K E Y N O T E
War and Peace in the 20th Century
For the early part of the century, people and governments thought of war as related to courage, patriotism and national pride. Today, however, public and international perception thinks of war in terms of diplomatic failure or unimaginable disaster. In countries all over the globe, the "War Office" has in general become the "Ministry of Defence"; the greatest destructive weapons ever invented have become deterrents.
Many factors have helped to change public attitudes to war and peace, but organised peace movements have certainly played a major role. For decades movements have been set up to campaign for the ending of war as a means of solving disputes between nations. The growth of such movements and of public support for them has been one of the key developments of this century.
Today, a typical family story anywhere in the world involves male relatives fighting in one of the century's great wars, or civilian predecessors perishing in land conflict. Hardly anyone has been untouched.
The inventor of dynamite at the end of the nineteenth century believed that his invention would outlaw war, since the devastation it could produce would make any major outbreak destructive beyond imagination. After 1918 the same view was held about aerial warfare. The childhood of a whole generation growing up in the Cold War period was contaminated by the conviction that a major war would end up wiping out the cities of the industrial world. Since 1945, the possibility of nuclear annihilation has seemed to make war between the great powers an act of collective suicide because of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which means that any nuclear attack was sure to produce a devastating counter-attack.
These factors alone have led to a general, widespread revulsion towards any large-scale military activities. However, there are still numerous national, ethical and political causes whose supporters see armed violence as the only means of achieving their goals.
International peace movements unrelated to religion are a development unique to the twentieth century. For many centuries there have been religions and sects which denounced violence. There have also been anti-military ideologies, such as the belief of the nineteenth-century free-traders that trade between nations was a better way of establishing control and spread "civilisation" than military conquest.
Bu the first real peace movements arose out of protest militarism and imperialism in Europe and North America in the early years of the twentieth century. Many people thought war between the great imperial powers was impossible because this would benefit only capitalist profit. The outbreak of European war in 1914, however, proved that it was never an impossibility.
The grim experience of the First World War led to a worldwide determination to make another such conflict impossible. This determination influenced the world in three different ways. The first was the presence in mainstream politics of people who believed in the possibility of resolving conflict through negotiation. The hopes of these people became vested in the League of Nations (an international body similar to the United Nations).
The second key influence on opinion came from the creative arts, which produced a wealth of plays, poems, novels, films and paintings which depicted the horror of war. From works such as John Singer Sargent's Gassed to R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End, the public learned about the wasteful, nature of war and the appalling conditions endured by troops engaged in trench warfare. From poet Wilfrid Owen to painter Pablo Picasso, artists everywhere were addressing the same cause the peace movements were.
The third influence was in the work of the organized peace movements themselves. In the West, organizations supporting international negotiation developed in the inter-war years. Gandhi's practice of non-violent civil disobedience had a particularly powerful effect. For example, the Peace Pledge Union, founded in the early 1930s, institutionalized support for non-violence. All members of the Union signed a personal pledge to refuse to take up arms in any cause, in the belief that any violence would elicit counter-violence.
Eventually, however, the numbers of pacifists (people who believe in non-violence) declined as people were convinced by events such as the invasion of Poland by Germany that war was unavoidable.
The Second World War shattered nearly every country in the world. The victors as well as the vanquished suffered enormous loss and destruction. The collective memory of the world was now indelibly marred by memories of wholesale destruction and of actions which shamed humanity. Saturation bombing, nuclear devastation, the destruction of whole communities and millions of human lives. By now the world was more determined than ever to prevent such a universal conflict from ever occurring again. Certainly, the admiration which people had previously held for military virtues had vanished completely.
However, soon after the end of the Second World War the shadow of the Cold War cast its shadow across the world. Conflict broke out in Vietnam and many parts of Central America and Africa. By then, the peace movement was gaining strength and confidence. The emergence of two superpowers, each armed with nuclear weapons, convinced the world that a clash between these two powers would inevitably lead to the total destruction of the bulk of what we call civilization.
Of course, such a clash has not occurred, and it has been suggested that this is one of the major achievements of our century. Nevertheless, there has not been a single year since the end of WWII in which wars were not fought in some part of the globe. These "lesser" wars are only relatively lesser when compared to the probable global destruction of nuclear war. However, all modern conflict still involves weaponry far more sophisticated and destructive than anything used in Europe in either 1914-18 or 1939-45. Wars have disrupted the production of food and have spread famine and disease as well as left areas of the world uninhabitable because of buried landmines. There are no small wars in the modern world.
So exactly how far have post-1950 peace movements helped to reduce or avoid war? Probably very little. But non-violent forms of civil disobedience have been used to great effect by major peace movements in the past half-century. For example, the vast, non-violent demonstrations of the US campaign against the Vietnam War gained worldwide prominence and actually had some success in ending hostilities. More importantly, they educated youth against the ideology and rhetoric of militarism. Other successes of the peace movements are the declaration of nuclear-weapons free zones (like those in New Zealand and South Pacific nations in the 1980s) and the unilateral abandonment of nuclear weapons by the "minor" nuclear powers, both of which involved millions of people all over the planet.
Today, however, the rhetoric of military action seems to have made a comeback amongst the liberal democracies. An example of this would be the optimistic and "macho" stance adopted by the US and Britain towards Iraq. It has been said that perhaps each generation needs to personally experience war in order to see through political fictions. Today, situations that allow the rationalizing of war abound. Punishing dictators or terrorists, re-establishing legitimate boundaries. In dealing with these situations, the lengthy and often difficult processes of negotiation and non-violent resolution of conflict seem woefully inadequate.
Continue: Wars of the 20th Century