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Peace at Any Price

David Cowles

Jun 29, 2023

“We cannot bring about a permanent peace while continually preparing for war, but unilateral disarmament is probably not the answer either.”

Growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I was steeped in an ideology that is almost absent from global discourse today. I’m not talking about fascism or communism, still alive and well in some circles, but something ultimately much more radical: pacificism. 

The experience of two world wars with all their attendant horrors, culminating in the Holocaust, had apparently cured humanity of its taste for war. The dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan was the coup de grace.  War had become unthinkable at last. The nations of the world came together and formed the United Nations (UN), which was to oversee the peaceful arbitration of  all future disputes. Peace at last! 

Churchill and Truman ceded Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union rather than confront Stalin. England validated Gandhi’s strategy of non-violence by withdrawing from the Indian subcontinent. Colonial powers rapidly, and for the most part peacefully, dismantled their empires. A permanent homeland was created for Israel. 

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A ‘Reign of Peace’ had replaced the ‘Thousand-Year Reich’ and the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. What could possibly go wrong? It was the dawn of a much anticipated golden age – no matter that war was still raging in parts of Asia (e.g., Korea). 

It was a time of slogans: “Ban the Bomb,” “Peace at any Price,”and “Better Red than Dead.” Western politicians seriously proposed and campaigned on platforms of Unilateral Disarmament. The world was divided again, but this time it was ‘reactionary war mongers’ vs. ‘naïve utopian peaceniks’. 

The golden age of peace turned out to be more like a half-holiday. The Cold War, the nuclear arms race, ‘duck and cover’ drills, the Hungarian Revolution (1956), Castro’s Cuba, and the launch of Sputnik kept peace from breaking out. Then came Vietnam and the global revolution of the late 1960s. The peace movement became the anti-war movement, which in turn became Ho Chi Minh’s 5th column in the US. In less than 20 years, war, supposedly unthinkable, had become the new normal…again. 

The idea of ‘waging peace’ did not begin on August 6, 1945, with the bombing of Hiroshima. It turns out to have much older roots. The Hebrew nation that Moses led out of Egypt conquered Jericho, the Gotham of its day, without a single Hebrew casualty (as far as we know). Joshua combined a revolutionary ideology with a network of spies and secret agents and God-scripted military tactics worthy of General Giap himself. Ian Fleming should have written a book about him (call him “J”).  

Once settled, the Hebrews did not build massive fortifications or raise a standing army like other nations. Nor did they choose to put their fate in the hands of warrior kings. In fact, the embryonic Hebrew state in Canaan was not a ‘government’ at all by our standards. It was a remarkable blend of theocracy, democracy, and anarchy. The books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel can be read as ‘founding documents’ for all the major political ideologies of the most recent quarter-millennium (1770s – 2020s).   

Speaking of quarter-millennia, the great social experiment we recognize as proto-Israel lasted approximately that long (c. 1300 – 1050 BCE). Like any historical period, the Age of Judges had its ups and downs. Without permanent institutions of government, a ruling class, a standing army, fortifications or naturally defensible borders, Israel was forced to rely on charismatic leaders (judges) who emerged on cue and ad hoc to defend the Holy Land. 

Scholars and theologians disagree as to whether the Mosaic revolution was intended to be national, regional, or global. Suffice to say that it succeeded nationally and influenced regionally but failed internationally. It would be another 2,000 years before the Kingdom of Joshua (albeit much altered) could reasonably be said to extend ‘to all corners of the known world’ (Christendom).  

As Trotsky would have predicted, had he lived in the time of the Judges, the people of Israel were not content with their unusual, if successful, constitution. Like all of us in our adolescent phase, the people of Israel wanted to ‘be like everyone else’ – they wanted a King, and so Samuel, the last of the Judges, inaugurated Saul to be Israel’s first king. 

How did that work out? Fast forward 500 years. Jerusalem has been sacked, and Israel’s most prominent citizens exiled to Babylon. Should’ve listened to YHWH! 

We cannot bring about a permanent peace while continually preparing for war, but unilateral disarmament is probably not the answer either. How about changing the conversation, focusing on things that would make war intrinsically unprofitable…and so ultimately unthinkable? 

  • Prosperity: the overall wealth of the people, justly distributed. 

  • Ecology: the overall health of the planet and reasonable protection for all its species. 

  • Progress: the rapid development but thoughtful deployment of new technologies. 

  • Discovery: the exploration of the universe by telescope, radio antennae, space probes, and space travel. 

No imaginable war could be consistent with any one of these priorities. Consider the war in Ukraine: how does it contribute anything positive toward any of these objectives from the perspective of any of the combatants? It is a classic lose-lose proposition. 

In fact, since WWII, all our wars, win or lose, have led to a similar result - no result at all. Korea is still Korea, Vietnam is still Vietnam, Cuba, Cuba, Latin America, Latin America, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and of course, Afghanistan. War has become as irrelevant as it is unthinkable. And yet…   


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