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Giving Peace A Chance

THE END OF WAR.  By John Horgan

McSweeney’s Books  224 pages, $25.50


All of us owe our lives to one man: Stanislav Petrov.

It was 1983, the height of Reagan’s “new” Cold War, and tensions between Washington and Moscow were unusually high.  Petrov was just starting his shift at the Soviet command and control centre, monitoring the early-warning satellite system, when the alarms went off: five U.S. missiles were apparently heading toward the Soviet Union.

Petrov was ordered by his superiors to fire a retaliatory nuclear strike on the United States – an act which would have led to total nuclear annihilation.  However, instead of mindlessly obeying his orders, Petrov made up his own mind.  He reasoned that nobody would launch a nuclear war with just five missiles and he refused to push “the button”.  Instead, Petrov declared that the radar alert to be a false alarm – which is exactly what it was.

Now, it would be comforting to believe that the nuclear threat ended with the Cold War, but that is not the case.  The unpleasant truth is that there are still some 20,000 nuclear warheads in the hands of at least nine countries.  They are more than enough to devastate life on Earth if they are ever used.

And then there is the potential danger of bio-terrorism, among other new forms of killing.

In other words, even if we do not live in active combat zones, such as the Congo, Syria, or Colombia, we still live in the shadow of war.

The good news is that the intensity of warfare has been decreasing for decades, and there are solid grounds to expect that this trend will continue.  This is the optimistic conclusion in John Horgan’s, “The End of War”.

He stresses that, “war has no single cause” and, not surprisingly, that war does not have a single solution.

Nevertheless, Horgan believes that, “the end of war is possible, and even imminent.”  He admits that most people are doubtful about this prospect, and he sets out to examine the supposed causes of war: “whether genetic, ecological, economic, political, or cultural.”  The result is a wide-ranging examination which is thorough, nuanced, and enlightening.

For instance, Horgan emphatically states that, “we are not hard-wired for war.”  He points out that the earliest evidence of organized group violence does not date back millions of years ago to our hominid ancestors, but emerged only around 13,000 years ago.  In other words, our species has been mostly peaceful for the greater part of our existence.

And even with the rise of civilization, most societies have been at peace most of the time.  Indeed, even in combat, soldiers are reluctant to kill.  A study of U.S. troops in the Second World War, for instance, found that roughly 80% of them refused to fire at the “enemy”.  Even though they were trained to kill, and were actually in combat, the majority either didn’t fire their weapons or aimed over the heads of their foes.

So much for the myth of alleged “innate” male aggression.

Horgan states that when armed conflict has erupted, it was a result of such factors as resource scarcity, power-hungry leaders, extreme nationalism, racism – and often a combination of such factors.

However, the author sometimes underestimates the role of economic factors as sources of conflict.  For instance, a strong case could be made that the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in large part due to the immense oil wealth in that part of the world, along with the hundreds of billions of dollars that flowed to what President Eisenhower called, “the military-industrial complex.”

In spite of this slaughter, which has killed up to a million people, (mostly innocent civilians), Horgan notes that there has been a “decline in war over the past half century”.  He attributes a significant part of this reduction to “the worldwide surge of democracy.”

Exactly.  The great majority of people overwhelmingly favour peaceful resolutions of disputes.  The more weight that public opinion carries, the lower the chances that those in power will be able to get away with starting wars (or, in the case of Canada, dragging us into Bush’s invasion of Iraq, as Stephen Harper wanted to do).

Social psychologists like Phillip Zimbardo have convincingly demonstrated (in “The Lucifer Effect”, for instance), that the most critical factor shaping human behaviour, including genocide and war crimes, is the environment in which people find themselves.  For the most part, these situations are constructed by those who control the “systems of power” in that society.

As Horgan observes, “some people – chiefs, pharaohs, kings, emperors, autocrats, presidents, and warlords” have been able to create situations which led to war.  Hence, as power becomes de-centralized in a democracy, one can expect that number of senseless wars should decrease.

Indeed, the author writes that, around the world, “people are choosing peace over war”, and urges his readers to become active in the process of, “slashing our bloated military, abolishing arms sales to other countries, and getting rid of our nuclear arsenal.”

During the Cold War, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell issued a similar call, and concluded that, above all, we should, “remember our humanity.”

That lesson is just as important today, as we cannot count on another Stanislav Petrov to save us the next time.  It’s up to us.



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The THE END OF WAR by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.

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March 17th, 2013 at 2:54 am

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