Peace at Last: The Pacification of the West

By Bacevich, Andrew J. | World Affairs, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Peace at Last: The Pacification of the West


Bacevich, Andrew J., World Affairs


David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Modern Warfare. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

James J. Sheehan, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

Although the subject of warfare during the Napoleonic era has not exactly suffered from inattention, David Bell believes that the reading public needs yet another account. He turns out to be right. In The First Total War, he has produced a masterful volume, written with panache and brimming with insights.

Bell, a historian who teaches at Johns Hopkins, began work on his book at the end of the 1990s, a decade fairly bristling with big ideas. History had ended. A unipolar era was at hand. Globalization promised to transform the international order, bringing in its wake both prosperity and peace. The United States stood astride the world, its status as sole superpower and indispensable nation acknowledged by all.

As Bell immersed himself in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe, he witnessed the demolition of these late twentieth-century illusions, which then gave way to early twenty-first century anxiety and confusion. In the wake of 9/11, a radically different--yet no less illusory--set of big ideas emerged. Through the concerted exercise of American power, President George W. Bush vowed to eliminate tyranny and make an end to evil.

The president will leave office with his declared purpose unfulfilled. Tyrants persist and even prosper, more than a few subsisting on American dollars. Rather than peace, a Global War on Terror has emerged as the defining reality of the age. So at least Bush and his lieutenants would have us believe.

What are we to make of this paradox in which Bush's Freedom Agenda has provided the genesis for open-ended conflict? Bell finds the paradox more apparent than real. For those like President Bush who profess certainty as to history's purpose, using any means necessary to hurry history along to its predetermined destination offers a nearly irresistible temptation. When that conviction is accompanied by a further certainty that on the far side of victory permanent peace awaits, the resort to force becomes almost obligatory. The greater the sense of conviction the easier it becomes to justify any mayhem committed on behalf of big ideas and high ideals.

The ideas that interest Bell are those that grew out of the Enlightenment and informed the French Revolution. In pre-Enlightenment Europe, armed conflict had been, to put it mildly, a commonplace event. Yet if wars occurred frequently, they tended to be limited in scope and impact. War kept kings busy and provided seasonal employment to the king's friends, allies, and dependents. Warfare, writes Bell, served as "a form of aristocratic self-expression." Although battles were fought and casualties inflicted, the effects fell well short of being apocalyptic. The object of the exercise was typically to seize a bit of territory--not to overturn the social order. Soldiering was anything but a full-time profession. In the intervals between campaigns, generals spent their time writing verse, seducing women, and engaging in court intrigue rather than drafting contingency plans or conducting command post exercises.

Enlightenment thinkers--beginning with Archbishop Francois de Salignac de la Mothe Fenelon, but eventually including boldface names like Voltaire and Immanuel Kant--subverted these arrangements. Above all, they challenged the notion that war formed part of the natural order of things. All men shared a common humanity that transcended differences based on religion or nationality, they believed. In a well-ordered world, commerce should supplant fighting. Even if not completely abolished, war ought to be the exception and peace the rule.

In this sense, the Enlightenment "transformed peace from a moral imperative into a historical one.

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