possible political, social and economic resource toward the utter defeat of the enemy — mankind’s first total war.

Is this a coincidence? During the late 18th century, the Western world largely took war for granted. The major powers fought one another at regular intervals and devoted the lion’s share of their budgets to the purpose. For this very reason, however, they took care to practice a degree of restraint and to treat their adversaries with honor. The French reformer Jean-Paul Rabaut Saint-Étienne was exaggerating when he said that “armies [now] slaughter each other politely ... what was once a wild rage is now just a moment’s madness.” Still, particularly in Western Europe, war took less of a human toll in the century before the French Revolution than at almost any time in history.

In fact, advanced thinkers who believed in the new, Enlightenment creed of secular human progress came to hope that war might fade away entirely. European philosophers like Baron d’Holbach called it nothing but a “remnant of savage customs,” and no less a figure than George Washington agreed, in 1788, that it was time for agriculture and commerce “to supersede the waste of war and the rage of conquest.” It was precisely such sentiments that inspired France’s declaration of peace two years later.

Yet the idea that warfare might actually end had a paradoxical effect, for it destroyed any rationale for waging war with restraint. Within months of the declaration, one of its liberal proponents was warning that if revolutionary France did nonetheless come to blows with other European powers, it would be “a war to the death which we will fight ... so as to destroy and annihilate all who attack us, or to be destroyed ourselves.” In 1792, claiming to be acting out of reasons of preventive self-defense, France declared war on the Austrian Empire, and its leading general declared, “This war will be the last war” (the phrase uncannily foreshadows “the war to end all wars” of 1914). To achieve such an exalted end, any means were justified, and so there followed total war and the birth of new hatreds that made the idea of perpetual peace look more utopian than ever. France and its enemies both declared that the “barbarism” of the enemy made it impossible to respect the ordinary laws of war and proceeded to ravage civilian populations across the continent.

In our own day, the lurch from dreams of peace to nightmares of war has not (yet) translated into destruction on this terrible scale (except, alas, in Iraq). Of course, the enemy has failed to inflict significant damage on us, and even conservatives have not urged the sort of mobilization and sacrifice that we experienced during World War II. What has happened is a growing willingness to abandon traditional restraints on proved and suspected enemies, foreign and American alike. “Among ourselves, we keep the law, but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle,” wrote the British diplomat Robert Cooper in an influential 2002 essay. With ideas like this in the air, abuses like those at Abu Ghraib and Haditha become far more difficult to prevent.

Could it be, then, that dreams of an end to war may be as unexpectedly dangerous as they are noble, because they seem to justify almost anything done in their name? What the history of the late 18th century shows is that talk of fighting “so as to destroy and annihilate all who attack us, or to be destroyed ourselves” justifies a slide into “the laws of the jungle” that usually contributes more to polarization than to real security. It magnifies the importance of our enemies and swells their ranks. In short, it actually increases the danger of bloodshed on a massive scale. As the French Revolutionaries learned to their terrible cost, talk of the apocalypse can easily be self-fulfilling.

David A. Bell is the author of “The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Time Magazine of Sunday, February 4, 2007.

Wehaitians.com, the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
More from wehaitians.com
Main / Columns / Books And Arts / Miscellaneous