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Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars? Dennis Erwin of Purlieu Responds

(For the last few weeks, On Violence, inspired by John Horgan and Radiolab, crowd sourced the question, “Will humans ever stop fighting wars?” to our readers. Today’s entry comes from Dennis Erwin, co-editor of the Philosophical Journal Purlieu. with what he calls “An amateur’s opinion on the Changing Nature of Conflict”. Feel free to drop us your response in the comment section, on twitter or by email.)

Most definitions of ‘war’ include “open armed conflict between countries or between factions within the same country” as well as the broader “any active hostility, contention, or struggle.” An answer to your question must first determine the usage of the term, and whether one, or both of these definitions may be addressed. The former definition, of war among nation-states, is obviously too narrow to apply to the last decade, and while the latter, second definition is much broader, it too fails to carefully explicate the myriad uses of ‘war’  in such phrases as ‘the war on terror’, the ‘war on drugs’, or the ‘Cold War.’

President Bush, on the September 20, 2001 address to the joint session of congress, stated, “On September 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country.” And then, shortly after,

The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them. Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated. (Italics mine)

Much has already been written and discussed on the possible misuse of ‘war’ in these two statements, and the change between the President’s idea of ‘war’ and ‘war’ as defined by Webster’s is obvious. The 9/11 terrorist did not represent states, or political ideals, nor were their actions declarations of war, classically construed, for it is impossible for their actions, on their own, to usurp the social structure of the United States. Michael Ignatieff discusses this in his The Lesser Evil:

When political leaders declare a “war on terror,” they imply that terrorism poses a threat equivalent to war. Yet there is a world of difference between the threat posed by armed attack by another state and a terrorist incident . . . the attacks of September 11 did not endanger the social order of the United States or threaten its democracy with collapse. . . . [and] while September 11 is often compared to Pearl Harbor, Al Queda certainly has nothing like the resources of the Empire of Japan. (p. 54)

Despite my inclination to address the question of war as if the question was actually ‘on violence’ in general, I must insist on carefully defined terms, as many of the responses to your question have assumed, at least implicitly, the continued dominance of the nation-state. This assumption is seen in any Friedman-esque Democratic Peace Theory which argues that certain states become too financially/ economically intertwined with each other to go to war. Friedman’s “Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention” is rooted in the idea of statehood-representation, even though the last 10 years of war have been against an enemy whose national location is ancillary to their identity and operation. This is the “radical network” in President Bush’s speech and is why America’s operation to capture/ kill bin Laden in Pakistan can be excused as not having anything to do with Pakistan. This new war, beyond state boundaries against an enemy who has little to do with state, is better understood within the framework of more complex theories of globalization, such as those by Arjun Appadurai, who sees globalization as a trajectory beyond statehood, which renders ideas and definitions concerning war and peace even more convoluted.

Consider the recent laws passed in Europe: France’s ban on niqāb and burqa; the Swiss ban on Minarets; or even the continual and Western-specific ethnoreligious-political violence in Northern Ireland. While these examples do not contradict Friedman’s theory, they render it irrelevant. They are conflicts beyond political borders; they are cultural conflicts. To be at least as tongue-in-cheek as Friedman, the only thing standing between nation-states and Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations is a McDonald’s. Not very reassuring, and definitely not reason enough to dismiss war.

In answer to the question, ‘Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?’ my answer is, no. But nation-states might, and that will be something worth celebrating. However, the inextricable connection between limited resources, changing demographics, and differing conceptions of justice and the ‘good-life’ will inevitably lead to violent conflict amongst groups; it will lead to war.

I don’t believe my view is, as John Horgan argued in his Slate article, an immoral one. The recognition of the always-possible does not equate tacit acceptance. Rather, it can lead to preparedness and resoluteness. It can lead us to be on guard for movements toward conflict, and then to attempt to cease and resolve conflict before it becomes deadly. As historian and author Jan T. Gross said during a public lecture in reference to the atrocities of Nazi-occupied Poland, “Just because something happened, doesn’t mean it is less likely to happen again. It is more likely to happen again.” Conflict happens. That it does creates responsibility, not indifference.