On being positive about yesterday’s battles

PRESIDENT George W. Bush was right on the mark when he told the Latvians that they must put the past behind them and look to the future. Fighting yesterday’s battles over again never got anybody anywhere.

By Jonathan Power

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Published: Fri 13 May 2005, 11:33 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:20 PM

If I am now old enough that I no longer blame my parents for all my many faults it is because I know they gave me life, freedom- and a continent that no longer goes to war with itself. Let’s leave it there and get on with the job of spreading economic well-being, democracy and the substitution of military conflict by the artful use of law, arbitration and the growing awareness of common interest.

Going back through the ages we see from our present perspective that the reasons wars were fought were not issues that would now engage us.

In one age tens of thousands of lives were sacrificed to win succession to a throne, while in another, only 200 or 300 years later, no government anywhere would fight for such a purpose. In one age the great majority of wars were fought over religion while a mere century later such a cause was considered almost irrelevant.

Perhaps this is because of the different class structures in different ages, particularly the character of the elites who wielded power. When power was held by dynasts this influenced the thinking of everyone, even those who were not dynasts. When the clergy became influential their ideology governed society.

When those who cared deeply about national rights and national independence rose to positions of power their preoccupations held sway. Most recently ideological thinkers have dominated our societies. Nevertheless, it is already hard to explain to a younger generation how difficult it was to avoid an all out nuclear war that could have destroyed a quarter of the planet over the Soviet Union’s decision to place nuclear missiles in Cuba when the US already had them very close to the Soviet Union in Turkey. War is still commonplace, yet it is diminishing.

The body count, to use that repugnant yet unforgettable term of the Vietnam War, may have increased with the world’s rapidly improving technological prowess, but the occasion of war has unquestionably decreased. Even when there is war it is no longer glorified in the way it was a generation ago. Not for nothing is the Vietnam War memorial in Washington so different from its more flamboyant, patriotic forbears. Instead of eagles and rifles there are only dark slabs of black marble with the names of the American dead.

For the first time in history there are a not insignificant number of states that have been free from war for the best part of two centuries. In Latin America, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Brazil have long lived without recourse to war. Neither the US, nor Canada, nor Mexico maintains troops on each other’s borders. Likewise, the South Pacific has long been peaceful, apart from a brief invasion by the Japanese and by relatively small-scale conflicts in West Iranian and East Timor.

The European Union’s greatest achievement has been to realise what was in fact its founders’ purpose — to cement the often warring nations of Western Europe, the epicentre of most of the world’s wars in the last 600 years, into a peaceful whole.

For well over a decade now the number of civil wars has been falling. If one considers the number of serious ethnic disputes of recent years that have been resolved without killing, the glass looks rather more than half full, not half empty as the journalistic and political wailing of our era suggests. A recent World Bank study argues that the risk of conflict is concentrated among the countries inhabited by the world’s poorest billion people. If an economy is declining, the people poor and the country dependent on natural resource exports, civil war is more likely.

There is no one magic policy to end these kinds of war but the author, Paul Collier, argues persuasively that if governments and multilateral organisations can curb rebel financing and armament, accelerate the economic development of those most at risk and provide effective peacekeeping forces once a conflict has been settled there could be a rapid decline in such wars.

It is on this, not who did what to whom in Europe or between China and Japan two generations ago, that we should concentrate our energies on. If we look forward, not back, we can begin already to discern the truth of Erasmus’s prescient observation: "God hath shaped this creature man not to war, but to friendship, not to destruction, but to health, not to wrong but to kindness and benevolence."

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