Book Summaries History Politics

Ch 5: The Long Peace (The Better Angels Of Our Nature)

If we assume that World War 2 was the most destructive event in history, it doesn’t tell us anything about the trends of in war and peace.

Pinker rejects that epochs of war are cyclical (a common suggestion) or Toynbee’s suggestion that WWII was a step in an escalating staircase.

Like many depressing prospects, both models have spawned some black humor. I am often asked if I’ve heard the one about the man who fell off the roof of an office building and shouted to the workers on each floor, “So far so good!” I have also been told (several times) about the turkey who, on the eve of Thanksgiving, remarked on the extraordinary 364-day era of peace between farmers and turkeys he is lucky enough to be living in.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

But Pinker does not take these objections too seriously. He considers the possibility that WWII was a fluke event.

The long-term trajectory of war, in reality, is likely to be a superimposition of several trends.
We all know that patterns in other complex sequences, such as the weather, are a composite of several curves: the cyclical rhythm of the seasons, the randomness of daily fluctuations, the longterm trend of global warming. The goal of this chapter is to identify the components of the longterm trends in wars between states. I will try to persuade you that they are as follows:
• No cycles.• A big dose of randomness.• An escalation, recently reversed, in the destructiveness of war.• Declines in every other dimension of war, and thus in interstate war as a whole.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

The mistake humans are prone to doing is to read into data what they believe.  

The twentieth century is said to be the bloodiest in history, but the population at the time, was also the largest.

The population of the world in 1950 was 2.5 billion, which is about two and a half times the population in 1800, four and a half times that in 1600, seven times that in 1300, and fifteen times that of 1 CE. So the death count of a war in 1600, for instance, would have to be multiplied by 4.5 for us to compare its destructiveness to those in the middle of the 20th century.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

There is also something called the availability heuristic that explains our illusion of historical myopia. The easier it is to recall examples of an event; the more probable people think it is. That is why people overestimate the likelihood of accidents that make headlines like shark attacks and terrorist bombings but underestimate events that go under the radar like electrocution and drownings.

Pinker then argues that Princip was the man who sparked World War I, through a series of highly unlikely events. And the same can be said about Hitler, who sparked World War II. Hitler could have easily died or pursued an art career.

Pinker then goes on to explain normal curves, power laws, and the war of attrition, before finding a peculiar development that interrupted the long peace in Europe. War was seen as a cleansing therapy for the effeminacy and materialism of bourgeois society. Today this idea seems mad, but in that era, writers gushed about it.

War almost always enlarges the mind of a people and raises their character.—Alexis de Tocqueville

[War is] life itself…. We must eat and be eaten so that the world might live. It is only warlike nations which have prospered: a nation dies as soon as it disarms.—Émile Zola

The grandeur of war lies in the utter annihilation of puny man in the great conception of the State, and it brings out the full magnificence of the sacrifice of fellow-countrymen for one another… the love, the friendliness, and the strength of that mutual sentiment.—Heinrich von Treitschke

When I tell you that war is the foundation of all the arts, I mean also that it is the foundation of all the high virtues and faculties of man.—John Ruskin

Wars are terrible, but necessary, for they save the State from social petrifaction and stagnation.— Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

[War is] a purging and a liberation.—Thomas Mann

War is necessary for human progress.—Igor Stravinsky

Peace was seen as an unpleasant dream. Without war, the world would wallow in materialism (von Moltke).

Nietzsche agreed, “it is mere illusion and pretty sentiment to expect much (even anything at all) from mankind if it forgets how to make war.”

According to the British historian J. A. Cramb, peace would mean “a world sunk in bovine content… a nightmare which shall be realized only when the ice has crept to the heart of the sun, and the stars, left black and trackless, start from their orbits.”

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

Finally, William James said about war:

Its “horrors” are a cheap price to pay for rescue from the only alternative supposed, of a world of clerks and teachers, of co-education and zo-ophily, of “consumer’s leagues” and “associated charities,” of industrialism unlimited, and feminism unabashed. No scorn, no hardness, no valor any more! Fie upon such a cattleyard of a planet! But then he conceded that “we must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built.”

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

He proposed a program of compulsory national service where the youth would be drafted off to get the childishness knocked out of them in coal mines, foundries, fishing vessels, and construction sites.

Things changed after World War II. The US did not respond with force to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, or the takeover of the American embassy in Iran that same year.

Jimmy Carter said, “I could have destroyed Iran with my weaponry, but I felt in the process it was likely that the hostages’ lives would be lost, and I didn’t want to kill 20,000 Iranians. So I didn’t attack.”

Some hawks saw this as wimpy, but Reagan was just as peaceful in the 1983 bombing of American forces in Beirut, or when Iraqi jet fighters killed 37 sailors on USS Stark.

The most consequential discounting of honor in history was the resolution of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy and Khrushchev had plenty of reasons to strike first. But both knew better.

Kennedy had read Tuchman’s The Guns of August, a history of World War I, and knew that an international game of chicken driven by “personal complexes of inferiority and grandeur” could lead to a cataclysm. Robert Kennedy, in a memoir on the crisis, recalled:
Neither side wanted war over Cuba, we agreed, but it was possible that either side could take a step that—for reasons of “security” or “pride” or “face”—would require a response by the other side, which, in turn, for the same reasons of security, pride, or face, would bring about a counterresponse and eventually an escalation into armed conflict. That was what he wanted to avoid.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

Khrushchev’s wisecrack about the czarist officer shows that he too was cognizant of the psychology of honor, and he had a similar intuitive sense of game theory. During a tense moment in the crisis, he offered Kennedy this analysis:
You and I should not now pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied a knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter this knot will become. And a time may come when this knot is tied so tight that the person who tied it is no longer capable of untying it, and then the knot will have to be cut.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

The knot was untied through mutual concessions.

Why did World War III not happen? One answer that many people think is obvious is: the nuclear bomb. The prospect of war had become too dangerous to contemplate. As Churchill said in his last speech to Parliament, “It may well be that we shall by a process of sublime irony have reached a stage in this story where safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.”

Read The Better Angels Of Our Nature

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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