Peace And/Or Quiet

It was probably a beautiful day in the Hudson Valley when pop-cultural scientist John Horgan was turned against war. Upstate New York is idyllic in a particular way — both agrarian and left-leaning, rural and only a short drive from the metropolis, pristine and culturally thriving, it was, to Horgan, an America worth fighting for.

And then he heard it: a thunderous bursting. An audible bleakness. The bad vibrations that constantly shake the globe, suddenly in his backyard: “Even in Phillipstown… you can occasionally hear the thunder of mortars and howitzers from the artillery range at the West Point Military Academy.”

Was it this intrusion alone that caused Hogan to turn his scientific career toward the study of war, eventually developing the theory that humanity is in the late stages of a social evolution that will culminate in the end of the phenomenon? Whether his proximity to the sounds (if not the substance) of war turned Horgan’s attention, theories of peace in an era of global unrest reminiscent of the periods before both World Wars is a noble, if not imperative endeavor. For this reason, The End of War is a bigger waste than it would have been were the stakes lower.

Horgan gained some attention for a segment on the 2009 Radiolab episode “The New Normal,” in which he argued against a common theory that chimpicide, cases of primates murdering one another, proves human violence is biologically determined. What may have sounded compelling on the snappily edited radio program comes across flimsy in print. He begins where his Radiolab segment left off — a walk through the history of studies on primate violence (and tribes of indigenous people) that ends in an argument against war as an essential human activity. He then moves to human sociology, specifically employing the famous Milgram study in which subjects were made to believe they are torturing another test subject in the name of science. He argues the subjects’ willingness to obey scientist-handlers’ orders demonstrates obedience, not evil. Horgan is optimistic that modernity’s progressive arc will eventually afford states and their citizens a global agency for large-scale refusal of violence. Unfortunately, analysis of the structural power occupied by those who give these orders is virtually absent from the text.

This is not to say that political scientists hold the answers, but certainly Horgan might have found strong systematic critiques therein that would have given breadth to this often cartoonish text. With the school of realism derided wholesale as “pessimism,” his attempts at outsider political analysis comes off as transparently facile. Horgan uses Switzerland, Sweden, and Costa Rica as examples of “pacifist societies” that “if all nations emulated, there would be no war.” Although earlier in the chapter, he admits, “Costa Rica could take the risk of disarming in part because it aligned itself with the U.S. during the Cold war… Sweden and Switzerland traded with Germany during World Wars I and II.” As is usually the case, this argument that if all x did y, then there would be no more z proves excruciatingly shallow.

Such frustrations repeat themselves throughout the entirety of the book. At one point Horgan lists ways proposed by non-violence theorist Gene Sharp, his apparent hero, on how dissident groups can non-violently get what they want — including “publication of names of collaborators.” In the same chapter, Horgan describes his own collaboration with the CIA’s National Counter-terrorism Center during the Bush administration as “paying reasonably well.” At times there seems to be no clear sense of what war or violence are. At one point he writes: “The potential of Sharp’s ideas became much better known in the first few months of 2011, after largely nonviolent protests topped the repressive, corrupt governments of Tunisia and Egypt,” only a chapter after: “People’s yearning for freedom often culminates in deadly violence, as demonstrated by the American and French Revolutions and the recent revolts in Libya and other Arab nations.”

His historical and cultural clumsiness aside, Horgan seems increasingly unclear of his subject as the book goes on. Does war refer only to military conflict between nation-states, or also the actions of paramilitary groups, spats of social antagonism, or all inter-personal violence? What is to be gained by shrinking such a wide and complex field of interactions to a three-letter word? Besides, that is, making it easier for Horgan to answer with the even smaller word no.

“If we all want peace — and every sane person does — surely we’re smart enough to achieve it. Or rather, choose it,” Horgan writes, describing his overall task. Toward the book’s conclusion he begins to offer some of these solutions. He touts the democratic peace theory: the idea that democratic countries never go to war with one another. Combining this with a notion of “just policing,” Horgan envisions a world where global conflicts and atrocities are resolved in the same way police resolve civilian conflicts — i.e., with trial and imprisonment instead of bullets and bombings. A red light for Fallujah, a green light for Abu Ghraib.

His task reminds of Shel Silverstein’s short play Have a Nice Day — in which a group of graphic designers are given the task of combining the peace sign with the iconic smiley face. After struggling on the drawing board for some time, it seems the designers themselves have internalized the semiotic ramifications of the two symbols’ refusal to be fused.  Here is how the play ends:

Cyrus: [We can combine these two symbols] — into one — of smiles and peace and nice days — it can happen…

Ben: But it can’t happen — graphically.

Cyrus: Not here…

Al: Not anywhere — not graphically anywhere — You understand that fuckface? — Nowhere. No…

Ben: …Here are the pieces—Here are the possibilities. We can change the shape — change the positions—or…  (Lights fade)

The peace sign is a double-edged sword. The icon conjures a solidarity between those who are sick of being subject to the current system’s violence through a type of active refusal. At his best, Horgan approaches an understanding of this kind of bond. But the peace sign also exists as a nostalgic vehicle for a more tranquil era that never really existed, a serene before that is supposed to have preceded the intrusion of a violent incident. The symbol can be used to protest port militarization, or against riots following the murder of an unarmed kid by the police.

Too often the peace sign and Horgan’s theoretical equivalent function not to produce pacifism but to pacify. Combining the smiley face and peace sign in practice would mean achieving the sort of harmony Horgan seems to find most plausible: one which doesn’t involve dismantling the systems that keep our world a place of violence from the family room to the Situation Room, but instead sweeping away our awareness of these many daily wars. If Hogan has his way,  war would not cease so much as attenuate in volume. The grim prospect may make the reader, pessimist or otherwise, wonder if the author is more concerned with peace, or merely peace and quiet.