The peace narrative

An author explains why history is told from the perspective of war and what we can learn from the opposite angle

Alec Ash
April 23, 2012 4:00PM (UTC)

This interview first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews, check out The Browser or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.

John Gittings, the author of "The Glorious Art of Peace," says history is usually studied and written from the perspective of war, and can look very different when viewed from the perspective of peace.

The BrowserWas it hard to come up with this list of five books on peace, given the shelves of material that there are on war?


I could write a book list for Foyles bookshop of three or four dozen excellent books on peace which should be there and probably are not. Foyles has 280 shelves on war, and less than one on peace, although 40 shelves where you might find a book on peace. Indeed, it might be worth asking oneself in which department my book would go. There are very few bookshops which have a “peace” section.

Tell us how you came to write "The Glorious Art of Peace."

My personal background is that I was involved in the campaign for nuclear disarmament [in England] in the late '50s and '60s, and I have returned to the subject of peace – a long overdue return – because I have always felt there was a gap to be filled. In the meantime, since those days the academic study of peace has developed enormously and impressively. Some wonderful work has been and is being done, but it is not very visible. There is still a prejudice against it in some academic circles, or certainly politically.


By prejudice, you mean it isn’t glamorous, or that people are biased toward war studies?

Some people feel a little uneasy about it. This goes back to the era of the Cold War, when the term “peace” was misappropriated by the superpowers. Both the Americans and the Russians annexed the word for their own purposes, and poured scorn and cast doubt on the motives of those who actually were working for peace. To give you an illustration of how this operates today, if you watch a major UK news programme like the BBC’s "Newsnight," or listen in the morning to the "Today" programme, when there is a discussion about how to end the war in Afghanistan or Iraq or Somalia or Libya you will hardly ever hear the voice of a professor of peace studies, although there are a number of commentators who could be called on.

Your book tours us through peace “from the Iliad to Iraq.” What core point did you most want to get across with it?


What I wanted to get across is that there is more than one perspective from which one can look at history. A lot of our history has been written from the perspective of war, and the moment you start looking at it from the perspective of peace, you get very different answers. That is why I began with "The Iliad," because most people would regard it as a tale of war and not of peace.

You wanted to draw particular attention to Book 18 – why?


I would say, first of all, that throughout "The Iliad" there is a counter-narrative of lost opportunities for peace. Obviously, if peace had been achieved there would have been no Trojan war or it would have come to an end sooner. But Homer reminds us from time to time that there were alternatives. There’s a very remarkable scene in book two, near the beginning, when the entire Greek army, misunderstanding a speech by their commander Agamemnon, turns on its heels and runs to the boats, hoping to go back home. Homer is telling us that the rank and file were not bent on fighting to the end. The gods, on that occasion, intervene to stop the Greek army from sailing away. Even the wily Odysseus is unable to stop his men from launching their boats.

Book 18 is significant because it describes the making of a new shield for Achilles, who had withdrawn from battle. His friend Patroclus had borrowed his armor in his place and been killed, and his armor had been seized by the Trojans. So Achilles needed a new suit of armor, which was made for him by the heavenly blacksmith Hephaestus. If you read other accounts of Greek warriors, what you put on your shield is invariably something to frighten the enemy – a Gorgon’s head or a serpent or a wild lion. Homer instead describes a set of images on Achilles’ shield, almost all of which are concerned with peace not war – including young men and women dancing, laborers in the field bringing in the harvest grapes or plowing the fields, and a council in which a case is arbitrated by peaceful means. This assembly of images, in my view, is designed to tell us that there is, or should be, a peaceful alternative to war.

So Homer, or whoever wrote "The Iliad," had a peace agenda?


This is also an example of the passages in Homer which lead me to believe he was a single individual, because if it was stitched together from epic material then a scene such as the above would not appear – there would be stock images of a much more conventional shield instead. Homer, like Shakespeare, encompassed all humanity in his work, and in "The Iliad" he encompasses peace as well as war. A number of Homeric scholars have pointed out that the text, as we have it, is divided roughly into three thirds. The central third is almost entirely concerned with war and fighting. But the first third, where the plot is developed, is very different, and so is the final third. So the subject matter of "The Iliad" is war, but the feelings and emotions of the people concerned are much more complex.

Tell us about Erasmus, and why he is on this list.

Again, if you go to Foyles you would not find Erasmus’ essay "The Education of a Christian Prince," which contains the passage “The Art of Peace,” but you would find several editions of Machiavelli’s "The Art of War" and "The Prince." Erasmus marks the start of a discussion about peace, which you can trace onwards from the Renaissance, through the Enlightenment, and up to the present day. In other words, he identifies issues which we can translate into modern terms.


Erasmus was very well known in his times. He was able to speak to kings and popes and emperors. He received a handwritten invitation from Henry VIII at one point. He and fellow humanist scholars were engaging in a dialogue over the relative attractions of peace and war to the ruler. It seemed at times a reasonable chance that the differences between the European potentates could be settled by peaceful rather than by warlike means. Translated into modern English, Erasmus’ writings on peace would occupy more than 400 pages – he returns to the subject again and again. He tends to be written off as an idealist, but gives very practical advice.

First, he argues that if you stand back and look calmly at a given situation, the cost of war is almost always higher than its benefits to the people, even if the prince gains some territorial advantage. Second, he identifies peaceful arbitration as a way of settling disputes. He says, why don’t you call on wise bishops or other learned people to settle the argument for you rather than going to war? So Erasmus begins an argument, which carries on over time.

Why is it then that Machiavelli’s writings, from the same period, are the better known?

In a way, it illustrates my argument that there is a persistent bias for war over peace. One would have to ask publishers why they haven’t seen the commercial value of Erasmus. War undoubtedly has a fascination, and there’s a rather perverse appeal in the hardheaded, brutal approach to human existence, in the doctrine and art of war, which I think can seduce and has seduced politicians and academics. I am struck by the way in which otherwise level-headed voices have a habit of making very wild assertions about war and peace.


Tony Blair?

Well, Tony Blair talks in existential terms about the never-ending struggle against Islamic terrorism, and compares that to the never-ending struggle against communism in the past. But I’m thinking more of academic voices, for example the stickleback theory of conflict, which emphasizes aggressive elements in human nature at the expense of pacifist elements. Human nature is fundamentally warlike, and the explanation lies in man’s origins in the animal world. But that’s a very crude view of Darwinism, which misunderstands what Darwin said about the growth of civilization. Darwin fully identified and explained that as humanity developed, the advantages of cooperation began to outweigh the advantages of competition. So it is not unmitigated survival of the fittest.

There are also serious academics who tell you that war is sexy and peace is dull. The idea that peace is dull is quite widespread – and also the parallel concept that peace is merely the absence of war.

What is it then?


If you want a definition of peace, I would sum it up as follows. First of all, it is being at peace, which is what we mostly are. Most humans, for most of human history, have been at peace not at war. But being at peace is not a passive exercise, because if humans are not at peace for most of the time, human civilization does not progress. The other area where peace is meaningful is what I would call peace in action – dynamic peace, in other words peace which prevents war. Peace is also a state or activity which seeks to prevent the occurrence of war.

This is where you enter the field, opened up by Erasmus, of looking at ways to prevent war from a peaceful starting point. This first involves making an objective assessment of the ultimate costs of war. If an objective assessment had been made of the cost of the Iraq war, then on cost-benefit grounds we should not have gone ahead with it. Second, there is arbitration and mediation, which implies some form of supranational mechanism – whether a council of European states, the League of Nations or the U.N.

The third indispensable aspect of peace is satisfying the material and spiritual needs of people to an extent that they don’t need to go to war. And it’s not enough to be at peace in your own country – you have to try to help your neighbors to be at peace as well. Peace means plenty. The Greek view of peace also implied plenty and prosperity. So in modern times, we are not going to have a world at peace unless we can solve outstanding political issues, and also solve problems of world poverty and inequality.

Peace means plenty but, to many, war means innovation and progress.


That is called the chariot theory of history – the idea that the invention of the chariot transformed early bronze age society, and so on through the Gatling gun to atomic bombs. To that I would reply that most significant inventions and discoveries are of a peaceful not a military kind. Against the chariot theory of history I would propose the shadoof theory – the shadoof being the discovery in ancient Mesopotamia, at about the same time as the chariot was being invented, that if you have a bucket at the end of a pole which is pivoted on a wooden cradle, you can hoist water from a lower level to an upper level. That was a huge step forward in irrigation and agriculture. I would insist that most technological advances and developments of civilization have, can and could only take place in conditions of peace rather than war.

Your third pick is "Tales of Army Life." Tell us about Tolstoy the soldier as well as Tolstoy the writer.

I chose this because most of us have read "War and Peace," but many of us are less familiar with Tolstoy’s later life when he stressed his pacifist convictions in the most absolute of terms. There is a tendency to regard this as a personal development of Tolstoy’s, which was almost out of keeping with what came before. But if you go back to his early experiences in the Caucasus and the Crimea as a young man in the 1840s, when he began to write about war – he reported from Sevastopol during the Crimean war – you already find in him a spirit of questioning the meaning of war, and why people are prepared to kill each other, which he continues to explore in "War and Peace" and which leads him eventually to his pacifist position.

His position is of categorical nonviolence, and he comes closer to that earlier on than is often suggested. The very last paragraph of the very first story he wrote in "Tales of Army Life," from the Caucasus, was suppressed by the Russian censor precisely because he asked the question, what is the reality of war? Why do soldiers, in what way and under what influence, kill one another? That was deemed unpatriotic, and I think just disturbed the censor, who probably couldn’t understand what Tolstoy was trying to say and struck it out.

The glorification of war in literature and elsewhere was presumably prevalent right up until today’s era, in which we know the gory detail through mass media coverage?

You’re perfectly right that war is no longer glorified in the simplistic terms in which it was before – although I would add that we are more aware of the glorification of war in the past than its condemnation. That is because history tends to be written if not by the victors, then by the warriors. There were popular voices raised against war in the past which are harder for us to hear today. For example, we know less of those who were opposed to the Crusades than those who were in favor of them. Nevertheless it is true that the almost childish glorification of war, which was still possible when war was fought by soldiers in gaily colored uniforms and at a distance, is no longer possible. We don’t “rejoice rejoice” – although again I hesitate, because that term was used by Mrs. Thatcher at the end of the Falklands war.

And American culture seems to take some relish in military prowess.

It does, and while we can all recognize the bravery of soldiers who are fighting in Afghanistan today and sympathize with the sufferings of their families if they die, to call them “heroes” in a way is an afterglow of the glorification of war, even though it’s no longer usually expressed in such simple terms.

Let’s talk more about where we are now, with Douglas Fry’s "Beyond War." What line does this book promote?

Douglas Fry says it is rather strange that many academics in the field of social anthropology seem to fall over themselves in order to stress the combative and aggressive features of primitive society. He also points out that some of their claims are in fact open to debate and challenge. The anthropological evidence is not as clear as is often made out. If you take the issue of cannibalism, for example, it seems to be important to establish that all primitive societies, without exception, were cannibalistic. But Douglas Fry argues that different societies at different times were more or less warlike. I would go further than that to say that whatever the realities of primitive societies, humanity has moved on since then, and there’s no reason to suppose that we continue to behave in the way that our human predecessors behaved.

Do you agree with Steven Pinker’s thesis that we are becoming less violent as a species and a civilization?

I think like all theses, it is overstated. There is a sense in which we have become more civilized in certain areas of life over the last few centuries. The examples he dwells on are the rather barbarous and inhumane forms of punishment which were common in various societies until relatively recently – we no longer hang, draw and quarter people. This is partly because we now live in a more comfortable age, when human aggression and punishment no longer has to express itself so violently. So yes, there has been progress.

At the same time, we have become alienated from the consequences of war – and this is by no means an original idea of mine. The way we wage war is as barbarous as ever, even if it is done by pressing a remote button rather than the wielding of a sword or scimitar.

You write about that in your book – that war has become impersonal.

Yes. You could already see this at work during the Cold War. Not so much through the use of advanced technology – although it is perfectly true that in the Vietnam war, when the U.S. Air Force carpet-bombed Cambodia and parts of Laos, the bombs were dropped from a great height and you were not on the ground to see the consequences. But I think it goes beyond that. During the Cold War, you had the export of war from the metropolis to the periphery. The major wars fought during the Cold War were in third-world countries.

Can we be at peace during a “war on terror”?

Of course, it would be so much better if we weren’t where we are now, which is a situation where we have to take practical measures against people with bombs. But in the longer view – and this perhaps sounds trite or obvious, but it needs to be said again – we have to address the causes of terrorism, which lie to a large extent in inequality and poverty in various parts of the world. If you have 30 percent to 40 percent of young men in most Middle Eastern and African countries out of work, you are going to have a small number of them who are prepared to blow themselves up.

If we had seized the opportunity at the end of the Cold War to do what we said we were going to do – to tackle the crisis between Israel and the Palestinians along with many other issues, and spend the peace dividend on peace – we would probably be in a very different position to where we are now.

The end of the Cold War is as good a point as any to move onto your final book, "Confronting the Bomb."

This is an abbreviated version of Lawrence Wittner’s major work of scholarship in three volumes, "Struggle Against the Bomb," from the 1940s to the present day. It is both a work of record, describing the anti-nuclear movement in countries around the world, and an argument that governments were compelled to listen to the voice of public opinion even when they pretended not to. In the 1950s, for instance, President Eisenhower said that thermonuclear weapons were not as strong as public opinion. And there was a real apprehension on the part of Western leaders that public opinion would have to be appeased and satisfied with measures to lessen tension during the Cold War. In the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, one of the reasons why President Kennedy didn’t take the advice of his chief of staff to bomb Cuba or the Soviet Union was awareness of public opinion.

Where are we now with nuclear weapons, and what is to be done?

We are in a very bad place. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1971, which itself to some extent arose out of public pressure in the 1960s, compelled governments to make more effort than they might otherwise have done. That treaty contained an implicit bargain that the vast majority of countries in the world would refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons, while the nuclear powers that did have them would over time move towards their elimination. At the end of the Cold War that bargain was reasserted, but the nuclear powers have not delivered on it. In the meantime, a number of other countries have acquired nuclear weapons, having seen the utility of having them for insurance purposes.

Nuclear weapons have both a deterrent and a proliferatory function. The more nuclear weapons there are, and the more powers that hold them, the higher the day-to-day risk of the bomb going off. Indeed the lesson of the Cuban missile crisis, in retrospect as we look at the evidence which has since emerged, was that we came much nearer to the nuclear brink than most people believed at the time.

Where do you see the next big conflict of the 21st century being? Or are you an optimist, and believe we will avoid another world war?

I think in the near future there is a real risk of war over Iran, which would I suppose follow on from Iraq and Afghanistan. In the longer term, in 20 years’ time when I shall no longer be around, I think the chances of nuclear war between major powers will grow to a point where one will not sleep easy in one’s bed.

Alec Ash


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