Friday, March 14, 2014

If War Is the Answer, What Was the Question?

Christopher Coker, Can War Be Eliminated?
The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance.... In principle the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory over either Eurasia or East Asia, but to keep the very structure of society intact.
            —George Orwell
Like other war-weary eras before ours, we’ve begun seeking alternatives to violence to solve our global problems. And like prior eras, we’ve begun realizing, however dimly, that alternatives aren’t exactly forthcoming. Christopher Coker, professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, seems a likely candidate to ruminate on humanity’s future military options. But speaking as a guy who’s marched for peace, I find his prognosis rather worrisome.

Briefly, Coker answers his title question early, and often: war persists because war makes us human. I repeat myself, as Coker does: war makes us human. Seriously. Screw art, philosophy, science, religion, industry, or even cuisine. We become human by killing others into agreement. This argument might’ve needed less defense (though probably more than Coker offers) before two world wars and the spectre of nuclear extinction reframed the debate.

Don’t mistake me: Coker isn’t some crypto-fascist warmonger somehow immune to the Twentieth Century’s lingering lessons. He adroitly demonstrates how anti-war advocacy has produced slovenly thinking, particularly among New Agers and similar utopians. Abjuring war will require radically transforming human global politics and public morals, which will come only with great difficulty, even with violence. Global disarmament isn’t on our horizon. War will remain common for now, because it’s familiar.

Coker has many valid points. He astutely describes how war reproduces itself, through myths of valor and in-group identity, in human culture. And he rightly faults war’s opponents for failing to define peace as anything besides “not war.” If that’s all peace is, then peace cannot exist without wars to oppose. But Coker’s inarguably accurate points don’t excuse strange, overstated assertions that dedicated newshounds and part-time Quakers could dismantle.

Even in the very early pages, Coker makes sweeping, easily refuted errors of fact. For instance, pitching war as an ever-evolving force, Coker cites UN missions to Congo encountering rape as a “new” weapon in 2010. But Newsweek reported on Bosnian military rape tactics in 1993, and Edwidge Danticat described rape as a weapon of Haitian civil repression even earlier. One could perhaps cite Vikings as pioneers of militarized rape.

Likewise, Coker quotes Edward Luttwak quoting the old maxim: “If you want peace, prepare for war; if you actively want war, disarm yourself and then you’ll get it.” One wonders, then, why nobody attacks Costa Rica, which abolished its army in 1949. Costa Rica is so peaceful, the Organization of American States (OAS) centers its Inter-American Court of Human Rights there. Likewise, Panama and Haiti disbanded their armies, and military coups mysteriously ceased.

Coker might counter that smaller countries enjoy American and international military defense, and there’s something to that. But William Blum observes that America has been involved in a shooting conflict with someone, somewhere, continuously, since 1946; we took a brief breather after WWII and dove back in. Advanced civilizations cannot keep large standing armies, with expensive military technology, and not use them. They get rebellious.

Throughout, Coker repeatedly declares that because war exists, war should exist, QED. He asserts this in ways great and small, correlating it with human evolution, societal norms, and religious dogma. (Coker seems strangely obsessed with religion. The Prince of Peace might take issue.) Logicians call this approach “the naturalistic fallacy,” assuming that whatever exists is, ipso facto, good, or anyway normative. Tell that to land mine amputees.

I could continue, but laundry-listing Coker’s logical omissions gets wordy. I could scarcely savvy two pages in this mercifully brief monograph without encountering something so intellectually unsteady, it felt disrespectful. Coker never subjects his assertions to evidentiary testing; he rejects what Peter Elbow calls “The Believing Game,” never assessing his ideas by viewing them from the opposite perspective. This leaves his thesis appallingly vulnerable to frankly rudimentary counterargument.

As I write, world powers stand poised before a possible second Crimean War. Watching Vladimir Putin bait NATO into an unnecessary battle nobody could possibly win, I have difficulty believing this great global pissing contest is merely, as Coker asserts, “a product of the social complexity of life.” The exigencies of unfolding history, unencumbered by faux Darwinian jargon, conspire to spit in Christopher Coker’s eye.

Coker’s title implies he’ll investigate the debates surrounding a powerful, world-defining issue. But he essentially answers his own question in the preface: “No.” Then he spends about 110 pages (plus back matter) explaining why there is no debate. War is important enough to justify a broader, more even-handed discussion. Coker instead proffers a manifesto so lopsided and easily rebutted, informed readers will find it insulting.

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