A mere 100 years ago this summer, miscalculation and madness brought forth the War to End All Wars, the first of the 20th century’s twin cataclysms and humankind’s gruesome introduction to total warfare on a global scale. In the opinion of Europe’s intelligentsia at the time, it was not supposed to have happened. As Barbara Tuchman points out in The Guns of August, her masterly account of the initial months of World War I, enlightenment values and liberal economics, it was thought, had rendered war passé, irrational, even impossible.
During the years just before the war, the runaway international bestseller, translated into 11 languages, had been Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion, which, according to Tuchman, “‘proved’ that in the present financial and economic interdependence of nations, the victor would suffer equally with the vanquished; therefore war had become unprofitable; therefore, no nation would be so foolish as to start one.”
The problem with Angell’s argument was that its premise, that the decision whether to wage war is primarily a rational, political or economic choice, was and remains false. Still, a descendant of this argument can be found today among those pushing the benefits of globalization. An interdependent world in which we buy iPads composed of parts assembled from a dozen or more countries and supported by customer service agents tens of thousands of miles from our living rooms, it is thought, will produce a safer world because any act of aggression would injure the aggressor as much as it might injure the victim.
Yet while politics and economics are undoubtedly essential motivations in nearly all war-making, the horrendous reality of war antedates the nation-state and the market economy in all but their most primordial historical forms. This suggests that there is something almost innate in our drive to kill and conquer, which likely has more to do with original sin than it does with entangled alliances, or Lenin’s theory of imperialism, or McKinley’s manifest destiny, or Bush’s doctrine of preventive war.
If that is the case, if the sin of Adam and Eve explains why Cain killed Abel and better explains why the Kaiser set out for Paris, then this much is also true: war is never a straightforward rational exercise, for sin, original or otherwise, is by definition irrational, separating us as it does from God, the source and summit of life itself, without whom there is no reason, no freedom, no hope. Peace, therefore, requires far more than an equilibrium of self-interests. It requires the radical conversion of sinful human hearts, our subsequent forgiveness of others’ sins, even the most barbarous, and the ultimate reconciliation of all humanity through the grace of God.
Tuchman reminds us that after the First Battle of the Marne in early September 1914, a bloody stalemate ensued, and “the nations were caught in a trap from which there was, and has been, no escape.” In my Good Friday moments, when the world as it is seems so hopelessly far from what it is meant to be; when, as Winston Churchill wrote of the summer of 1914, “the terrible ifs accumulate,” I sometimes wonder whether escape is even possible.
An Easter faith tells me that it is, reminds me that while human beings may be deprived by virtue of original sin, we are not depraved, that there is much in humanity that is noble and true and good. In my Easter moments, I dare to hope that the essential goodness of humanity may yet prevail, that my brothers’ sons, unlike their great-grandfather, who fought in the inaptly named Great War, may know the true peace that the Prince of Peace wills for us all.
Note: An earlier version of this column appeared in the issue of July 20, 2009.