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I s War Obsolete? A Review Essay Carl Kaysen John Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescenceof Major War. New York: Basic Books, 1989. T h e forty-five years that have now passed since the end of World War I1 without interstate war in Europe is the longest such period in its post-medieval history.' Many scholars and commentators have attributed the present "long peace" among the major powers to the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. When President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev agreed that a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought, they were only reiterating what has become an almost universally accepted piety in current public and scholarly discussion of international relations.2 John Mueller's Retreat from Doomsday3 advances a much stronger thesis: major war was already becoming obsolete by the time of the First World War; The author thanks Francis Bator, McGeorge Bundy and Marc Trachtenberg for many helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. They encouraged him in writing down his speculations without necessarily endorsing them, and read the result with critical eyes. Carl Kaysen is David W. Skinner Professor of Political Economy in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a tneinber of MIT's program in Defense and Arms Control Studies. 1. See J.S. Levy, War in the Modern Great Power System, 1495-1975 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983); and Evan Luard, War in International Society (London: I.B. Taurus, 1986). Luard's analysis covers 1400-1984, and includes civil wars, colonial wars and revolts, and some other wars outside the European system. Both Levy and Luard find the nineteenth century1816 -99 in Levy, 1815-1914 in Luard-the most peaceful of the long periods they studied. Luard records the periods of 1815-54 and 1871-1914, forty and forty-three years, as free of major power wars. The longest such period in the eighteenth century was 1720-27, and in earlier centuries war raged even more frequently. 2. See Department of State Bulletin, Vol. 86, No. 2106 (January 1988), p. 8, for the joint communique at the end of the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting in Geneva, November 19-21, 1985. Agreement is not universal. See for example ch. 4 in Paul Seabury and Angelo Codevilla, War: Ends and Means (New York: Basic Books, 1989). See also kchard Pipes, "Why the Soviets Think They Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War," Commentary, Vol. 64 (July 1977), pp. 21-34. 3. John Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War (New York: Basic Books, 1989); most subsequent references to this book appear parenthetically in the text. See also Mueller, "The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons: Stability in the Postwar World," International Security, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Fall 1988), pp. 55-79. International Security, Spring 1990 (Vol. 14, No. 4) 01990by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 42 Is War Obsolete? I 43 World War I1 repeated and reinforced that lesson. The development of nuclear weapons was accordingly irrelevant to the process; it was, so to speak, the flourish under the finis at the end of the story. Mueller’s central argument is that war-among ”western,” modernized nation-has become ”subrationally unthinkable.” An idea becomes impossible not when it becomes reprehensible or has been renounced, but when it fails to percolate into one’s consciousness as a conceivable option. Thus, two somewhat paradoxical conclusions about the avoidance of war can be drawn. On the one hand, peace is likely to be firm when war’s repulsiveness and futility are fully evident-as when its horrors are dramatically and inevitably catastrophic. On the other hand, peace is most secure when it gravitates away from conscious rationality to become a subrational, unexamined mental habit. At first, war becomes rationally unthinkable -rejected because it’s calculated to be ineffective and/or undesirable . Then it becomes subrationally unthinkable-rejected not because it’s a bad idea but because it remains subconscious and never comes off as a coherent possibility. Peace in other words, can prove to be habit forming, addictive. (p. 240.) The obsolescence...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1531-4804
Print ISSN
0162-2889
Pages
pp. 42-64
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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