Of Lessons of History and Preventing Wars

History does not repeat itself, not precisely. Humans, though, have been doing similar things for thousands of years. History offers patterns from which we can learn. That is to say, that there is nothing new that is wholly new.

There is too much for comfort in the current international situation—and the U.S. response to it—that feels like the 1930s. The republics of the West, focused inward, struggle with economic traumas and work hard to make them worse in the name of making things better. National leaders even when aware of storm clouds on the global horizons ignore them if they can, and minimize the dangers if they cannot, applying symbolic but ineffective remedies where action is unavoidable. Aggressive second rate powers strive for recognition as though first rate powers, conspiring to disrupt the international equilibrium and the peace that rests on it to get what they want. While potential enemies rapidly rearm, the West disarms in the name of peace, heedless of the wars and conflicts that fill the vacuums of their military retreats. Again, I am talking about today, not the 1930s, but the parallels are disquieting.

The United States has gotten into unwanted conflicts, especially in the 20th Century, when adversaries miscalculated our nation’s willingness to sacrifice to defend crucial interests. Weak-kneed, pusillanimous, or just unwise national executives invited war by giving enemies many reasons to doubt our will and resolve: unprepared armed forces, verbal warnings enforced with bluster, shirked fulfillment of pledges to help endangered friends. The Japanese thought that isolationist and poorly armed America would seek a negotiated settlement after Pearl Harbor, the North Koreans were confident that we were too war-weary to defend the South, Saddam Hussein—twice—believed that we would not want to fight a war in the sands of Iraq. Our responses to frequent goading did little to dissuade them. Logically following our miscues they each went too far at last. They all could have been stopped by a determined show of strength early while war remained avoidable, when we could have corrected their calculations at lesser cost to us and to them.

The communist leaders of China are by nature cautious. You survive the palace intrigues of the Forbidden City by avoiding mistakes, not by making them. But the Chinese leaders also have big plans, increasingly marked on a global map. The leaders of the regime in power are the heirs of their founder, Mao, who liked to refer to the United States as a paper tiger. For a time Nixon and Reagan disabused them of that notion, but they seem to be reconvincing themselves of Mao’s insights. Where is the recent evidence to the contrary?

At first, Chinese forays were camouflaged by equipping and supporting the adventures of the proxy North Koreans. Lately, the Chinese military itself has repeatedly hacked into U.S. civilian and military computer systems, with efforts ranging from nuisances to theft of military and technology secrets. The rapidly expanding Chinese navy is now building aircraft carriers, though it has no overseas enemies. In a related effort, the Chinese are dredging up artificial islands in the South China Sea, a thousand miles from their shores, closer to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam than to the southern coast of China. With naval stations and air strips on the islands, the Chinese are asserting a dramatic expansion of territorial waters measured from these militarized sandbars. Connecting the dots from new island to new island (there are some half dozen or more of these land-creation projects underway), the Chinese navy alleges control of sea lanes and airspace, demanding that planes or ships not pass their theoretical net without Beijing’s permission. The U.S. has made protests, recently backed up by a reconnaissance plane flying across what has been international waters and free airspace since before and after World War II. At least for the moment the Chinese only fired words, eight times (according to a CNN story) warning the U.S. plane to stay away. “This is the Chinese navy. You go.”

This is a minor disturbance in a major geopolitical struggle. Busy trade lanes cross the South China Sea. In the context of Beijing’s acquisition of an offensive, MIRVed nuclear missile arsenal now approaching the size of Russian and U.S. nuclear forces (the U.S. being the only one developing plans to reduce its stockpile), the risks are becoming very high.

China has big domestic problems. The economy is slowing, if not already in recession. That will make it even harder for Beijing to keep quiescent a population only half of which has experienced extraction from grinding communist poverty. An aging population will be difficult for the declining workforce to support in coming years. And then there is the legacy of China’s one-child policy, more than 100 million males with no possibility of marriage and family. What to do with those restless men?

Throughout history, China’s biggest dangers have usually been from Chinese, vulnerabilities from the outside attracted only when there was weakness caused by internal struggles. Might the heirs of Mao seek to distract internal discontent with international adventurism? A lesson from history is that the more autocratic the regime, the more likely it is to resort to this gambit.

We need a foreign policy that convinces the Chinese leaders how dangerous and unrewarding such moves would be. That becomes harder to do the more we allow the Chinese to fool themselves that it might be otherwise. That was a pattern of disaster for Tojo, Hitler, and others—and for us.

Of the Soviet Union and the European Union

Do you remember when the Soviet Union disappeared? Do you recall how and why? I hope that Vladimir Putin does. An accompanying question that needs to be considered is, why is Ukraine so attracted to the European Union?

To answer the first question briefly, we have to turn our attention to the final days of the old USSR, then led by Michael Gorbachev. Russia, the largest member of the 15 “Republics,” was led by Boris Yeltsin. Under Yeltsin’s leadership, Russia chose to withdraw from the Soviet Union. He said that Russia was weary of carrying the burden—economic, military, and otherwise—for the others. Russia just left, and after a brief try there was nothing that Gorbachev could do to make Russia stay. Without Russia, there was not much left to the Soviet Union, and the other members said “enough,” too. The Soviet Union was gone with hardly a whimper and little lamented except by the class of privileged communist leaders.

The word is that current Russian President, Vladimir Putin, wants to put the band back together, that he wants to reassemble the old Soviet Union, with the coercive influence of the Russian military as his chief tool. Not that he wishes to recreate the communist paradise of Lenin and Stalin. His vision reportedly reaches back to the great days of the czars—though presumably without the trappings of monarchy and royalty. Putin is through and through a Russian, so he wants to recreate a Russian Empire. Continuing along the path that he has set out, the path of creating an empire of the czars after the mode of the Caesars, he is unlikely to succeed. Been there. Tried that. Did not work.

It is hard to understand why Putin would choose that model. Why would he want to deal himself and the Russian people a losing hand? The Russian-dominated Soviet Union, assembled by the Red Army, failed. It did not fail because the Soviet leadership did not try hard enough, or was stingy in expending resources, or showed too little military muscle, to hold it together. It failed because—as Yeltsin recognized—it was costing too much to hold it together, draining too much life from Russia. The USSR was a bankrupt model (morally and financially) for building an empire, especially for keeping an empire. There were not enough hands to hold on tight to everything and everyone.

Perhaps Putin figures that without the burden of communism a strong Russian government could hold and control successfully where the commissars could not. In other words, he would reject the model of Soviet communism and embrace the model of a modern non-communist authoritarian regime, like the Third Reich. That one did not work so well, either.

There is a model available, tried and tested, that would work. It would unleash the power and greatness of the Russian people and at last make the most of the amazing resources of the Russian land. The results would exceed by far even the exaggerated dreams of czars and commissars. Does Putin have the vision?

I refer to the model of freedom, only briefly known to the Russian people, only occasionally offered in limited experiments, experiments that were always wildly successful, surprising only to the governmental leaders who tried them and then abandoned them, frightened by the successes. Applied boldly, we would see a Russian miracle that would change not only Russia but the world—all for the better. Free men and women, operating in free markets, protected by the rule of law enshrining individual rights, erected on the foundation of a constitutionally limited government, would be a model offering limitless growth and prosperity. Moreover, the variety of peoples and cultures in a land as vast as Russia could be recognized and accommodated, attracted and joined together, within a strong but genuine federation, united by the ties of thriving national markets, reassured by the rule of law supported by a just and independent judicial system to safeguard fundamental rights.

A dream? Perhaps it is, but a realistic one. This offers the answer to the second question. Why is Ukraine attracted to the European Union? Does not the European Union offer just such an option? Is not the economic prosperity and individual freedom—and room for national expression—found in the European Union obviously different from the offering of today’s Russia and the memory of the old empire? Is it not fear of the specter of the czars and commissars that haunts Ukrainians?

Was not the creation of the European Union once just such an impossible dream as a truly free and just Russian federation? For hundreds of years the fathers and mothers of the peoples of the European Union made war, large and small, upon each other, French against Germans, Germans against Austrians, Austrians against Poles, Poles against Germans, and round and round again. Today such wars among these same people are unthinkable.

Assembling such a federation takes time, patience, and skill. It may be too tempting for an impatient Putin to rely on his military muscle to make an empire. Perhaps for a brief time he could succeed by force to reassemble much of the old Soviet Union as a greater Russia. The greater challenge, the one that has proven impossible, is to hold such an empire together by force.

Such empire of force would very soon prove ungovernable, with rebellions large and small flaring up constantly. The brutality exerted to try to hold it all together would make the task of unity even harder and progress nigh impossible. It would drain away, once again, Russia’s strength in an unending effort, just as it eroded the strength of the USSR. Maintaining greater Russia by force has always proven a burden far greater than its worth, in the long run a losing effort that has collapsed in a weaker and vulnerable Russia. World War I was one example, the end of the Cold War yet another.

The people of Russia—along with its neighbors—can have a better and brighter future. A Russia built on individual freedom, free markets, free peoples, would unleash a new era of prosperity. Russia would become a beacon of wealth and success, with all Russians participating. Instead of Russians leaving to find their future, they would return to their homeland. If Japan can prosper on islands scarce in natural resources, imagine what free Russia could do, rich in resources, harnessed efficiently by the discipline of the markets.

Instead of an empire of force, a free and flourishing Russia would draw its neighbors to it as the European Union beckons to them today. No longer facing Russian fists, neighboring nations will come knocking at the door, eager to associate with Russia voluntarily, attracted by opportunities for betterment.

Of course, that is the theory. In practice, the more that Russia seeks the path of freedom and abandons the chimerical lure of military conquest, it will succeed. Russia would then achieve its real greatness in the world, the only way that it ever really could.

Of War and Virtue

One hundred fifty years ago the United States remained divided in a brutal war of rebellion. Rather than unusual, such convulsions are typical in the establishment of representative republics. It does not come easy for a population new to a republic to embrace in practice the idea that matters of life and wealth should be resolved by votes. It seems that the age old recourse to arms and blood has to be tried again a time or two before people, who have only experienced more abusive government, come to accept that ballots and representation, enshrined in the rule of law, are a better way of deciding a society’s important issues.

One hundred fifty years ago, in 1864, the people of the young United States were still learning that painful lesson. But the instruction was nearing its end. Back in July of 1863, at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the outcome of the war became inevitable. The rebels of the southern states were going to lose, constitutional government of the United States was going to succeed. The only chance for the rebels would be if the loyal people of the nation lost their determination to persevere to reunite the nation and reaffirm the constitutional republic. Often that seemed in the press to be an iffy question, but in reality the republican will remained strong. The hundreds of thousands who sacrificed life and limb in the field of war, in an overwhelmingly volunteer army (the number of drafted soldiers remained relatively minor), testified to that determination.

In the winter of 1863-64 U.S. soldiers in the field reenlisted in large numbers. Throughout 1864, and into the Spring of 1865, many thousands more would die, but the battles were becoming increasingly futile for the rebel cause, little more than adding to the destruction and suffering that rebel commanders were pulling down upon themselves and their fellows and families in this national lesson in self-government.

For the rebel soldier, experiencing defeat after defeat to his regiment, his corps, or his tattered army—with only occasional respites and temporary successes—it all may have felt pointless. The high and growing rate of desertion from rebel armies in those days suggests so. The historian comes to this point in the conflict and is tempted to describe the remaining rebel heroics and gallant but failing defenses as futile, the casualty lists a bloody tally of worthless and wasted sacrifice—particularly for so ignoble a cause as breaking up the best form of government on the earth at the time.

From the perspective of the rebel “cause” it was pointless, the continued bloodshed and destruction a burden for which the rebel leaders—in the rebel government and at the head of the rebel armies—will surely have to give an accounting before the Judge who weighs the doings of nations and those who lead them. Does that mean, therefore, that the daily struggle of the individual rebel soldier was meaningless? His effort could not change the outcome, only affect in some small way its overall cost.

And yet, throughout 1864 and to the end of the war, there were meaningful and often pitched battles fought on every field of action. The battles to which I refer echo a passage from The Book of Mormon written almost two thousand years before, describing an ancient American people after a very long war:

But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility. (Alma 62:41)

War, on a very personal level, appears to accelerate moral development. Individuals become more virtuous or more evil more quickly than they might under more peaceful conditions.

I believe that for the individual rebel soldier, as for perhaps every soldier, the real battle was his own, and in the end it was the most important battle with the most long-lasting consequences. Abraham Lincoln understated that the world would “little note, nor long remember” his speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, though he perhaps correctly predicted that the world would never forget the great battle fought there.

In the full scheme of things, in terms of what really matters in the eternal worlds after this temporary one is rolled up and its purposes completed, the individual battles fought by each soldier on each side will be recognized as far more important than the whole Battle of Gettysburg. The battle of armies is a temporary one. The battle fought by each soldier, whether he exercises virtues or chooses vices, is the more permanent, the one that has never ending consequences. The battles of freedom were fought in recognition and preservation of these more important personal struggles we all have.

In the battles of 1864 and 1865 of the American War of the Rebellion the rebel soldier could not change the outcome of the war. But in each case his own personal triumph or defeat was there to be etched into his character more permanently than the scars of bullet and saber in his flesh.

As my son has often reminded me, everyone who fought in the Civil War died. And all of them lived. So must we all die, and yet we will all live again where there is no more death. By the time each of us leaves mortality, each must face and fight his battles, the ones that really matter far above those recorded in the history books of the world.