By Eric Axner-Norrman
AT THE END of the Second World War, when Nazi Germany stood defeated, it is said that the capitulating Hermann Göring, high commander of the Luftwaffe and one of the top dogs of the Third Reich, compared war with a game of football – after the game, the winners and losers shake hands and the bad blood between both is quickly forgotten. Although the losing side in war tends to give up more than a mere humiliating handshake, history up to that point had proved that Göring was more or less right. What he was not expecting was a fair trial where leading war criminals and their puppet masters were tried and, in many cases, executed for crimes against humanity. Many high-ranking Nazis with a more realistic outlook took their own lives, possibly having a hunch as to the reckoning that was to come before the Nuremberg trials could begin. Göring, on the other hand, committed suicide only after his death sentence had been established. He seems to have found the situation rather confusing. War is war and war is always a nasty business, right?
The Nuremberg trials did not just come about after the allied troops saw the enormous and, frankly, incomprehensible misery that the Nazi regime and the Axis powers had left behind on the battlefields and in the concentration camps. Already before World War I (the prequel that was to “end all wars”), there was a growing popular opinion in the West against the “need” for war. By the late 19th century, the so-called “positive sides” to war, such as personal bravery and righteous retaliation, were beginning to be replaced by notions familiar to us today: war as the cause of unspeakable human suffering beyond all rhyme and reason. Morally defending war – especially post-WWII – has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, in many of the countries literally destroyed by the rampage of the latest world war. And now that we get to experience the massive perks of a continent largely at peace, it is even harder to get most Europeans to regard war as a necessity – as it has been for long periods of human history.
War and armed conflicts are currently raging on all human-inhabited continents except Oceania, but most countries – about 195 all-in-all, as regarded by the UN – are not technically at war. Most ongoing conflicts are minor and regional but cause massive devastation of both human life and material damage in their own right. With the very notable exception of the expansionist Russo-Ukrainian War, almost all wars in 2023 have been civil wars; violent political unrest, or clashes based on ethnicity and terrorist insurgencies, often with clear religious overtones. In the Sahel region of Africa, where the great Sahara Desert starts to give way to more tropical landscapes, no country is entirely spared from the mayhem that Jihadist insurgence groups such as Boko Haram and the African branches of both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State spread. Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger are just three nations where technologically modern wars are waged in the name of God.
On the Horn of Africa, countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia in particular struggle with bloody civil wars. The Somali state has nearly collapsed and as the civil war is now nearing fifteen years in length, the military is fighting both the Al-Qaeda-backed Al-Shabaab, the Somali chapter of ISIS, and the somewhat autonomous states of Somaliland and Puntland who are claiming rights of nationhood. This is indeed a multi-front war; both Islamist groups are also opponents who are fighting against each other as well as the Somali Armed Forces and the forces of the separatist regions. In neighboring Ethiopia, both the Tigray War and other ethnically inflicted conflicts are tearing the once proud and affluent empire apart, sometimes described as the Yugoslavia of Africa.
Few wars have been started for a good cause, no matter how freely we define a good cause. In the short amount of time that humans have inhabited the Earth, countless conflicts have been fought, not least over territory and political power, the other more transient than the other. But the overwhelmingly negative perception of armed conflicts as a solution to issues is nonetheless hopeful. Many nations, such as Great Britain and France, and Denmark and Sweden, have taken the lesson to heart and have, as it appears, buried the battle axe that they have wielded against each other for such a long time. Hereditary enemies and archfiends can make peace. Revanchism need not necessarily triumph unless we let it. Is it then naïve to be a pacifist in the broad sense of the term? To believe that Peace with a capital P might not just be a pipe dream after all? Suppose that war worldwide is slowly becoming the exception rather than the rule, as at least some positive things indicate. Is it not then even more ridiculous and childish to be among the fewer and fewer remaining war hawks and mongers of misery?
Since the rise of Christianity, there have been many periods where throughout the Western world people have believed that the thousand years of peace as promised by the Bible were imminent (notably and tragicomically during the devastating Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century). Though it might be too much to hope for, we probably stand as good a chance as any in history to mend the peace that, potentially, could end all major wars. I always like to recall the self-evident truth that all action starts with thoughts; that all things practical begin with thinking. Now it is just a matter of pulling up our sleeves and getting down to business. I would go as far as to say that it is essential if we want human history to continue – and not end here in this century, on our watch.
By: Eric Axner-Norrman
Photography: Artem Podrez