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Of war and peace

[ by Charles Cameron — some middle ground? ]
Two pieces have struck me in the last couple of days for their, well, maturity. By which I find I mean their ability to hold the tension between two opposites — among the most celebrated of all — while seeking an appropriate balance between them.

There’s an interesting blend of PR and wisdom in there, and something akin to a disciplined exhaustion with war. But this is Amsterdam…


My second example comes from Caitlin Fitz Gerald at Gunpowder and Lead, and is titled On Taking Nonviolence Seriously. A snapshot:

I understand the urge to dismiss nonviolence in the face of the brutality of the Syrian regime. I certainly don’t know what is best for the people of Syria in this conflict, and I’m not sure I would have the courage to urge non-violence to people who are being attacked by their own government daily, but I would urge anyone dismissing nonviolent means as completely absurd to read a little Gene Sharp (whose work Mr. Serwer references in his piece) first.

Early in his seminal work From Dictatorship to Democracy (pdf), Sharp makes a key point about the why for nonviolent means, that ”By placing confidence in violent means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority.”

I don’t want to get too strange about this, but we can exult in war and we can rejoice in peace — our lives play out in the tension between impulses, and that’s a long walk on a high wire…

12 Responses to “Of war and peace”

  1. Lexington Green Says:

    The Dutch general did not mention nuclear weapons as the reason for the outbreak of great power peace.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, do not pay attention to the 800 lb. gorilla in the corner.  He has nothing to do with this presentation.


  2. amspirnational Says:

    Israel bombards Gaza but nobody here,nor Obama, condemns that brutalization. The same nobodys who believe all the government stats about Syria.

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Lex:


    Which brings up the interesting question: which is a more lethal activity from the long term historical perspective — the introduction of hugely “lethal” and presumably indiscriminate weapons (typically nuclear) and associated technologies, or the introduction of “less-lethal” and “non-lethal” weapons and technologies, smart weapons and /or “remote” weapons?


    Intuitive vs counterintuitive?

  4. Lexington Green Says:

    The flood of cheap small arms that the Soviet unleashed on the world have killed millions of people.  The atomic bombing, and the subsequent nuclear stalemate, have prevented wars that would have killed hundreds of millions.  When countries get nukes, peace breaks out, and conflict gets pushed down the escalation ladder to terrorism and assassination.  Nukes = Peace.  Yet another thing to thank FDR for.

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi, Lex:
    Assuming for the sake of agreement a merciful God, it would not be clear to me whether such a God mercifully gave us nuclear weapons to diminish the incidence of warfare, or regretfully observed our development of them and mercifully ensured we didn’t use them during the Cuban affair, or on those occasions when we seem to have mistaken geese for missiles… either way, I would be grateful.
    But let’s assume it’s the nukes themselves under the thumbs of rational statesmen that maintained the peace. There’s also Netanyahu’s comment, “You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs”… which could have more than a few different applications. To my mind, “Nukes = Peace” is at best a provisional equation. I’m told the half-life of uranium-235 is 704 million years: how long do we have to trust human nature to be wise?
    On the other end of the scale, what about the idea of non-lethal but incapacitating weapons, lethal but highly accurate / selective weapons, and lethal but remotely-delivered weapons, each of which would permit victories with less shedding of blood, whether of an enemy, an innocent, or of our own?
    Do such weapons in fact reduce violence, or perhaps make it less challenging to the conscience, and thus perhaps easier to adjust and more likely to erupt?
    As is almost always the case, I ask because I hope to learn from discussion, not because I have a preset opinion or claim to exact knowledge.

  6. Lexington Green Says:

    I assume a merciful God has given us free will, and permits us to live with the consequences of our decisions because he respects our freedom.  What God may think of this or that weapon which the fiendish side of our human intellect has generated is a question I cannot plumb.  We are all accountable to play the hand we have been dealt.  The one we hold now, as citizens at least, is keeping the peace under the conditions which currently exist and which may reasonably be expected to exist in the near future under our custody.  
    I assume that nuclear weapons are under the thumbs of people, not necessarily “rational statesmen” who are very reasonably afraid of using them or having them used on themselves.  Highly credible death threats have a way of cutting through the static.  Clear signaling and clear costs for transgressive behavior are blessings in international relations.  
    Nukes = peace is indeed provisional.  All political axioms are provisional.  If the rationale is clear and the track record is long, the axiom looks robust.  This is one such occasion.  

    Whether the Iranians are in fact apocalyptic psychopaths willing to turn their entire country and civilization into a gigantic kamikaze remains to be seen.  I doubt it.  I suspect that they really care about themselves, their families and networks of allies, and about staying in power to live well at the expense of the people they rule, like most oligarchic rulers.  But, some people who are not stupid and who know more about Iran and Shiism than I do seem to disagree.  We are probably going to find out.  
    As to the range of potential and actual new weapons you mention, I think we will see more of these developed and used.  The movement from whole nations being fed into meat grinders circa 1914-45 has changed rapidly to a model of targeted assassination of troublesome political leaders.  This is progress.  
    Such weapons are less challenging to the conscience because they ought to be.  Putting a single bomb onto the Fuhrer bunker would have been better than razing many cities to the ground to get the same ultimate outcome.  Having more options, especially when the new options kill fewer people and wreak less havoc generally, is a good thing.


  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Lex:

    Whether the Iranians are in fact apocalyptic psychopaths willing to turn their entire country and civilization into a gigantic kamikaze remains to be seen.  I doubt it.  I suspect that they really care about themselves, their families and networks of allies, and about staying in power to live well at the expense of the people they rule, like most oligarchic rulers.  But, some people who are not stupid and who know more about Iran and Shiism than I do seem to disagree.  

    Lots of people, I fear, know very little about Iran and Shiism, and particularly about Mahdism — but one person who does know about these things, to the extent that any serious scholar can, and who is himself of a conservative Christian bent, shares your doubt — Timothy Furnish:
    In Shi`ite Wasteland? he wrote:

    My own study of both geopolitics and of Shi`i traditions on the 12th Imam leads me to conclude that the clerical regime does NOT believe in nuking Israel (or anyone else), because while the Mahdi will return at a time of great violence and upheaval, there is no Shi`i teaching that creating such bloodshed would induce Allah to send him. Also, I think the ayatollahs are crazy like foxes, not literally crazy—and they know full-well what would be the Israeli (and perhaps American ) response to any use of nuclear weapons against Israel. The Mahdi would not be happy to return and rule over a radioactive wasteland.

    His most detailed account of these questions is in A Western View on Iran’s WMD Goal: Nuclearizing the Eschaton, or Pre-Stocking the Mahdi’s Arsenal?
    Let’s pray and hope and pray he’s right. 

  8. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Charles and Lex,

    Interesting exchange. Presuming the Mahdi is divine, radioactivity wouldn’t matter, would it? Nor would a divine Mahdi have need of such implements. The Old Testament is replete of stories of the powers of God, pillars of fire, parting seas, etc.

    I tend to agree with Lex, the political aspect must be measured through the lens of “what’s in it for Iran” if they decide to go nuclear—not much. If we didn’t do it, the Israelis would probably make a mess of them. What they are doing is what Lex described: developing more options and creating doubt and uncertainty—potentially dangerous and menacing all by themselves. 

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Scott:
    My impression is that the Mahdi will be “rightly guided” (which is what his title suggests) but not “divine” — “divine” would contradict the teaching that God is One without a second, that there is none like Him, just as the Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does.  
    Furthermore, since there are accounts of such “signs” as the army of the Sufyani going up against the Mahdi and being swallowed up by the earth, I would have expected a nuclear event followed by a miraculous healing of a large swathe of the planet from radioactivity, if such a thing were part of the Mahdist scenario, to be prophesied / reported in the hadith literature.

  10. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Charles,

    Many thanks for the clarification.  

  11. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Scott:
    Thanks.  I think my first paragraph stands — but the second is a kind of guesswork, we both know how readers of eschatological prophecies can make them fit anything from the Emperor Nero to bar-codes… 

  12. Charles Cameron Says:

    Another thought, perhaps relevant.
    Ahmadinejad is the “soon coming” Mahdist, Khamenei not so much — so on a political level, the dispute between them is between a populist Mahdism (Ahmadinejad) and the authority of the religious establishment (Khamenei, Qom), which claims to derive from the Mahdi, but specifically for the duration pf his absence… it’s a “regency”, if you like. 
    In light of which, this Guardian article is interesting:

    Iran’s censors wage web war against Ahmadinejad as elections loom 

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