by John Scales Avery
Against the institution of war
The United Nations has designated the 16th of May as a day devoted to Living Together in Peace. It therefore seems appropriate to mark this day by discussing the reasons why war must be eliminated as a human institution.
Science and technology are double-edged
As we start the 21st century and the new millennium, our scientific and technological civilization seems to be entering a period of crisis. Today, for the first time in history, science has given to humans the possibility of a life of comfort, free from hunger and cold, and free from the constant threat of infectious disease. At the same time, science has given us the power to destroy civilization through thermonuclear war, as well as the power to make our planet uninhabitable through pollution and overpopulation. The question of which of these alternatives we choose is a matter of life or death to ourselves and our children.
Science and technology have shown themselves to be double-edged, capable of doing great good or of producing great harm, depending on the way in which we use the enormous power over nature, which science has given to us. For this reason, ethical thought is needed now more than ever before. The wisdom of the world’s religions, the traditional wisdom of humankind, can help us as we try to insure that our overwhelming material progress will be beneficial rather than disastrous.
Contrasting rates of change
The crisis of civilization, which we face today, has been produced by the rapidity with which science and technology have developed. Our institutions and ideas adjust too slowly to the change. The great challenge which history has given to our generation is the task of building new international political structures, which will be in harmony with modern technology. At the same time, we must develop a new global ethic, which will replace our narrow loyalties by loyalty to humanity as a whole.
In the long run, because of the enormously destructive weapons, which have been produced through the misuse of science, the survival of civilization can only be insured if we are able to abolish the institution of war.
Every war is a war against children!
While in earlier epochs it may have been possible to confine the effects of war mainly to combatants, in our own century the victims of war have increasingly been civilians, and especially children. For example, according to Quincy Wright’s statistics, the First and Second World Wars together cost the lives of 26 million soldiers, but the toll in civilian lives was much larger: 64 million.
Civilian casualties often occur through malnutrition and through diseases, which would be preventable in normal circumstances. Because of the social disruption caused by war, normal supplies of food, safe water and medicine are interrupted, so that populations become vulnerable to famine and epidemics. In the event of a catastrophic nuclear war, starvation and disease would add greatly to the loss of life caused by the direct effects of nuclear weapons.
Indirect damage due to wars
The indirect effects of war are also enormous. Globally, preparations for war interfere seriously with the use of tax money for constructive and peaceful purposes. During the year 2019, according to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, the world spent 1.9 trillion (i.e. almost 2 million million) US dollars on armaments. This enormous flood of money, which is almost too large to imagine, could have been used instead for urgently needed public health measures.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that “defense departments” do not really defend us. Better health care systems and more research on vaccines could have defended us against the pandemic.
Today’s world is one in which roughly ten million children die each year from diseases related to poverty. Besides this enormous waste of young lives through malnutrition and preventable disease, there is a huge waste of opportunities through inadequate education. The rate of illiteracy in the 25 least developed countries is 80 percent, and the total number of illiterates in the world is estimated to be 800 million. Meanwhile every 60 seconds the world spends roughly 2 million U. S. dollars on armaments.
It is plain that if the almost unbelievable sums now wasted on armaments were used constructively, most of the pressing problems now facing humanity could be solved.
The threat of thermonuclear war
The threat of an all-destroying nuclear war makes it clear that civilian populations are only hostages in the power-struggles of their leaders. In a thermonuclear war, hundreds of millions of civilians would die, also in neutral countries.
War as a business; war as an institution
Because the world spends almost two trillion dollars each year on armaments, it follows that very many people make their living from war. This is the reason why it is correct to speak of war as a social institution, and also the reason why war persists, although everyone realizes that it is the cause of much of the suffering that inflicts humanity. We know that war is madness, but it persists. We know that it threatens the future survival of our species, but it persists, entrenched in the attitudes of historians, newspaper editors and television producers, entrenched in the methods by which politicians finance their campaigns, and entrenched in the financial power of arms manufacturers, entrenched also in the ponderous and costly hardware of war, the fleets of warships, bombers, tanks, nuclear missiles and so on.
The responsibility of scientists and engineers
Science cannot claim to be guiltless: In Eisenhower’s farewell address, he warned of the increasing power of the industrial-military complex, a threat to democratic society. If he were making the same speech today, he might speak of the industrial-military-scientific complex. Since Hiroshima, we have known that new knowledge is not always good. There is a grave danger that nuclear weapons will soon proliferate to such an extent that they will be available to terrorists and even to the mafia. Chemical and biological weapons also constitute a grave threat. The eradication of smallpox in 1979 was a triumph of medical science combined with international cooperation. How sad it is to think that military laboratories cultivate smallpox and that the disease may be reintroduced as a biological weapon!
The institution of war seems to be linked to a fault in human nature, to our tendency to exhibit altruism towards members of our own group but aggression towards other groups if we perceive them to be threatening our own community. This tendency, which might be called “tribalism”, was perhaps built into human nature by evolution during the long prehistory of our species, when we lived as hunter-gatherers in small genetically homogeneous tribes, competing for territory on the grasslands of Africa. However, in an era of nerve gas and nuclear weapons, the anachronistic behaviour pattern of tribal altruism and intertribal aggression now threatens our survival.
Fortunately, our behaviour is only partly determined by inherited human nature. It is also, and perhaps to a larger extent, determined by education and environment; and in spite of all the difficulties just mentioned, war has been eliminated locally in several large regions of the world. Taking these regions as models, we can attempt to use the same methods to abolish war globally.
Governance at the global level
Abolition of the institution of war will require the construction of structures of international government and law to replace our present anarchy at the global level. Today’s technology has shrunken the distances, which once separated nations; and our present system of absolutely sovereign nation-states has become both obsolete and dangerous. My own belief is that our best hope for a peaceful future lies in strengthening the United Nations by converting it into a federation with the power to make and enforce laws that are binding on individuals. The amount of money available to the UN and its agencies, such as the World Health Organization and the Food and Agricultural Organization should be increased by a factor of at least 50. This goal could be achieved through the Tobin Tax, a very small tax on international currency transactions. The volume of these transactions is so great that the Tobin Tax could give a strengthened UN adequate financial resources for global governance.
The growth of global consciousness
Besides a humane, democratic and just framework of international law and governance, we urgently need a new global ethic, – an ethic where loyalty to family, community and nation will be supplemented by a strong sense of the brotherhood of all humans, regardless of race, religion or nationality. Schiller expressed this feeling in his “Ode to Joy”, a part of which is the text of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Hearing Beethoven’s music and Schiller’s words, most of us experience an emotion of resonance and unity with the message: All humans are brothers and sisters – not just some – all! It is almost a national anthem of humanity. The feelings that the music and words provoke are similar to patriotism, but broader. It is this sense of a universal human family that we need to cultivate in education, in the mass media, and in religion. We already appreciate music, art and literature from the entire world, and scientific achievements are shared by all, regardless of their country of origin. We need to develop this principle of universal humanism so that it will become the cornerstone of a new ethic
On our small but beautiful Earth, made small by technology, made beautiful by nature, there is room for one group only: the family of humankind.
John Scales Avery was born in 1933 in Lebanon, where his father was Professor of Anatomy at the American University of Beirut. He received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles, both on scientific topics and on broader social questions.
In 1969 he founded the Journal of Bioenergetics and Biomembranes, and he served as its Managing Editor until 1980. He also served as Technical Advisor to the World Health Organization between 1988 and 1997, and as Chairman of the Danish National Group of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs from 1990 to 2020.
In 1995, Pugwash Conferences as an organization shared the Nobel Peace Prize with its president, Sir Joseph Rotblat.
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