Prospects for Peace on Earth

This time of year is ideal for reflecting on the miracle of Christmas 1914, that famous temporary truce and friendship between opposing sides in the midst of a war. Here was a new type of slaughter confronted with a new type of humanism, the leading edges of two opposing trends.

An op-ed in the New York Times last week by Steven Pinker and Joshua Goldstein argues that peace, rather than war, was the dominant development, and that over the millennia, centuries, decades, and right up to this moment, “War Really Is Going Out of Style.”

Of course, war can potentially be eliminated, and that is already a very valuable point to be making. War isn’t in our genes. We aren’t doomed to always have it with us. Even more valuable would be a successful argument that all types of violence have been decreasing, including war. That is the argument Pinker attempts, with — I think — great but less complete success than he imagines, in his new book “The Better Angels of Our Nature.”

In the book, Pinker writes: “When I surveyed perceptions of violence in an Internet questionnaire, people guessed that 20th century England was about 14 percent more violent than 14th century England. In fact it was 95 percent less violent.” I’m not sure that’s the right number, but I am sure Pinker has the two centuries ranked correctly, as long as deaths are considered as a proportion of the population. Pinker even has the answer that Michael Moore never found in “Bowling for Columbine” to the question of why the United States is more murderous than some other countries:

“In Europe, first the state disarmed the people and claimed a monopoly on violence, then the people took over the apparatus of the state. In America, the people took over the state before it had forced them to lay down their arms — which, as the Second Amendment famously affirms, they reserve the right to keep and bear. In other words, Americans, and especially Americans in the South and West, never fully signed onto a social contract that would vest the government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. . . . Canadians kill at less than a third the rate of Americans, partly because in the 19th century the Mounties got to the western frontier before the settlers and spared them from having to cultivate a violent code of honor.”

Robert Koehler responded this week to the two professors’ op-ed:

“Their premise is that, despite appearances to the contrary, history is in the process of declaring war obsolete. This is an achingly slow process, with lots of backsliding, but trust us, they say, wealth now emanates more from trade than the control of land, and war only hurts trade. As prosperity increases and central governments grow stronger, War, the Apocalyptic horseman with the human face, rides off into the sunset. While I agree with their historical assessment, I take issue with their implicit contentment to sit back, enjoy the prosperity, and let large, impersonal social forces do the job of eliminating war. I also disagree that trade itself has no use for war — not when we have a military-industrial economy that is committed to fresh wars against whomever or whatever looms next as a convenient enemy.”

Actually, Pinker, in his book, does not argue that we’re in a brief period of backsliding during a longer trend of decreasing violence. He argues that there is less violence even in the most recent decades and years and that our current wars are ever less damaging. He also does not recommend sitting back. He declares it not to be his job to make any recommendations one way or another. Yet he describes the likely causes of reduced violence as involving a great deal of intentional effort and activism by those opposed to violence. By Pinker’s analysis, we reduce violence by creating better societies, stronger and more reliable government, open commerce, equal rights for women, equal rights for minorities, and greater moral and scientific education. After nearly 700 pages of scientistic graphs, analyses, and searches for “exogenous forces,” Pinker arrives at conclusions that are very easily translated into activism.

That hasn’t stopped people emailing to inform me that if I would only read Pinker’s book I would understand that peace activism will get us all killed. I can’t find that in Pinker’s book, but I also can’t find any indication that Pinker has ever had a conversation with a U.S. peace activist. Pinker clearly comes from a different perspective. Koehler’s point, which was also President Dwight Eisenhower’s, and which is almost universally believed by peace activists, namely that the military industrial complex creates its own momentum for war, is just not considered by Pinker, not deemed worthy of even a mention. The closest Pinker comes to that topic is when he looks at the broad sweep of history and concludes that new weapons development does not increase or reduce deaths through warfare:

“The spears and arrows of pre-state peoples notched up higher proportional body counts than has anything since.”

But spears and arrows would not play well on CNN. Our (limited) moral development may permit us only warfare with particular types of weapons, the elimination of which would make war less likely. And there are many documented cases of weapons having been used to murderous effect in large part in order to test or demonstrate those weapons. That we put a majority of our public treasure (of federal discretionary spending) into war preparation, or that weapons are one of the United States’ top, if not the very top, exports, going to over 100 other countries: none of this is noted by Pinker, who clearly must deem it irrelevant. In a 696-page tome that finds room for the umpteenth rendition of “What is the Prisoner’s Dilemma?,” and the single-most-quoted passage from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and all variety of lengthy — if often brilliant — discussions of tangential topics, whatever is missing is missing for a reason.

What’s there, in Pinker’s book, is in large part a reassuring case (if you find it reassuring) that the past was even worse than the present. All forms of violence, apparently connected one to another just as advocates for a Department of Peace have been arguing for years, have been diminishing: murder, capital punishment, rape, torture, lynching, infanticide, spousal abuse, child abuse, fist fighting, bullying, cruelty to animals, genocide, and — at least by some measures (which I’ll come to) — war. Also there, in Pinker’s book, is a solid, if familiar, case that present fears are overblown, that terrorism and child abduction are extremely rare relative to countless other dangers that never disturb our sleep.

The practices that have been reduced (rape, torture, etc.) have been criminalized and stigmatized. This includes war, which Pinker is right to note was renounced by international treaty in 1928. But in 1928 opposing war was completely mainstream in the United States. Senators and bankers and university presidents and robber barons argued for outlawing it. The National League of Women Voters, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the National Association of Parents and Teachers, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, and the American Legion backed the Outlawry movement. They succeeded and put the Kellogg-Briand Pact on the books. Can you imagine any of those groups supporting a ban on war today even with the ban already in place? Of course not. War was in the 1920s considered a pastime of backward Europeans. War is now the primary function of the U.S. government. This development is absent from Pinker’s book. The idea of a Department of Peace being created and given real power is unthinkable in the immediate future, except in most countries other than the United States.

Perhaps Pinker is still rebelling against Noam Chomsky, whose linguistic Platonism he debunked in his earlier book “The Language Instinct.” For whatever reason, Pinker avoids any serious criticism of the one country that now spends roughly as much on war as the rest of the world combined. Pinker repeatedly examines statistics on the history of large numbers of nations, ignoring the existence of our own very exceptional state. Democratic, free-trading nations with membership in international bodies are unlikely war makers, Pinker finds. But what about that one particular nation that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously called the greatest purveyor of violence in the world?

Poor nations and Muslim nations are more likely locations for wars, Pinker notes without indicating any awareness that wealthy nations sometimes attack them and other times arm and fund their dictators. Also likely countries to make war are those with ideologies, Pinker tells us. (As everyone knows, the United States has no ideology.) “The three deadliest postwar conflicts,” Pinker writes, “were fueled by Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese communist regimes that had a fanatical dedication to outlasting their opponents.” Pinker goes on to blame the high death rate in Vietnam on the willingness of the Vietnamese to die in large numbers rather than surrender. The current U.S. war on Iraq ended, in Pinker’s view, when President George W. Bush declared mission accomplished, since which point it has been a civil war, and therefore the causes of that civil war can be analyzed in terms of the shortcomings of Iraqi society. “[I]t is so hard,” Pinker complains, “to impose liberal democracy on countries in the developing world that have not outgrown their superstitions, warlords, and feuding tribes.” Indeed it is, but where is the evidence that the United States government has been attempting it?

Early in the book, Pinker presents a pair of charts aimed at showing that, proportionate to population, wars have killed more prehistoric and hunter-gatherer people than people in modern states. None of the prehistoric tribes listed go back earlier than 14,000 BCE, meaning that the vast majority of human existence is left out. And these charts list individual tribes and states, not pairs or groups of them that fought in wars. So the deaths counted from recent U.S. wars are only U.S. deaths. Here one really begins to get the impression that Pinker hasn’t met a peace activist. We don’t object to slaughtering Vietnamese or Iraqis because U.S. troops die in the process or because the death count is greater than in past wars. We are opposed to killing human beings, and to killing them in huge numbers in the countries where our government does it. The death counts in Vietnam and Iraq have been significant percentages of those nations’ populations, regardless of the fact that the world as a whole contains many more people than it used to. Pinker at one point does note that a war in Paraguay in the 19th century killed more of Paraguay’s population than perhaps any other war anywhere else, but he looks at all other wars in terms of the globe’s population or the population of the wealthy nation that launches the war on a poor one. When Pinker finally mentions Vietnamese deaths over 100 pages later it is purely to make the death count in the latest war in Afghanistan look good by comparison. But peace activists oppose wars because we have developed the very moral outlook that Pinker credits with reducing war and violence. Measuring war deaths without including most of the victims throws up a barrier between Pinker’s argument and those who should be most interested. That doesn’t mean the numbers aren’t there to make Pinker’s case. It means he’s viewing them in a way that may look offensive to opponents of war.

Whether looking at U.S. deaths or deaths among the population the United States is liberating from this world, Pinker argues against counting indirect or delayed deaths as too difficult. So the U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam get counted, but the greater numbers killed more slowly by Agent Orange or PTSD do not get counted. Similarly, many Vietnamese died too slowly to be counted. I’m not sure spears and arrows had the same delayed effects as Agent Orange. U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan get counted, but the greater number who die a bit later from injuries or suicide don’t. Pinker dismisses a large body of evidence that in numerous wars prior to and including World War II the majority of soldiers did not fire their weapons at the enemy, and that soldiers today are carefully conditioned to do so unthinkingly. This, combined with medical advances that aid survival, is one reason so many veterans of our current wars suffer so severely from the strain of living with what they have done. A good book on the topic, “On Killing” by Dave Grossman, depicts military training very differently from how Pinker depicts it.

Blood makes the grass grow
Marines make the blood flow
Semper fi do or die ooorah!

Pinker depicts the conduct of U.S. troops during Iraq’s “civil war” by quoting more enlightened Marine Corps training materials than what Marines will tell you they’ve been trained in, and not by citing actual behavior or the experiences of actual trainees.

Not only do victims of “civil wars” get recategorized (and the most credible estimates of Iraqi deaths reduced to a single study and that study unconvincingly dismissed), but those who die later from depleted uranium, white phosphorous, or other poisoning fit no category, and millions of refugees struggling in life-shortening conditions are overlooked. The victims of weapons testing do not appear. The environmental destruction to which war is such a huge contributor is not weighed against our supposed reduction in cruelty to animals. It’s a glass-half-full world. Yet, as long as Pinker is measuring past wars in the same limited manner, he is saying something important about our progress thus far and our potential to continue progressing. The case is just not quite as strong as Pinker wants it to be.

When it comes to ranking specific wars for population-adjusted death toll, even by Pinker’s methods, he has a hard time finding a war worse than World War II. Pinker reproduces a somewhat varied version of a chart also available online. The chart in the book ranks eight events ahead of World War II on the list of “The 20 Worst Things People Have Done to Each Other.” Five of the eight are events that took place over multiple centuries, and the other three are all from centuries ago in China or Mongolia. This is where we get into backtracking on a positive trend. Pinker argues persuasively that violence, including war, has been decreasing in Europe for centuries, excepting outbursts like the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, and the two world wars. Pinker calls the period since World War II “The Long Peace.” This does not mean we have to stop thinking of World War II as the worst isolated thing that we (humanity) have done to ourselves, or at least as one of the top five. And if you consider the permanent war footing that World War II left behind in Washington, D.C., then the destruction wreaked by that event leaps into an easy lead.

Pinker claims that no developed country has expanded its territory by conquering another since the late 1940s. He might have added that non-recognition of conquered territory began in 1929 with the Kellogg-Briand Pact. But something else advanced in the late 1940s and has been growing ever since, namely the coating of the globe with U.S. military bases, currently numbering nearly 1,000 in some 150 countries, including places like Diego Garcia where the entire population was forcibly removed by the United Kingdom, whether or not that counts as conquest (I have a hard time seeing why it shouldn’t).

One page after discussing Iraq War lies, Pinker dismisses the idea of resource wars without suspecting that we may have already seen some and that wars may have more than a single motivation. Pinker is unconcerned that global warming could lead to wars through pressure on resources or immigration. Rising economic inequality is also not a serious threat to peace in Pinker’s view. Pinker is even less disturbed by nuclear proliferation. He doesn’t take time to consider the number of near misses or the growing possibility that an accident or misunderstanding or fit of rage will launch a nuclear weapon. There’s no mention of the depleted uranium weapons already used, the “tactical” nukes developed, and the first-strike policy adopted by the United States. Pinker acknowledges the danger only in a very glass-half-full kind of way:

“If one were to calculate the amount of destruction that nations have actually perpetrated as a proportion of how much they could perpetrate, given the destructive capacity available to them, the postwar decades would be many orders of magnitude more peaceable than any time in history.”

Pinker, it turns out, is a fan of nuclear energy, even though nuclear energy facilities enable the spread of nuclear weaponry. He falsely claims that the Three Mile Island accident killed no one and that the use of nuclear power could reduce global warming, which appears to be mistaken. (Pinker also unquestioningly accepts the U.S. government’s story of who caused the 2001 anthrax attacks.)

Nuclear apocalypse and global warming are dismissed by Pinker as irrelevant to his optimistic calculations. But one reason that people may believe our own times are more, rather than less, violent than the past could be our awareness of the possibility of total destruction, even though it will remain only a possibility until that moment when and if it happens.

Pinker’s analysis of cultural trends rendering us less supportive of war making is powerful. But it lacks any consideration of the degree to which governments that make war represent the will of their people. Also missing is a thorough treatment of the motivations of those powerful individuals who actually choose war. While the people of the United States have been moving away from violence, our government has been continuing wars opposed by the majority of us in polls. Some of these wars have been planned for years and even marketed to us for years with skillful propaganda. It is a stretch to assume that these wars are made because the bureaucrats manipulating the country into them lack self-control, a diagnosis Pinker makes of people who tend to be violent.

So, I am inclined to agree with the prescription Pinker’s book suggests, but does not make, as long as I can add to it. Yes we must educate and develop a strong democratic society. But it should be truly democratic, or at least representative. Free trade need not be corporate trade, and political campaigns need not be among its commodities. Weapons need not be its leading export, but something else could be. Pinker never quite gets around to the fact that a more successful as well as less violent alternative has been found to war in the form of nonviolent action. That is an area for investment. War can be understood as archaic in the context of its replacement. Pinker notes that ridicule was the powerful force most responsible for ending duelling. War could use some good ridicule right about now.

What should we make of the “end” of the war on Iraq? Well, the congressional authorization is being kept in place and transformed into an authorization for war anywhere forever. Drone strikes, bombing campaigns, and kidnappings may bring lower death rates, at least until there’s blowback. But legally, to the extent that any of this is legal, the Iraq War is not ending. Thousands of State Department mercenaries are remaining in Iraq, and the U.S. Army has just hired mercenaries with a no-bid contract for an unknown amount to escort convoys through Iraq. Meanwhile, troops are on stand-by in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and U.A.E. So, the “ending” of the war is limited. It’s also ending despite everything President Obama had it in his power to do, not because of anything he’s done since taking office. And it’s ending in part because the exposure by whistleblowers of what this war has been resulted in the Iraqi government refusing legal immunity from criminal prosecution to U.S. forces that stayed.

And yet, nonetheless, most of those forces have indeed left. Iraq remains a devastated nation at risk, but to a greater extent Iraqis will have the chance now to fail or succeed on their own, something a majority of them have wanted for years.

As war is transformed by robots as well as evolving cultural norms, might the Iraq War be the last war of its type, ever, as Pinker and Goldstein suggest it might be? Well, there’s one other similar war still not ended. Our first step should be to stop the war on Christmas: cease fire in Afghanistan!

Beyond that, all we can say for sure, I think, is that eternal vigilance will make the end of war more likely.



David Swanson is the author of “When the World Outlawed War,” “War Is A Lie” and “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union.” He blogs at and and works for the online activist organizations and

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.