war is child’s play with morosely adult consequences. A bully tries to snare a weakling as a means to assert himself. The weakling fights back, or tries, and enlists allies to help. As the struggle drags on, to the chagrin of the bully, both sides settle into immovable corners, intent on dispatching hate and indignation, which after a time is all they know. The war, a grand alley fight, turns into a spectator sport, all the more so in the instant video age. The child’s play fails to mature and the combatants come to memorize their adversarial lines.
This is the kind of war brawling that well suits the ongoing conflict between invader Russia and invaded Ukraine, bully vs. resistant resistor, all the more so since the resistor has the whole of the Western planet on its side, in weapon supply and spirit.
But war as child’s play usually includes, or comes to include, another kind of adult, a nonpartisan or at the very least a balanced figure who can and will, alone or as part of a group, vigorously intercede between the bully and the picked on to restore order to the now unsettled neighborhood.
With the United Nations gone with the wind (the 20th century League of Nations met the same fate), there is neither person nor institution to bring the fight to an end.
Instead, the war of words, bodies, video footage, and acrimony moves ahead, a slave to indignation, stirred up grossly on both sides. The concept of diplomacy seems entirely outdated, something other people dabbled in to their own detriment in less hostile times.
The result fits neatly into the view of the late historian Barbara Tuchman, who studied wars from Troy to Vietnam and emerged with a book titled “The March of Folly.” Again and again, mistakes were repeated and history ignored. Much of the folly emerged from back alley zeal and implacable emotionalism. People stood up for their territory, their tribes, their armies, theirs leaders, ultimately taken in by the thrill of the fight – always portrayed as one between good and evil. Both made into absolutes, which they rarely are when child’s play is the subject.
The man perhaps most singly responsible for this concrete either-or approach, and for this century’s disdain for diplomacy, is one-time British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who infamously traveled to Munich in 1938 to talk down a man openly intent on invading Europe. He came away from his meeting with Adolf Hitler assuring the West that the Nazi leader had no grand design, that all would return to normal. Some say Chamberlain was as deceived as a child might be upon receiving a sweet from a wicked-minded stranger. Others, more practical, suggested the British prime minister had no illusions but chose to speak in diplomatic, hopeful tones to give his country a bit more time to prepare for the arrival of a second world war. No matter the truth, Chamberlain’s trip was broadcast as an object lesson in the folly not of war but of diplomacy. Ergo, you do not talk, or try to talk, let alone propose peace summits with the likes of Vladimir Putin, who in addition to running Russia seems to the West the reincarnated bogeyman of the lost Soviet empire. To speak to him, or arrange high-level encounters that include his people, is to speak to Hitler and revive that most reviled of words, appeasement.
But as wars begin, they also must end. And with no battlefield outcome in the offing, not talking becomes, over time, a separate crime, an offense to diplomacy, which like it or not has helped bring countless conflicts to an end. Hating the bully and embracing his opponent is not a strategy. It is no more than the sum of vitriol, and vitriol comes cheap – just browse social media and let it come cropping. Listen to the rage, the anger, the eagerness to blame. There is little peace to be found in much of what is watched by billions.
Again, child’s play, on the Internet as on the battlefield. A sign of “free” times perhaps, but hardly cheering,
If only a war, in diplomacy’s negligent absence, could borrow from the World Cup, where referees still patrol the field and can bring play to a halt. If only the world still possessed statesmen (and women) willing and able to step into the breach and if nothing else produce ceasefires, which if nursed can turn into something more. If only the West could see past appeasement to negotiate ways and means for Russia to extricate itself from the war it started in face-saving fashion (America was after all defeated in Vietnam but called its withdrawal “peace with honor”). The “if onlys” are may. In 1978, Jimmy Carter accomplished the improbable feat of sealing a treaty between Egypt and Israel, rivals more ferocious even than Russians and Ukrainians, who share blood and tribal links. Before it began, his summit was called by many foolhardy and certain to fail. The two nations would surely come to blows again. They did not and have not. Three men – Carter, Zionist Menachem Begin, and anti-Israeli militarist Anwar Sadat – had, to borrow from the words of Virginia Wolf (used, not surprisingly, to describe adult aspirations of a child), “conducted a grave and important enterprise in public affairs,” and emerged with a milestone outcome.
So please, put down your phones and set aside your prejudices. Instead invest in a new but ancient “technology,” that of statecraft.