War is now regarded by ‘civilized’ societies as an exceptional, indeed a pathological condition, to be studied only in order to be prevented. But throughout most of human history war has been accepted as entirely normal: as normal as famine, poverty, and disease. Peace, when it has existed at all, was only a temporary and precarious interval between recovery from the last war and preparation for the next. Prolonged peace was made possible only by the existence of empires strong enough to impose their will internally and defend themselves externally over generations. When their capacity to do so disappeared, the pax imperium disappeared with them.
The creation and maintenance of peace demanded a far greater degree of political skill than did the waging of war. It still does. But since on the successful waging of war depended the prosperity and independence, if not the very survival, of political communities, those groups who proved most adept at it tended to dominate their societies. In order to wage war more effectively societies developed increasingly complex forms of political organization; in Europe evolving from tribal to feudal structures, from feudal to monarchical, and eventually from monarchical to the bureaucratic-national states that by the end of the nineteenth century divided Europe between them and today make up the global political system in which we live.
In Judaeo-Christian eschatology, ‘perpetual peace’ has always been seen as requiring divine intervention. The belief that it can be created as the result of purely human endeavour dates back no earlier than the ‘Enlightenment’ in eighteenth-century Europe. The Enlightenment was itself the consequence of a period of political stability and economic prosperity that resulted, exceptionally, not from imperial rule, but from the development of states whose elites shared a common culture, and the emergence within them of philosophes who questioned the necessity for war at all and attributed its existence to those who profited by waging it. As the basis for political consent broadened, so they believed, the necessity for war would evaporate, and peace would become ubiquitous and eternal. Like famine, disease, and poverty, war could be abolished by rational planning and endeavour.
The next two centuries did little to justify these assumptions. Famine, disease, and poverty were indeed slowly mastered in the more fortunate parts of the world. But war, so far from dying out, became infinitely more terrible—so terrible indeed that by the mid-twentieth century the development of nuclear weapons made it likely that, so far from ensuring the survival of political communities, war would result in their mutual and total destruction. This has led industrialized states to redouble their efforts to avoid internecine warfare, but their efforts cannot resolve all the global political and ideologi (p. viii) cal conflicts, international or domestic, that seem insoluble except by armed struggle. Indeed, in consequence of the political confusion into which the world has been thrown as the ideals of the Enlightenment have become global, dissolving traditional political loyalties and creating new communities demanding statehood, armed conflict in one form or another has become increasingly hard to avoid.
By slow degrees a global community may be coming into being whose members share the common culture and degree of rationality needed to resolve all their conflicts without recourse to armed force. Meanwhile, war in one form or another is likely to persist, if only between those who profit from a stable and peaceful world in spite of its imperfections, and those who do not. A ‘Handbook to War’ is thus needed, not so much by those responsible for waging or aspiring to abolish it, but for everyone interested in understanding the world into which they have been born and in which they hope to survive.
Professor Sir Michael Howard