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How peace arises from war, and not the opposite
[Note: this piece was written a couple of weeks ago- before the invasion of Ukraine. It has been updated lightly to reflect the current situation, but being as it is supposed to be an educational sort of piece, not news, I have only edited it lightly to reflect current events.]
“For instance, it is evident that the country now called Hellas had in ancient times no settled population; on the contrary migrations were of frequent occurrence, the several tribes readily abandoning their homes under the pressure of superior numbers. Without commerce, without freedom of communication either by land or sea, cultivating no more of their territory than the necessities of life required, destitute of capital, never planting their land (for they could not tell when an invader might not come and take it all away, and when he did come they had no walls to stop him), thinking that the necessities of daily sustenance could be supplied at one place as well as another, they cared little about shifting their habitation and consequently neither built large cities nor attained to any other form of greatness. - Thucydides [1.1-2]
“Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in a condition which is called war; and such a war, as is every man, against every man. For WAR, consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known, and therefore the notion of time, is to be considered in the nature of war; as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather, lieth not in a shower or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war, consisteth not in actual fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of where, where every man is enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of commodities that may be imported from the sea; no commodious buildings; no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge on the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
- Thomas Hobbes [Leviathan, 1.XIII.8-9]
Peace is widely thought to be the greatest good in the life of mankind. But what is it, and how does it arrive? Any study of history will demonstrate the correctness of Hobbes’ point that war is the usual state of man. Thucydides, whom Hobbes translated, said of piracy “there being no shame attached to it yet” in earlier times, meaning that no one thought it was wrong to attack and raid his fellow man and make a living off of violence and robbery. Livy’s History of Rome provides another strong example by showing the constant warfare in Italy before it was united by Rome [and then Rome’s continuous wars with forces outside of Italy.] Further, a rapid rise in criminality is common at any time when institutions are weakened or threatened, demonstrating how fast mankind can “go feral,” so to speak, and return to a state of war with his fellow man.
All of this notwithstanding, Romanticism has poisoned the public mind, and the view of the “noble savage” leads many moderns to believe that war is an invention and not the natural state of man. Of course, Romanticism never has cared about the many things which factually contradict its ideas. Thus, many people continue to believe in the possibility of a world without war; others belief in the possibility of a world both without war and without government. But the old sayings are more accurate: only the dead have seen the end of war, and the only things you can be certain of are death and taxes.
For most of history, the only thing which has ever brought something resembling peace was the direct application of the sword. It was accepted that it was appropriate to build empires and absorb weaker tribes. Most men were happy simply to be safe from bandits even at the cost of taxation and conscription. The world was seen to work by the principle laid out in Thucydides’ famous “Melian Dialogue”, “You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” [5.89] [Though it has been argued that the Athenians had much more advanced views on ethics than this and in reality the quote simply reflects arrogant political posturing.] The era between the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War is the first we know of where any large number of people simultaneously had something resembling peace and liberty. This was due to Athenian leadership in the Persian War and the subsequent peace guarded by the Delian league. However, Athens was not contented, and as is the nature of humanity wanted increasing power. As Thucydides said, “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired, made war inevitable.” [1.23] Of course, neither of those things had to happen with different leadership, but they reliably acted in the way you can expect greedy political hacks to act.
After the Athenians lost the war, the Spartans set up a variety of oligarchic governments which would serve their interests, and for a period of time had hegemony and there was peace in Greece. However, the Spartan system itself was unable to be exported, and did not contain any tools for maintaining acquisitions and causing the public to accept a form of government to which they were not accustomed. Spartan hegemony was short-lived and after it ended Greece again plunged into near-constant warfare. [Ancient Greek history is quite like an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia writ large insofar as they get into a ridiculous dispute, take arbitrary sides, and then seek to destroy each other.]
Meanwhile, across the Adriatic, Rome remained mired in wars from all sides. In their city founded by bandits built in the wilderness they were never welcome immigrants. From the beginning other cities disrespected this upstart city of brigands and they had to fight for everything they had, in relentless nonstop wars against a variety of enemies. Until the empire more than a few years of relative peace at any given time was extremely rare for the people of Rome. They spent decades of their lives upon periodic campaigns, every mother losing sons and producing more for the sake of the Republic. This simply was how they lived. Even during Pax Romana there were still generally states of war, it was simply with minor tribes and there were professional soldiers. Similar to how the modern War on Terror occurred during the Pax Americana, there wasn’t genuine peace for the Roman Republic and certainly not for the neighboring tribes. However, the common man in the heart of the empire was generally genuinely unthreatened by war and banditry and his crops and farm could flourish [you know if he had them, and hadn’t been destroyed by moneylenders.] This man was enjoying the benefits of peace within Rome.
As Rome gained more power they engaged in a series of smart and cynical diplomatic moves based on the premise that Rome was the sole arbiter of war and peace. It is at this point that the powers enforcing peace become more abstract, as it is enforced at the implied threat of the sword, instead of directly at its tip. The Romans propped up some kings and stole the crowns of others. They played sides against each other, and often “inherited” kingdoms from clients who left their posterity to the people of Rome. Though many, such as Carthage, Macedon, Pontus, and Numidia at various times tested Roman might, the Romans emerged victorious against every major power until the Parthians, and thus their own peace bought at the cost at the blood and slavery of others created a condition in the Mediterranean which represented a sort of peace.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire history continued in this general fashion, with various empires rising and falling and a state of near constant warfare between state and state and periodically between man and man. However, the “Old World”, for the most part, had few Hobbesian states of nature, being fully occupied by states, and so essentially all men lived under a government’s control and his home was generally at peace even if he periodically served in the military.
Men, seeking a new and better world ultimately left the Old World and found the New World. What they found there were oppressed peoples enslaved by brutal empires, little different from what they had left at home. While they found large urban societies in Central and South America, the rate of pestilence was as such that civilization had fallen in North America by the time any substantial amount of Europeans arrived and the natives again found themselves in something like a Hobbesian state of nature. It was into this broken society that Europeans arrived.
Like Rome, the Americans were outcasts set up in a wilderness, surrounded by hostile tribes. Due to the poison of Romanticism, an inaccurate notion has arisen that the American Indians did not have total war, and that they had stable borders, and all sorts of other nonsense which does not reflect anything resembling reality. The fact is, that like Rome, the European colonists had no choice but to defend themselves and expand, for a civilization cannot thrive on a narrow piece of land cut off far from trade. This created a situation where the new Americans were in a near constant state of warfare against various hostile tribes, and a condition of peace only came to be known in colonized areas as violence continually displaced other peoples farther away from their civilization. Eventually, through manly virtue and fortune, the tribes were vanquished [and horribly mismanaged as a conquered people.] And also like Rome, they found other tribes far away still in their state of natural warfare and took them as slaves to increase their own power. The Africans captured as slaves by their more advanced neighbors had no protections from the depredation of their fellow man without large-scale organized political power protecting the population from a violent loss of liberty and property.
As history continued its march forward, the world saw the Pax Britannica, where Britain’s overwhelming power removed war from much of the world. Again, at this point a level of sophistication was reached where they tried to hide that peace was due to a massive imbalance in military power, but that was still quite clearly the case no matter what language of development and civilization it was couched in.
What history has shown and continues to show, is that it is man’s nature to covet, and there will always be men willing to fight over resources. This is a rule caused by scarcity. As Hobbes wrote,
“If any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end…endeavour to destroy, or subdue one another. And from hence it comes to pass that where an invader hath no more to fear, than another man’s single power; if one plant, sow, build, or possess a convenient seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united, to dispossess, and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life, or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.” [Leviathan. 1.XIII.3]
A peace then, is a condition where there is a strong enough authority that man’s person and property are secure from depredations of anyone but his own government. This is a condition which only exists on a large scale rarely, and is always enforced by a world power for whom the arrangement is advantageous. After the First World War, the Treaty of Versaille was famously the seeds of a future conflict due to its punitive nature. This is because a peace only works when the victors manage their power appropriately. Essentially, a peace is the period after a war where the treaty which ended the war remains in effect. Peace is not the default state of man, but a state which follows from war.
After the Second World War the countries in charge tried and succeeded at making a longer lasting peace that was on a more even footing and wasn’t punitive to the losing nations. Instead of punishing the losers, they invested in growing their economy. This was so the vanquished would not simmer with resentment and rebel frequently as has happened so many times in history; as the Romans often did, the Allied Powers made the losing side inferior partners in maintaining the new world peace. As with forms of peace under the Romans, this peace came to be fundamentally based on the premise that all wars of significance must be approved by the United States, which is the world’s sole superpower. Previously, a country or faction needed permission of either the United States or the Soviet Union- keeping each other in check- and then had the opportunity to launch wars of aggression and steal territory, but this era ended with the collapse of the USSR.
This is why the First Gulf War was so important to the global powers that be. Though it doesn’t actually matter to anyone but the Kuwaitis and perhaps oil interests if Kuwait is controlled by Iraq, and the Kuwaitis were hardly living in great liberty under their monarchy before the invasion, from the perspective of a world power that is maintaining an aging peace it is simply impossible to allow an expansive invasion for the purpose of increasing power by a non-approved state. The very premise of the peace falls apart if countries are able to behave in that fashion without the approval of the arbiter of the global peace.
The problem is, no peace lasts forever, and the luxury which is a dividend of peace makes men corrupt and slavish. It leads to an increasingly incompetent ruling class which is unable to hold onto the benefits they inherited from their fathers who were much better men than them. These reduced rulers make irrational decisions, which ultimately leads to the peace falling apart, and the world returning to its natural state of war in the absence of authority.
This is where we were prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Our scribbling class had reached a level of hubris and incompetence so as to think we were at a point of history where wars of aggression can be banished from the world throughout. Ironically, this actually creates a situation where all nations develop a huge number of weapons and resources to use when they do finally go to war, while simultaneously going to war with incompetent leaders who have never fought a serious war because the requirements for leadership in peace and war are quite different. While it is amazing a Joe Biden can get elected in peacetime, it would be absolutely impossible in war. [Well, assuming a degree of honesty in elections.]
It is important to recognize that it is only authority which gives man relief from a state of war. However, this cannot be maintained indefinitely because luxury always creeps in and competence and morality are reduced and give way to corruption. To prevent a catastrophic collapse, at this late stage in a global peace, the super power has to recognize its changing role in the world, and worry more about defending what it has than expressing power abroad. This is what our leaders are unable to do, because they are terrified at the premise of not being a superpower and living in a reality-based world where countries make decisions for themselves in their own interest. It must be accepted that various international conflicts are simply the nature of polities and that the nature of history has not changed, even if the superpowers now threaten all of humanity with their nuclear bombs.
So, far from man’s natural state being innocence in the woods, indeed it is being at war with all others outside of his family. What we consider peace is the most precious thing a sovereign can provide, which is why men will and should accept reasonable demands of taxation, conscription, and obedience from the sovereign in return for a condition where man can perform the most basic functions such as growing crops and having reasonable certainty that they will not be attacked by marauders, or having children and not fearing they shall get stolen into slavery. Unfortunately, the rapacious nature of government tends to turn on its own citizens, thus it is very difficult to be at peace and to be at liberty at the same time.
Peace is a glorious thing, but can only ever belong to a determined and strong people, for it is very far from man’s natural state. As was said in the Declaration of Independence, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” But, the time does come when government is so intolerable that man must choose a return to a state of war in hopes of a better future, knowing all that comes with it.
As Hobbes explained:
“For those men that are so remissly governed, that they dare take up arms, to defend, or introduce an opinion, are still in war; and their condition is not peace, but only a cessation of arms for fear of one another; and they live as it were, in the precincts of battle continually.” - [Leviathan, 2.XVIII.9]
Between the sudden and massive changes in international relations and the truly dismal state of American society and government, it is very important that one understands the nature of war and peace in order to prepare and make wise decisions moving forward.