How to re­mem­ber the war

The Hitavada - - WORLD -

“IF they are not re­mem­bered, was the sac­ri­fice they made even worth­while?” asked an Amer­i­can vet­eran of the Iraq War who named his son af­ter a fel­low sol­dier who was killed there. It’s quite com­mon, ac­tu­ally. My brother-in-law is named af­ter a mem­ber of his fa­ther’s bomber crew who was killed over the Balkans in 1944. But the Sec­ond World War is still just within the reach of liv­ing mem­ory.

This week we are asked to com­mem­o­rate the hun­dredth an­niver­sary of the end of the First World War. That is no longer mem­ory; it is his­tory. The images are fa­mil­iar and some fam­i­lies have names and even pic­tures of rel­a­tives who died in the war, but very few peo­ple now alive ever knew them per­son­ally.

So how should we com­mem­o­rate the war? There’s not too much rhetoric about glory any more, thank­fully – we have grown up a bit – but a lot about sac­ri­fice. That’s a safe sub­ject, al­though the ma­jor­ity of the sol­diers who fought in the war had no choice about be­ing there.

Just un­der the sur­face, how­ever, al­most every­body now re­alises that the First World

War was a huge, point­less waste of at least 11 mil­lion lives. Many peo­ple knew that even at the time. Yet no­body knew how to stop it at the time, and we in the present don’t re­ally know what to say about it.

The best use of the brief in­ter­val of con­tem­pla­tion about war on 11 No­vem­ber, there­fore, is to try to un­der­stand what kind of phe­nom­e­non it is. Start with a sim­ple ques­tion: where does war come from? The an­swer is equally sim­ple. Hu­man be­ings didn’t in­vent war; they in­her­ited it.

Our branch of the pri­mate fam­ily has al­ways fought wars. If there is an orig­i­nal sin, it goes back be­yond the time when the chim­panzee and hu­man lin­eages split 5 mil­lion years ago. (Chim­panzees still fight wars too.) So for­get about the ‘causes of war’ in the his­tory books. Ev­ery kind of hu­man so­ci­ety, with ev­ery imag­in­able kind of econ­omy, has fought wars.

Sec­ond ques­tion. How did war get so big? The First and Sec­ond World Wars were far more de­struc­tive than pre­vi­ous wars, and the Third World War (if the Cold War had ever turned hot) would have been at least ten times big­ger than that.

When the size and re­sources of a so­ci­ety grow, it ends to fight big­ger wars just be­cause it can. The is­sues at stake are not big­ger than be­fore, but los­ing a war is so unap­peal­ing that coun­tries gen­er­ally won’t quit un­til they have thrown all their re­sources into it.

And fi­nally, how can you tell when some stupid lit­tle thing like an as­sas­si­na­tion in Sara­jevo is go­ing to blow up into a ‘world war’ with all the trim­mings. An­swer: you can’t. Which brings us to the Power Law.

Peo­ple want a big dis­as­ter to have a big cause and a recog­nis­able vil­lain, so peo­ple writ­ing about the out­break of the First World War try hard to find some coun­try to blame. If they are writ­ing in English or French they gen­er­ally blame Ger­many, which al­legedly wanted the war and made it hap­pen. But that’s non­sense.

The Power Law de­scribes how so-called “crit­i­cal sys­tems” like those that pro­duce earthquakes and for­est fires are com­pletely undis­crim­i­nat­ing about the scale of the event. Most events will be on the smaller side, but you don’t need spe­cial causes to get a huge one: lit­er­ally any size of event can hap­pen at any time.

A crit­i­cal sys­tem is one that is in­her­ently un­sta­ble, and locks in more and more in­sta­bil­i­ties as time goes by. Think of the ac­cu­mu­lat­ing stresses along a fault line be­tween two con­ti­nen­tal plates, or the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of in­flammable de­bris on the for­est floor. From time to time there will be earthquakes and for­est fires, but most of them will be small. The Power Law says that any one of them could be the Big One.

To know if a par­tic­u­lar class of events is sub­ject to the Power Law, you just graph the scale of the events against their fre­quency. If it turns out to be a straight re­la­tion­ship where dou­bling the size of the event de­creases the fre­quency by half – or makes it four times less likely, or six­teen times, or any other power of two – then you are deal­ing with a crit­i­cal sys­tem.

In that case, you can for­get about seek­ing ma­jor causes for big­ger events. A ran­dom peb­ble is six­teen times less likely to cause a huge avalanche than a lit­tle avalanche, but it can cause ei­ther.

Jack Levy, in a mas­sive 1983 study en­ti­tled War in the Mod­ern Great Power Sys­tem, mea­sured the size of ev­ery war in the past 450 years by its ca­su­al­ties, and found that dou­bling the size ex­actly halves the fre­quency.

This means that great wars do not need great causes. Once suf­fi­cient strains have ac­cu­mu­lated in a crit­i­cal sys­tem, a world war can strike out of a clear blue sky, as it did in the sum­mer of 1914. Or now, for that mat­ter.

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