Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 cold war satire, Dr. Strangelove, contains the immortally silly line: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!” Kubrick brings East-West tensions down to the level of a playground tussle, as a Russian ambassador slugs it out with a cigar-chomping US army general.
Most wars happen because the ones who start them think they can win. Even so, defeat is never quite straightforward, because downfall often brings with it a kind of posthumous victory. A case in point is the collapse
of the Confederacy at the end of the American civil war in 1865. The slaveholding south was so utterly devastated by Union armies that it lost 20% of its white male population; nevertheless, Confederates managed to recast themselves as Christ-like victims exalted by defeat. A mood of spiritual defiance accordingly prevailed among the Confederates and
Trump-voting extremists at the Charlottesville marches in August as they clashed with representatives of the Yankee liberal north.
For all its belligerence and bluster, Donald Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea suggests the US is united at least in its determination to continue to be the guarantor of world order and negotiate in all future nuclear conflicts.
Should it be necessary, Trump’s nuclear strike against “rocket man” Kim Jong-un will ideally be a disarming first strike. In a climate of mutual suspicion and fear, a surprise attack is needed to land the knockout blow. No doubt Trump could wipe out North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang in a day, yet in some ways the current standoff is more serious than the Cuban
missile crisis half a century ago, in 1962. The potential for both sides to misjudge each other’s intentions is significantly greater. John F. Kennedy, after a military briefing, was able to imagine something of the human catastrophe
that a nuclear war might unleash. The Russian president, Nikita Khrushchev, for his part, had survived two world wars and understood it was important to save lives. So, at the eleventh hour, the ballistic Armageddon was averted through the moral sympathy of two ideologically opposed statesmen. It is a lesson that might have echoed down the generations to reach parts of Trump.
Nuclear weapons transformed the way we think about war, says Lawrence Freedman. Such weapons were introduced to end a war that had undermined the Judaeo-Christian morality of compassion for the weak and annihilated entire innocent peoples. A violent social Darwinism – nature as bleak survivalism – served Hitler as justification for the extermination of European Jewry.
Man’s wilful and destructive misuse of science brought unprecedented mass destruction to the 1939-1945 conflict. Not only the industrialised killing of Treblinka and Sobibor, but the atomic holocaust of Hiroshima and Stalin’s technocratic Russia showed how far man could go in the pursuit of power. Even HG Wells, with his uncanny gift of scientific foresight, could not predict the blinding flash over Hiroshima. Never before had a government planned the atomic annihilation of an entire city and its inhabitants. Freedman, one of Britain’s foremost military thinkers, cites Dr. Strangelove as the pre-eminent nuclear war anxiety film. His study of warfare from the 19th century to the present day, The Future of War, considers
how man’s fear of “push-button” catastrophe influenced the dystopian imaginations, variously, of Wells, Jules Verne, Nevil Shute and, not least, Kubrick. The book’s title is a bit of a misnomer, though, as Freedman nowhere predicts what future wars might look like. In all likelihood, “mass casualty terrorism” will take the place of old-fashioned interstate wars. Certainly it is now rare for states to come directly to blows; instead, states face the threat of hardline Islamist movements, shadowy Islamist militias, angry Islamist mobs and cynical Islamist warlords. Using butcher’s knives, axes and other old-fashioned weapons that might have been “recognised by earlier generations”, Islamist terrorists are able to instil significant levels of fear.
After al-Qaida’s attack on the US in September 2001, more books were published on Islam and war than had been published in “all prior human history”, Freedman reports. Greater levels of empathy and self-control, however, seem to have made people in the West less violent. Computer games and films may be saturated in violence, but there has been no commensurate enthusiasm for participating in ritualised mass murder. Few things better illustrate the shift in sensibility than capital punishment.
The last time anyone was hanged in England was 1964. The spectacle of state-sanctioned execution was reckoned to reflect the barbarism of another age, so it was abolished. Public stonings, hangings and amputations are, of course, still greatly enjoyed in Saudi Arabia and countries subjected to Islamic State governance. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Latin for war, bellum, is a homonymous near-miss to the word for beauty, bellus. Mankind is too fond of violence to give it up without a fight.