Understanding the Nature of War

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Understanding the Nature of War

As a Critical Component in Our Pursuit of Peace

Seanan Holland



In this article, I mean to make the case that understanding the nature and causes of war is important to our pursuit of peace. Along the way, I will be in dialogue with our Statement of Conscience through historical, theoretical, and practical issues and examples.

Over the last year and a half, I have engaged in one of our CSAI on-line study groups. I have also participated in and led conversations about Peace, War, and Ministry at my seminary and in various churches.

In these discussions, it seems to me that perhaps I have a minority viewpoint. But more than that, I think speaking from my experience as a Marine has simply meant that I begin talking about peace, war, and ministry from a different starting place – the desired goal is not usually what sets me in the minority. The language, books, and experiences that I am familiar with from a previous career suggest this different starting place. When I speak about redeeming the maladies of human history – the maladies that have escalated to war - I tend to begin from within the notion of war.

I believe it is very important to have our goals and aspirations toward peace in front of us when we imagine a world where war is a rare occurrence. But I also believe that the relationship between war and peace obliges us to consider them hand in hand. We have to speak from a fuller understanding of how and why war has been such a prominent feature in human history. That war is a prominent feature of recent human history is probably not due to any lack of will on the part of those who strive for peace. And even though I have some disagreements with some of the theory of peace positions, I don’t think the prevalence of war is due to lack of rigor within peace theory. Rather there is a communication gap between the participants in war and the activists for peace – a gap that hinders the exchange of information that is important to both reconciling the causes of war and fostering the conditions of peace.

At least one significant influence on this gap is traceable in modern history. In the midst of the Reformation, and the ubiquitous violence that accompanied it, Erasmus of Rotterdam published a short book ironically titled, The Complaint of Peace. This and other of his writings have become part of the canon of modern peace theory and writing. Only two centuries later, Carl von Clausewitz’ On War was published posthumously. Clausewitz began his meticulous theorizing more than once and died before he was finally satisfied with it. However, his book has become a centerpiece for the doctrines of modern warfare. And it seems that ever since, never the twain shall meet – the knowledge bases that both of these books are symbols of have become ideologically polarized. For at least 500 years, professional warriors have been studying war, and peace activists have been studying peace. The formula has not proven successful. I doubt that any refinements in either theory will achieve the goals that each aims for – not until the bridge between them is built.

One of the reasons that war and peace must be considered hand in hand is that the conditions that each emerges from have so many similarities – I would go so far as to say that the emergent conditions are the same. This idea may at first seem implausible and perhaps even distasteful. I will return to this proposition soon, but first, consideration of the word peace is in order. In dictionary definitions we find phrases like, “freedom from war,” and “the absence of disturbance within a state,” and, “freedom from conflict or disagreement among people or groups.” I think that such phrases, in so far as they represent technical correctness or prevailing opinion, require us to be more thorough in describing what we mean by “peace.” In much of my reading and conversation, my preference is to replace the word “peace” with the phrase “redeemed conflict.” The dictionary definitions of peace do not represent a condition that is usual in nature. In fact, without power gradients, tension, and even conflict, nature would not have emerged or evolved. Our Statement of Conscience claims that war is abhorrent – implying that it is both undesirable and unnatural. The synonyms of peace (tranquility, calm, stillness) are equally unnatural and, on a grand scale, perhaps even undesirable to nature. The state of peace that I hope humanity aspires to is one that embraces tension, disturbance, and conflict – and at the same time effectively strives to restore those conflicts to a more harmonious, uplifting, life-giving state. A peace defined by the absence of war or characterized by tranquility is not a peace that I would seek. I regard a sought-after peace as a process rather than a condition – a process that redeems conflict before, as, and after it may occur.

With that brief description of the concept of peace, let me return to what I mean when I propose that peace and war emerge from the same conditions. We may consider three hypothetical conditions in society (each is characterized loosely for brevity): peace – a minimum of violence and the presence of restorative justice; oppression – the absence of war and the widespread presence of injustice; and, war – the presence of organized, political violence. While only the first is generally desirable, war necessarily emerges from either of the first two – oppression or peace. In a state of peace, the power gradients that are essential to life, growth, and transformation are shallow, and the conflicts that emerge among them are redeemed. In oppression, a single, dominant source of power may serve to moderate all other expressions of power. In war, two or more power sources grow without being subjected to redeeming or mitigating intervention, and eventually they become belligerent. When I say that war and peace emerge from the same conditions, I mean that nodes of power, and the gradients among them, are essential aspects of nature – human nature and pre-human creation. A central distinction between peace and war is found in the forces, conditions, and actions that redeem conflict.

It is within the forces that redeem conflict that I would like to make a distinction between the nature of pre-human creation and what we might call human nature. If conflict and tension exist everywhere in all aspects of nature, it is in the particular part of nature that is human society, in which humans have the potential to restore harmony. In our individual and collective human nature, we have the capacity to recognize the tensions between power gradients. We have the ability and very often demonstrate the will to move toward those places of discord and restore them to life-giving harmony. We hold up people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi as examples of such redeeming courage and agency.

The power of such people to influence the conditions that foster peace is not found solely in a precise theory. These people have discerned and understood the nature of the social system they were part of – they were acting locally to redeem a larger system. They were astute at reading the signs of the times and inserting themselves, as individuals, into key conflicted places of the social systems they were part of. It is this redemptive feedback loop (between the activities of conflict and the activities of redeeming conflict) that asks for further discussion of human nature in our SOC. And, interestingly, a similar feedback loop operates in the escalation toward war.

The first draft of the SOC that I saw had a short paragraph on human nature – it was oriented on individual biology and psychology. In the second draft that I saw, there was no discussion of human nature, but there was an amplified discussion of history – a discussion which might suffice to be called an account of collective human nature, but which does not account for our individual nature or the mutually defining nature of the relationships we have with institutions. I believe that the SOC would suffer for lack of foundation, if we leave out an account of human nature. And such an account should go beyond individual and/or collective human nature. Our modern account of human nature is offering us meaningful language about our relational nature. We understand family systems and we are using that language to describe international relations from a systems-theory point of view. Between the individual and collective human nature, there is a crucial matter of family systems, peer pressures, group think (negative and positive), and mutually defining feedback loops between individuals and institutions. Clausewitz struggled for completeness with this idea, and Erasmus, by way of oversimplification, omitted it.

For our SOC to have practical traction, it must rest on our best understanding of human nature – in its complexity. For our SOC to have utility, it must encourage us to explore the ways that an individual agent (human) both informs and is informed by the complex systems he/she is part of. Hope for redeeming conflict is in understanding the relationship between individual aggression or violence and systemic economic injustice, for example. Hope requires us to examine the individual, the system, and the nature of the relationship that mutually informs them.

So far, I have made two basic propositions. First, I mean to say that the formula of peace activists studying peace and professional warriors studying war has not been successful. The ideological gap between these now distinct knowledge bases is a hindrance to the process that would establish the conditions for peace. To the extent that our SOC follows this pattern of segregating ideological positions, a negative consequence would be that it furthers the divide between ideological camps. I do not believe humanity can afford to leave this gap unattended. And second, I mean to say that our SOC must rest on a thorough foundation of what it means to be a human individual in relationship with society, culture, and identity-groups. It is not enough to point to individual human nature or to point to some form of group think that is involved in either peace or war. We must gain and use the language that accounts for the dynamic feedback loop that lets individuals and groups be mutually formed by the other. I have also briefly introduced the claim that peace and war emerge from very similar conditions.

The last point I would like to make is probably the most important and overarching in my thinking on peace, war, and ministry. My position is that the quality of our ethical response to the problem of war and the goal of peace pivots on the quality of our description of war. The conditions of war and peace, throughout history, have always been in relationship to each other. To my knowledge, humanity has not yet existed through a human life span that has not experienced war. Even though we must work toward the conditions that will foster peace, our effort in that direction must also include an understanding of the causes of war, otherwise our efforts toward a condition of redeemed conflict will be temporary – they will only last until the next war. Individuals will likely find themselves again on either side of an ideological gap – neither party able to communicate its hard won truths to the other.

I have already outlined one reason why I believe that understanding the essence and causes of war should receive prominent attention in our desire for peace. Both war and peace are inextricably bound to a common element of nature. That relevant element of nature is power gradients.

There is another important reason that I believe that the study of war should be included in our work toward redeeming conflict. The nature of war is and involves one-way decision gates. This differs from a state of peace in which conflicts still exist, but the opportunity for redemption, reconciliation, and forgiveness are left open. In other words, the condition of peace always allows for a “do-over” when we demonstrate our human and national imperfections. Such charity in a combat situation is incompatible with both our individual human desire to reduce our own vulnerability and our collective desire to effect the strategic aims of a particular conflict. In practical terms, a military commander, once the clash of wills begins, cannot offer the enemy a second chance to inflict harm, unless such an offer renders advantage to that commander.

I offer the above example to show one aspect of the nature of war. There are many others that have pivotal consequences in our pursuit of peace. It is interesting to note that literary attempts to describe war systematically are few and far between. In particular, in the writings of prominent just war theorists, I find no explicit description of war. This holds for both those who would justify a particular war and those who would disavow a particular war. It is as if there is a covert agreement that the very different assumptions we each bring to the project are adequate and/or complete. The paucity of a systematic description of war in just war theory, peace theory, or just peace building theory is conspicuous.

Hopefully the above example of war’s one-way decision gate nature will demonstrate an essential difference between war and peace. The devil-in-the-details is that we never know for certain which conflicts, that are so natural to human society, will trigger the shift to one-way decision gates and the escalation of force and risk.

My intention in this article is to make a persuasive case that it is important to understand the nature of war in our pursuit of peace. In order to break the historical pattern of warriors studying war and peace activists studying peace, I would like the SOC to explicitly encourage us to study the essence and causes of war. My hope is that humanity will be able to transcend its legacy of war and establish a legacy of redeemed conflict – a legacy of peace. I do not believe this will happen if we continue to refine either the theories and practice of war, or the theories and practice of peace. I believe that hope for practical progress toward peace pivots on consolidating the hard-won truths of each body of knowledge.