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War is Over, If We Narrowly Define It

— August 16, 2016

An article by Angus Hervey in Medium recently made the bold claim that war is on the decline throughout the globe. A ceasefire between the Colombian government and rebel groups meant that war is over in the Western hemisphere, leaving less than 1 in 6 global citizens in war-torn areas, mostly in an arc of misery from Pakistan down through central Africa. This echoes sentiments that have been trending for a while among apologists for modern society, such as Steven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and recent work by philosopher Peter Singer. However, the idea that we are also going through an ongoing yet slow collapse provides some cognitive dissonance here, as one would expect more conflict, not less, as we proceed through our civilization’s undoing, based in part on resource depletion and irreconcilable ideas about what needs to be done. How can one reconcile the idea that war is over with the perception of increased desperation and discord around the world?

Consider the map that accompanies the Medium piece, purporting to show that arc of war. It may show the places where people are actively fighting, but I find that to be somewhat misleading as it ignores who is involved in the fighting. Look at that zero-conflict-intensity United States, for example, and consider that the last brief moment of peace we had was a long time ago.

When people think of war, do they imagine two (or more) powers lined up on a battlefield, taking shots at each other, eventually naming a winner by counting up the number left standing at the end of the day? Or perhaps they imagine more modern conflicts, such as the morass of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam or Iraq, where powers fight for as long as they have the resources and political will to continue, deciding the winner by who backs down first? These scenarios might be as useful as continuing to imagine “jobs” as something stable provided by an employer as part of a package whereby one trades labor for pay and benefits. While jobs that fit this description certainly still exist, they are disappearing in favor of the freelance “gig” or “sharing” economy, which robs workers of stability and security in exchange for greater flexibility and cost savings for those with the means to employ workers. Similarly, war may be moving away from the purview of states, becoming smaller scale and more privatized. It’s harder to assume that war is over if we expand our traditional definition of war to include volatile conflicts between non-state actors.

Away from the remaining traditional battlefields, civil life is not necessarily peaceful. It’s more likely that the violence and conflict, while remaining under the threshold of state-sponsored war, has become normalized and thus harder to perceive. Just south of the border, Mexican drug gangs engage in what would have been considered war in the Viking era, wielding torture, executions, rape, corruption, and abductions as weapons to gain influence and territory, much as one might expect in a state of civilizational decline. If we declare the Western hemisphere a zone where war is over, we’re deliberately choosing to ignore this. We’d also be ignoring the ongoing tension of institutional racism in the U.S., where a class war over declining resources and opportunity means that poor and Black Lives (don’t necessarily) Matter as much as the ability of municipalities with declining tax bases to supplement their coffers at the expense of the poorest citizens, and better-off folks to maintain their relative levels of privilege. A caste system, whether formal (as in historical India) or informal (as in the de facto American class divide) is a useful tool to ration the resources of a society when there isn’t enough for everyone to live up to their full potential, and maintaining it may require informal war.

Arrests by Mexican Army soldiers in Michoacan. (Exactly the sort of thing that happens in a country at peace.) Photo by Diego Fernández, via Wikimedia Commons.
Arrests by Mexican Army soldiers in Michoacan. (Exactly the sort of thing that happens in a country at peace?) Photo by Diego Fernández, via Wikimedia Commons.

The seeds of war are also not hard to find in the political movement of Donald Trump, where his followers, finding themselves in the lower American castes through economic forces that they only tangentially control, feed violent fantasies with actions aimed at those they perceive as keeping them down, and Trump himself nods and winks at those who advocate “second amendment solutions” to economic and cultural distress. Similar elements can be found across the pond as austerity (usually set in place to benefit the rich) ravages Europe to the point that Greeks are reduced to desperation measures and Britain left the EU. And let’s not forget the constant stream of refugees leaving areas of “real” or ersatz war (Syria, Mexico) and flooding into other countries, straining the peace simply by existing.

Traditional war is over in many places simply because the constant threat of the nuclear option stays the hand from going the extra mile in armed conflict. Battlefield deaths may be falling, but deaths due to suicide and poverty have risen, and life in many places is marked not by a default peace, but a constant stream of want and conflict. If we think war is over, we need to look at both sides of the balance sheet to decide if it really is, and not just the perception of what we want to see. Perhaps war, like employment, is moving into the informal control of individuals and factions, rather than being maintained as a state monopoly.


The Decline of War
John Gray: Steven Pinker is wrong about violence and war
What If A Collapse Happened And Nobody Noticed?
Mexico’s Drug War Goes Much Deeper Than Drugs
Mexico’s weekend of horror: 105 murders
The Gangsters of Ferguson
A Continually Growing List of Violent Incidents at Trump Events
Here’s how much of your life the United States has been at war
Colinvaux, Paul. The Fates of Nations: A Biological Theory of History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. Print.

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