Is Peace Possible?


Today the newspapers are full of analyses condemning the decision to go to war in Iraq.  The invasion was so badly calculated.  We haven’t got the result desired.  Peace and democracy have not arrived in Iraq, the area has become a terrorist recruitment zone, death and destruction has been much greater than predicted, and, the crowning irony, the cost of a barrel of oil has now soared to a record $95.  This particular war has gone badly wrong.  Let’s hope we learn something from the disaster, and get a better result from future interventions.  This is the moral drawn by many a pundit.

In this last editorial I want to focus on a more basic issue.  War has been thought to be a legitimate option of foreign policy, even in democracies where decisions are meant to reflect public opinion.  This is old-fashioned thinking, no longer applicable to today’s world, if it ever was.  Today realisation is growing that humanity faces looming problems that are going to require all our attention.  The destruction, the distraction, the waste, the confrontation of war threatens destruction of our environment and the very thread of life itself.  We now have weapons whose effect is quite uncontrollable once used, but which nevertheless will eventually be used if war remains on the conventional agenda.  Once a war has started, once ‘the very survival of the state’ is at stake, once the red mist of revenge has descended to cloud our vision, we will assuredly commit mass suicide.  Apocalyptic? Certainly.  Unrealistic?  Certainly not.

I have taken the title for this editorial from a book by Kathleen Lonsdale, which I found in the library of a Friends Meeting House, where we go for a WEA music class.  Though the book is now out of print, I managed to obtain a copy on the internet.  Lonsdale was a scientist, a Quaker, a very bright lady whose career was crowned when she became a Fellow of the Royal Society.  She turned her brilliant analytical mind to the problem of how we might prevent wars.

Though written half a century ago, the issues she addresses remain unanswered.  She starts with an analysis of the problems of radioactive waste disposal and creation of plutonium, usable in nuclear weapons, which result from the decision to use nuclear power. This was a problem within her own field of expertise.  The pollution of the land and the oceans caused simply by spread of nuclear power and the testing of nuclear weapons meant that ‘absolute national sovereignty cannot be maintained in a world that wishes to avoid slow but certain deterioration of human health and well being’.

Then she turns her attention to the problem of population increase.  The simple Malthusian maths are set out, which lead to an explosion in numbers to such an extent that the environment is destroyed in the attempt to feed us all.  This central problem posed by the real world needs our full attention, and a degree of co-operation and education impossible in a world of power politics, where each nation looks to seek advantage at the cost of its neighbours.

After the atomic bombs were dropped, Einstein famously said that a new way of thinking was now needed if mankind was to survive, and this idea is mentioned several times by Lonsdale.  But let us distinguish.  A new way of thinking is not needed so much with us, the people.  We are always led reluctantly to war, and when a natural disaster strikes anywhere in the world, a great fund of generosity is demonstrated as we subscribe to emergency relief.  Even driving on our crowded roads today would hardly be possible if courtesy and care were not the general rule.  The new way of thinking is required of our rulers – a much less formidable requirement, and in a democracy one within our power to implement.

A flavour of Lonsdale’s style and perception.  Writing in 1957, she says, ‘Perhaps there is no international dispute which so well illustrates the problem of finding any just and reasonable solution whatever, as that which now exists between Israel and the Arab states.’  She goes on to analyse a problem which remains unresolved today, giving a history of Britain’s ‘not particularly creditable’ involvement in the formation of the state of Israel, describing ‘the mistakes we have made have been due partly to the incorrigible tendency we share with other nations to protect our national interests, partly to stupidity and exasperation and not, as is sometimes suggested, to deliberate wickedness or irresponsibility’.

She sees no hope for the future in the militarism that is the conventional wisdom in all the powerful nations today, and sets out an alternative vision of co-operation that is most attractive, not to mention logically essential if we are to have the sort of future we would all like to see.

[Is Peace Possible?  Kathleen Lonsdale.  A Penguin Special.  65 US cents in 1957]

Harry Davis