Dead soldiers litter the killing fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1863.
Is the human race predestined to off itself in a vicious orgy of mass violence? Lawrence Wittner, professor of History at SUNY/Albany, thinks so. In a post for the History News Network’s blog, Wittner ruminates on the continued popularity of mass violence in the form of warfare throughout the modern world. Citing the over a hundred million deaths resulting from the two World Wars of the 20th century, the continued persistence of 21st century warfare in the Developing World, and the trillions spent on military buildup in the so-called First World, Wittner sees a dreary pattern of death and destruction that may spell the end of humankind in the near future. He’s particularly worried about the human propensity towards mass violence in a world where many nations continue to proliferate their nuclear arsenals. Wittner observes that:
Resorting to violence is a long-term, deeply-ingrained habit in human history, and is not easily discarded. To shake it probably requires less attention to a royal childbirth or the latest sex scandal and more attention to the dangers of mass violence in an age of modern weaponry and war. This was certainly what the French writer, Albert Camus, meant when, in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the first use of nuclear weapons, he offered a simple but powerful challenge: “All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice.”
Wittner’s concerns are certainly valid, but in questioning whether or not humans can ever curb their lust for conflict, he’s hitting on a debate that is as old as human society itself. Wittner’s conclusions, for example, contradict Steven Pinker’s claims in his best-selling book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Pinker argues that in terms of the broader historical arch of human history, violence is actually on the decrease, and that the 21st century is the most peaceful century ever. Pinker’s book has proven rather controversial, especially in a contemporary world beset by economic downturns, social instability, and understandable mass cynicism about world politicians’ ability to deal with such pressing problems. Americans in particular are inclined to be resigned towards accepting violence as an inevitable reality of modern life. In an article for Global Research, for example, John Cozy thinks that violence infiltrates most aspects of American life:
The United States of America was conceived and nurtured by violence. The Europeans who colonized America were neither tolerant or enlightened; they were the dregs of society, and they even despised each other. The totally impure Puritans of Massachusetts despised the Quakers of Pennsylvania and the Catholics of Maryland. In the Pequot War, English colonists commanded by John Mason, launched a night attack on a large Pequot village on the Mystic River and burned the inhabitants in their homes and killed all survivors. By conservative estimates, the population of the United states prior to European colonization was greater than 12 million. Four centuries later, the count has been reduced to 237,000. Four centuries of continuous violence against native Americans, and the violence persists.
I could easily accuse Cozy of hyperbole, of which he is certainly guilty to a point, but he rightfully identifies the prevalence of violence in American culture that has been an issue since the founding generation first decided to stick a massive splinter in King George’s posterior. That said, Cozy nonetheless overemphasizes the United States’ uniqueness in terms of its violent history in the modern era. In fact, most of the world is still living in the midst of the great Age of Violence that began in the 18th century, intensified in the 19th century, and exploded into the 20th century’s ultra-violent conflicts. Four major trends underlay outbreaks of mass violence throughout the world in the modern era: race/ethnicity, nationalism, economics, and religion. No violent conflict embodies the potent stew of these factors better than the American Civil War.
Beginning in the 18th century, the great European mercantilist powers began competing for territorial and economic control of North America. In such bloody conflicts as the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, these great powers unleashed a new nationalist movement that eventually bore fruit in the formation of the United States. Conceived as a secular republic without a state religion, the U.S., like many of the European powers of the time, enshrined nationalism as new type of civic religion to which citizens owed their devotion. The “last full measure of devotion,” in Abraham Lincoln’s immortal words, was to give one’s life for one’s country, a form of modern bodily sacrifice in which mortals sanctified the national spirit with an offering of blood, so that the nation might live on in the face of threat’s to its very existence.
When combined with the Market Revolution’s unleashing of a dynamic capitalist economy in the early 19th century, part of which saw the expansion of the southern system of racial slavery that fueled widening sectional divisions, splitting North and South along economic, religious, political, and nationalistic lines, the idea of the “last full measure of devotion” resulted in the most violent conflict to ever erupt on American soil. The Civil War, like other wars of the time, was a war in the name of the new civic religion of nationalism. It legitimized mass violence by amassing two competing armies that acted in the name of their respective Union and Confederate nation-states. These armies proceeded to cut each other to pieces in Hellish killing fields like Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Gettysburg, and Shiloh.
Beyond nationalism, each side claimed divine sanction for their mass violence: the Confederates insisted that they represented a uniquely Christian nation, while the Union saw itself as leading God’s heavenly march to bring freedom to all the world against the tyranny of the great Southern Slave Power. And slavery, of course, was the issue. The debate over slavery encompassed the intertwined issues of nationalism, race, economics, and religion during the Civil War era. The South attempted to protect a slave investment that, as historian James Huston notes, represented 3 billion dollars of investment, more than the combined value of northern railroads and other industries. The South decided to protect slavery by establishing an independent nation that claimed to be the world’s first powerful, pro-slavery republic, a republic built on white supremacy and sanctioned by the Christian God. While the North shared the concept of white supremacy with the Confederacy, it rejected the right of secession, which Lincoln characterized as the “essence of anarchy,” and depicted itself as the only potential vanquisher of the anti-democratic Slave Power that corrupted republican institutions with the sin of human bondage.
John Steuart Curry’s mural “Tragic Prelude” (1938-1940), at the Kansas State House depicts radical Abolitionist John Brown as a symbol of how the combined issues of nationalism, racial slavery, and religious fanaticism resulted in the Civil War.
We know how this conflict ended, of course, because we are still living with its legacy in the 21st century. Not just the United States, but the entire world is largely organized around the social-political lines established during the 19th Century Age of Violence. Large, secular nation-states are now the principal form of human political organization, and they still seek independence and power, and they do so by constructing mass armies that hold a monopoly on violence to defend their national interests. Further, while legal slavery has been abolished (illegal slavery is thriving in the world at a sickening rate), the continued growth of globalized capitalism over the past 150 years has spurred an even greater demand for resources to feed the world-wide marketplace’s insatiable hunger for greater and greater wealth. Religion, of course, has not stood spectator to this process. The U.S., for example, continues to inject religion into all of its major foreign and domestic issues, while even greater mass violence has erupted in former Western colonies in Asia and the Middle East, as largely Islamic religious fundamentalists invoke hard-line belief systems as antidotes to the perceived corruptions of the modern globalized world.
Its no surprise, then, that mass violence should still be common in the world today. The modern world as we know it was born and baptized in violence. Whether or not the contemporary world is more or less violent than in the past remains a controversial, and likely unsettled, question, but focusing too narrowly on that question tends to miss the more obvious problem: building societies around multiple competing nationalistic, economic, racial, and religious factions is a recipe for continued violence. So what’s the alternative? Damn if I know, but there’s certainly no harm in thinking about new forms of human organization if doing so has the chance to decrease violence. After all, what to we have to lose, except possibly our lives?