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“To Hell in a Handbasket”: The continual cycle of war in history

“Going to hell in a handbasket” is a phrase of frustration going back centuries to describe conditions so unsettling as to be irreversible. Today, it is commonly used as an everyday expression in situations that defy origin or cure, within which all must persevere.

The phrase is used universally from home to factory, nation to world, and current to past occasions to which there seemingly is no explanation. “Theirs not to reason why / theirs but to do and die,” applies the same in “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Tennyson 1854.

World Politics

From time immemorial, the same expression could justify the inherent condition of world politics, at any given time or circumstance. In her classic book, Politics and Culture in International History (1960, ‘94), Ada Bozeman chronicled the details of all the international political systems from the beginning of recorded history to the Napoleonic Wars (1815). In this massive chronology, she reconstructs the main currents of war, peace, diplomacy, and security from the earliest stirrings of Middle Eastern Empires, Chinese and Indian political systems, Mongol invasions, Alexander the Great, Persian, Roman, Islamic and Turkish Empires, the Greek city-states, and the Westphalian nation-state (1648).

The Prevalence of War in History

When reviewing this survey, I ask students to compare history with today, ignoring technology and location and strictly noting similarities between then and now. Differences are both easy and irrelevant, but comparisons expose patterns and, thus, have value.

The first and most striking comparison is the frequency and importance of war as the definitive method of settling differences. Diplomacy, to be sure, had importance but almost always was either a short-term solution or a process that led directly to war. Nor did it matter whether the system was “open” (democratic, libertarian) or “closed” (imperial, dictatorial), nor city-state or nation-state: the ultimate end was nearly always organized warfare.

The Cause of War

In his equally classic study on the historic causes of war, Man, the State and War (1954), Kenneth Waltz has organized the three most common references to the causes of war in history: human nature, nature of the political system (“state”), and the nature of the international system (“anarchistic”). All three have been, off and on, attributed as the single causation, and there is sufficient evidence to “indict” all three.

But this leaves a remaining vacuum in any consensus on the subject. An honest answer to the question of war’s single cause, like cancer, we still don’t know, but we’re working on it. This is not good news for either cancer patients or humanity.

A second and related reply to the question is the near-impossibility of fully appreciating the generic causes of human conflict and war and the parallel frustration in trying to understand these. There was a general confusion in even the attempt. Just as the far-off and lost historic names and places of forgotten wars are nearly impossible to comprehend, so, too, are the hurdles in even trying to appreciate the same in current wars of distant origin.

There is an expression that one should “understand the otherness of other cultures” before making rash judgments on their conduct and origins. This is nearly universal. After both world wars of the last century, Germany was considered inherently evil. The Allies made attempts to reduce Germany to a pastoral status, thus depriving them of any possible tools of war. The most (in)famous of these was the 1944 Morgenthau Plan developed by Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau. These efforts failed, but Germany has on its own given up any military pretensions and has grown as a semi-pacifist economic powerhouse and ally for over half a century.

The same is true of Japan, once an implacable military monster turned into an economic and tranquil pillar of democracy.

Similarly, we are still trying to appreciate the cultural origins of terrorism. Is it religious, economic, psychological (envy, hate) or some combination? Most consider the roots as the religion, “Islamic,” but President Obama refused to even invoke the word.

The list is endless. What motivates North Korea or Iran, why are these an “axis of evil” whose behavior threatens America’s existence? If history is any guide, they will be reliable allies given time and patience.

A third observation on the impact of forgotten history is the failed efforts over time to replace world anarchy with a secure and reliable political system able to control violence and warfare. This list, as well, is nearly endless: empires all over the globe, world communism/socialism, “world peace through world law,” a “Thousand Year Reich,” collective security, United Nations, “make the world safe for democracy.”

President Woodrow Wilson viewed World War I as the “war to end war,” not quite. but at least he was looking beyond tomorrow.

No End In Sight

If we try to “connect the dots” between secure peace versus some relatively obscure incursion by some primitive oligarchy led by faceless and nameless creatures from a dark past, we will again be “spinning our wheels.” Be aware that, unless we have answers to the key questions suggested by history, we will continue mankind’s endless political “revolving door,” circular, not linear, progression.

There is a theory of conflict entitled “crisis management” that posits some form of supervision that will turn hostilities or “crisis” situations into accommodation and stable peace. Maybe so, but the last six thousand years suggest that we somehow cannot stop our generic plunge toward “hell in a handbasket.”

The ashes of one war contain the seeds of the next, eternally. Can anybody “break the chain”?

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