War is out

As far as the walls in my study aren't covered with books I am surrounded with drawings by Frans

Masereel from his Apocalypse Unserer Zeit, twenty-four sketches of one million refugees during

the bombing of Paris in the Second World War. It are not only these black scenes but also our very

first memories as a child that have made my wife and me somewhat knowledgeable. Therefore

I may be excused as a physicist once for going beyond my book and make critical comments on

recent literature promising peace.

Sceptic, after the hype in Dutch media, I started reading Steve Pinker's The Better Angels of our

Nature, the decline of violence in history and its causes, but admittedly I soon gave him the benefit

the doubt when I read (p. 295):

“You would think that the disappearance of the gravest threat in the history of humanity would

bring a sigh of relief among commentators on world affairs. Contrary to expert predictions, there

was no invasion of Western Europe by Soviet tanks, no escalation of a crisis in Cuba or Berlin or

the Middle East to a nuclear holocaust. The cities of the world were not vaporized; the atmosphere

was not poisoned by radioactive fallout or choked with debris that blacked out the sun and sent

Homo Sapiens the way of the dinosaurs. Not only that, but a reunited Germany did not turn into

a fourth reich, democracy did not go the way of monarchy, and the great powers and developed

nations did not fall into a third world war but rather a long peace, which keeps getting longer.

Surely the experts have been acknowledging the improvements in the world's fortunes from a few

decades ago.”

Pinker merges rhetoric and statistic. Whether it is on homicide, torture, genocide, war-deaths,

violent revolutions, armed conflicts, terrorism, crimes against humanity, domestic violence, or

abortion, with Pinker every graph in his eight hundred pages on the last two thousand years starts

in the upper left-hand corner ending in the down right-hand corner. Pinker finishes his book with a

psychological explanation for this peaceful development: humans are throughout the evolution of

life on earth “the better angels of our nature”. For those who don't like eight hundred pages rhetoric

and statistic there is also a video of 19 minutes and 19 seconds with TED, see:


Is it time to remove my Masereels and replace them by Pinker's angels? It all seems too nice to

be true and I am afraid that is the case. In the media hype around his new book Steven Pinker

overplays his hand and writes together with Joshua S. Goldstein a column War Really Is Out

of Style for the New York Times of 17 December 2011. Joshua Goldstein is professor emeritus

international relations and an expert in war and peace. He also published a book just now: Winning

the War on War in which he writes (p. 36):

“As is clear, the World Wars were not an abrupt reversal of centuries of peace so much as a spike in

the large-scale violence that went on throughout history. We could answer the question of whether

the twentieth century was the bloodiest in history if we had estimates of historical war deaths. But

putting numbers to the historical levels of war violence, in various times and places, turns out to be

extremely difficult. Taking just recent centuries in Europe, some political scientists see a downward

trend to war, others an upward trend, and others a series of ups and downs with no trend. The data

get only murkier as one moves back through time and away from Europe”.

With this Goldstein cuts the legs under Pinker's seat, which is probably why the latter decided to

unarm Goldstein by jointly making propaganda for both books in the NYTimes.

Violence has declined since 1945, on this Pinker and Goldstein agree. With Pinker this is because

of the Civilizing Process of at least the past two thousand years and with due admiration he refers

to Norbert Elias. According to Goldstein the atrocities of war have diminished only in the past sixty

years and this is due to blue helmets of the United Nations. Goldstein's book is a hymn on their

peacekeeping missions, he prefers to ignore - just like the Dutch blue helmets - the massacre at

Srebrenica. Goldstein ends with a souring equation:

“Take out seven hundred-dollar bills and lay them on the table in front of you. If you are an average

American household, this is your monthly share of U.S. military spending. Now take out two one-

dollar bills and put them on the table. This is what the same household pays for US peacekeeping.

The missions described in this book, the hundreds of thousands of lives not being lost in wars

anymore, cost the average American household two dollars a month”.

Frans Masereel was a pacifist, with his drawings and woodcuts on war trauma's he had only one

goal: never again! Today pacifists are put in the corner with the utopists. Mistakenly, think of

Mathatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and today also Vaclav Havel and read:

Why Civil Resistance Works, the strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. With statistics and case-

studies on Iran, Burma, the Philippines and even the Palestinian Terratories Erica Chenoweth and

Maria J. Stephan prove that nonviolent actions in the twentieth century were twice as effective to

reach their stated goal than violent resistance. The chance of peaceful democracy is greater and the

probability of civil war smaller. This is - they claim - because demonstrations, boycotts, strikes,

civil disobedience and other forms of peaceful actions are much more likely to create commitment

of the people, especially women. In this year of the Arab spring a hopeful message.

Frans W. Saris 02-01-2012

(originally published in the Dutch literary journal De Gids)