The Glorious Art of Peace: From the Iliad to Iraq

September 13, 2012

In the years after the Second World War, academic centres focused specifically on the study of conflict began to lead the scholarly agenda in that field. King's College London's Department of War Studies, formally established in 1962, was already a flourishing and influential hub; just over a decade later, Bradford University set up, enterprisingly, a Department of Peace Studies. At Columbia University, sociologists, strategists and others had taken the even more venturesome step of creating an Institute of War and Peace Studies. Some cynics commented that "evidently Columbia are hoping to get research funding from the Quakers as well as the Pentagon", but fortunately a more widespread reaction - endorsed by John Gittings - is the wise one that we stand a better chance of promoting peace if we have a better understanding of the causes of war.

It is unfortunate, in a way, that the author's survey of today's prospects for war and peace - including a useful summary of concepts employed by contemporary peace researchers - must wait until the concluding chapter. This, however, conforms to the overall structure of the book, which is strictly historical, sketching the views of war and peace held from antiquity up to the outlook after the Iraq War.

This high-speed account, running breathlessly through several centuries, leaves a clear sense that the dominant impression of war permeating the consciousness of the general public through the channels of literary and historical writing, religious practices, war memorials and commemorative events is overwhelmingly a positive one. There has, of course, been a parallel stream of thought (especially for the pious) denouncing war's destructiveness, preaching the Christian doctrine of the just war, or condensing a message of peace in anti-war poetry, particularly in the 20th century. However, the concepts most deeply associated with war have always tended to be the positive ones of heroism, patriotism, loyalty, honour, rank and national greatness. This is not to say that the values and attitudes generally associated with war are more "natural" to human beings than their opposites, but their simplicity and their longevity appear to make them more readily acceptable in times of crisis that may or may not lead to war. This is a factor to which peace campaigns throughout the ages may not have paid enough attention.

Another perennial theme to which peace movements may have devoted relatively too much of their attention (as Gittings' account suggests) is that of arms races and disarmament. Obviously, the competitive piling-up of weapons of war has played a major part in increasing tensions between the powers concerned. Reflecting on the Anglo-German naval competition of the years before 1914, Sir Edward Grey, who had been Foreign Secretary at the time, observed with hindsight that "great armaments lead inevitably to war. If there are armaments on one side, there must be armaments on other sides...Fear begets suspicions and mistrust and evil imaginings of all sorts", as states seek security in national military strength, and tension escalates towards war.

Against this background, it is not surprising that the peace movements of the League of Nations era concentrated on pressing for general disarmament. However, as Gittings suggests, the public campaigns for disarmament of the period might usefully have employed more of their time campaigning against the deeper causes of war, not least the Great Depression and its social and political effects.

There may indeed be a link here between the lessons of the 1930s and the changing focus of today's post-Cold War peace movements, which on the whole have abandoned the essentially arms-oriented approach of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament period for a concern with the economic and social causes of international conflict, not least underdevelopment and a shortage of resources.

The Glorious Art of Peace suffers from the usual problems associated with covering a huge subject in a short space, but overcomes many of them owing to the author's conciseness and selectivity, and his provision of an excellent, comprehensive bibliography.

The Glorious Art of Peace: From the Iliad to Iraq

By John Gittings Oxford University Press. 320pp, £18.99. ISBN 9780199575763. Published 23 February 2012

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