It is easier to start a war than to end it. The rebel leader Aureliano Buendia, a character in the Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterwork One Hundred Years of Solitude, learns that lesson after he agrees to give peace a chance following 32 attempts at seizing power violently. The lesson was underlined when the Colombian electorate rejected an agreement reached between the government and the rebel group FARC following years of negotiations (which Garcia Marquez had played a role in initiating) even as the Nobel committee prematurely awarded this year’s peace prize to President Juan Manuel Santos, making him Colombia’s second Nobel Laureate.
The committee has jumped the gun once before, honouring Barack Obama based on his promise to end the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, or at least American involvement in it. Although I am tempted to claim Obama has redeemed his pledge substantially, if not wholly or in full measure, those in the two unfortunate nations bracing for the impact of more American bombs after a decade and a half of bombing are probably of a different opinion. How easily those wars were started, and how difficult it is to envision an end to them any time soon.
War is on my mind, not only because of the situation in Kashmir and in West Asia, but because we are commemorating the end of three battles as I write, two mythical victories and one historical defeat.
On Vijaya Dashami, we celebrate Rama’s defeat of Ravana after 10 days of combat, and Durga’s vanquishing of Mahishasura who (like the Witch-king of Angmar, Leader of the Nazgûl in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings) could be killed by no man but was vulnerable before a female adversary.
This year, Navratri and Dussehra overlapped with the first 10 days of the month of Muharram culminating in Ashura, on which day in 61 AH Imam Husayn and his companions, hemmed in by the army of Caliph Yazid and denied access to even drinking water, chose certain death over capitulation, and were massacred in the Battle of Karbala. As Ramlilas in many parts of India dramatised the tribulations of Rama and the ultimate triumph of good over evil, hoarse voiced Maulanas led a 10-day lamentation over the suffering of Husayn ending with the victory of evil over good.
Except it did not end there. Years ago, I attended a seminar about the ethics of war in which a philosopher proposed that no war could be called just if defeat were entirely assured before it began. He did not sufficiently factor in the role of memory and retelling. The story of Karbala, embellished and tailored to achieve maximum emotional impact, turned a military disaster into an allegory about purity of faith. It became a rallying cry and eventually the defining myth of the largest denomination among Shia Muslims. Looking at the region around Karbala 1336 years later almost to the day, (the clash took place on 10 October, 680 CE according to the modern calendar) it feels like the battle was merely the start of a war that has never ended.
Back to nation-states?
A war can truly end only if all parties accept the victor’s case for going to war, conduct during war, and actions after hostilities cease. It seemed as if such a consensus was building around the Cold War, but now it has fractured if not shattered. Could cracks appear in the most comprehensive consensus ever built around a major war, namely World War II in Europe? Never in history has the losing party so completely accepted its culpability as Germany did about the Third Reich, and for good reason. Adolf Hitler is Ravana, he is Mahishasura, he is Yazid, he is every bad guy, every evil genius, every monster in history. The Allies had justice on their side in joining battle and, with the Marshall plan, proved gracious winners, having learned the lessons of Versailles. The formation of the European Union appeared to ensure that Western Europe had put centuries of conflict decisively behind it.
But we now have to consider seriously what was previously unthinkable, namely that the EU could break up under pressure from the rise of right-wing movements inspired by anti-immigrant ideologies that are sometimes manifestly racist. If that were to happen, and barriers go up between nations on the continent, as they certainly will between the continent and Britain following the Brexit vote, it won’t take long for tensions to build up, and who knows how far that could go. Any break-up of the EU will be tragic not just for the nations directly involved, but for the world as a whole, because it seemed to offer the prospect of a post-national order, expanding and integrating ever more members, until the impetus reversed in the direction of contraction and disintegration.
Should the EU crumble, the only viable large-scale political formation will once again be the nation-state, an entity that seemed on the verge of being superseded in the age of globalisation.
As we return to more nationalistic politics, the idea of capitalist peace is bound to be severely tested. Thomas Friedman’s eccentric formulation of it, the Golden Arches theory, held that nations with McDonald’s restaurants never go to war against each other. The theory was disproved even as Friedman laid it out in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, for India and Pakistan battled in Kargil the year it was published. A number of other wars have since demonstrated that McDonald’s is not a particularly effective bulwark against conflict. It is true that no countries with extensive economic links have engaged in large-scale war against each other recently, but Germany was Britain’s largest trading partner at the commencement of hostilities in 1914, signalling that while trade may build a constituency against war, it does not guarantee peace.
While we wait apprehensively for open conflict to break out between states that are substantially integrated into the global economy, putting the final nail in the coffin of the idea of capitalist peace, I hope one or two of the planet’s endless wars can be resolved. FARC’s insurrection has lasted for over 50 years, long enough to exhaust even a Buendia, long enough for the group to have travelled an enormous distance from the idealism that once animated it. With luck, the militants and the people of Colombia will give peace a second chance, and President Santos will finally earn his Nobel Prize.