etween 1650 and 1950 there were roughly 40 wars involving three or more nations. War as a purging mechanism peaked in the 20th-century, with two global carnages that killed more than 100 million soldiers and civilians. Countless unofficial skirmishes and ethic hostilities paralleled or followed most major conflicts, some of them raging on for decades. Since the 18th-century Enlightenment — ironically ushered in through the slaughter of the French Revolution — an estimated 300 million people have died in organized or random hostilities.
Mention of the Enlightenment matters because many of its thinkers conceived of a more rational planet in which reason and diplomacy would, or should, take the place of knee-jerk hostility. The Enlightenment ushered in the idea of a civil society sensitive to the absolute value of human life.
This approach tended to place much of the onus of wars on nation-states and ambitious, self-serving leaders. Absolute peace could exist if citizens were not incited to war by irresponsible demagogues atop greedy states or empires in search of expansion. “Molecular rage” — which is to say war or mayhem fomented more personally, if not incidentally — wasn’t included in such thinking.
When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich in 1938, satisfied that Adolf Hitler would do no further wrong, he spoke of “peace in our time,” a disastrously ill-advised line but one that’s since been taken up as a refrain by countless leaders still determined to achieve Enlightenment ends.
In the half-century since the end of World War II the number of major wars has decreased significantly. Measured against earlier volatility, citizens of the West can now say that they’re living — at home — in a time of peace. Though by means over, war’s savage impact is indirect and remote from daily life.
But the instinct to go to war as well as the complex genetics of rage and its expression remain entirely intact. Terrorism, ideological or personal, planned or impulsive, has supplanted war as a means to countermand civility and keep the wrecking side of the adversarial spirit alive. “Little” acts of stunning consequence have become the means to introduce war into otherwise peaceful communities. In cultures that prized individualism, an individual can now start his own war by making a massacre. These here-and-there massacres now serve as a systematic escape valve for the disenchanted, a way to repeal if not insult the peacekeeping restraint of civic society.
Now, politicians and social scientists worry less about war and more about terrorism. Terrorism is the sickness that needs not curing but extermination. Its religious bent, real or opportunistic, only fuels hysteria on both sides.
But what the terrorism clamor fails to address is the lingering presence of rage in peacetime society. Rage can in some but not all cases be “educated” into civil dissent, itself becoming increasingly intemperate. In other cases individuals carry the gene of war within in them. They’re the walking slaughters once imagined by kings and given over to warriors in the name of country, religion or honor.
To some angry moderns that which is advertised as peacetime is itself enraging. The rage may be to some extent ideological — at the indirect behest of a movement or a leader — but beneath such motivation are intolerant spasms inclined mostly toward any kind of breakage. The breakage in turn unsettles societies determined to believe they’ve acquired, or are entitled to, “peace in our time.” The circle is squared.
Since humans walked, they also bore grudges and fought. The instinct was refined into various slaughtering causes that lasted some 1,700 years before the reining in process began. That reining in remains immature, troubled, and still unable to make peace with those who are not at peace, or feel divorced from the concept itself. And such people exist. The urge to march, to move out, to take action, to use weapons, to cause havoc, to slaughter — these are and will remain the visceral remnants of quashed mass warfare. It matters little whether they’re carried out by deranged youths who imagine themselves into celebrity or the self-anointed agents of larger movements in distant lands. Terrorism and its little-mentioned anarchist precursor are largely about filling in war’s void and chafing against still-immature notions of human civility and the rule of law.
In 1964, less than 20 years after the end of World War II, American President Lyndon Johnson declared war, not on Vietnam but on poverty. His metaphorical choice — the idea of repairing things by making war on them — conferred ambiguity on the language of repair. “Dastardly cowards” could always see themselves as repairing heroes, if not redeemers.
Are there fewer wars? Yes. Is there peace? No. Some humans remain at the behest of the extreme action that affirmed drama for the better part of 2,000 years. It’s only the nature of their warfare and the nomadic choice of battlefields that has changed. Kings or no kings, Jihad aside, self-styled warriors endure and simmer, their warring urges at the ready.