War and peace: A historical perspective

by Dr. Silvano Wueschner
86th Airlift Wing historian

In November 1989 when the Berlin Wall and the Warsaw Pact came crashing down, many people expected a peace dividend. I was reminded of that yearning for peace some years ago when I conducted a seminar for young Airmen at Balad.

One of the participants raised her hand and asked a question that sounded simple enough, but was far more difficult to answer than she could have imagined. The question was, “Will there be peace in Iraq if the U.S. leaves the country right now?” The implication was that our presence somehow kept conflict alive. A simple answer was not possible. It required the kind of in depth discussion to which university history departments have dedicated semester length courses. Part of that discussion has to be an explicit acknowledgement that the military does not make foreign policy, but is used as part of policy implementation.

The reality is that the history of the world has been marked by episodic flare-ups and degeneration separated by varying periods of relative peace and human progress. The boundary lines between these periods are not always easy to discern. If one takes a look at modern European history, the period since the Renaissance, for example, one sees three great eras of new ideas and rising forces, each of which culminated in long wars and turmoil.


The first of these progressive interludes ended with the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648). The second period of peace came to an end with the 40 years of war beginning with the American and French revolutions (ca. 1774 to 1815). The nominal period of peace that followed culminated in worldwide conflicts beginning with the First World War, which still plague us today.

Given the alternating currents of conflict and peace, it is natural to think about the forces that give rise to war and peace. One can begin the discussion by considering the role of ideological differences in spawning conflict. Ideology is a collocation of an intricate mix of religious, social, economic, political, artistic and scientific factors. One of these factors, economics, is frequently referred to in the context of economic determinism. Some might argue that while this factor has not proven to be an absolute in history, it has had an impact. The point is that most people want to live above the bare subsistence level, a desire that has given rise to economic forces and pressures that culminate in hostilities.

Another cause of conflict is nationalism, which grows out of language, religion, folklore, traditions, literature, art, music, beliefs, habits, modes of expression, hates, fears, ideals and loyalties. Nationalism expresses itself in patriotism, which is derived from the fundamentals of love of family, love of country, and pride in racial or ethnic accomplishments. In the extreme, nationalism threatens peace because it contains ambition for power and glory, which can easily expand into dangerous forms, such as the exploitation of the resources and foreign trade of other peoples or in aggression that spawns imperialism.

Imperialism is one of the larger moving forces in history and means nothing less than the movement of a nation beyond its political borders. It is part cause and part effect. It comes from excessive nationalism, militarism, thirst for power and economic pressures. All feed on one another. Imperialism can be placed in to three categories.

The first is the variety where expansion, settlement and development takes place in sparsely populated areas. The second involves the movement of one people into areas of what the conquering nation terms uncivilized people incapable of self-government. The third is the sheer conquest of a constituted nation by another. The last two types of imperialism have one purpose, and that is to achieve superior living conditions by exploiting other people and their resources
As noted above, militarism plays a role in imperialism. Sociologists might propose that man is a combative being, that we love to compete, and that we learn to hate quite easily. Humans are also egocentric and in the mass we become even more egocentric. Beliefs in superiority are quickly transformed into arrogance, which can easily stimulate aggression.

Lastly, there are the factors of fear, hate and revenge. These play a large part in the causes of war. The greatest of these is fear. Hate and revenge more often than not spring from fear. Fear of invasion, starvation, blockade in war, economic disadvantage. As for hate, this frequently stems from feelings of having been wronged, from rivalries or from oppression. Fear and hate culminate in seeking to revenge past injustices, past defeats all of which propel one toward violence. These emotions lie deep in the recesses of a people’s consciousness. Wrongs have been shown to live on for centuries in the minds of a people and traditional age old hates are frequently burned into their souls.

Against all of these aggressive forces stands the will to peace. War kills or maims the best of a people and brings the deepest of sorrows to every home. It brings poverty and moral degeneration and brings these to victor and vanquished alike.
Historians understand that these forces have shaped the history of the world.
Yet, historians also focus on the role of individual actors in shaping history. When a crisis based on one of the aforementioned factors is precipitated by one or more individuals, statesmen seek to deal with it, as was the case with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. When they are able to diffuse the crisis, the result is peace.
When they are not, it means war or, at the very least, the road to war.