Monday, September 24, 2012

Adam Elkus vs. John Mueller: Is war on the way out?

This is a propitious time, one might think, to be pushing back against the argument that war is obsolescent. A bloody, prolonged civil war is raging in Syria and major powers and international organizations seem unable or unwilling to stop it. In Yemen, tribal militias have been fighting al-Qaeda. In Pakistan and elsewhere, U.S. drone strikes continue. Then, of course, there is the war in Afghanistan. It doesn't seem as if war is on the way out -- until one looks a bit deeper and at long-term trends. Then the question becomes at least an open one.

Adam Elkus, in a piece at Infinity Journal, joins the ranks of those criticizing the war-is-obsolescent view. He is right, I think, to sound a cautionary note about John Mueller's thesis, in The Remnants of War, that war these days is becoming a matter of thugs and criminal gangs (assuming that's what Mueller said in The Remnants of War -- I've read some of Mueller's work but not that particular book).

Unfortunately, however, Elkus doesn't give some of Mueller's other arguments, as stated in his Retreat from Doomsday and in his 2009 article "War Has Almost Ceased to Exist" [pdf], their due. For example, why was World War I such an important turning point in this context? To read Elkus's piece, you'd think it was because the war was extraordinarily costly for certain countries, wiping out almost an entire generation of young men in several of the main belligerents. That's true, of course, but as Mueller points out in his 2009 article, a key fact is that an anti-war movement existed in the belligerent countries (certainly in Britain and to a lesser extent in some of the others) before the war. Thus an anti-war discourse was in the air, available for appropriation by broader groups of people (including writers and opinion-molders) after the war ended. That's important because the driver in Mueller's argument is ideational change. It's not just that World War I was extremely bloody. It's that a set of ideas existed and was in circulation before the war which, while largely ignored by most people in 1914, became increasingly plausible as the war dragged on and especially once it had ended and the enormous costs were fully visible and undeniable.

Elkus writes: "Indeed, the enduring popularity of overly tragic World War I histories like those of Barbara Tuchman suggest[s] an urgent need to portray major war as an irrational – even accidental – act rather than the result of determined political choices to engage in violence." This is, I think, largely beside the point. It doesn't matter, from the standpoint of Mueller's argument, whether WW1 was accidental or non-accidental, whether it was the result of "determined political choices to engage in violence" or not. What matters is that, whatever one's view of the war's genesis, it had certain effects on the prevailing ideas about war in the West. Before WW1, serious, respectable people wrote about war as glorious, as necessary for the health of the species, and so forth. World War I marked, in effect, the end of the widespread glorification of war in the public discourse of the West. Elkus's piece, titled "Only the West Has Seen the End of War," suggests that he might implicitly understand this. But it is not made explicit in the piece. Rather, Elkus's unnecessarily dismissive reference to Tuchman's The Guns of August -- a book, don't forget, that apparently exercised a salutary influence on John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, if certain accounts are correct -- is coupled with the message that there is an "urgent need" to portray major war as "irrational." But there is no such "urgent need." Obsolescence and irrationality are two different things. Mueller says major war in the 'developed' world has become unthinkable ("subrationally unthinkable" is his phrase), not "irrational." The two notions are not quite the same. 

Elkus is right about some things in this piece, for instance that the official military doctrines of China and Russia reveal "a strong appreciation for the role of force." But so, to some extent and indeed tautologically, do the official military doctrines of all major powers. The Pentagon is not going to issue a white paper declaring major war obsolescent. That doesn't mean major war is not obsolescent, it just means you're not going to read that in an official Pentagon document.

One might think Mueller, as an established scholar, needs no defenders. But there seems to be a growing tendency to dismiss or ignore or minimize his arguments. Thus Elkus's piece continues a  pattern. Maybe it's time for Mueller to do some pushing back of his own.

P.s. (added later): I recognize, of course, that fascism often glorified war. But the post-WW1 change in discourse and attitudes is nonetheless striking. 

P.p.s. In the opening of this post I also could have mentioned the recent fighting in Mali.

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