During a sleepless night not long ago, I got up and played an amateur video of a 2007 commemoration of the late Anatol Rapoport’s life and his commitment to the abolition of war. I remembered with pleasure the enlightenment I received during a long-ago lecture that made me a disciple and devoted friend, and I hope my story will help to keep my beloved master’s cause alive.
As commandant of the National Defence College in 1983, I invited Professor Rapoport to inject fresh perspectives into conflict at an especially dangerous time of the Cold War. Beginning with the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma mind game on the benefits of cooperation over competition, he showed how the armed forces of opposing states are, in fact, unintentionally cooperating to maintain the institution of war for their mutual benefit.
The war machine uses fear to deny resources to the needy, stimulating the sub-national conflicts, civil wars, ethnic cleansing, and terrorism endemic to this century, thus subordinating human needs to the claims of the voracious and never-satisfied war machine. Often these claims are based on inflated and even hypothetical threats, counting on public trust for support. The mere mention of nuclear holocaust gives oxygen to the machine.
When I accepted the compelling logic of Anatol’s revolutionary idea, I realized that it explained not only NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organization, but the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals. Arms control negotiators were attempting to deal with the tools of war, not with the institution in which they were embedded. So progress was glacially slow.
Military security can no longer be unilaterally achieved. It now depends on no less than the abolition of war itself. I came to see that the path to security lies through universal and unconditional disarmament, cooperatively achieved through voluntary action in the common interests of humankind.
Security requires abandonment of an historic and honored practice that has become maladaptive and even fatal in the modern world. It requires a revolutionary change in human affairs.
The institution of war stokes fear in order to assert its claims to resources. The Cold War and its nuclear and conventional establishments were sustained by propaganda from the powerful military industrial complex, grown since President Eisenhower’s warning into a goliath impoverishing the United States in what has become a garrison state, like Sparta, and dragging the rest of humankind down with it. Even worse for the American people, it has hijacked democracy, exploiting visceral public fear for partisan political purposes.
President Roosevelt’s wartime advice—that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—is timely advice. The cost of that fear has become unbearable. The warfare demon must be finally killed and a stake driven through its heart,
Courage, initiative, willpower and knowledge are the skills needed to suffocate the institution of war. Only the free citizens of democracies can lead the way in the late Anatol Rapoport’s revolutionary cause. It’s urgent, and the abolition of war will remain a challenge as long as people prepare for it.
War cannot be abolished overnight, nor can it be in the face of the overwhelming dependence of those who benefit from it. Over time, renunciation of preparations for war would suffocate the institution of war and free resources for long neglected civilian needs, like massive investment in sustainable development. The biosphere cannot afford the institution of war.
That’s the promise and the urgency of a simple but revolutionary idea left to posterity by one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century.
Before his retirement General Johnson was Commandant of Canada’s National Defence College in Kingston, Ontario.