Review: Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century

Jonathan Glover. New Haven: Yale University Press: 2000

By Bob Whitehurst

This book is a complex, coherent, and unified analysis of war and peace in the 20th century. Readers learn of the many complicated interactive ways in which wars are started. An underlying potential love of cruelty must be unleashed for wars to be constructed. Glover covers in great detail the ways this is done by lies and manipulating emotionally inadequate people. He also gives several examples of the disruption of normal, restraining moral resources of communities, so that those once considered friends are recast as enemies. Recent examples might include Americans disavowing anything named "French" as a response to the French opposition to an Iraq invasion (my poodle has no French in him!) which shows how easily normal moral restraints and respect can be reshaped.

Glover's conclusions carry some reality problems, at least for this part of the 21st century. He concludes that it will be necessary to make the usual kindness norms so ubiquitous that they are difficult to violate, and also that we need a strong United Nations, both as a political and military force. These would be supported by international courts with the force of all super powers behind them (an obviously impossible achievement today). It is hard to argue with these conclusions, especially given our recent past -- described in all its horror in this book.

The invasion of Iraq tends to support many of Glover's conclusions as to how wars are begun. Dictators not only do not have friends, they seem to often work themselves into inescapable corners that create great havoc. Others, such as the current American regime, tend to dislike such dictators and are sometimes drawn into conflicts by military drift (disavowing lengthy diplomatic efforts), with lies, deceit, and propaganda all helping leaders achieve their goals. The author examines many examples of recurring themes in war and peace.

Glover discusses the maintenance of dignity during war and the redefining of boundaries concerning what is morally allowed. What sometimes begins as a noble or utopian view of humanity may end as a human catastrophe. Many considered Mao and Stalin great leaders, but others later saw how they, and others such as Pol Pot, would be redefined --and not as positive leaders or philosophers as they would have had us believe. China, Russia, Cambodia, and Hitler's Germany would all later be viewed as extreme human catastrophes. Even in Rwanda, where nearly a million were killed more recently, we had not yet learned the importance of interfering, as a world community, with ethnic cleansing projects. The same could be said of the similar late 20th century wars in Yugoslavia.

In terms of numbers killed, Hitler was surpassed by Stalin and Mao. In proportion of the population killed, he was surpassed by Pol Pot. But, in other ways -- in the unmatched intensity of positive hatred toward a part of the population, Hitler's Germany was distinctive. He found no shortage of heroes to support his efforts, twisted though they certainly were. The details of his venture, as well those of other 20th century anti-heroes, are so well done that this book is a treasure of documentation for all these bloody times.

Although not for those squeamish about details of torture and death, this book is an unusual document for the century just passed. Unfortunately, its lessons seem to have already been missed by early 21st century leaders. A positive note suggesting paths to more enlightened responses are in the final pages, which are potentially a guide to a more rational and peaceful world.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2003

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2003, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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