What We Talk About When We Talk About War

Yesterday I read Cormac McCarthy’s wonderful 2006 novel, The Road. The book tells the story of an unnamed man and his son, as they move through an apocalyptic landscape in the hope of finding a safer place to live. McCarthy doesn’t specify the nature of the apocalypse, although nuclear war is strongly hinted at. The pair face a range of horrors, from marauding gangs to cannibals to the simple impossibility of surviving on the face of a dead Earth. The action of the novel is simply their persistent efforts to sustain life and the will to survive.

A nuclear apocalypse is something we see as solidly in the realm of somewhat antiquated science fiction. The Fallout series of video games is set in a “retrofuturistic” future, that is, a future as imagined from the 1950s, and takes as its central premise a central anxiety of that decade, nuclear war. We are now occasionally treated to declassified government plans for dealing with such a catastrophe, such as the recent declassification of a speech written for Elizabeth II in the event of nuclear war. Such artifacts are treated as relics of the past, reminding us of fears now allayed. Now instead of The Day After, the 1983 TV movie on the aftermath of a nuclear war, we fret about biotechnology in Rise of the Planet of the Apes or climatological catastrophes in 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow. But the demons of the past are not dead.

According to the Arms Control Association, nearly 14,000 nuclear weapons exist in the world today, including more than 3,000 at this moment sitting atop missiles ready for launch. These weapons are a mortal threat to every man, woman, and child on this planet. At any moment, everything we have built, all our art and science, all our lives and all our loved ones, could be snuffed out at the whim of a politician, or even more chillingly, by accident.

The history of nuclear near-misses is well worth examining, but during this centennial year of the outbreak of the Great War, the whims of politicians deserve our focus. For all their careful pretense of competence, history reveals that the great statesmen are as inept at war and peace as they are at running the DMV. During the July Crisis of 1914, the wise statesmen of Europe each entirely misjudged the others and stumbled blindly into a catastrophic war. A minor crisis in a comparatively obscure (to the West) corner of Europe became, by stumbles and errors, a cataclysm.

Last summer, a war between the United States and its allies in Western Europe and Syria, a Russian ally hosting a small Russian military base, was narrowly averted. At this moment, Russia and the West are jockeying for influence and control over Ukraine, and shots have already been fired in Slovyansk. Our leaders have confidently unleashed war on Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Pakistan just over the last ten years, and casually discuss possibly attacking Iran and Syria while aggressively “confronting” Russia today. When we talk about war, we gamble with the end of our civilization. Such an end seems remote now, just as a world war seemed to most Europeans in July, 1914. But the missiles are still armed. If one crisis runs out of control, if one of these eminently fallible politicians feels cornered or spiteful or just like his bluff won’t be called, everything we have built in the West since the last time we inadvertently destroyed our own civilization in the middle of the first millennium of the Common Era could be lost, to say nothing of the millennia-old civilizations of Asia and Africa.

The end of a civilization is a difficult thing to contemplate. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road does an excellent job, as does the aforementioned Fallout series. But for a more concrete example, Bryan Ward-Perkins’s The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization is superb. While much recent scholarship, following Peter Brown’s classic The World of Late Antiquity, has emphasized continuities between classical antiquity and the medieval world that followed, Ward-Perkins emphasizes the human costs of the collapse of classical Mediterranean civilization. The disintegration of trade networks and the concomitant collapse of the division of labor led to a dramatic decline in quality of life as well as population levels- in less antiseptic terms, mass suffering and death. Progress in the West was set back dramatically; a thousand years would pass before Europeans could build anything like the Pantheon and nearly two thousand before medicine surpassed the achievements of the Greeks and Romans. Countless works of art, literature, philosophy, science and mathematics were lost, as well as much priceless practical knowledge- clean, fresh water would not become a regular feature of urban life in Europe again for centuries.

When the politicians and their media minions begin to bloviate about the need for “resolve,” for “action,” they are betting everything we as a species have achieved on their latest pet concern. Many terrible things are happening and will happen around the world. But whenever any nation, especially a great power, bares its teeth at another, we hope that this latest crisis du jour won’t be the last thing we get to fret about over a printed newspaper or a tablet screen. The end of everything is what we talk about when we talk about war.

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