26 October 2017 | 10:05 AM
by Perpustakaan INTAN
Christopher Coker does not believe that war is coming to an end any time soon. This short book offers a beguiling variety of evidence and explanation for why the end of war is not likely, not predictable, and possibly not something we actually want. War is central to the human condition; it is part of our evolution, our inheritance and our culture. Viewing war as simply wrong, or as a bad idea, or even simply as the opposite of peace, is much too simplistic. Over the six short chapters of this exciting philosophical pamphlet Coker explores war’s place in society and culture, how it has changed and how it might change.
The subject of war is discussed in terms of evolution, culture, technology, geopolitics, peace, and humanity. These different subjects are illustrated with a wide and entertaining variety of sources, moving easily from zombie fiction to Aristotle, and from evolutionary biology to Call of Duty. Coker’s fundamental argument, which runs through all his chapters but is developed in the first four, is simply that war is so much a part of who we are that the idea of just stopping it is at best naive. Evolution, at the level of human culture, has been driven by war, and war itself has evolved with humanity. Similarly culture and war share a fertile relationship, where war inspires art and art in turn can inspire the warrior mentality. Pop culture, such as movies and games, demonstrate to Coker the enduring presence of the warrior mentality. The same can be said for technology and geopolitics. War may be fought by robots or through the internet, and the geography of war may be rapidly changing, but war itself remains.
The final two chapters are slightly different. Coker turns his attention to the idea of peace, and the ‘enders’, who advocate the end of war: thinkers from Kant to John Horgan and Stephen Pinker. The problem with the ‘enders’ is that peace is a contested concept, which is often culturally specific, and it assumes a certain geopolitical set of normative values to be universal. However, Coker counsels against despair in his final chapter. Considering humanity, he suggests that war maybe could be eliminated. However, it would require thinkers to engage with Coker’s thesis, that war is fundamental to our society. To eliminate war may be to alter our humanity. The book finishes with a challenge to those who argue for peace to up their game, be more philosophically rigorous, and to take war far more seriously.
The book is described on the cover as a ‘meditation’. This seems to me to be completely wrong, suggesting quite, detached thought. The book is clearly filled with knowledge and reflection, but it demonstrates this in a light and amusing manner, with more references to computer games than to political theory. Coker comes across as dynamic and entertaining, with a restless intellect. He is giving a rapid fire series of answers to an ill-thought-out question, the question of ending war. It is not a meditation; it is a friendly rebuke to people who have not done enough thinking.
Taken in this spirit, some of Coker’s more outrageous or less developed ideas can be dismissed and need not worry us too much. On the outrageous side, examples drawn from parapsychological warfare or zombie movies might seem ludicrous, but add to the fun of his thesis. More seriously, Coker’s unfortunate statement that rape is somehow a new weapon of war is either ill-informed, or very badly phrased. The book is not a detailed exposition of his argument: it is supposed to grab our attention, and picking at specific details does not seem in the spirit of the thing.
There are a couple of more substantial criticisms; one on what is in the book, and one on what is left out. Firstly, Coker’s use of biology is unconvincing, and secondly he never offers any explanation of what war is. Coker draws on biology, specifically cultural biology and Darwinism as argued for by writers such as David Sloan-Wilson and Daniel Dennett. Coker uses this work to argue that war is part of our biology, and that it is evolving as we are. His conclusion is that war will not cease until it has exhausted its evolutionary potential. In the context of the book as a whole, Coker’s faith in evolutionary biology of a particular sort seems very strange. Elsewhere Coker is hugely sceptical of ideas such as universal morality, but he applies none of this postmodern scepticism to the truth of science. It also sits uncomfortably alongside his many and varied other sources and illustrations, which make the book so fun, that he comes over so serious when considering biology. It may well be that this is a rhetorical hook to hang his argument upon, using scientific truth rather than falling back on innate human characteristics, or enlightenment ideas about human sociability: things which he dismisses with flair in other places. However, I am not convinced that universal truth of one kind can be dismissed, as in the very enjoyable whirlwind tour of geopolitics in chapter four, whilst relying on a universal truth of a different sort.
The second criticism is perhaps unfair, as it is not something which Coker is trying to do in the book, and he sensibly assumes his reader’s familiarity with the leading historical and political texts on war. However, if war is deeply ingrained in human culture, then it does seem reasonable to ask what war is. Is it simply conflict of any sort, or is it only between states, or do we all just know what war is? Coker seems to assume the latter. But this is problematic. Wars for humanitarian purposes have recently been euphemistically rebranded as interventions, peacemaking efforts, or police actions. From another perspective Foucault argued that war was a structure of society, it was the nature of politics, and that peace was therefore a very violent idea. Coker often refers to Clausewitz, but not Foucault’s inversion of Clausewitz’s formula. A chapter on language would have been useful, but Coker does not consider it. This is not fatal to the work, but it is irritating that an otherwise very clear discussion never defines the object of study.
Coker is not a warmonger, or a Schmittian believer in conflict. In fact it feels as if he wants to see an end to war and is disappointed, and at times disgusted, by the contemptuous ‘enders’ and their myriad weak attempts to persuade or cajole humanity out of such a foundational social practice as war. He has written an impressive, enjoyable book, which is hugely provocative. It provides several excellent introductions to big topics, and gives a very useful list of further reading. It should stimulate discussion and debate, and inspire serious thought, even while we read about zombies or play computer games.