e-mail us


Historian’s troubling look at peace

By Michael Howard
Yale University Press, 113 pages, $15


Michael Howard’s book, which received flattering reviews in England, may give heartburn to those who have struggled for years with the efforts of religious believers to establish criteria for a just war. The author, a military and naval historian at Oxford University, notes that the overwhelming majority of human societies have taken war for granted; war is the basis for their social and legal structures. Though now, the author theorizes, the Enlightenment and the two catastrophic world wars in the 20th century have made peace a possibility. But not a certainty.

Howard does not touch on religious believers’ sensibilities or efforts. Rather, he points to the fatal attraction of war and its pervasiveness in history. He covers the years 800 to 2000 and can easily demonstrate his thesis that war among nations has, at least before this moment, been a predictable and expected way for nations to protect what they perceive to be their interests.

The author is so eminent in his role as a military historian it’s difficult to gainsay his conclusions. Yet any reader who has followed the many pronouncements of religious bodies, especially the Catholic church on war, would like to feel that Howard is more gloomy than is justified. But the record of war in Europe’s Christian nations over the last millennium is not conducive to the belief that peace is about to break out.

Howard says little about the dangers of civil wars in the post-colonial world. About two-thirds of all of the conflicts since 1945 have been civil wars; nearly all the 20 or so conflicts currently in progress are of this nature.

This expansion of a lecture by a well-known professor now teaching at Yale can be unsettling. It comes from a man whose life work has been the study of despots before and after Napoleon and Stalin. He knows firsthand the mentality of extremists who are determined to impose their views on others. Indeed, he suggests that a loosely knit international organization of extremists “inspired by the kind of religious fanaticism that had long disappeared from the modernized West but armed with the latest of modern weapons have dedicated themselves to the overthrow of the American-led secular world order.”

He does not add the tragic fact that these nations “with the latest of modern weapons” buy or receive these weapons from the United States!

The Catholic church updated its virtual ban on modern war during Vatican II. Howard’s thoughtful book makes it clear how difficult it will be to persuade the world that a just war, as Pope John XXIII made clear, can hardly exist in the modern world.

The latest book by Jesuit Fr. Robert F. Drinan, Georgetown University Law Center professor, is The Mobilization of Shame: A Global View of Human Rights (Yale University Press).

National Catholic Reporter, August 24, 2001