Debellicised

Andrew Bacevich

  • The Remnants of War by John Mueller
    Cornell, 258 pp, £16.50, September 2004, ISBN 0 8014 4239 7
  • The Future of War: The Re-Enchantment of War in the 21st Century by Christopher Coker
    Blackwell, 162 pp, £50.00, October 2004, ISBN 1 4051 2042 8
  • The New Wars by Herfried Münkler
    Polity, 180 pp, £14.99, October 2004, ISBN 0 7456 3337 4

War is a chameleon, possessed of an infinite capacity to adapt itself to changing circumstances. But in adapting, it preserves its essential nature: brutal, capricious and subject to only precarious control. With the passing of the Cold War, some well-meaning observers have speculated that war is on its last legs, its further intrusion into the realm of politics neither useful nor welcome. Dazzled by the ostensible transformative potential of the information and biotech revolutions, others have conjured up phantasms of war rendered kinder and gentler, offering the advanced powers a precise and predictable instrument for coming to the assistance of the oppressed and correcting the world’s injustices. From this perspective, armed force promises to become more purposeful and less subject to chance than ever before.

Unfolding events, whether those that have been subjected to intense scrutiny, as in Iraq, or those largely ignored, as in Africa’s Great Lakes region, have damaged these expectations. Did the collapse of Communism turn the world upside down? Did the events of 9/11 a decade later upend it once again? Whether or not they did, war has not disappeared or become more benign, but remains what it has been for millennia: for the ruthless who are impatient to enforce their agenda, an irresistible temptation; for soldiers, an ugly, dirty (if for a tiny minority also seductive) business; for non-combatants caught in the crossfire, a threat to their daily existence. And yet for all that, our prospects of maintaining even a fragile peace and of preserving a semblance of justice will inevitably require nations from time to time to demonstrate the capacity and the will to use force.

Defined by Clausewitz as the continuation of politics by other means, war enjoys a relationship to politics that is far more intimate than that classic formulation allows. It is the first-born son of politics. Although from age to age the nature of the bond joining parent and offspring may vary, the connecting tissue itself remains indissoluble. To fancy otherwise – speculating about one without realistically accounting for the other – is to disregard all of recorded history. Yet a remarkable number of writers persist in trying.

To be fair, John Mueller, a leading figure in the war-is-dead school, does not so much ignore the past as twist it to suit his purposes. But in the twisting, The Remnants of War renders history all but unrecognisable. The result is a book that conveys a relentlessly sunny outlook – war is today ‘obsolescent, if not obsolete’, Mueller announces, and may soon ‘shrivel up and disappear’ altogether – while also coming across as both glib and tendentious. According to Mueller, over the course of the 20th century civilised peoples everywhere came to view war as ‘essentially absurd’. World War One convinced Britain and its dominions along with France and most of Europe; World War Two educated laggards such as Germany, Italy and Japan; by the end of the Cold War, nations across the developed world had ‘substantially abandoned war as a method for dealing with their disagreements’.

You are not logged in