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The Pity of War

Andy Pollak

War: An Enquiry, by AC Grayling, Yale University Press, 268 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0300175349

Take a small civil war in an obscure European province. Think of some of its darkest points: twenty-nine people shopping in a provincial town blown to pieces; fourteen civil rights protesters shot dead by an elite army regiment; eighteen soldiers from that regiment blown up in a revenge attack; twelve dog-lovers on a social night out blown up in a terrorist attack on a rural hotel; ten people killed in a bomb at a ceremony to commemorate the dead of two world wars; ten men taken from their bus on the way home from work and shot dead; at least twenty-three people stabbed and hacked to death in a series of attacks by a paramilitary gang on civilians in working class areas of the largest city; thirty-three people killed and three hundred injured in coordinated bomb attacks in the neighbouring state.

That was Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1998: with 3,600 people killed, a tiny conflict in the great scheme of wars past and present. Last month I visited the Somme battlefields. As I drove across the hills and plains of Picardy, bright and peaceful in the May sunshine, I seemed to be coming across a military cemetery every half a mile: British, German, French, Australian, Canadian, South African, Indian.

One million men died in the five-month Battle of the Somme in 1916. On its first day alone, July 1st, at least 31,000 soldiers were killed. It is a deeply distressing thought to look across the trim cornfields between the Ulster Tower and the Lutyens memorial on the low hill at Thiepval and imagine the slaughter that took place in the mud and gore of that confined space. Lutyens’s great arch commemorates 72,000 dead soldiers whose names are not known – or “known to God” in the words of the Rudyard Kipling-inspired inscription – because no recognisable human remains could be found. In one small German cemetery at nearby Fricourt 17,000 men are buried under Christian crosses and Jewish stars of David (what a cruel irony that is in the light of what happened two short decades later), thousands of them equally unbekannt.

The obscenities of the mass slaughter experienced on the Western Front in that “Great War” are only too well known. If you want to see them in all their graphic awfulness, visit the fascinating Historial de la Grande Guerre museum in nearby Péronne and see the terrifying sketches by the German artist and former soldier Otto Dix and the stomach-wrenching photos of extreme face wounds taken by a French surgeon. But other horrific theatres of that war are less well-documented. Two Christmases before the Somme, the Ottoman army mounted a nighttime attack on Russian forces high in the Caucasus mountains. With a temperature of minus 35 degrees Celsius, the Turkish troops had been ordered to discard their greatcoats and backpacks for greater mobility. Some 25,000 disappeared in the advance, and those not butchered by the waiting Russians froze to death in the rout that followed. The Russians found 30,000 bodies in the snow, and another 25,000 wounded men apparently dragged themselves away and perished on the mountainside.

You will find little of such horror in this small book by the British philosopher AC Grayling, outside a section on rape and atrocities against women in wars in Central and West Africa. Grayling is known for his fine philosopher’s mind and clear writing style; his liberal, atheist, humanist, left-of-centre moral framework; and his willingness to tackle difficult subjects such as war crimes, euthanasia and human rights abuses. One of his best known books was Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in World War Two a Necessity or a Crime? – a controversial 2006 study of the British and US area bombing of German cities, and therefore mass killing of German civilians, during that war. His conclusion was unconditional: such a strategy was politically unnecessary, militarily ineffective and utterly disproportionate; it was a crime against humanity and morality.

In his latest study of the history and morality of war he is less absolute. He opens with a superbly concise summary of war and its lethal improving technology since the first recorded wars in southern Mesopotamia in 2500-3000 BC. This leads him to the conclusion that despite those who believe that human beings have a genetic predisposition “to learn communal forms of aggressive behaviour, which in its fullest form is war”, there is too much evidence – in ancient as in modern times – of humans as social animals who for the most part engage in cooperative rather than warlike or violent behaviour. “Visible all around us are the evidences of cooperation and trust-keeping, in the cities and systems, cultures and institutions built by the social impulses of human beings.”

So if a propensity to war is not genetically determined, why does it happen? Grayling comes down on the side of culture. The evidence suggests that it entered human history only about ten thousand years ago, along with settlement and agriculture. “If war were a genetically encoded behaviour, there would be anthropological and archaeological evidence for it from long beforehand.” For ninety-nine per cent of the two million years that a “recognisable human animal” has existed,

that animal was a hunter-gatherer, and therefore anthropological data from hunter-gatherer societies is centrally relevant to the question. And indeed the data are convincing: nearly a dozen forager societies studied variously in Malaysia, Tanzania, Australia and southern India are peaceable, anti-aggressive, compassionate, cooperative and generous, with very low rates of conflict and homicide.

So what are the cultural factors that make war happen? To this reader Grayling is on weaker ground here, arguing in rather general terms that just as cultural development has resulted in positive and cooperative outcomes like science, art, literature, music and education, so circumstances can also prompt culture to negative outcomes: disagreement, hostility and conflict prompted by tribal, national and ideological differences, leading to the means to give effect to that hostility in war. He dismisses kinship and race as important factors, noting that most states which have gone to war with each other in the past two millennia have been highly genetically mixed, indicating that loyalty to the community rather than actual genetic kinship is the chief factor here. And until recent times there had been no race wars because people did not have the concept of race, while lots of people of the same race – such as Germans and Scandinavians – have fought each other at various times in history.

Based on his belief that war is a cultural phenomenon, Grayling is an optimist. Ethical and political views have evolved with more educated human choice, so that democratic forms of government have widely replaced monarchies, feudal systems and other tyrannies, and with them has grown respect for human rights and civil liberties. Similarly the social status of women, attitudes to people with different sexualities and the treatment of animals have been transformed. All this, he argues, “would seem to imply that war is a cultural, not a genetic, phenomenon, and is or at least should be under the control of human choice. And this in turn would mean that there is a genuine possibility of removing war from human interaction.”

He appears to agree with the nineteenth century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who argued – way ahead of his time – that international law (he coined the word “international” in putting forward this idea), based on disarmament, the abolition of colonies and, above all, an effective system of international arbitration, would result in the abolition of war. Grayling notes the significant progress that has been made in such arbitration, while profoundly regretting “the relative failure so far of international humanitarian law to be properly enforced by a system of courts carrying international respect and weight”.

Because for all our cultural development we still have wars, and wars which, although less frequent in recent centuries, have become incomparably more lethal. He estimates that around a hundred million of the roughly five hundred million recorded deaths in war over the ages happened in the twentieth century. And those latter-century wars were largely fought in Europe. In tackling such European wars, Grayling lays particular store by what he calls “the great European peace of the post-1945 world”. In this period the interdependence and mutuality of the EU has won out over the nationalism, ideological differences, economic and territorial competition and deep, old fashioned suspicion of “the other” that largely governed relations between European nations for the previous four centuries.

Unsurprisingly, he concludes that the

deliberate creation of inter-dependencies in economic respects and inter-connections in political respects is a strong specific against war. This, in turn, suggests that the causes of war lie in structures of political relationships ... The solution to war as a human problem is therefore integration, mutual linkages of a practical and beneficial kind, and the elimination of boundaries between interests.

The most powerful of these interests in modern times are those of nation states, and Grayling expresses the view that bringing war to an end would be “facilitated by the end of the nation state and associated nationalism as a sentiment”. I agree with him, although in the era of Trump, Putin and Assad that utopian aim seems farther away than ever.

Grayling is on his strongest – and most terrifying – ground when he writes about how technology has changed war. As long ago as 1912 the great French socialist and anti-war advocate Jean Jaurès (who was assassinated on the eve of the First World War) was defining modern European warfare as “barbarism enhanced by scientific and technological progress”. Grayling points out that throughout history it has been technology that has made the chief difference to who wins and who loses in wars. He moves quickly through the seven principles of “just war theory”, stressing that the only one that provides a reason for going to war – that there is a just cause for it – is hopelessly vague. Anyway, he believes that nuclear war, threatening the annihilation of entire nations and peoples, completely explodes the theory.

Similarly, other new forms of war – from terrorism to unmanned drones – have raised new and extremely difficult moral dilemmas. “For example, if you have captured someone who has hidden a dirty nuclear device in the centre of a large city, is it justifiable to torture his wife and children before his eyes to get him to reveal its whereabouts?” Grayling asks. He poses serious questions about the use of US drones to attack people in faraway places like Afghanistan.

The fact that drones are unmanned, controlled from thousands of miles away by operators sitting safely before a screen, and that these operators are chosen for their video gaming skills, somehow seems to make them more sinister, somehow less “fair” and “right”. In particular, the move from violent video games to the dreadful reality of killing actual human beings seems to cast a deeper moral shadow over their use, trivialising the deaths caused, and making cold and unfeeling the acts and actors that cause them.

The ultimate technological horror may be coming down the line in the form of “lethal autonomous weapons” or LAWs, which experts believe could be in use by the middle of this century. These “human out of the loop” weapons will be programmed to seek, identify and attack targets without any human oversight after the initial programming. Can these monstrosities be programmed to make fine judgements about “distinction, necessity and proportionality” – key principles of humanitarian law in conflict? As Grayling rightly says:

The idea of delegating life-and-death decisions to unsupervised armed machines is inconsistent with humanitarian law, given the danger that they would put everyone and everything at risk in their field of operation, including non-combatants. Anticipating the dangers and seeking to pre-empt them by banning LAWs in advance is the urgently preferred option of human rights activists.

Grayling’s main conclusion – an unremarkable one – is that war should not be embarked on unless it is genuinely unavoidable and that all caught up in it must be treated with as much humanity as is consistent with the circumstances. Or, using words which are not in everyday vocabulary but which are crystal clear in their meaning: “Underlying it is unbearable pity for the suffering that war causes, and the rich common sense that sees meliorism as the only viable alternative to perfectibilism in human affairs.”

In his conclusion, this brilliant philosopher, like the rest of us, appears to fall back on hope rather than rational argument. In his final paragraph he echoes John F Kennedy in hoping that human beings can find an end to war before war puts an end to us; that in some future time we may look back on war as we do now on witchcraft or astrology, as an outdated thing – “past nonsense, from irrational times, when folly too often reigned”.

The realist in me says there is plenty more human folly to come. Internationally we can see it in Donald Trump’s sinister chief strategist Steve Bannon’s belief in an inevitable and imminent global war between “Judeo-Christian capitalism and Islamic fascism”. In Ireland it is there in Sinn Féin’s ideologically driven campaign, not for the reconciliation of the people of the island, but for a Border poll that may deliver a vote by the narrowest margin for a politically united Ireland, against the fervent wishes of most unionists, an outcome that will almost certainly plunge the North into renewed mayhem.

We can only hope that arguments for peace and reconciliation will prevail. In the words of the great German writer and First World War veteran, Erich Maria Remarque: “It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture chambers in their hundreds of thousands.”

Finally, to return to our own small wars in Ireland (and they are small: for example, 36,000 died in six months in the little-known Finnish civil war in 1918, compared to just over 2,100 in the so-called Irish Revolution of 1917-21). There is still too much emphasis here on the much-vaunted anti-British heroism of the participants in those wars, and too little on their traditional characteristics of murderous internecine division between Irish people. War of whatever size is ugly, vicious, hateful and squalid. For those who haven’t experienced its horror at first hand, I recommend the brilliant and shocking novel The Sorrow of War, by Vietnamese ex-soldier Bao Ninh, one of only ten men out of the five hundred in his brigade who survived his country’s 1965-75 war against the Americans. Closer to home, the dark stories of that fine, underrated playwright and novelist Eugene McCabe (for example in Heaven Lies About Us) on the conflicts in the bitterly divided Irish Border region in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries deserve to be far better known. I would make these required reading for all Irish and Northern Irish secondary schoolchildren, if only to drive home the message that McCabe’s vision of black hatred and bloody murder should convince them like nothing else of the absolute obligation to do all in their power to ensure that never, ever again will neighbour take up arms against neighbour in the northern part of this island.

1/7/2017

Andy Pollak was the founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies and a former Irish Times journalist in Dublin and Belfast.

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