Entry from May 29, 2003

The success of American arms in Iraq coincides with the publication of a new book by Jonathan Schell titled The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People (448 pages, Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, $27.50). The book, if not quite so hysterical as his earlier Fate of the Earth, gives voice to a similar dream of a world without war — to be had, so far as I can make out, just for the wishing. For Schell’s prescriptions for the earthly paradise are intended not for America’s enemies but for Americans, to whom he says, in effect, that if they’re nice enough to them, those enemies will cease to be enemies and become, if not friends, at least unthreatening acquaintances.

Reviewing the book sympathetically in the New York Times, Richard Falk calls it “a timely and provocative commentary on the militarization of American foreign policy during the Bush presidency” while going beyond such merely temporary concerns to show “the strong linkage between national security and war that has dominated both political consciousness and international relations for centuries.” In other words, instead of believing the old maxim, Si vis pacem, para bellum (If you want peace, prepare for war), we are to suppose that the more you prepare for war, the more likely you are to get war. The result of Americans’ not heeding his call for a “revolution against violence” is likely to be “catastrophe.”

Never mind that the catastrophe he was predicting twenty years ago never happened. Now there’s a new catastrophe to worry about and he’s determined to get right to work on his worrying. Falk is with him too, averring that “the book mounts perhaps the most impressive argument ever made that there exists a viable and desirable alternative to a continued reliance on war.” The only slight hitch, in his view, the fly in the ointment, is that “what is missing from Mr. Schell”s prescriptions, and perhaps too difficult to expect, is how to get there from where we are, some sort of road map. ‘The Unconquerable World’ is devoid of a politics linked to the realities of power and opinion in America.”

Darn! I’ll bet he just knew he’d left out something. Maybe in the second edition he can add this helpful road map to the peaceful millennium as an appendix. “Oh, by the way,” he may say, “in the unlikely event that you decide to take anything I say seriously, here’s how to go about the establishment of world peace.” But the omission is not a serious one to Richard Falk, who writes that “even if there is no practical fulfillment of Mr. Schell”s ideas for security and world order, his book at the very least belongs on the very narrow shelf of classic studies of alternatives to the war system.”

“The war system”? For there to be a war system — as opposed to just “the system” which happens, from time to time, to produce war — there must also be a peace system, now mustn’t there? The logic is inescapable. Yet no one has ever experienced the putative peace system. As a matter of fact, the existence of this peace system is precisely what Falk is attempting to establish by positing the existence of “the war system.” This is what is known in logic as begging the question. It is a mistake. An error. A solecism. But we don’t recognize it as such because we are so used to making similar errors that we can hardly see them as errors anymore.

For where do you suppose he got the idea of “the war system”? I think he got it from the same place that previous generations of revolutionaries got “sexism” and “imperialism” and “capitalism.” All are fictitious names whose purpose is to establish, quite falsely, that the world of things-as-they-are is merely contingent and the result of some wrong turn in the distant past, or else an inevitable tide of history moving us from one (bad) thing to another (better) one. Ultimately, they all derive from Karl Marx’s most famous dictum: Philosophers have explained the world; the point, however, is to change it.

The point, rather, is that you can’t change it. Or rather, that the things you can change about it do not include the human tendency to act on greed, fear, prejudice and lust in certain predictable ways. Witness the fact that in spite of all the generations of revolutionaries since Marx, the world is more or less the same — at least with respect to the accumulation of capital and the willingness to make war. Some of the crusaders against these evils have wrought some not unwelcome changes around the margins of the dominant culture, but it would be mere moonshine to suppose that they or any alternative “system” they might propose will ever produce the kind of war-free world that Schell dreams of.

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