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War in Ukraine: Can history repeat itself?



Daniel Esparza - published on 02/24/22

Opposing the idea of the inevitable and eternal return of war is the simultaneously reasonable and faithful stance current events demand

WWII ended September 2, 1945. That does not mean the following years were free of violence. In fact, conflict took place in every year of the 20th century. The 21st century has certainly followed suit. The continuity of violence seems to beg the question: Can humans change the way they behave?

According to the British Imperial War Museums, it has been estimated that “187 million people died as a result of war from 1900 to the present,” but “the actual number is likely far higher.” Despite that, and even if war-caused deaths peaked during the Korean War (early 1950s), the Vietnam War (around 1970), and the Iran-Iraq and Afghanistan wars (1980s), the absolute number has declined since 1946. True, the list of wars fought between 1945 and 2021 might seem endless. In the early post-war era alone, around half a million people died victims of direct violence in wars. But, in contrast, in 2016, the number of all battle-related deaths in conflicts involving at least one state (that is, civil wars included) was 87,432. That is still 239 persons, daily.

It might not be evident by looking at the numbers, but humanity’s greatest political achievement since the end of WWII has been this steady, relative decline of war.However, as Yuval Noah Harari argues in his most recent article, “that is now in jeopardy.” A professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Harari notes that “at the heart of the Ukraine crisis lies a fundamental question about the nature of history and the nature of humanity: is change possible? Can humans change the way they behave, or does history repeat itself endlessly, with humans forever condemned to re-enact past tragedies without changing anything except the décor?”

An existential question

These are, of course, classic philosophical, anthropological, and religious questions, as old as the books of the Bible or the Homeric hymns and epics. But the fact that we have been asking them for at least 3,500 years does not mean they are not worth revisiting —especially considering that most commentaries regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine include endless references to 1939 (the year WWII began), wondering if we are now witnessing the beginning of a third world war, as if in a warlike loop.   

Several schools of thought simply deny the possibility of change. Hobbes-inspired thinkers, for example, understand that the only thing preventing the strong from preying upon the weak is a major, overarching force (say, that of the State) which reserves for itself the legitimate use of violence and, hence, the arms monopoly. Other schools, of course, think otherwise, and claim that these power relations are perfectly avoidable. Being man-made, they can certainly be twisted, changed, altered, or done away with entirely. Harari explains that “there have been many periods [in early human history] devoid of archaeological evidence for war.” That would imply that, far from being a natural human urge, war rather depends on “underlying technological, economic and cultural factors. As these factors change, so does war.”

A technologically-driven “peace”

It was precisely the technological transformation of war that made the relatively “peaceful” after-war period possible. The sheer existence and availability of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons mainly) have turned war between superpowers “into a mad act of collective suicide.”The unprecedented destructive power of contemporary arsenals has forced governments to use less violent ways to resolve conflict —mainly, economic and diplomatic sanctions. As a result, there has not been a direct war between superpowers in at least seven decades. Harari rightly notes how “most governments stopped seeing wars of aggression as an acceptable tool to advance their interests, and most nations stopped fantasizing about conquering and annexing their neighbors.” In a way, Hobbesian thinkers seem to be somewhat right: it is the threat of a bigger power (a power able to bring about total destruction, the power a nuclear world war could unleash) that has kept war at bay. In fact, governments all around the world have spent just 6.5% of their budgets on their armed forces —way less than what they have spent on education, health care, or welfare in the last few decades.

In short, Harari’s argument explains that the decline of war “resulted from humans making better choices.” Largescale war is far from inevitable, as these 70 years have made clear. But the fact that this relatively peaceful period in human history is the result of manmade decisions also implies that we can choose otherwise. And this is mainly the reason why the Russian occupation of Ukraine should concern us all: “If it again becomes normative for powerful countries to wolf down their weaker neighbors,” Harari states, “it would affect the way people all over the world feel and behave. The first and most obvious result […] would be a sharp increase in military spending at the expense of everything else.”

Choosing madness, or not.

In his customary Wednesday General Audience last February 9, Pope Francis referred to the possibility of a war in Ukraine as “madness.” This is not just some random choice of words, and they echo Harari’s understanding of a clash among superpowers as a “mad act of collective suicide.” “War is madness,” the Pontiff plainly stated, advocating for the overcoming of tensions and threats through serious multilateral dialogue. Will Russian actions in Ukraine lead to a new largescale conflict, à la 1939? Harari explains that, as a historian, he does believe “in the possibility of change. I don’t think this is naivety—it’s realism. The only constant of human history is change.” In a like manner, in the 79th article of his Laudato Si, Francis clearly states that free will, the human capacity to decide, choose, and change, “is what makes for the excitement and drama of human history, in which freedom, growth, salvation and love can blossom, or lead towards decadence and mutual destruction. The work of the Church seeks not only to remind everyone of the duty to care for nature, but at the same time she must above all protect mankind from self-destruction.” Opposing the idea of the inevitable and eternal return of war is the simultaneously reasonable and faithful stance current events demand.

Pope FrancisUkraine
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