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Friday, May 06, 2016

The New World Disorder

 Last week I attended a festival showing of a documentary film, The Peacemaker, about a remarkable Irishman named Padraig O'Malley.  O'Malley (who pronounces his first name without the "d") attended the screening and took one afterwards.  There were astonishing moments in the movie for me because of the parallels between our lives.  We both appear to have started graduate school at Harvard in 1971 (although he seems to have abandoned his studies not long afterwards), and he lives in, and has owned, a building on Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge that is nearly across the street from my home from 1973 until 1976.  But our lives have taken very different paths.  While I stayed in academia, he involved himself in the civil war in his home country, trying to bring Protestants and Catholics together starting in the 1970s to at least talk enough to begin to understand one another.  Many of those initial conversations, he explains in the film, took place in bars, not only because of the traditional Irish fondness for drink, but also because he was himself an alcoholic who did not join AA and get sober until many years later, when he had collapsed completely.  But subsequently he has done similar work all over the world, including in South Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans   Indeed, he now hosts seminars at neutral sites that bring together participants on both sides of many different conflicts, so that they may learn from one another.

The movie chose to focus on his struggle with his personal demons and its relationship to his work.  At one point the camera follows him into an AA meeting, although the scene was carefully shot to avoid showing any face but his own.  O'Malley frankly acknowledges that his experience with addiction and recovery has influenced his approach to peacemaking.  Just as AA was founded on the idea that addicts could best help other addicts, his work, his enterprise depends on the idea that adversaries from South Africa, for instance, can give good advice to Israelis and Palestinians.  He also acknowledges, it seemed to me, that he has replaced addiction to alcohol with addiction to his work.  Since I think such connections are very important to understanding the human condition, I appreciated them.  But I was disappointed that the film never went deeply into what he had actually managed to accomplish, or into his views of various world conflicts.  That was a serious gap,. because O'Malley has not only thought about, but written a book about, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, entitled The Two-State Delusion, which appears to be far more realistic than 90% of what is said about that issue. But O'Malley attended the showing and took questions, and I took the opportunity to pose a big one.

"You have been doing this work for a very long time," I said, "and you have participated in some important successes.  But looking around the world, would you say that the problems that you have been working on are getting better, getting worse, or staying about the same?"

I cannot reproduce his answer in full, but it was very clear that he had spent plenty of time thinking about this question himself.  He began on an optimistic note, doubting that we were going to experience anything comparable to the two world wars--a position with which I agree.  But he quickly added that the population of disaffected youth in many parts of the world was growing, and that the opportunities for perpetrating acts of terror were bigger than ever, partly because of the internet, where anyone--like the Tsarnaev brothers--can learn to make a bomb.  And he spoke at some length about how a "dirty bomb" could make an entire city uninhabitable in minutes, creating incredible chaos as hundreds of thousands or even millions of people tried to evacuate it, with unforeseeable consequences later on.  He specifically referred, as I have many times, to the Shi'ite-Sunni conflict in the Middle East, which like the Protestant-Catholic struggle in 17th-century Germany, might easily last for at least a generation.  In short, while he did not specifically answer my question in so many words, his long and careful answer left me with the impression that he did, in fact, think things were getting worse, and that there was no point in pretending otherwise.  That is the same spirit, apparently, that he brought to his analysis of Israel and Palestine.

That in turn fed into an aspect of my own thinking that has been percolating for some months.  No, we are not about to see a conflict parallel to the Second World War, which takes the lives of tens of millions of people.  Looking at conflict from a purely US perspective, it is fact that even now, all the casualties from our Middle East wars since 2001 do not add up to half the casualties in Vietnam during the single year 1968.  But on the flip side of the coin, we seem utterly unable to bring any of these conflicts to an end.  We live in an age of endless war.

The US involvement in the Second World War lasted less than four years.  Had the "war on terror" lasted just as long, it would have been over in 2006.  Even the Vietnam involvement, which seemed endless at the time, lasted only 11 years (1962-72, basically), and thus, on that timetable, the war in the Middle East would have been over in about 2012.  But our war in the Middle East is now beginning to escalate again (and may escalate a lot more under a new President.) It has also spread into various parts of Africa.

Taking an even broader view, the era of the two world wars in Europe has been described as the second Thirty Years War, lasting from 1914 through 1945.  A similarly broad view of the conflict in the Middle East would go back at least to the fall of the Shah in 1979, as Andrew Bacevich's new book does--and 30 years from 1979 would have brought us to 2009.  I think it would very optimistic to suggest that the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia will be at peace by 2029.

Yes, despite the great horrors of the world wars, they served a purpose.  In the end, the United States, the USSR and the British Empire mobilized resources sufficient to completely defeat their enemies--the goal laid down by Franklin Roosevelt, as I showed in No End Save Victory, in the first week of July 1941.  That enabled them to establish peace in Europe.  They could not do the same in Asia, but the Chinese Revolution--another extraordinarily brutal episode--completed that task. By 1960 the power of governments world wide was at an all-time high--both as regards their power to oppress, and to increase the general welfare.  Within ten years, however, a decline had begun, and it has continued ever since.  The prestige both of governments and of the Enlightenment principles upon which they are based has fallen precipitously,and endless war is one result.

About four years ago, I gave my last lecture at the Naval War College, which can still be viewed here. It dealt primarily with US policy in the Third World during the Cold War, but at the end, after taking questions, I made some comments on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.  And as my last slide, I used a quote from Clausewitz, by far the greatest theorist of war, that posed the problem that we faced then, and still seem likely to face for a long time.

    "In war, as in life generally, all parts of a whole are interconnected and thus the effects produced, however small their cause, must influence all subsequent military operations. . . .In the same way, every means must influence even the ultimate purpose. . .thus we can follow a chain of sequential objectives until we reach one that requires no justification, because its necessity is self-evident. In many cases, particularly those involving great and decisive actions, the analysis myust extend to the ultimate objective, which is to bring about peace."

That, clearly, has become Padraig O'Malley's philosophy too, but it seems to be absent from the calculations of world leaders today.  They need to re-establish that objective, and to begin thinking about how to reach it, before there is any hope of bringing our era of endless war to an end.

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