War and Peace

No, seriously, War and Peace. I found it on the top 100 lists of free Kindle books, and decided that reading War and Peace was one of those things I probably had to do in my life to call myself a serious reader.

Bad decision. As I remarked to a good friend, it was meandering, it seemed to lack any true central conflict about any particular character, and it was infused with a very particularly Russian fatalism. At the end of the day, I had no real emotional attachment or involvement in the story, and the last 20% or so was simply a slog through to be able to say I finished it. To thus my fried replied, “yep, that pretty well describes Russian literature.”

However, one specific attribute of that fatalism I found quite interesting, and possibly timely:

That the peoples of the west might be able to accomplish the military march upon Moscow, which they did accomplish, it was essential (1) that they should be combined in a military group of such a magnitude as to be able to withstand the resistance of the military group of the east; (2) that they should have renounced all their established traditions and habits; and (3) that they,should have at their head a man able to justify in his own name and theirs the perpetration of all the deception, robbery, and murder that accompany that movement.

And to start from the French Revolution, that old group of insufficient magnitude is broken up; the old habits and traditions are destroyed; step by step a group is elaborated of new dimensions, new habits, and new traditions; and the man is prepared, who is to stand at the head of the coming movement, and to take upon himself the whole responsibility of what has to be done.

While I’m not a believer in either the societal or personal fatalism espoused by Tolstoy, one can make an argument that what “had to be done” was to crumble the final vestiges of feudalism’s legitimacy in society. This can’t occur by overthrowing a single despot. Political change of that magnitude must be jarring enough to destroy even the memory of what came before it. Society, like a phoenix, must be destroyed and rise from its own ashes to build anew.

Britain, while still a monarchy, had largely transitioned from a feudal society to a mercantile society. America was still a pre-teen on the world stage. Europe, though, was still fighting the final stages to break off the chains of feudalism and monarchy. The slaughter of the French Revolution produced Napoleon, and Napoleon slaughtered Europe.

Is this what “had to be done”? Millions dead, cities burned, the entire existing social hierarchy torn from its roots? Perhaps it did have to occur. Feudalism and monarchy are stories of powerful entrenched interests and a complacent underclass. It is not enough to cast those bonds off on paper; they must be cast off in the soul. This is not easy to do without a jarring blow.

At the end of the French & Russian war, swaths of Europe had been destroyed, and the people were prepared to accept peace — peace on different terms than had existed previously. Society could now be built on a foundation other than feudalism and monarchy. It needed to occur, but it was only the jarring blow that allowed people to come to terms with what was needed.

War is messy. War is hell. War is cruel and painful. But war works.
-John Fuller, my high school AP US History teacher

At the end of the US Civil War, hundreds of thousands of Americans lay dead, essentially to right a wrong that had been building since before the Declaration of Independence. Was war truly necessary to free the slaves? No, but war was probably necessary to settle, in the minds of America, that the freedom had been won. The Civil War was a black mark on the history of America, but nobody can say that the question of slavery was left unsettled at its conclusion.

Anyone who clings to the historically untrue — and — thoroughly immoral doctrine that violence never solves anything I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler would referee. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor; and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.
-Robert A. Heinlein

The thesis that a jarring blow is necessary to effect the inevitable social changes that occur over time, though, is troubling to me. It’s troubling because I see significant social changes on the horizon.

Technology has brought us global, immediate, and zero-cost-of-entry communication, cutting the information stranglehold of governments and destroying entire business models in the process. Modern communication and modern transportation have made the world smaller, perhaps finally putting the lie to economic mercantilism. Governments have been debasing fiat currencies for decades since the end of Bretton Woods II, and global financial stability appears to be solely based on nations’ ability to lend to each other [especially to the US].

There seems to be a palpable tension building in the world and it’s unclear where it will lead. Much of that tension has already been seen in Iran, Greece, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. There is tension both within China and in America’s trade/debt relationship with that nation. Unlike some hyperbolic pundits, I won’t quite put Madison in a category as serious as those just discussed, but a fight between fiscal reality, monetary stability, and the promises of government is certainly brewing — and that fight won’t be pleasant.

The world 25 years from now may very well be a place that people alive today don’t quite recognize. But there are a lot of people invested in this one, who will be very upset to see it change. So there’s only one question, and a troubling one, to ask. What sort of jarring blow is on the horizon to cleanse us of the old ways?

  • PTTG

    I respectfully disagree with your statement that war is essential to change the status quo, or even successful. The Civil War was only a punctuation in the long history of civil rights in the US that is continuing to this day, and though it was a major sea change, the goal of the war (and the emancipation proclamation) was not to free the slaves, but to reclaim the south. The Civil Wars of Europe may have changed the leaderships of those countries, but other European wars, such as the first world war, only created new tensions and new causes for war.

    But just as war does not always work, there are other things that can make lasting change; consider Gandhi’s acts, and Martin Luther King jr.’s acts, and even the relatively bloodless revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt.

    I do not believe that a protest or a battle can make permanent change, but a movement or a war can ultimately do the same thing, and a peaceful movement will do so far more permanently, more deeply.

    That all said, I think you are entirely right to say that in the near future, we will see some new jarring changes in the world. This may even be war. But I would still deeply hope that this is not the case; that some other course can be taken, because there *are* other ways.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany


    Thanks for the comment. Yes, the Civil War was one point in a far larger social arc. And while MLK’s peaceful acts by themselves gave a special legitimacy to the civil rights movement in the 60’s, one can’t exactly claim that there weren’t quite less peaceful events going on at the time. The Civil War (which, while one can claim wasn’t fought in order to stop slavery, it was clear to most involved that this is what the fight was truly about) destroyed slavery, but it didn’t generate a respect for racial & political equality that neither the North nor the South were ready for. More work had to occur, and the turbulent 1960’s is what brought it about.

    Granted, different events play out different ways. America required a war to liberate ourselves from the crown and a war to end slavery. Britain ended slavery relatively painlessly and left India without a fight. If a situation is left long enough, the entrenched interests lose their power and don’t require such a blow to be defeated.

    As for Egypt/Tunisia, I wouldn’t make any pronouncements yet. Those are not national events — this is a regional change of very massive proportions. The middle east is on step 8 of a much longer process, and it just might happen that step 94 is a major regional war to eradicate the dictatorial rule of most of the nations in the region.

    Nor is every “jarring blow” violent — the Great Depression in the US was certainly a jarring blow, but a peaceful one. One can make an argument that its purpose was to force America to build a social safety net that our national libertarian streak wouldn’t have accepted without such major strife. Never let a crisis go to waste, right? And yet it is all, again, part of a much larger arc, as the New Deal has built from a minor social safety net into a behemoth threatening to strangle the finances of the entire government and incompatible with the fast-moving information age of today — to break down the monstrosity that the New Deal has become will not be done without a major blow, whether peaceful or violent.

    I think we’re in the same position — we see potential things that could develop badly on the horizon, and we both hope that they don’t play out in worst-case-scenario sorts of ways. I am concerned, however, that it’s not going to be painless.

  • http://forum.trianglefreeforum.com John

    There’s the national level stuff, but at the individual level, there’s a growing voice that humans are getting tired of getting hammered by governments and the corporations that own them.

    Something will give.

    Hopefully the body count is Egypt-like rather than Libya-like.

    I don’t think it will be.