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Can We Live Without War?
May 6, 1999

Speaking at the World's Peace Congress, on October 7, 1904, the philosopher and psychologist William James delivered a speech that later appeared in The Atlantic Monthly under the title, "Remarks at the Peace Banquet" (December 1904). Pointing out that "our permanent enemy is the noted bellicosity of human nature," James attempted to explain the fundamental appeal of war to human beings. "War has an omnipotent support in the form of our imagination," James wrote.

Man lives by habits, indeed, but what he lives for is thrills and excitements.... From time immemorial wars have been, especially for non-combatants, the supremely thrilling excitement. Heavy and dragging at its end, at its outset every war means an explosion of imaginative energy. The dams of routine burst ... the remotest spectators share the fascination.... A deadly listlessness would come over most men's imagination of the future if they could seriously be brought to believe that never again in saecula saeculorum would a war trouble human history. In such a stagnant summer afternoon of a world, where would be the zest or interest?... The plain truth is that people want war.
James sought to address this problem by focusing on its psychological roots. "Let the general possibility of war be left open," he wrote, "for the imagination to dally with. Let the soldiers dream of killing, [but] organize in every conceivable way the practical machinery for making each successive chance of war abortive." The end result of such a strategy, James felt, was that "from one generation to another ... irritations will grow less acute and states of strain less dangerous among the nations."

Two devastating World Wars later, Vannevar Bush -- the eminent scientist who during the Second World War was the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development -- took up the same issue, in "Can Men Live Without War?" (The Atlantic, February 1956). Writing with nuclear annihilation very much on his mind, Bush specifically chose to set out his thoughts in response to an essay by James, "The Moral Equivalent of War" (1906). In that work James had proposed, as an outlet for human warring impulses, "a conscription of the whole youthful population ... as part of the army enlisted against Nature" -- a sort of industrial national-service program in which young people would be sent off to work on freight trains, fishing fleets, and construction crews, "to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas." James felt that

Such a conscription ... would preserve in the midst of a pacific civilization the manly virtues which the military party is so afraid of seeing disappear in peace. We should get toughness without callousness, authority with as little criminal cruelty as possible, and painful work done cheerily because the duty is temporary.
Bush took issue with the idea that such a struggle could ever realistically become a substitute for war, primarily because, as he put it, the needs of industry involve "only relatively few of us, and it's becoming an intellectual effort rather than a matter of brute strength." Nevertheless, he shared James's feeling that human society can channel its "noted bellicosity" toward something other than armed conflict. "If war ends," he wrote, "we must still have outlets for our inherited energies.... To me, naturally, the field of science stands out uniquely in its opportunities."

Is the pursuit of science and technology becoming an outlet for our warring impulses? On the surface it might appear not; many regional conflicts are still being waged around the planet. But the possibility of a major nuclear or conventional war does indeed appear increasingly unlikely, because, as Bush put it forty years ago, "no modern all-out war will leave in power anywhere those who perpetrated it." Is it then conceivable that the fighting that we are witness to at the end of this century is the last sputtering of a flame soon to be extinguished? James -- who argued in his Peace Banquet lecture that "the last weak runnings of the war spirit will be 'punitive expeditions,'" much like those now ongoing in Yugoslavia and Iraq -- might well think so. The rosy predictions that Bush made about the potential of science as a substitute for war may seem naïve and idealistic, but it's worth keeping in mind that he was a remarkably prescient fellow -- after all, his famous Atlantic essay "As We May Think" essentially anticipated the advent of the Internet ...

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