It's bad, but can it be banned?

War No More
July 30, 2004

War No More is a stimulating contribution from two authors of great experience and knowledge. According to the publisher's summary, the authors' goal is to account for the nature of warfare at a time of terrorism and "new forms of warfare worldwide" and then to show the necessity and possibility of a "peaceful future". To secure that future, say Robert Hinde and Joseph Rotblat, "we must take the big step: elimination of war itself". The progress from analysis to solution is not, however, as smooth as it might be.

To connect a persuasive account of the awfulness of war and the dangers of modern weaponry to the goal of a war-free world, War No More presents a number of untested assertions and contradictions. The horrors, dangers and frequency of war are described vividly - 100 or more wars since 1945, in which millions of people have died. On this basis, the authors assert that "war is no longer an acceptable way of solving conflicts". But here is the rub. Surely the protagonists of these wars must have thought differently; for them, war was an acceptable method. The awful problem is that 20th-century history shows that war is not only horrible but also rather popular. Elsewhere, the familiar comment is made that "nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented". A similar thing, presumably, could be said for many other, much less sophisticated weapons such as clubs, knives, rifles, artillery guns, tanks, fighter aircraft and so on. But if weapons in general cannot be disinvented, how likely is it that war itself will ever be eliminated?

The authors' difficulty is compounded when it is revealed that they cannot even be sure what it is they seek to eliminate; "there can be no generally accepted definition of what constitutes a war". The notion that nuclear weaponry prevented a third world war is dismissed as "an illusion". But this charge is not proven. Probably because it cannot be; it is as hard to argue that nuclear weapons prevented something that did not occur as it is to argue that they did not.

Staying with the nuclear theme, nuclear deterrence is described "certainly" as "a policy that is basically unethical". Hinde and Rotblat have no time for consequentialist ethics; nuclear deterrence is wrong because it threatens something that cannot be good. But what if - and it is at least a possibility - that threat was enough to save the lives of several million people during the Cold War?

Hinde and Rotblat move on to examine terrorism at some length. But they decline to define it, choosing instead to repeat the relativist cliche: "As has often been said, one man's terrorists are another man's freedom fighters." Nevertheless, they describe this undefinable phenomenon as "both immoral and illegal". The authors also place great store by the United Nations, for which they claim an "exclusive role in preserving peace in the world". But the record of the UN in forceful intervention, stabilisation and humanitarian rescue is not unblemished. This might be because historically the UN has, in part, been focused on the prevention of intervention against sovereign states. In any case, how wise is it to vest exclusive rights and responsibilities in a flawed and sometimes incompetent organisation? In the event of there being a compelling moral case to intervene forcefully somewhere in the world, which the UN proves unable or unwilling to authorise for some reason, would that really make such an intervention, in the authors' words, "politically illegitimate" and even immoral?

War No More is a book about improving the human condition, driven by the conviction that improvement is necessary and the judgement that it is possible. As conviction literature, it invites a conviction response. The excision of warfare from the human experience would doubtless be a great improvement to life on earth. To this end, Hinde and Rotblat present war not as some incurable genetic flaw in human nature, but as an institution that mankind should choose to dismantle. But "ought" does, of course, imply "can". Whether war is genetic or manufactured, it has plainly become a casual alternative to politics when settling disputes. Whatever ought to be done about war, the best that can be done is to reassert politics, to prevent war where possible but otherwise to control and to manage it. The elimination of smallpox was a good idea in principle, and it proved possible. The elimination of war is good in principle but impossible to achieve; analogous, perhaps, to eliminating the hangover.

Paul Cornish is director, Centre for Defence Studies, King's College London.

War No More: Eliminating Conflict in the Nuclear Age

Author - Robert Hinde and Joseph Rotblat
Publisher - Pluto
Pages - 228
Price - £35.00 and £10.99
ISBN - 0 7453 2192 5 and 2191 7

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