What We Talk About When We Talk About War

by Jonathan Carp

What We Talk About When We Talk About War

Yesterday I read Cormac McCarthy’s wonderful 2006 novel, The Road. The book tells the story of an unnamed man and his son, as they move through an apocalyptic landscape in the hope of finding a safer place to live. McCarthy doesn’t specify the nature of the apocalypse, although nuclear war is strongly hinted at. The pair face a range of horrors, from marauding gangs to cannibals to the simple impossibility of surviving on the face of a dead Earth. The action of the novel is simply their persistent efforts to sustain life and the will to survive.

A nuclear apocalypse is something we see as solidly in the realm of somewhat antiquated science fiction. The Fallout series of video games is set in a “retrofuturistic” future, that is, a future as imagined from the 1950s, and takes as its central premise a central anxiety of that decade, nuclear war. We are now occasionally treated to declassified government plans for dealing with such a catastrophe, such as the recent declassification of a speech written for Elizabeth II in the event of nuclear war. Such artifacts are treated as relics of the past, reminding us of fears now allayed. Now instead of The Day After, the 1983 TV movie on the aftermath of a nuclear war, we fret about biotechnology in Rise of the Planet of the Apes or climatological catastrophes in 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow. But the demons of the past are not dead.

According to the Arms Control Association, nearly 14,000 nuclear weapons exist in the world today, including more than 3,000 at this moment sitting atop missiles ready for launch. These weapons are a mortal threat to every man, woman, and child on this planet. At any moment, everything we have built, all our art and science, all our lives and all our loved ones, could be snuffed out at the whim of a politician, or even more chillingly, by accident.

The history of nuclear near-misses is well worth examining, but during this centennial year of the outbreak of the Great War, the whims of politicians deserve our focus. For all their careful pretense of competence, history reveals that the great statesmen are as inept at war and peace as they are at running the DMV. During the July Crisis of 1914, the wise statesmen of Europe each entirely misjudged the others and stumbled blindly into a catastrophic war. A minor crisis in a comparatively obscure (to the West) corner of Europe became, by stumbles and errors, a cataclysm.

Last summer, a war between the United States and its allies in Western Europe and Syria, a Russian ally hosting a small Russian military base, was narrowly averted. At this moment, Russia and the West are jockeying for influence and control over Ukraine, and shots have already been fired in Slovyansk. Our leaders have confidently unleashed war on Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Pakistan just over the last ten years, and casually discuss possibly attacking Iran and Syria while aggressively “confronting” Russia today. When we talk about war, we gamble with the end of our civilization. Such an end seems remote now, just as a world war seemed to most Europeans in July, 1914. But the missiles are still armed. If one crisis runs out of control, if one of these eminently fallible politicians feels cornered or spiteful or just like his bluff won’t be called, everything we have built in the West since the last time we inadvertently destroyed our own civilization in the middle of the first millennium of the Common Era could be lost, to say nothing of the millennia-old civilizations of Asia and Africa.

The end of a civilization is a difficult thing to contemplate. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road does an excellent job, as does the aforementioned Fallout series. But for a more concrete example, Bryan Ward-Perkins’s The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization is superb. While much recent scholarship, following Peter Brown’s classic The World of Late Antiquity, has emphasized continuities between classical antiquity and the medieval world that followed, Ward-Perkins emphasizes the human costs of the collapse of classical Mediterranean civilization. The disintegration of trade networks and the concomitant collapse of the division of labor led to a dramatic decline in quality of life as well as population levels- in less antiseptic terms, mass suffering and death. Progress in the West was set back dramatically; a thousand years would pass before Europeans could build anything like the Pantheon and nearly two thousand before medicine surpassed the achievements of the Greeks and Romans. Countless works of art, literature, philosophy, science and mathematics were lost, as well as much priceless practical knowledge- clean, fresh water would not become a regular feature of urban life in Europe again for centuries.

When the politicians and their media minions begin to bloviate about the need for “resolve,” for “action,” they are betting everything we as a species have achieved on their latest pet concern. Many terrible things are happening and will happen around the world. But whenever any nation, especially a great power, bares its teeth at another, we hope that this latest crisis du jour won’t be the last thing we get to fret about over a printed newspaper or a tablet screen. The end of everything is what we talk about when we talk about war.

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7 responses to “What We Talk About When We Talk About War

  1. The size of American nuclear forces have actually been in DECLINE for many years (indeed decades).

    As for Russia ……

    President Bush bent over backwards to make friends with the Putin regime – five minutes watching “RT” should have shown Mr Bush that he was wasting his time trying to make friends with Putin (“Russia Today” runs almost non stop anti American propaganda – much like Sean Gabb). But Mr Bush did not seem to pay attention to such things – any more than he paid attention to people who argued that the problem in the Islamic world was the general populations (not a handful of naughty dictators and “extremists”) .

    Indeed I remember being called a “racist” for arguing that the Iraq war (and so on) would not work as the problem was large sections of the population (their belief in various forms of Islam – how a belief system can be considered a “race” I do not know) not just Saddam and co.


    In spite of the total failure of Mr Bush’s policy of trying to make friends with Putin – President Obama tried the same policy of trying to make friends with Putin

    Mr Obama seems to have assumed that his own Marxist (Frankfurt School) background would make Mr Putin better disposed toward him.

    This totally misunderstands Mr Putin – indeed KGB people (like Mr Putin) used to call Western Marxists “shit eaters” (as they believed the “shit” – the propaganda that “the rich” and “the corporations” were responsible for X,Y,Z, bad things, the sort of propaganda that “Russia Today” still broadcasts today).

    Mr Putin (being more of a vicious gangster than a Marxist) certainly would not (and did not) respect a “shit eater” like Barack Obama – but Mr Obama seems to have taken a very long time to understand this (if he even understands it now).

    As for Mr Obama – his power is limited by the political system he finds himself in (he abuses the power of the Presidency – but it is still limited power), although Mr Obama does what harm he can.

  2. As for Mr Carp’s basic idea that appeasement is the way to preserve the peace – Mr Carp is mistaken.

    As mistaken as Sean Gabb’s belief in the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s (indeed even in 1940), or of the Soviet Union and Red China after World War II.

    An obvious example is Korea.

    The United States (and Britain) lost more men in Korea than were lost in Iraq.

    And the men who fought in Korea had to face worse conditions.

    Yet Korean war veterans tend to understand that the defence of Korea against Communist attack was the right thing to do.

  3. As for Mr Carp’s comments about nuclear weapons……

    It take it that Mr Carp would, therefore, support military action to destroy the Iranian “hastener” regime’s nuclear weapons program (one does not bury peaceful nuclear plants in the sides of mountains or underground).

    I welcome Mr Carp’s support for this necessary move to take “the horror of nuclear weapons” out the hands of Islamic “hasteners” – i.e. those who wish to “hasten” the arrival of the “hidden one” by spreading fire and blood all over the Earth.

  4. Willard Oaf Duckling Jr

    Western Civilization was fabricated to keep the children of Ellis Island Catholics from siding with Hitler like they helped Catholic Von Pappen blow up Black Tom NJ. Western Civilization is a feudal casuist canard depicting Charlemagne, Jagiello, Napoleon, and ironically Hitler.

  5. I’ve got Ward Perkins’s book. It’s very good, if a little too short to be satisfying.

  6. It’s plainly no good our telling Iran not to have nuclear weapons when we have so many ourselves, and when we allow so many dodgy regimes to keep them, such as Israel, Pakistan or North Korea. We must resume the difficult task of reducing – perhaps eradicating – these weapons from all countries.

  7. Paul Marks

    Jane Smith – you are playing the moral equivalence game.

    This is game that Rothbard played back in the 1960s (indeed he went further – by implying the enemy were in the right in their disputes with the West).

    I am not interested in debating with someone like yourself.

    Although I do thank you for reminding me that I really must visit Israel this year.