war and human stupidity

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari (born 1976) teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has authored two international bestsellers: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016). His latest book, which I just borrowed from the Victoria Public Library, is titled 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). Of  its 21 chapters, I began with the 11th – “War” – because I am a convinced pacifist, so wanted to see what this famous historian had to say on the subject. I was fascinated, so decided to write a TdJ blog before reading the rest of the book.

Sapiens covers the past, Homo Deus the future, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century the present. Is there anything left for another book of Harari?

The subtitle of chapter 11 is “Never Underestimate Human Stupidity”, yet the introductory paragraph (p. 172) is rather positive:

The last few decades have been the most peaceful era in human history. Whereas in early agricultural societies human violence caused up to 15 percent of all human deaths, and in the twentieth century it caused 5 percent, today it is responsible for only 1 percent. Yet since the global financial crisis of 2008 the international situation is rapidly deteriorating, warmongering is back in vogue, and military expenditures are ballooning. Both laypeople and experts fear that just as in 1914 the murder of an Austrian archduke sparked the First World War, so in 2018 some incident in the Syrian desert or an unwise move in the Korean peninsula might ignite a global conflict.

This is my own fear, but Professor Harari goes on to argue that the types of war launched in the 20th century have become extinct. The victory of the US over the Soviet Union did not require any major military confrontation. The First Gulf War gave the US a taste of old-fashioned glory, “but this only tempted it to wast trillions of dollars on humiliating military fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan” (p. 175). In this paragraph (p. 181) he provides a technological explanation for the extinction of old-fashioned warfare:

In the great age of conquerors warfare was a low-damage, high-profit affair. At the Battle of Hastings in 1066 William the Conqueror gained the whole of England in a single day for the cost of a few thousand dead. Nuclear weapons and cyberwarfare, by contrast, are high-damage, low-profit technologies. You can use such tools to destroy entire countries but not to build profitable empires.

Harari ends (pp. 182, 183) on a note of pessimism, reminding us of the existence of human stupidity:

In 1939 war was probably a counterproductive move for the Axis powers …. One of the astounding things about the Second World War is that following the war the defeated powers prospered as never before. …. Why, then, did they go to war in the first place? Why did they inflict unnecessary death and destruction on countless millions? It was all just a stupid miscalculation. ….

So how much should we fear a world war? On one hand, war is definitely not inevitable. ….

On the other hand, it would be naive to assume that war is impossible. Even if war is catastrophic for everyone, no god and no law of nature protect us from human stupidity.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

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