The New York Times loves the latest war-is-good-for-you book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan. The book fits into the growing and exclusively U.S. genre that includes Ian Morris’s War: What Is It Good For? Conflict and Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (Morris came to the U.S. from the U.K. decades ago) and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military.
According to Morris, the only way to make peace is to make large societies, and the only way to make large societies is through war. And when a society is large enough it can figure out how to ignore all the wars it is waging and achieve bliss. “Interstate wars” Morris claims, with no evidence and no footnotes, have “almost disappeared.” See there? Ignored effectively! Also vanishing from the globe, according to Morris: wealth inequality! Also there is no climate crisis worth worrying over. Plus nuclear weapons can’t kill us all anymore — but Iran endangers us all by building them — however, missile “defense” works! All this terrific news is dampened a little by Morris’ guarantee that World War III is just around the corner — unless you gain the understanding that that is a good thing — which perhaps you will when, as Morris forecasts, computer programmers meld all of our minds into one.
According to celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, because 17th century Europe invested in science by investing in warfare, therefore only through militarism can any culture advance, and therefore — conveniently enough — astrophysicists are 100% justified in working for the Pentagon and taking credit for dreaming up a military weaponry “Space Force.”
Among those who knew better in a less war-mad era was Carl Sagan. But nutty and self-justifying as this new genre might be, you’d never question it at all if you only heard about it second-hand through fawning U.S. corporate media and academia and the institutions that give out book awards.
In Teddy Roosevelt’s day war was good for us because it built up the race and speeded the eradication of the inferior races. Those reasons why war is good for us are no longer deemed acceptable, but new ones are being substituted that are exactly as ludicrous — and they are given exactly as much respect as the old ones used to be, at least in the United States.
Margaret MacMillan’s book is not quite as goofy as Ian Morris’s, but that’s because most of the book is filler. A fraction of the book makes the war-is-good-for-us case. The rest just piles super-brief anecdotes into themed sections superficially presenting every war-related topic under the sun, mostly with no connection to making any argument, and with any controversial topics presented in an extravaganza of bothsidesism run amok. Is Rousseau or Hobbes right about “human nature”? Yes! Is Steven Pinker right or wrong that war is vanishing even though the facts say just the opposite? Yes!
Not a single one of these books touches on the powers of nonviolent action. In this genre, as in U.S. “news” “coverage,” to engage in mass-slaughter is to “do something.” The alternative is to “do nothing.” Not a single one of these books examines the deadly economic trade-offs, the billions of lives that could be benefitted by reducing war spending, the climate damage of the war industry, the justification of government secrecy, the erosion of rights, the spread of hatred, or even — in any serious way — the deaths and injuries created by war.
MacMillan purports to tell a society absolutely saturated in war culture (and a readership she can predictably count on to lap up page after page of war fascination with no particular point to it) that . . . wait for it . . . war is important. Soaring over this inch-high hurdle, MacMillan still manages to go astray by mistaking Western or even U.S. society for “humanity.” When China invests in major projects despite not waging any wars, we are apparently supposed to think that Chinese people are not human, because according to MacMillan only war concentrates people’s attention enough for them to accomplish anything major.
MacMillan is here to save us from the danger of war being left out of the study of history — an odd threat in a land where history texts are generally dominated by war after war, and war monuments dot the landscape. Not only is war important, MacMillan reveals to us, but it is the path to education and unemployment insurance as well as to the “stories” that nations supposedly require if they are to be “cohesive.”
MacMillan mixes ancient myth with fiction with historical account — all of which, I guess, count as stories. But she puts everything into the present tense and claims to be establishing permanent laws. “[B]orders have been set by war.” “[W]ar has also brought progress and change . . . greater law and order, . . . more democracy, social benefits, improved education, changes in the position of women or labor, advances in medicine, science, and technology.” MacMillan approvingly quotes another writer claiming that war is not just a crime, “it is also the punishment of a crime.” Larger nations, MacMillan tells us, like Morris, “are often the result of war.” Following tales of various ancient empires, MacMillan tells us that “great powers” “provide a minimum of security and stability.” After accounts of wars, all from over a century ago, MacMillan tells us that the world “reverts surprisingly easily to Hobbes’s state of anarchy.”
But wars are not creating many borders and haven’t in almost a century. Wars are not creating anything of value that couldn’t have been produced better without wars. That Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks that only by making a project about war can he get it funded by the U.S. government is not a comment on humanity, but on the U.S. government and on Neil deGrasse Tyson. War has not been defensible as punishment of a crime for nearly a century. The European Union was not formed by war but to avoid it. No “powers,” whether “great” or otherwise, fail to provide a minimum of security, but ancient imperial butchers haven’t provided anyone with anything since ancient times.
I don’t think MacMillan would tell you that Chinese people are not human. But listen to this all-too-familiar-if-grotesquely-genocidal assertion from her book: “The American Civil War probably had more casualties than all other American wars combined.” If Native Americans and Filipinos and Koreans and Germans and Vietnamese and Iraqis and Afghans and so on and so forth are human, why can they never be counted as casualties? Why does MacMillan claim that the United States only started attacking outside its borders at the end of the nineteenth century if Native Americans were/are human beings? Why does she claim that a war “almost accidentally” “gave” the United States the Philippines, if the huge numbers of people the United States had to murder in order to take the Philippines were people? Why is the U.S.-led destruction of Iraq presented as a strategically flawed operation? Is that how MacMillan would present the Iraqi destruction of the United States? Why does she claim that the world now has religious wars without naming one or explaining the claim?
Wars, like the war on Iraq, MacMillan claims, take on their own momentum. Yet 535 members of the U.S. Congress could choose to end any war at any moment and consistently choose not to. Human agency is missing from yet another book written by a human.
War, the entire institution, MacMillan wants us to suppose, takes on a life of its own. How so? Well, MacMillan tells us that “the evidence seems to be on the side” of those who claim that humans have made war “as far back as we can tell.” How far back can we tell? Who knows! The book cites exactly no evidence and contains — count them! — zero footnotes. Of course, the idea that war has always been around and always will be is common U.S. opinion, which is presumably why it can be presented with no evidence even when it’s presented as a radical breakthrough.
MacMillan admits that humans have been around for 350,000 years while claiming that war “became more systematic” 10,000 years ago, and claiming that unspecified evidence shows that humans made weapons as early as “the later Stone Age” — which we might quantify as 5,000 years ago or so (she gives us no number). All of this adds up to a claim that some humans have sometimes done something somewhat resembling the warfare of some centuries ago for some 3% of their time on earth and possibly much longer sort of.
We know from the writings of people like Douglas Fry that a case can be made, citing specific examples, that there have been societies in recent times that knew no war and that most of humanity’s existence through pre-history was without war. It’s hard to weigh that case against an argument that cites no evidence. We know from looking around that over 90% of humanity is governed right now by states that invest radically less in war than does the United States. We know that there is very little overlap between the places with the wars — and generally blamed for the wars — and the places creating and exporting the weapons — an industry oddly absent from these books. We know that greed and self-defense and childish emotions can’t explain wars, as MacMillan tells us, unless she can explain why the United States has so much more of those things than other countries, and unless she can explain away the evidence that building bases and stationing ships and preparing for wars is a primary cause of wars (see David Vine’s forthcoming book, The United States of War).
If the United States reduced its militarism to the average of other nations, in either absolute or per-capita terms, we would be well on our way to war abolition, and yet these U.S. books on the inevitability and benefits of war (and why must it be inevitable it we’re really going to believe in the benefits?) always seem to come back to that meaningless term of excuse, “human nature.” How can 4% of humanity define what is and must always be human?
The only nature of humans, as Jean-Paul Sartre tried to explain quite some time back now, is to be able to choose — which includes being able to make bad choices and invent excuses for doing so. Let’s suppose that everything the war lovers tell us is so. Let’s suppose that war has been around a lot more and a lot longer than anyone has ever imagined. Let’s suppose that violent chimps are our step brothers and sisters while amorous bonobos are all secretly evil. Let’s suppose that nonviolence has never worked. Let’s suppose that nobody has ever bothered to do anything or invent anything or think anything except as part of a war.
I’m sorry, but why would I care if all of those things were true? How would you get me to care? If I can choose not to eat or make love or breathe, how are you going to convince me that I cannot choose to work for the abolition of war? And if I can work for the abolition of war, why can’t everyone?
There is no reason, of course, that everyone can’t. There is just suggestion, just muddled mythology, just propaganda.
2 thoughts on “Unique New U.S. Genre Emerges: The War-Is-Good-for-You Book”
Profoundly well stated, David. This essay should be required reading by everyone, especially students. The violence of war is fed to them as exciting, as pleasurable energetic activity, when a far richer pleasure could be obtained by setting real, worthwhile goals of building, improving, solving great problems with intelligence, creating beautiful and useful things that would make all life better. We should be smarter than chimps. We could be collaborating and pooling our knowledge to repair the planet and make productive work available to all. We should stop worrying about who has more money and measure instead what we can accomplish in building a more sustainable world–learn the sciences, create the arts, appreciate our differentnesses, earn our deserved rewards, celebrate others’ greatness and encourage the more modest towards their best. Learn not to waste either people or the world’s resources. Let us make having war unthinkable. Thank you for all that you’ve done and are doing towards that goal.
— Kate Jones
Thank you David Swanson. I read professor Macmillan’s summary of her upcoming book in the book review section of the Oct. 2, 2020 Wall Street Journal. McMillan can be found in videos posted on youtube. Her expertise is in how World War I got started, and she has a book on the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Inevitably, her book becomes a another book explanining that, hey, war is ugly and tragic, but you know what? War has actually brought us so many wonderful things in our lives!! So, don’t knock war. Don’t dismiss war. Preposterous. Thank you so much David Swanson!