Sunday, June 5, 2011

Hot Air

The other night I had the chance to hear Adam Hochschild at the LA Library ALOUD program talking about his new book To End All Wars, which is mainly about the conflicts between pro and anti-war leaders in Great Britain during World War I. The first World War is a particularly hard war to justify or glamorize, since it cost so many millions of lives, in such pointless slaughter. Part of the reason for that was the state of technology of the time. Offensive charges led by cavalry, the formula for success for hundreds of years, were rendered useless by machine guns and barbed wire. Until the invention of the tank, armies could no longer mount an effective offense. But the warring parties persisted in the attempt, spurred on by their outmoded ideas of how to fight, leading only to the sacrifice of millions of lives in exchange for no territorial gain. Another part of the reason that the First World War seems so pointless is that we have trouble discerning its causes and purposes.  Hochschild pointed out that before World War I, the countries and heads of state of Europe were getting along remarkably well. Then suddenly, they were engaged in existential conflict. Perhaps because the causes of the war are so elusive, and because victory on the battlefield was so difficult, the outcome could not produce any real resolution. At the conclusion of World War I, the participants were all left worse off in every conceivable way, and the war mainly resulted in sowing the seeds for World War II.

Hochschild focuses on the war resisters, mentioning how torn some of them were between their belief that the war was wrong, and the pressure they faced to support the cause. In response to a question about the kinds of rhetoric that we all hear during international conflicts, Hochschild talked about how inflamed both sides became in demonizing the other, and the extent they used some of the new media of the time to disseminate propaganda. Both sides equated their cause with the need to preserve civilization as they knew it, or national honor, or numerous other justifications for fighting. The war itself then became its own justification, as deaths of soldiers inspired others to make sure they had not died in vain. In order to understand the real issues involved in the conflict, Hochschild said, you need to cut through all of the hot air being spewed by both sides that was used to justify continued conflict. Once you do that, it becomes apparent that to the extent there were real conflicts between the participants, they involved territory and conflicting colonial ambitions, probably not the kind of stuff that would have inspired so many to lay down their lives.

How many of our political conflicts--both domestic and international--cost us more than we gain, as in World War I, and how many are worth fighting? Hochschild was of the opinion that probably 80% of wars should not have been fought, and that sounds about right to me, but even if you think it is more or less than that, we would all probably have to agree that there is a lot of unnecessary conflict in the world.  In politics, the one thing that people of all political stripes should be able to agree on is that there is more than enough hot air. Just watch cable news for a couple of hours and the room will be filled with it. We should also recognize that a lot of this hot air tends to exacerbate conflict rather than resolve it.

In discussions of foreign policy we tend to see the world in terms of friends and foes, bad guys and good guys. The Communist menace used to provide a rationale for many foreign policy actions; now it is terrorism or Arab fundamentalism. These enemies are real, but their power is sometimes exaggerated, and their aims are sometimes distorted, to justify continued conflict. On domestic issues, we also see the tendency to demonize opponents, and paint policy disagreements as much more elemental clashes of right and wrong than they might be in fact. For example, we had fearsome debates last year over whether the top marginal income tax rate should be 35% or 39%, with each side claiming that the position of the other constituted a threat to our most fundamental values. But all we were talking about was the difference between 35% and 39%.

One of the promises that the Obama candidacy and presidency represented, at least to me, was its call for a new kind of politics in which we would try to work together to solve problems, rather than struggle against each other in such a destructive way. I think one of the reasons that elements of both the right and left have been disenchanted at times with President Obama is that he refuses to see politics as an epic struggle between good and evil. Instead he is always searching for common ground with adversaries. Many people cannot understand how you can give ground to the enemy in that way. It seems to be part of human nature to view the world in Manichean terms. We resist seeing the world instead as involving groups of competing interests, all of which may have some validity, and which can be accommodated to varying extents in ways that will allow all of us to get along.

Certainly we are going to have policy disagreements, and some of those positions can and should be fiercely held, but we still ought to try to reduce the over-heated rhetoric, and the demonization of the other side, that characterize so many political debates. If we exaggerate the effects of other people's positions, or treat them as the enemy bent on destroying our way of life, when they merely have somewhat different interests and beliefs from us, then we risk engaging in epic battles that are not worth their cost, as we did to our regret in World War I. Instead we should be making efforts to tone down those kinds of conflicts.

(See also the discussion of this same topic on my mediation site.)


  1. Thank you for this. I agree completely. It is all out war, and each side will be destroyed if we cannot come up with a way to move forward.

  2. << If we exaggerate the effects of other people's positions, or treat them as the enemy bent on destroying our way of life, when they merely have somewhat different interests and beliefs from us, then we risk engaging in epic battles that are not worth their cost >>

    Great point. Easier said then done. Lets all start with leading by example.