David A. Bell
Below is a newspaper article by the historian David A. Bell.
DAVID A. BELL, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities who specializes in the history of France, has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He is a contributing editor of The New Republic and, in 2005, was a visiting professor at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Among his honors and awards is the Gershoy Prize of the American Historical Association, which was awarded in 2002 to his book The Cult of the Nation in France. Professor Bell has taught at Johns Hopkins since 1996.
Bell's piece is relevant to peace through understanding because he suggests that the Enlightenment ideal of universal peace actually may have contributed to making war more barbaric and to greater demonization of the enemy.
The basic idea is that Enlightenment thinkers convinced Europeans that war is barbaric and should be eliminated from relations among civilized states. So those who considered themselves enlightened but who felt a need to go to war sought to justify the needed war with the argument that the enemy threatened civilization. This meant that the enemy would have to be portrayed as truly monsterous, and that unrestrained efforts against the enemy would be justified.
I'm not convinced that Kant is to blame.
Even if, as MacIntyre has argued, the Enlightenment project has been largely a failure, it has also had some great successes; and if the promotion of the ideal of universal peace has not be an unqualified success, it remains a worthy effort.
To support Bell's claims, we should find that people influenced by Enlightenment thought demonized their enemies more than previous propagandists, and conduct wars more ruthlessly.
To undermine his claims, we might find other reasons for post-enlightenment demonization and violations of rules of jus in bellum. When we look compare pre- and post-Enlightenment depictions of enemies, I don't think that we will find the latter worse than the former.
As for the savagery of war, it would seem more the result of technology that release from the bounds of the rules of war because of the seriousness of the threat of the enemy. Another reason might be that post-enlightenment wars have often been ideological rather than simply territorial.
Perhaps when wars are seen as mere conflicts over territory or disputes over succession they would not lead to demonization to the extent that accompanies wars that are justified by ideological differences. It would seem that no proposed rule is without its exceptions, and generalizations in this area are extremely hazardous.
Another way to argue against Bell would be to compare other practices condemned in the Enlightenment. Kant considered slavery at least as unethical as war. Did this result in greater de-humanization of slaves on the part of those who felt a need to keep slaves, or did it result in worse conditions in which slaves were kept? The barbarity of 19th century slavery seems more a result of the industrialization of slavery--the attempt to make use of slaves on a massive scale in order to maintain the cotton economy of the Old South--than a reaction to Enlightenment arguments; and it would seem that something similar is the case with regard to war.
Still, Bell's argument should not be entirely dismissed. We should certainly admit the possibility that peace advocacy might have the unintended effect of prodding war pimps to more aggressive advertising, and this combined with the ideologically motivated condemnation of enemies might lead to more violations of rules of war.
Bell might be read together with Mastnak for a hermeneutic of suspicion about peace advocacy.
Was 9/11 really that bad?
The attacks were a horrible act of mass murder, but history says we're
By David A. Bell
January 28, 2007
IMAGINE THAT on 9/11, six hours after the assault on the twin towers
the Pentagon, terrorists had carried out a second wave of attacks on
United States, taking an additional 3,000 lives. Imagine that six hours
after that, there had been yet another wave. Now imagine that the
attacks had continued, every six hours, for another four years, until
nearly 20 million Americans were dead. This is roughly what the Soviet Union suffered during World War II, and contemplating these numbers may
help put in perspective what the United States has so far experienced
during the war against terrorism.
It also raises several questions. Has the American reaction to the
attacks in fact been a massive overreaction? Is the widespread belief
that 9/11 plunged us into one of the deadliest struggles of our time
simply wrong? If we did overreact, why did we do so? Does history
provide any insight?
Certainly, if we look at nothing but our enemies' objectives, it is
to see any indication of an overreaction. The people who attacked us in
2001 are indeed hate-filled fanatics who would like nothing better than
to destroy this country. But desire is not the same thing as capacity,
and although Islamist extremists can certainly do huge amounts of harm
around the world, it is quite different to suggest that they can
threaten the existence of the United States.
Yet a great many Americans, particularly on the right, have failed to
make this distinction. For them, the "Islamo-fascist" enemy has
inherited not just Adolf Hitler's implacable hatreds but his capacity
destroy. The conservative author Norman Podhoretz has gone so far as to
say that we are fighting World War IV (No. III being the Cold War).
But it is no disrespect to the victims of 9/11, or to the men and women
of our armed forces, to say that, by the standards of past wars, the
against terrorism has so far inflicted a very small human cost on the
United States. As an instance of mass murder, the attacks were
unspeakable, but they still pale in comparison with any number of
military assaults on civilian targets of the recent past, from
Even if one counts our dead in Iraq and Afghanistan as casualties of
war against terrorism, which brings us to about 6,500, we should
remember that roughly the same number of Americans die every two months
in automobile accidents.
Of course, the 9/11 attacks also conjured up the possibility of far
deadlier attacks to come. But then, we were hardly ignorant of these
threats before, as a glance at just about any thriller from the 1990s
will testify. And despite the even more nightmarish fantasies of the
post-9/11 era (e.g. the TV show "24's" nuclear attack on Los Angeles),
Islamist terrorists have not come close to deploying weapons other than
knives, guns and conventional explosives. A war it may be, but does it
really deserve comparison to World War II and its 50 million dead? Not
every adversary is an apocalyptic threat.
So why has there been such an overreaction? Unfortunately, the
commentators who detect one have generally explained it in a tired,
predictably ideological way: calling the United States a uniquely
paranoid aggressor that always overreacts to provocation.
In a recent book, for instance, political scientist John Mueller
evaluated the threat that terrorists pose to the United States and
convincingly concluded that it has been, to quote his title,
"Overblown." But he undercut his own argument by adding that the United States has overreacted to every threat in its recent history, including
even Pearl Harbor (rather than trying to defeat Japan, he argued, we
should have tried containment!).
Seeing international conflict in apocalyptic terms - viewing every
threat as existential - is hardly a uniquely American habit. To a
certain degree, it is a universal human one. But it is also, more
specifically, a Western one, which paradoxically has its origins in one
of the most optimistic periods of human history: the 18th century
Until this period, most people in the West took warfare for granted as
an utterly unavoidable part of the social order. Western states fought
constantly and devoted most of their disposable resources to this
purpose; during the 1700s, no more than six or seven years passed
without at least one major European power at war.
The Enlightenment, however, popularized the notion that war was a
barbaric relic of mankind's infancy, an anachronism that should soon
vanish from the Earth. Human societies, wrote the influential thinkers
of the time, followed a common path of historical evolution from savage
beginnings toward ever-greater levels of peaceful civilization,
politeness and commercial exchange.
The unexpected consequence of this change was that those who considered
themselves "enlightened," but who still thought they needed to go to
war, found it hard to justify war as anything other than an apocalyptic
struggle for survival against an irredeemably evil enemy. In such
struggles, of course, there could be no reason to practice restraint or
to treat the enemy as an honorable opponent.
Ever since, the enlightened dream of perpetual peace and the nightmare
of modern total war have been bound closely to each other in the West.
Precisely when the Enlightenment hopes glowed most brightly, wars often
took on an especially hideous character.
The Enlightenment was followed by the French Revolution and the
Napoleonic wars, which touched every European state, sparked vicious
guerrilla conflicts across the Continent and killed millions
probably, a higher proportion of young Frenchmen than died from 1914 to
During the hopeful early years of the 20th century, journalist Norman
Angell's huge bestseller, "The Great Illusion," argued that wars had
become too expensive to fight. Then came the unspeakable horrors of
World War I. And the end of the Cold War, which seemed to promise the
worldwide triumph of peace and democracy in a more stable unipolar
world, has been followed by the wars in the Balkans, the Persian Gulf
War and the present global upheaval. In each of these conflicts, the
United States has justified the use of force by labeling its foe a new
Hitler, not only in evil intentions but in potential capacity.
Yet as the comparison with the Soviet experience should remind us, the
war against terrorism has not yet been much of a war at all, let alone
war to end all wars. It is a messy, difficult, long-term struggle
against exceptionally dangerous criminals who actually like nothing
better than being put on the same level of historical importance as
Hitler - can you imagine a better recruiting tool? To fight them
effectively, we need coolness, resolve and stamina. But we also need to
overcome long habit and remind ourselves that not every enemy is in
a threat to our existence.
David A. Bell, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and a
contributing editor for the New Republic, is the author of "The First
Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It."