The Great Illusion

The saddest of the books on my office bookshelf is an old one published nearly a century ago: Norman Angell's The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relation of Military Power in Nations to Their Economic and Social Advantage , which tried to prove that military conquest was obsolete.

Angell's argument was simple: in all prolonged modern industrial wars, everybody loses. Losers lose the most, but winners also are worse off than if peace had been maintained. Many fathers, sons, and husbands are dead, and so are many mothers, wives, and daughters. Much wealth has been blown up. Much architecture has been turned into rubble. Confiscation damages the rule of law on which modern industrial prosperity rests. The most that even the winners can say is that they are little losers rather than big losers. Modern industrial war is, as the computer in the 1982 movie War Games put it, a very peculiar game: "The only way to win is not to play."

At the time that Angell wrote, some people argued that war was an important means to promote national prosperity; that commercial prosperity was the fruit of military power. Angell puzzled over how pre-WWI pan-German politicians could believe that German prosperity required a big battle fleet when the absence of one made no difference to the prosperity of Norway, Denmark, or Holland. He looked forward to the coming of an age of rational statesmanship, when every prime minister and foreign minister would recognize that regardless of the matter in dispute, binding arbitration between nations was a better strategy than war.

He was, of course, right in his judgment that the only way to prevent any modern industrial war from becoming a destructive tragedy for all was to quickly conclude a ceasefire. Governments that view aggressive war as a means to prosperity have been rare since the end of World War I: the Imperial Japanese government that launched World War II in the Pacific and Saddam Hussein's two grabs for oilfields are examples that spring immediately to mind. In one sense, governments have learned the lesson Norman Angell preached.