A Fragile Peace

Memorialize Our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen & Marines by Building a Peace that Lasts

This weekend will mark the celebration of Memorial Day in the United States. It’s a time to remember veterans who died for their country, but it should also be a time to ask what their service accomplished. War, with all of its horror, must have a compelling purpose, and the only worthwhile intent is to create a better peace.[1] Unfortunately, the peace generations of veterans fought for is fragile, and must be carefully preserved.

The Fragility of Peace

The West is experiencing a peaceful spell. While there are terrible conflicts ongoing in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and other places, combat on the scale of World War I and World War II has not occurred since the 1940s. Despite many media outlets’ focus on violent conflicts, the world is experiencing one of the most peaceful times in human history.[2] This halcyon period can create the impression that the days of war between major powers are complete. Unfortunately, history indicates that peace, like war, is a temporary state. All of the mechanisms the international community currently relies on to maintain peace have occurred before, and all of them have consistently failed.The leaders of major powers need to remember that peace is fragile, and has shattered in the past despite the efforts of many leaders and organizations.

The 30 Years War was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history,…

The Western world has experienced several periods of deliberately crafted peace after particularly calamitous wars. The 30 Years War was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, and its cessation at the Peace of Westphalia marked both the end of the major religious wars in Europe and the birth of a secular, rationalist state system.[3] The wars of the French Revolution increased the scale of European state warfare and signaled the birth of European popular nationalism, changing the face of European and world politics. They were followed by the most peaceful stretch of European history since the end of Pax Romana, but that ended in 1914 with the outbreak of the Great War, which created a new European meaning for absolute war.[4] The Great War ended in 1918 with the Treaty of Versailles, but peace lasted a mere 21 years before the start of the most destructive war in human history, World War II.

The Mechanisms of Peace

After each war, mechanisms emerged that contributed to intervals of peace. States looked back upon their last war’s cost with sorrow and towards their next war’s cost with fear. Economic interdependence created prohibitively high costs for conflict. New, peaceful philosophies developed, and liberal international bodies designed to smother the embers of war emerged. Each of these occurred after the Thirty Years War, the wars of the French Revolution, the Great War, and again after World War II. They prevented a number of wars from occurring and some small conflicts from escalating.

The Consequences of War

The memory of the last war’s consequences and the fear of what a new war could entail serves as a powerful deterrent. Today, the threat of nuclear war gives pause to nuclear states when they consider violently resolving conflicts. But distaste for the cost of war has not served as an effective deterrent in the past. The Thirty Years War caused approximately eight million deaths before it ended in 1648.[5] But the fighting did not stop until 1659, and the treaties did not attempt to significantly reduce future warfare. More than a century later, the French Revolution appeared to be a cataclysmic event, war “broken loose in all its elemental fury.”[6] The war marked a massive increase in the size of armies and their corresponding casualties, greater impact on populations, and the rebirth of people’s war. Despite its losses, France experienced less than a decade of peace before invading Spain in 1823.

World War I, or the Great War, was a traumatic experience for Europeans. It forced them to reconsider the utility of war and began the end of Europe’s domination of the world. Nearly 13 million people died in trench warfare, so many that Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway coined the term ‘lost generation’ to describe the disorientation of those that came of age during the Great War.[7] But Europe experienced less than two decades of peace before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, quickly followed by World War II.

Economic Interdependence

Economic interdependence can also inhibit war. Thomas Friedman published the Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention in “The World is Flat,” stating that “no two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell’s, will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain.”

Unfortunately, this mechanism, often mentioned today referencing the United States and China, or Western Europe and Russia, has also failed in the past. Before the French Revolution, colonial trade drove France’s overseas commerce to increase by 500% in the 18th century. Most of the profits came from port cities on France’s coast that traded luxury items in Northern European ports.[8] Prior to World War I, Norman Angell argued that economic interdependence between Western European states made war prohibitively unprofitable, a belief reinforced by Great Britain’s and Germany’s status as each other’s largest trading partner prior to 1914.[9]

Peaceful Philosophies

Optimists may also reference peaceful philosophies. Better Angels of our Nature correctly claims that mankind has gone through a civilizing process as societies become more developed, reducing violence. Part of this civilizing process is the growing belief that major war is obsolete, and can be abolished the same way that slavery and formal dueling have become culturally unacceptable in most societies.

Philosophy has also proven unable to prevent major wars.

But peaceful philosophies have failed in the past. The French Ménage actually outlawed wars of conquest in 1791, shortly before starting what has been called the first world war.[10] Prior to WWI, wealthy philanthropists created the Carnegie Endowment and the Nobel Peace Prize, and Europe gave birth to numerous peace societies. Prior to WWII, much of Europe’s population believed war was not a viable course of action, even when faced with Nazi Germany’s poorly excused expansionism. Though Hitler’s later actions turned appeasement into near profanity, Chamberlain and Daladier returned from signing the Munich Agreement to a hero’s welcome.[11] Philosophy has also proven unable to prevent major wars.

Liberal International Organizations

Liberal international organizations such as the United Nations, a mainstay of the peaceful conflict resolution process today, have not worked in the past. After the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna established the Concert of Europe to maintain a more peaceful balance of power. [12] The Concert failed to prevent several small wars, and allowed the formation of Germany, ultimately leading to two world wars. After World War I, the participants founded the League of Nations, which served less as a mechanism for peace and more as evidence that strong states can easily ignore the mandates of international organizations.

The Surprise of War

Each of the mechanisms described above relies on rational actors who can predict that certain actions will lead to major wars. But war often comes unexpectedly. Despite historians’ portrayal of the events leading to World War I as obvious in retrospect, at the time many of Europe’s leaders were shocked by the onset of World War I, then shocked by its savagery, then shocked yet again when they realized it would not end quickly. Many of the same states went on to believe Europe could appease Nazi Germany. More recently, the attacks of September 11, 2001 shocked the American population, who certainly did not expect to continue the resulting war for more than 13 years.

Clausewitz stated that “war is policy by other means,” and has been over-quoted since. But the banal use of Clausewitz’s famous adage obscures the difference between diplomacy and war. War has a life of its own that causes events to quickly escape control in a manner less frequently found in diplomacy. That’s why war is policy by other means, not politics by other means.[13]

Disregarding the nature of war and its propensity to grow and gain momentum increases the possibility that an undesired war will rear its ugly head,…

Sir Winston Churchill said that “The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”[14] He understood that some wars started, not because any leader wanted them to, but because leaders found themselves unable to prevent them despite their best wishes.Disregarding the nature of war and its propensity to grow and gain momentum increases the possibility that an undesired war will rear its ugly head.

The Approach of War

In 1922, Forge Santayana wrote that “only the dead have seen the end of war.”[15] Events since then have done little to prove him wrong, and show no sign of doing so. The world certainly seems to be setting itself up for yet another round of war between major powers. Beyond obvious Russian and Chinese territorial ambitions, states are forming alliances whose defensive natures often does little to assuage others. Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland have created a defense cooperation, fearing the Russians will use both military aggression and the Russian minorities in their states to satiate Russian territorial ambitions.[16] The Arab League has created a 40,000 strong military force to combat the region’s challenges, which is allegedly not a euphemism for Iran.[17] While these alliances serve a legitimate defensive purpose, that may serve as little comfort to their opponents, and has not prevented increased regional tension in the past. Neither these alliances, or even Russia’s and China’s territorial ambitions seem likely to ignite another world-wide conflagration. But neither did the storming of the Bastille or the assassination of an Austrian archduke.

The high probability of another war between major powers does not just mean that states should be prepared to fight each other. While that is true, it is said often enough. Furthermore, the defense industry is still practicing a very robust trade, hedging its bets that war will return. Instead of just preparing for war, statesmen should focus on avoiding it altogether, and this will not happen if political and military leaders do not how understood how quickly events leading to war can escape their control.

..the natures of both war and humanity have not changed in the intervening 100 years…

Historians now commonly look back at the events leading up to the major wars of the twentieth century and notice how avoidable they were. Russia, Germany, or the Austro-Hungarians might have stopped or significantly reduced the size of World War I by deciding not to fight, costing them little but national prestige. Britain and France might have avoided World War II if they had stood up to Hitler in Munich, or if the Russians had not signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In 1962, President Kennedy, having read The Guns of August and understood the “pitfalls that led to August, 1914,” did prevent the Cuban Missile Crisis from escalating to war.[18] It is questionable whether or not World War I and World War II were as avoidable as the war the Cuban Missile Crisis could have become, as playing the what-if game with history never leads to definitive conclusions. But even if they were, the natures of both war and humanity have not changed in the intervening 100 years, leaving the international community’s peace in as fragile a position as July 1789, July 1914, or August 1939.

Memorial Day

Americans should use Memorial Day to show respect for the many who have sacrificed for the people of the United States. But part of that respect should include contemplation of why military service is necessary, and what it should accomplish. If the American people truly want to memorialize the sacrifice of their soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, they should do so by making a peace that lasts as long as possible.

Justin Lynch is an officer in the U.S. Army and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.


[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (Allen, Texas: Christian Classics, 1989), 367.

[2] Steven Pinker, Better Angels of Our Nature (London: Penguin Books, 2012).

[3] Philip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles (Anchor: Anchor, 2003), 22.

[4] Margaret Macmillan, The War That Ended Peace (New York: Random House, 2013), xxvii.

[5] Philip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles (Anchor: Anchor, 2003), 501–508.

[6] Donald Stoker, Clausewitz: His Life and Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 19.

[7] C.R.M.F. Cruttwell, A History of the Great War 1914–1918 (Chicago: Academy Chicago Publisher, 1934), 630.

[8] William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 13.

[9] Margaret Macmillan, The War That Ended Peace (New York: Random House, 2013), 140.

[10 Keith Baker, John Boyer, Julius Kirshner, 7 The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 261.

[11] William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2011) 414–420.

[12] David Bell, The First Total War (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), 308.

[13] Hew Strachan, Clausewitz’s On War (New York: Grove Press, 2008).

[14] “Churchill on War” National Churchill Museum,https://www.nationalchurchillmuseum.org/war-quotes.html accessed May 10

[15] “George Santayana” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,written 11 February 2002, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/santayana/.

[16] “Nordic Nations Agree On Defense Cooperation Against Russia,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, written April 10, 2015http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-nordic-nations-baltic-ukraine-/26948181.html.

[17] “Sisi says Arab nations to create joint military force,” AlJazeera, written 31 March 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/03/sisi-arab-nations-create-joint-military-force-150329103508213.html.

[18] Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: Random House Group, 1962), vii.