Mankind, war and savagery
Mankind never ceases to surprise me with its propensity to wage war, brutalize and act savagely, although I shouldn’t be surprised if we look at history (more on that later in the post). When it comes to war, Chinese General, military strategist, writer and philosopher Sun-Tzu offers valuable insights. “It’s better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war; he will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight; who wishes to fight must first count the cost; there is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.” My favorite, however, is, “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” He was spot on in his assessments, in my opinion. The expression “may you live in interesting times” is thought to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse. There is, however, no known equivalent expression in Chinese, but that’s beside the point. We live in interesting times, and there’re most definitely gardeners fighting in wars today, especially in Ukraine. Is society as we know it circling the drain, or are we simply entering yet another cycle of war and strife? Is all gloom and doom? Will life ever return to some semblance of normality, and if so, when? Will mankind ever learn to live in peace?
We’re surprised and horrified at the terrible atrocities coming to light in Ukraine as a result of Russia’s scorched-earth policy, but should we be? We’re surprised at how man can treat his fellow man so horribly, but should we be? After all, most countries and empires have been established in oceans of blood and the most gruesome acts of terrifying violence. A conquering army’s arsenal almost always includes psychological terror, unfortunately. That doesn’t make it right, of course. Contemplating why these things are happening takes its toll on us. We may be physically, mentally, politically and perhaps even philosophically divided today, but what’s coming down the pike could be more chaotic and confusing than ever unless we understand why these things are happening. Here are just a few of the many things happening in these “interesting times.”
Pandemics, war and other crazy stuff
Another “Greek” variation of Covid is on the rise; intervention in other countries’ elections; North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach anywhere in North America; threats of a nuclear WW III; political upheaval; social transformations and the cancel culture; disinformation and alternative facts; bots, trolls and troll farms; Chinese and Russian hypersonic missiles (the West is still in the testing stage); the breakdown of families and the renewal of cults and blood-ties; new sanctions that are strangling Russia and causing prices to rise everywhere – not just in Russia; and rapidly moving technological changes. The list goes on and on. Attention has shifted (only temporarily) from the volatile Middle East to Europe, where Russia is waging a bloody and ruthless war on Ukraine that’s sending new waves of refugees to neighboring countries. How could this be happening? Is this the beginning of the end, as some doomsday religious leaders are prophesizing (for the umpteenth time, I might add) or is this simply a continuation of an older pattern?
Struggling to make sense
Like most people, I struggle to make sense of what’s going on today. And I do that best by writing. When I write, I write to inspire but also to disturb – to say what my readers might not want to hear. I’ve always believed you should tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. My views are based on nearly a quarter of a century’s experience as a military man, university lecturer, businessman, treaty-compliance observer, author and diplomat. I do my utmost to be objective when writing, but I fail many times. That’s part and parcel of being human. Most of all, I want to help people understand, as people fear what they don’t understand. Change is something people often don’t understand. It gets confusing, messy and sometimes difficult to know who you are or where you stand. Some claim we know who we are only when we know who we’re not or only when we know whom we’re against. Military conflicts often precede fundamental shifts in society and bring about a new order. Globalization and the spread of Internet access have contributed significantly to economic and social tensions caused by the scarcity of resources and population growth. While the spread of information and trade has many benefits, it doesn’t always promote stability. On the contrary, it often leads to new divisions as people discover that others have what they don’t have and now want or live in ways that conflict with their beliefs. When you don’t know what you don’t know, you tend to live in ignorant bliss. At least it seemed that way in the past.
Can we learn from the past?
The boundaries between war and peace are not always clear. Countries will only abide by international agreements if the power and self-interest are there to sustain them. The modern world may appear to be more dangerous and complex than ever before, but a dive into the past reveals a long-standing pattern. The chaos and turmoil we’re experiencing now might seem overwhelming for younger people, but a look at history tells us we’ve witnessed this before. We only need to look at WW I and WW II to realize this. Numerous authors have pontificated on clashes of civilizations, flashpoints, wars and geopolitical discord, so this is nothing new. In a world of unstable states and an uncertain future, is it possible to look backward in time to help us navigate today’s dangerous geopolitical waters? Can we learn anything from the past? Most definitely, in my opinion. Greek historian and General Thucydides said, “civilization represses barbarism but can never eradicate it.” Machiavelli believed that primitive necessity and self-interest drive politics. He also believed that a policy is defined not by its excellence but by its outcome, a.k.a. “the end justifies the means” in modern parlance. This is sometimes manifested in military operations.
War and atrocities
All wars involve some degree of atrocity and brutality, but some armies, like the current Russian forces, seem to be much more prone to committing atrocities than others. As Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz noted, “war as an act of force drives each side to extremes of brutality by its very nature.” Some armies successfully resist the urge to brutalize and murder civilians while others seem unable to help themselves. The degree of brutality of discipline within a military organization is often the underlying reason. If the moral fiber of military commanders is poor, we can expect to see violence. And violence breeds more violence. If soldiers are brutalized by their leaders during and after training, they will be more likely to do the same to their adversaries and civilians. Excrement is subject to the law of gravity (shit rolls downhill). Soldiers dehumanize their adversaries and civilians alike, equating mercy with weakness. There have always been groups or countries that refuse to play by the rules and commit war crimes without a thought. Germany had the Holocaust; the US had the Mai-Lai massacre in Vietnam; criminal acts were committed in the Balkans and the Caucasus in the 1990s; and genocide took place in Rwanda. More recently, the world witnessed the Islamic State sweep through large swaths of northwestern Iraq and eastern Syria, committing horribly barbaric acts carried out in accordance with “The Management of Savagery” written by al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Bakr Naji. And then we have the brutal dismemberment of Saudi journalist Kashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Aren’t we better than this, you might ask?
A fairy tale
The fairy tale that modern Europe has evolved beyond using armed violence to settle its conflicts and has transcended its history of bloodshed is dead. We know that now as we witness Russia’s relentless assault on Ukraine. It has been ruthless, cruel, savage and barbaric. Could we have gleaned some indication of the atrocities we’re witnessing by rereading Machiavelli? As Machiavelli wrote, “values – good or bad – are useless without the arms to back them up: even a civil society requires police and a credible judiciary to enforce its laws.” It seems that for some leaders and policymakers, projecting power comes first, and values come second. James Madison wrote, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” And then there’s political scientist Thomas Schelling’s statement, “the power to hurt is bargaining power. To exploit it is diplomacy.” Can we exploit our “power to hurt” to stop Russia’s carnage, human rights violations and war crimes without overreacting? The West is relying on sanctions, but will they be enough? Your guess is as good as mine.
The West has imposed and continues to impose tough sanctions on Russia, but sanctions are blunt instruments that take time to bring about change. And while sanctions do impose significant costs, they have a poor record of deterring aggression. We see that as Russia continues to follow its well-known playbook for waging war: admit nothing, deny everything and make counteraccusations. Sanctions are unlikely to affect Putin – only the average Russian. In the meantime, men, women and children continue to die in a nightmare that few thought would happen again in Europe. As a result, Russia has been suspended from the UN Human Rights Council – not that Putin cares. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the world believed somewhat naively that we were entering a long period of peace and prosperity. But the fairy tale is over, and we appear to have entered a period of pagan politics and actions yet again. How this will play out and which repercussions it will spawn remain to be seen. Now more than ever, leaders need to control their emotions for there is much to be angry about. Will we ever be able to escape this cycle of violence and savagery and live according to Sun-Tzu’s quote: “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle?” If the past is any indication this is unlikely. Spanish philosopher George Santanya said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” often mistranslated as, “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. To that, I would add that even those who do learn from history are doomed to repeat it or so it seems. So, will mankind ever learn to live in peace? I continue to hope.