Our Planet’s Long History of War

Our Planet’s Long History of War

Whether we care to realize it or not, we’re now in a strange and threatening new world of war.


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Excuse me if I wander a little today—and if it bothers you, don’t blame me, blame Vladimir Putin. After all, I didn’t decide to invade Ukraine, the place my grandfather fled almost 140 years ago. I suspect, in fact, that I was an adult before I even knew such a place existed. If I could be accused of anything, maybe you could say that, for most of my life, I evaded Ukraine.

All of us are, in some fashion, now living inside the shockwaves from the Russian president’s grotesque invasion and from a war taking place close to the heart of Europe. I was not quite one year old in May 1945 when World War II in Europe ended, along with years of carnage unparalleled on this planet. Millions of Russians, 6 million Jews, god knows how many French, British, Germans, Ukrainians, and… well, the list just goes on and on… died and how many more were wounded or displaced from their homes and lives. Given Adolf Hitler’s Germany, we’re talking about nothing short of a hell on Earth. That was Europe from the late 1930s until 1945.

In the more-than-three-quarters of a century since then, with the exception of the brief Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, a civil war (with outside intervention) in the early 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, as well as warring in marginal places like Chechnya, Europe has been the definition of peaceful. Hence, the shock of it all. Believe me, it wouldn’t have been faintly the same if Vladimir Putin had invaded Kazakhstan or Afghanistan or… well, you get the idea. In fact, in 1979, when the leaders of the Soviet Union did indeed send the Red Army into Afghanistan and again, just over two decades later, when George W. Bush and crew ordered the US military to invade the same country, there were far too few cries of alarm, assumedly because it hadn’t happened in the heart of Europe and who the hell cared (other, of course, than the Afghans in the path of those two armies).

Now, the Vlad has once again turned part of Europe into a war-torn nightmare, a genuine hell on earth of fire and destruction. He’s blasted out significant parts of major cities, sent more than 4 million Ukrainians fleeing the country as refugees, and uprooted at least 6.5 million more in that land. Consider it a signal measure of the horror of the moment that more than half of all Ukrainian children have, in some fashion, been displaced. Since that country became the focus of staggering media attention here (in coverage terms, it’s as if every day were the day after the 9/11 attacks), since it became more or less the only story on Earth, little surprise that it also came to seem like a horror, a crime, of an essentially unparalleled sort, an intrusion beyond all measure. The shock has been staggering. You just don’t do that, right?

The Heartland of War, Historically Speaking

Strangely enough, though, the Russian president’s gross act fits all too horribly into a far larger and longer history of Europe and this planet. After all, until 1945, rather than being a citadel of global peace, order, and European-Union-style cooperation, that continent was regularly a hell of war, conflict, and slaughter.

You could, of course, go back to at least 460 BC, when the 15-year Peloponnesian War between the Greek city states of Athens and Sparta began in an era that has long been considered the “dawn of civilization.” From then on through Roman imperial times, war, or rather wars galore, lay at the heart of that developing civilization.

Once you get to the later history of Europe, whether you’re talking about Vikings raiding England or English kings like Henry V fighting it out in France (read your Shakespeare!) in what came to be known as the Hundred Years’ War; whether you’re thinking about the Thirty Years’ War in medieval Europe in which millions are believed to have perished; the bloody Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, including that self-proclaimed French emperor’s invasion of Russia; or, of course, World War I, an early-20th-century slaughterhouse, stretching from France again deep into Russia, not to speak of civil conflicts like the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, you’re talking about a genuine heartland of global conflict. (And keep in mind that Ukraine was all too often involved.)

In the years since World War II, especially here in the United States, we’ve grown far too used to a world in which wars (often ours) take place in distant lands, thousands of miles from the heart of true power and civilization (as we like to think of it) on this planet. In the 1950s with the Korean War, as well as in the 1960s and 1970s in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, war, fought by the United States and its allies was a significantly Asian phenomenon. In the 1980s and 1990s, the crucial locations were South Asia and the Middle East. In this century, once again, they were in South Asia, the Greater Middle East, and also Africa.

And of course, in the history of this planet, so many of the wars fought “elsewhere” ever since the Middle Ages were sparked by European imperial powers, as well as that inheritor of the European mantle of empire, the United States. Looked at in the largest historical framework possible, you might even say that, in some fashion, modern war as we’ve known it was pioneered in Europe.

Worse yet, as soon as the Europeans were able to travel anywhere else, what’s come to be known all too inoffensively as “the age of discovery” began. With their wooden sailing ships loaded with cannons and troops, they essentially pursued wars around the world in the grimmest fashion possible, while attempting to dominate much of the planet via what came to be known as colonialism. From the genocidal destruction of native peoples in North America (a legacy the United States inherited in the “New World” from its colonial mentors in the “Old World”) to the Opium Wars in China, from the Sepoy Mutiny in India to the repression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the Europeans functionally exported extreme violence of many kinds globally in a way that would undoubtedly have impressed the ancient Greeks and Romans.

From the Portuguese and Spanish empires of the 16th century to the English and French empires of the 19th and early 20th centuries to the more recent American empire (though never referred to that way here) and the Russian one as well, the world was, in those years, flooded with a kind of violence with which Vladimir Putin would undoubtedly have been comfortable indeed. In fact, from the Peloponnesian War on, it’s been quite a Ukrainian-style story, a veritable European (and American) feast of death and destruction on an almost unimaginable scale.

The Afterlife of War

In 2022, however, simply claiming that war in Ukraine or anywhere else is just the same old thing would be deceptive indeed. After all, we’re on a planet that neither the Greeks, the Romans, Henry V, Napoleon, or Hitler could ever have imagined. And for that, you can thank, at least in part, that runaway child of Europe, the United States, while recalling one specific day in history: August 6, 1945. That, of course, was the day a single bomb from a B-29 Superfortress bomber transformed the Japanese city of Hiroshima into rubble, while obliterating 70,000 or more of its inhabitants.

In the decades since, the very idea of war has, sadly enough, been transformed into something potentially all-too-new, whether in Europe or anywhere else, as long as it involves any of the planet’s nine nuclear powers. Since 1945, as nuclear weapons spread across the planet, we’ve threatened to export everyday war of the sort humanity has known for so long to heaven, hell, and beyond. In some sense, we may already be living in the afterlife of war, though most of the time we don’t know it. Don’t think it’s something odd or a strange accident that, when things began to go unexpectedly poorly for them, the Vlad’s crew promptly started threatening to use nuclear weapons if the Russians, instead of conquering Ukraine, were pushed into some desperately uncomfortable corner. As the deputy chairman of Russia’s security council, Dmitry Medvedev, put it recently, “We have a special document on nuclear deterrence. This document clearly indicates the grounds on which the Russian Federation is entitled to use nuclear weapons,” including “when an act of aggression is committed against Russia and its allies, which jeopardized the existence of the country itself, even without the use of nuclear weapons, that is, with the use of conventional weapons.”

And keep in mind that Russia today has an estimated 4,477 nuclear warheads, more than 1,500 of them deployed, including new “tactical” nukes, each of which might have “only” perhaps one-third the power of the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima and so might be considered battlefield weaponry, though of an unimaginably devastating and dangerous sort. And mind you, Vladimir Putin publicly oversaw the testing of four nuclear-capable ballistic missiles just before he launched his present war. Point made, so to speak. Such threats mean nothing less than that, whether we care to realize it or not, we’re now in a strange and threatening new world of war, given that even a nuclear exchange between regional powers like India and Pakistan could create a nuclear winter on this planet, potentially starving a billion or more of us to death.

Honestly, if you think about it, could you even imagine a stranger or more dangerous world? Consider it an irony of the first order, for instance, that the United States has spent years focused on trying to keep the Iranians from making a single nuclear weapon (and so becoming the 10th country to do so), but not—not for a day, not for an hour, not for a minute—on keeping this country from producing ever more of them.

Take, for instance, the new intercontinental ballistic missile, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, that the Pentagon is planning to build to replace our current crop of land-based nukes at an estimated price tag of $264 billion (and that’s before the cost overruns even begin). And that, in turn, is just a modest part of its full-scale, three-decade-long “modernization” program for its nuclear “triad” of land, sea, and air-based weapons that could, in the end, cost $2 trillion in taxpayer funds to ensure that this country would be capable of destroying not only this planet but more like it.

And just to put that in context: In a country that can’t find a red cent to invest in so many things Americans truly need, the one thing that both parties in Congress and the president (whoever he may be) can agree on is that ever more staggering sums should be spent on a military that’s fought a series of undeclared wars around the planet in this century in a remarkably unsuccessful fashion, bringing hell and high water to places like Afghanistan and Iraq, just as Vladimir Putin so recently did to Ukraine.

So, don’t just think of the Russian president as some aberrant oddball or autocratic madman who appeared magically at the disastrous edge of history, forcing his way into our peaceful lives. Unfortunately, he’s a figure who should be familiar indeed to us, given our European past. Shakespeare would have had a ball with the Vlad. And while he’s brought hell on Earth to Europe, given the way his top officials have raised the issue of nuclear weaponry, we should imagine ourselves in both an all-too-familiar and an all-too-new world.

Historically speaking, Europe should be thought of as the heartland of the history of war, but today, sadly enough, it should also potentially be considered a springboard into eternity for all of us.

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