Can the human race outgrow war?
WE SCOURED the woods for the perfect Y-shaped stick - each of its finger-branches similarly stout, the main shaft able to fit snuggly into a closed fist. Attach to the Y-ends a set of rubber bands braided around a leather patch and you had a sling shot.
Then we discovered the lethal virtue of black rubber strips cut from discarded inner tubes. Our projectile supply escalated from pebbles to marbles to ball bearings. A squad of three or four, we were best friends, roaming the woods for rabbits - and, in our minds, for Chi-com soldiers our uncles were fighting in Korea.
How naturally such play came to us. As boys, we seemed born to look for weapons, and to make them ever more lethal. From swamp reeds we fashioned foot-long pea-shooters, perfectly shaped for paper spit-balls, which, unlike ball bearings, we aimed at each other. Spit balls could surprisingly sting, but otherwise were harmless, which soon enough seemed a disadvantage. We figured out how to mold moistened paper around a cotter pin, transforming our pea-shooters into dart blowers. One day, I was walking to the blackboard. Before I took up the piece of chalk I heard the faint thupp of someone firing, felt the mildest of pinches on my right temple, ignored it, and proceeded to my blackboard task. Only the stunned expressions of my classmates told me something was wrong: the spit-ball dart was wedged in my head, sticking there. As I recall it, that was the end of pea shooters in our circle. I know I never blew through one again.
But the conviction that the impulse to weaponize is inbred, among males at least, survived. Child’s play had its equivalent in the work of statecraft. We knew our country was great because of its wars and weapons. Our Korean War hero was General Douglas MacArthur, whose entire life embodied the hard human necessity of outgunning enemies - matching their pebbles, in effect, with ball bearings. “Although the abolition of war has been the dream of man for centuries,’’ he said once, “every proposition to that end has been promptly discarded as impossible and fantastic.’’
MacArthur wanted to use the atomic bomb against the Communists in Korea. For that, and other things, he was fired by Truman, but his martial esprit survived, and American power ever since has been based on the supremacy of weaponry. Humans are ontologically condemned to war with one another. Therefore, it is proper and right to do what is necessary to win the war.
As the play of uninstructed boys turning inner tubes into ever more lethal slings suggests, the rules of nature do not change. Or do they? MacArthur, having said war is inevitable, corrected himself, “But that was before the science of the past decade made mass destruction a reality. . .The tremendous evolution of nuclear and other potentials of destruction has suddenly taken the problem away from its primary consideration as a moral and spiritual question and brought it abreast of scientific realism.’’ The old general, speaking a decade after Korea, was ignored.
The natural law of war abides - spitballs into darts forever. Washington’s defense spending, therefore, continues to surge. (The Project of Defense Alternatives reported last week that the Obama administration’s planned allocation of more than $5 trillion to the Pentagon over the next eight years surpasses any eight-year figure, in constant dollars, since 1946 - “a period encompassing Korea, Vietnam, and Cold Wars.’’)
The fantasy that Pentagon spending might be checked was obliterated by last week’s other news - the Supreme Court decision to allow unlimited corporate funding of political campaign ads. Defense contractors will spend billions reinforcing the natural law of war.
But is it true? Among individuals, even male aggression is tamed by time. Boys grow up. They see what darts can do, and stop shooting them. Can the human race, by analogy, come of age? Roaming the woods to kill, we Chi-com hunters could not have imagined it, but here is the later General MacArthur’s final answer: “The abolition of war. . .is no longer an ethical question to be pondered solely by learned philosophers and ecclesiastics, but a hard-core one for the decision of the masses whose survival is the issue.’’ The masses whose survival is the issue - that would be us.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.