Remembrance Day Meditation on War and Peace

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
October 28th, 2015

“War is like a football game. Whoever loses gives his opponent his hand, and everything is forgotten.”                          —  Herman Goering, Nazi #2

Do laws to regulate war,  make war appear legitimate?

If one opposes war, one might argue that it is highly inappropriate, to say the least, to make rules regulating the beginning, conduct, and ending of war.

One might say, “let war be completely atrocious and without limit, and humanity eventually will be forced to outlaw war.”  One might say, ‘it is an illusion to pretend war can have laws to fence it in, and the pretence allows it to seem legitimate.”  One might say, “fighting war with rules makes it seem more like a sport than an atrocity.”

But humans in history have not agreed to leave war unregulated.  War has had codes of conduct, of honour, and of “fairness” in many times and places, at least when the opposed sides in war share some cultural referents.

How a warrior ought to comport himself — the warrior’s code of honour — is a constant feature of recorded history since the invention of writing and literacy.  We can reasonably agree that in oral cultures, without writing but with recited epic poetry, the code of the brave, true, honourable warrior, was just as common as in the literate cultures. This code is a limitation on anarchic, totally ruthless war.

Religion has been an enormous contributor to the normalization of a code for the conduct of war, and also for making war ferocious and brutal.  I wrote last column about how religion has made war probable by inciting the motivations for war.  This column I will address myself to how religion mitigates and “civilizes” war when the opposed sides are able to agree on basic ethics.

European civilization did not originate laws of war, but since the inception of the scientific revolution, rationalism, and Western dominance of the world’s oceans and commerce – from about 1550 – it is the West that has led in the development of the so-called “law of nations” or international law and order, to regulate relations between states.

Western civilization is notably precocious for invention of horribly-lethal weaponry, the first to mass-produce gunpowder weapons and use them to conquer non-European peoples all over the globe (think of Gatling guns and Howitzers).  Because of our hegemony over the globe since the 18th century, it is the West that originated an institutionalized legal order to sanction certain kinds of behaviour in warfare and in peacemaking.

The League of Nations and the United Nations are Western creations that became the faint outline for a world order with laws and codes of conduct.  The non-Western world has adopted the West’s institutional and regulatory frameworks for politics, trade, economics, war, and peace, that Europe and America had created during their imperial over-lordship of foreign territory.

Law and its effectiveness

Ancient Greece and Rome, the West’s forerunners, were both deeply literate cultures with profound notions concerning law and the conduct of war.  Greeks treated other Greeks with consideration, having a code for deciding political disputes with single battles fought by citizen soldiers all armed very similarly.  Corpses were treated with respect and buried with rituals all sides honoured. The warrior code stressed collective obligation of soldiers to their fellows in the battle line, and patriotism for their poleis.  The Spartan warrior was the paradigm of excellence in war, though it was Athens that was most admired for its political order and that produced the great philosophers.  Aristotle of Athens was first to coin the phrase “just war.”

Rome in its earliest days had a College of priests called the fetiales who arbitrated conflicts and gave foes the chance to make attempts to avoid war.  If war came, a priest threw a spear across the border with the enemy, and then Rome went to war ruthlessly to win, and win by crushing enemies completely so they would never be threats again.  There were customs governing sieges that Roman armies honoured, and traditions governing which foes were treated with some lenience and which were slaughtered and enslaved.

Christianity made more theoretical elaborations of the concept of a “just war” that was righteous in God’s eyes.  St. Augustine said Christians could fight  with justice  as long as legitimate authority ordered them.  Thomas Aquinas 800 years after Augustine made Just War Theory a key part of Roman Catholic dogma and doctrine.  Crusades against infidel Muslims or heretics showed no mercy to the defeated, but between Christians the papacy expected its decrees on rightful conduct to be obeyed, and the knightly code was honoured by knights.  The Christian New Testament was not supportive of pacifist dogma, or at least the authority of the Church did not support pacifist interpretations.

Western weaponry: research and development

The West has a clear tradition of constant experimentation for producing ever-more lethal weaponry.  Pushing the development of killing instruments for use by armies and navies, and eventually air forces, is part of Western dynamism.

In medieval times, missile weapons that did not allow manly face-to-face combat were deemed cowardly.  Bows were disdained.  The Church tried to ban the crossbow as a weapon contrary to God’s law — using the pope’s ecclesiastical instruments, such as excommunication — but this powerful bow was too useful and it was often on the battlefield.

The Church tried to limit warfare by scheduling it.  A Truce of God, or Peace Pact declared by the papacy and bishops, was effective for a while in France and other parts of Europe in halting feudal warfare from Thursday to Monday, so that violence was in fact mitigated by the Church.  But again, the ferocious bias in favour of war as a lifestyle among the nobility overcame the ethics decreed by the clergy.  The Crusades were another try by the popes to turn warlord lethality outward, away from Europe to the east, successfully.

Western weapons were improved by trial-and-error to be more lethal to foes.  Men with cannon and firearms were effective soldiers when trained; then soldiers were no longer exclusively noblemen whose social status was inextricably merged with their function as the only professional warriors.

Wars among Christian states, from the time Protestantism gained strength, were even more atrocious than in medieval times; the divide along lines of divergent Christian beliefs meant severe cruelty against enemies on battlefields and in the aftermath.  Execution of the vanquished was the rule, to annihilate their creed and to ensure victors would not be poisoned by heresy among them.  “Just war doctrine” sanctioned war waged against heretics, infidels or heathen.

On balance Christianity did not put efficacious limits on warriors’ brutal conduct nor on the conduct of state governments when rulers judged it was a military necessity to wage unregulated warfare.  Machiavelli put it in writing and shocked his Christian peers: a leader must learn excellence in waging war, and inducing fear in his subjects is more important to a Prince than their love.

Peace treaties and political evolution

Peace treaties in early modern times became more elaborate, and generated the novel profession of permanent diplomats who lived in the capital cities and kept their governments at home constantly informed about the policy of kings and state servants.  “Diplomatic immunity” for ambassadors was an important and valuable new idea for international law at this time.

A Peace might set new permanence upon borders and regimes.  Such a great peace was made at Westphalia in 1648, advancing the norms of international order such as the legal right of states to impose their own religious order inside their borders without interference.  This is the key principle of the absolute sovereignty for a king or republic within its own jurisdiction to determine its own form of order and be immune from intervention from outside.

When war was fought by small, very expensive standing armies among the Great Powers of the 18th century, war became less destructive because armies were disciplined and their depots were able to end the harsh practice of taking food from the civilian populations.  The rules for treatment of non-combatants and destruction of property were not laws, merely “gentlemen’s agreements” among kings and aristocrats.  French Revolutionary armies broke these rules, but at the Peace of Vienna that ended the French wars, it was agreed by five Great Powers that they would adhere to “civilized standards of war” in Europe.

The Powers decided they would not allow small European states to fight wars. After Napoleon, Europe enjoyed 40 years of peace until the Crimean War; then another 58 years of peace broken by three short, fast wars when Austria, France and Prussia fought each other. Peace became much more “normal” for a time – at least there were no more general, continent-wide wars for 100 years.

Warrior Codes and Officer Corps

I have mentioned the code of the warrior. It is fairly easy to sum up the values of the noble, aristocratic, landowning warlord of all times and cultures.

(1) One’s honour depends on one’s conduct among one’s peers, not conduct toward social inferiors.  A lord is always a warrior.  Martial skill is one’s whole purpose and measure of worth.  A warrior must not leave the battlefield before his lord has died or withdrawn. One gains greatest honour in one’s death suffered in defence of one’s lord whether he has died or not.  Fighting as a champion in front of the battle-line is a very high honour, to be sought after.

(2)  In battle, seek only to fight another lord, not a peasant conscripted to the battle-line.  Slaughter of the peasantry is not dishonourable — once the foe’s lords are defeated.  Treat a captured peer with honour and grace.  Keep your promises to your social peers; your word is your bond.  Treat women of the noble class as treasured possessions, and preserve noble property.

When war became regimented, when firearms weapons in the hands of disciplined commoners made conscripted armies very dangerous, then the lordly classes ensured their noble status by having a monopoly on the ranks of officers.  The officer corps of every army or navy became the career of choice for gentlemen.  “An officer and a gentleman” was a meaningful phrase.

Officers are the men charged with the duty of ensuring their simple soldiers understand the complex rules of war:  rules of engaging the enemy according to laws decided at the United Nations, or in the International Court of Justice, or in treaties among nations.  Officers must answer for the acts of their men.

The U.N. of course cannot enforce the laws of war against great powers, and so the USA, UK, and USSR did not have any officers on trial after WWII, and the Germans did.  Canada had to prosecute a few soldiers for their conduct in the Afghan Mission, and one army regiment was disbanded for criminal conduct in Somalia.  The USA has prosecuted its officers in wars such as Viet Nam, but has not let the UN put Americans on trial.  The USA at this moment will have to decide how to proceed against its air force commanders responsible for the bombing of a Doctors-without-Borders hospital at Qunduz in Afghanistan.  If Americans are tried by a UN court it will be an historic precedent never before witnessed.  The UN has also asserted that Israel must answer to the ICC for the conduct of its wars with Palestinians.

Western armed forces try to hold soldiers to a standard of conduct.

Peace: Movements and Institutions

The movements of civilians to outlaw war, or at the least to make their governments pursue peace with more consistency, are very modern.  Only in modern times have civilians mattered enough to their governments, because only modern democratic forms of rule meant that rulers pay some attention to the phenomenon of public opinion.  Public opinion for peace is a possibility in democracy.

Ancient Athenian democracy was not very inclusive when one considers that women were not enfranchised and slavery was legal, yet the large body of male citizens who voted did not have to form themselves into a “movement” — they had to show up at an Assembly and vote for peace if that is what they desired, since the democracy was direct, not representative.  You went there to vote or you missed your chance; there was no purpose to a peace movement in such circumstances.

Modern England originated a peace movement when the Quaker form of Christianity evolved in the seventeenth century.  Pacifism was a key principle of this sect, and when Quakers went to America as colonists, they made treaties of peace with the Natives in Pennsylvania.  Their treaties were lasting.

It was only in the nineteenth century, in European nations, plus America, that there were sufficient educated, leisured, middle-class citizens in electoral democracies able to form peace movements.  It was Christians who initiated peace societies in Britain (the London peace society) and the USA (New York) and organized peace conferences, in 1815-16 in the aftermath of the French and Napoleonic wars.  Often, the personnel of progressive causes, such as anti-slavery and parliamentary reform, were also peace activists.

A generation later, citizens’ peace conferences were held on the Continent, at Brussels and Paris (1848-’49) and the Peace of Paris in 1856 witnessed an agreement by the five Great Powers to arbitrate disputes before resort to war. A peak achievement of early political activism was the Red Cross (1864) founded in Geneva; Geneva Conventions on rules for prisoners, hospitals, and sick or shipwrecked members of armies and navies, followed before 1900.

History: lessons and limitations

The basic premise of peace movements, and of international legal regulation of war by institutions, is that “History has proved warfare must be controlled and made less frequent.”  This is easy to say.  Who deduces the lessons, who decides what historical facts are educational, are two immense unanswered queries.

I have written at length in other Arc columns why I believe it is mostly untrue to say that governments are educated by the “lessons of history” but that leaders make the choice to use violent force without meaningful reference to past examples of the failure of war to provide permanent peace.

WWI was a war that truly changed the course of European development to a very deep level.  And yet the example of its horrors did not turn Europe away from another war 25 years later.  The leaders of Germany and Japan and Italy simply did not believe that war was no longer beneficial, as the British very clearly did believe in 1919.  Feeling sickened by war was a transient emotion.

It was the sad unwisdom of the Treaty of Versailles that gave Germans a fundamental psycho-politico-ideological foundation to go to war again.  Germans never accepted the total guilt for WWI that the victors expected them to feel.  After WWII, Germans’ sense of guilt for Nazi actions was profound.  Germans have helped Israel very materially ever since Israel was established in 1948, for obvious reasons.  Last week a German government spokesperson said   “The Holocaust remains Germany’s responsibility.”  The war guilt that Germans did not feel in 1919 they most definitely feel in 2015 for Nazi war crimes.

Germans are unique in inviting, last month, one million migrant refugees from the Mid-east to their land; the reason, again, is historically-derived emotion. Israelis too have memories that explain a great deal of Israeli government action — upon land, among people, where Israeli military success has given the Jewish home state immense challenges of governance.

War is a choice

“History teaches that war is insane, immoral, and never beneficial.” Truth?

A “military solution” to a problem of politics and/or economics is favoured by Great Powers because they calculate a benefit to themselves that is worth the material and human cost of war.  Great Powers have that privilege; lesser states are reined in by the Great, and have to stay at peace or be punished by the Great.

We must confront the reality of an elite of five states who regulate warfare globally, as five European great states did in the nineteenth century.

The UN Security Council: the elite of Great Powers in geopolitics

The UN is the global human community’s best institutional hope for peace.  It was founded with this specific purpose after the horrors of the world war against German Nazism, Japanese racialist imperialism, and Italian fascism.

The UN had a very specific historical lesson of institutional failure laid before its originators in 1945: the League of Nations that was established in 1919.  That forerunner to the UN had failed spectacularly to do anything effective to prevent the wars waged by Japan in China and Italy in Africa, to prevent Germany aggressively expanding to the south and east, and the USSR from annexing the Baltic republics.  War came to the world despite the League’s best intentions.  What would the UN do differently from the League, to enforce peace?  What would the fine words of the UN Charter and UN Declaration of Human Rights truly mean when faced with the reality of an anarchic world?

The answer was a masterpiece of political realism.  The UN, as set up by the Big Three Powers – the US, British Empire, and USSR – would not treat all its members states as equal.  The Big Three had no equals.

The Anglo-Bloc was certain what it wanted and moved to resurrect France and its empire as a Great Power, and Nationalist China as the fifth Power, in 1946.

The Anglos could count on France and China to be loyal allies and make the USSR a minority of one in the Security Council of the permanent five members, until capitalist China was ejected and replaced by communist China (1974).

The Five are today the elite of geopolitics in the world, with more freedom to take action unilaterally than other states on the globe.  At the UN their special status on the Security Council has real, meaningful effect in geopolitics.

Privileges of Power

The USA has waged wars all over the Third World wherever it deemed its interest dictated, from Latin America very frequently, to southeast Asia, to the Middle East and Africa, and no other Power could step up and force the Americans to cease their war until Americans themselves chose to do so.

The UK went into swift decline after 1945, having to release most of its empire.  India and Ireland were independent republics within a few years of the end of WWII, and the African, Mid-east and Asian parts of the empire followed, though a few wars against guerilla liberation armies were fought along the way.  Only one major war has been fought by the UK on its own since then, and it was a quick victory over Argentina allowed by the USA and applauded by Americans.

The British Empire went to its grave remarkably peacefully, yet still the UK is a European power of the first tier along with France and Russia to this very day, being one of a few nuclear powers with a highly advanced capitalist economy.

Russia and China are huge, armed with nuclear and conventional weaponry in massive numbers, and the only states near in stature to the superpower USA.

France, also a nuclear power with a rich economic base, has lost its empire but found a significant role as a leader in the European Union.  France has no “special relationship” with the USA as Britain does, and so France can stay out of American actions such as Iraq or I.S., while the British feel obligated to be American partners.  In Latin America, the US tends to act alone militarily.

America, as historian Niall Ferguson details so well in Colossus, truly has a unique level of power.  Only America regularly employs drone strikes, and never calls these strikes acts of war.  So far, America can reach to all continents and commit violent acts and never be called to account by any superior authority.  The UN has no very-serious deterrent effect on the USA, and it is a matter of pride among American Republicans to treat the UN as an irrelevant factor in the pursuit of American policies to combat “evil” and “terrorism” in the world.

The foregoing is a mere thumbnail sketch of how the UN operates with an elite of five Great Powers, but the existence of this elite explains essentially how the UN has managed to be more effective than the League of Nations.  The Security Council big five are responsible for whatever success the UN has had in reducing war among first-rate powers, while having a woefully-poor record at stopping wars between lesser states in every continent.  So many “small wars” have been fought since WWII at the “regional level” (i.e., smaller than a continent) that it seems to some critics rather laughable to call the UN any kind of success at all, in reducing warfare and increasing peace on the planet.

Brief tangent: lesser states under big-power hegemony

The UN had been, until Prime Minister Harper, a keystone of Canadian foreign policy, and Canadian Mike Pearson originated UN peacekeeping forces in 1956.  The Security Council, where (until Harper) Canada usually had a guaranteed seat among the non-permanent members, is the Executive Council of the UN that authorizes  acts of military, naval and/or air force against disturbers of the peace; each of the five permanent members has an absolute veto over any action by UN forces against any state. The fifteen additional Council members are states with some military and economic weight, but without veto power.

Canada since 1918 has striven not to be included by habit in the hegemonic acts of Britain or the USA when they assume imperial/colonial/policing functions; these empires are enforcers of a certain kind of order in Western perspectives.  Canada has become notably more bellicose with a Conservative leader than is our norm.  Our abstention from the Iraq War is not a consistent Middle East stance, as we fought in Afghanistan and Libya and now we fight the Islamic State alongside the USA.  Australia is similar to Canada in not wanting to be any empire’s pawn; Australian troops suffered terribly in WWI as tools of the British army at Gallipoli, as Canadians suffered on the Western front.  In recent years, Australian forces were sent to help Americans fight the Viet Nam and Iraq wars, while Canada opted out.

The Korean War was a fully-authorized UN “police action” mandated by the Security Council when the USSR was temporarily absent from a crucial vote.  (USSR would have vetoed UN action.)  That war ended in stalemate.

 “Duty to Protect” and violation of sovereignty

I have not shut my eyes to the failings of the UN to put much limit on violence either between states or within the borders of states.

Still, with all the qualifiers  that must be heard, before praising humanity’s meagre progress toward putting limits to war, a fair-minded observer can see something wonderful in humanity’s attempts.  The attempts are ongoing;  fine minds are at work elaborating the concepts of “responsibility to protect” innocent non-combatants from crimes such as the genocide in Rwanda.

Syria’s civil war is making the moral duty brutally clear, yet we have no solution to the persistence of Assad; Israel too is depending on no inference from outside in how it treats “conquered” Arab people in occupied territory.  South Africa under the Apartheid regime never faced an armed intervention to end the racialist regime there; world opinion and economic sanctions put an end to white supremacy, along with internal armed struggle with leaders like Mandela.

No outside force ever intervened in Canada after 1867 to ensure we granted our First Nations, or women, or any minority population or religion, appropriate human rights; we Canadians worked it out for ourselves, at our own pace, how to create a more just society.

(Americans intervened in Canadians’ internal order to force upon us their version of republican democratic rule and to end our link to the British Empire.  But in 1775 and the War of 1812, Canadians defeated this US interference.)

Non-interference in the sovereignty of States has been a principle in the West since the Peace of Westphalia.  In 2015, the rights and duties of an authority higher than the sovereign authority of a state are being articulated.  We are now seeing that when horror is perpetrated by a government upon any part of its citizenry, there is a higher right than the right of that state to be free from any and all interference by an outside authority.  Westphalia ended the right of the Papacy and the Emperor to intervene in “domestic” politics — but we need authority higher than a single state to determine what conditions shall afflict the people in that state.  We cannot allow absolute sovereignty to govern unchecked; the spectre of legislated racism by sovereign Nazi Germany haunts us.

Will the Great Powers allow an outside institution (the UN) to reach inside their borders to set things in order?  No, they will not.  Great Powers can abuse their citizens with more impunity than weak ones can.  In this sad fact, we are no different from the Greeks 2500 years ago when Thucydides wrote, “the strong do what they want to do, and the weak do what they are forced to do.”  We have to rely on ethical and moral standards of Great Powers to rule their citizens.  They will not be coerced into morality by threat of any UN  “law-enforcement army”.


In summing up this extended overview of human attempts across history to limit the inhumanity, brutality, destructiveness, and general atrocity of warfare, I admit I can discern no broad pattern of improvement of our violent behaviours.

But – and this is a major qualification to what I just said – I do see that today the world as a whole has more law, rules, conventions, protocols, institutions, technologies, and habits tending to regulate states’ resort to war, than at any time ever before in history.

This state of affairs of course is made possible only by the fact that the globe is so very connected by the material advance of our sciences, economics, and communications.  A global community is a reality, despite all the objections one might want to add to that declaration; economic sanctions can effect major changes.

Europe was the leader, though it less so now, in bringing ideas of international peace, arms limitation, and arbitration of disputes, into practical form in the modern world. There were other times and places where similar principles were in operation, but the world now has a framework laid down by the last two centuries of European dominance; the USA and China entered the picture during the 1899 Hague Disarmament Conference convened by the Tsar of Russia.  World War One may be seen as proof that Conference was useless, but it is not so simple.

The Peace of 1919 began an era of continuous international conferences – which failed again in 1939; but since 1945 we’ve kept the world from total war.  The victorious Allies of 1919 had an idealized vision of making lasting peace by means of the League of Nations, the brainchild of American President Wilson.

Articles laid down in 1899 have been reaffirmed in documents of the U.N. One of the most significant is the clause (Article 22) that belligerents in war do not have unlimited rights to use whatever means are available for harming the enemy.  This asserts that there is a higher right than the right of a State to use any method it can invent to hurt the enemy.  Nuclear weapons might seem to be the sort of warfare that the framers of this article had in mind.  The fact that The Bomb was used in 1945 is perhaps reason for despair that humanity will ever accept limits on employment of weaponry. Or, one may be encouraged by the fact that was the only time to this moment that nuclear bombs were used.

I have found it is easy to go online and find the resources to inform any citizen about the world’s amazing array of institutions and legal documents that attempt to wrap the states of the world in a binding web, to make violence less frequent, less harmful.  That these regulatory instruments seem not to be working as well as our idealism desires is not a reason to despair.  There would be more reason to despair if these institutions and documents were never created in the first place.

I am left with the old half-full/ half-empty conundrum.  I can feel hopeful, for peace movements and for regulations of war passed by the UN – or, feel depressed that they fail so often.

I am distressed by the world’s division into lands of peace such as Canada and lands where violence reigns, with no idea why some people are born here and others, finding themselves in war zones, die attempting to migrate or decay in refugee camps.  The mysteries of metaphysical justice fall outside the scope of today’s topic.


Political Post Script

Congratulations, Mr. Trudeau.  Condolences, Mr. Mulcair.  Consequences, Mr. Harper.

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