RETREAT FROM DOOMSDAY:
THE OBSOLESCENCE OF MAJOR WAR
by John Mueller
This book, originally published in 1989 in hardcover and in 1990 in paperback by Basic Books, can now be downloaded in pdf format without payment: Retreat from Doomsday.
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An outline of the argument
Major war--war among developed countries--seems to be becoming obsolete.
War is merely an idea. It is not a trick of fate, a thunderbolt from hell, a natural necessity, or a desperate plot device dreamed up by some sadistic puppeteer on high.
Therefore it can be supplanted--rendered obsolete--if people come to embrace another idea: one holding that, as an institution, war is abhorrent and, on balance, methodologically unwise.
Two notable ideas that have undergone such a transformation are the ancient institution of slavery and the popular and romantic problem-solving device of formal dueling. Both died out because people came to regard them as undesirable, not because they had ceased to be objectively viable or economically effective.
At least in the developed world, war seems to have followed a similar trajectory. Europe, once the most warlike of continents, has now been substantially free of international war for the longest period of time since the Roman empire.
This does not seem to have come about because war became physically more destructive. There have been many instances in the past of wars or patterns of warfare that were essentially annihilative, but this did not cause an effective revulsion against the institution itself.
In fact, despite such experiences, until 1914 war was commonly viewed in the developed world as ennobling, virtuous, glorious, beautiful, holy, manly, redemptive, beneficial, progressive, necessary, natural, and inevitable.
In the late 19th century--only about 100 years ago--this notion was actively challenged on a wide basis for the first time in history by various peace organizations which effectively propagated the view that war was repulsive, immoral, uncivilized, and futile, particularly economically.
World War I--the Great War--played perfectly into the hands of this gadfly peace movement. At its end, its notion that war--or at least wars of that type--should be abolished came to be commonly accepted in the developed world.
World War II in Europe came about not naturally or inevitably, but largely because of the atavistic--if lucky, fanatically dedicated, and remarkably skilled--machinations of one man, Adolf Hitler. He was allowed considerable leeway in part because other European leaders desperately wanted to believe that no one could possibly desire another major war and because he continually assured them, and the German people, that he abhorred war.
Whether one accepts that argument or treats World War II as simply an additional learning experience for Europe (and as a terminal one for the distant Japanese who had largely missed the lessons of World War I), the developed world came overwhelming to reject the notion of major war at its conclusion.
The international Communist movement--the chief source of international instability since 1945--has embraced the idea that violence is necessary to overthrow the capitalist enemy. It has, however, rejected major war as a sensible device for carrying out this mission even while fearing--and preparing for--the possibility that the capitalist world might launch such a war against it.
Since neither side in the Cold War ever saw major war as a remotely sensible device for pursuing its agenda, nuclear weapons have not importantly affected history: things would have turned out much the same if they had never been invented. They furnish dramatic reminders of how destructive a major war could become, and they could conceivably be useful in the future, for example if another Hitler should arise. But they have not been necessary to inspire caution among the war-sobered people who have actually led the major countries since World War II. Even at times of crisis, major war has never really been in the cards.
While eschewing major war, the international Communist movement was willing to experiment, somewhat cautiously, with a direct military probe in a neglected corner of the world, Korea, as a method for advancing the revolution in 1950. The West's forceful opposition seems permanently to have discredited this device and may have been an important stabilizing event in the Cold War.
The Communists have also at times been enamored of crisis as a desirable method for advancing the cause and for enhancing disagreement and conflict among the capitalist enemy. After the traumas of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, however, they substantially abandoned the device as too dangerous.
Revolution and revolutionary civil wars continued to be romantically embraced by the movement--particularly by the Chinese--as natural, desirable, and inevitable devices. The United States entered the "test case" war in Vietnam principally to demonstrate to the Communists that this method was unproductive and unwise. The war was lost not because the United States had no effective military plan, but because the Vietnamese Communists were willing and able to accept casualties at a rate that is all but unprecedented in modern warfare.
In the meantime, however, and in the midst of a dangerous ideological clash with the Soviet Union, China turned inward and, by the 1970s, substantially abandoned its support of the movement. As it dropped out of the Cold War, it was quickly, if somewhat cautiously, embraced by its former capitalist enemies.
The Soviet Union continued to support violent revolutionary movements around the world, and at the end of the 1970s it gleefully welcomed several new countries into the camp--only to see each become mired in economic and military chaos while looking to the Soviets for maternal warmth and sustenance.
Burdened by such questionable adventures (including one in Afghanistan that became militarily as well as economically costly), by foolish overexpenditures on defense, and by a severely mismanaged economy and empire, the Soviet devotion to international revolution faded, often replaced by a distinctly unideological cynicism. As Mikhail Gorbachev recognized this change and began to abandon the international revolution, the essential ideological cause of the Cold War faded. As the book went to press at the end of 1988, the Cold War seemed to be on the verge of terminal demise. As it turned out, it was.
Major war, like slavery and formal dueling, remains physically possible, and it could come about if some aggressive Hitler-like world leader came to believe (quite possibly correctly) that large crises and military ventures need not necessarily escalate to massive war.
However, major war has been substantially discredited over the last century. Moreover, two important ideas have substantially taken hold: prestige and status principally derive from economic prowess (a quality often disparaged as debased and disgustingly materialistic by warlovers in the past); and war is a singularly ineffective and undesirable method for attaining wealth.
As a result, major war may be becoming truly obsolete--subrationally unthinkable. Countries like the once perennially hostile France and Germany reject war as a method for resolving their difficulties not so much because they determine it to be unwise after mulling over their options. Rather it is because--like dueling for quarreling aristocrats--war no longer occurs to them as a option to be considered.
War remains rather common outside the developed world--indeed the book was written while a war between Iran and Iraq was raging there, not to mention some 30 civil wars In the last few hundred years, however, most major ideas have tended to flow from the countries we now call "developed" to the rest. It seems possible--particularly with the Cold War out of the way--that war aversion will follow a similar path.
Even if peace--the absence of war--comes to infuse the world, conflict, disharmony, turmoil, trouble, and contentiousness will likely continue in fulsome measure. Unlike war, these qualities do seem truly to be natural and inevitable.