Last night I had the chance to hear Adam Hochschild talking about his new book To End All Wars, which is mainly about the conflicts between pro and anti-war leaders in Great Britain during World War I. The first World War is a particularly hard war to justify or glamorize, since it cost so many millions of lives, in such pointless slaughter. Part of the reason for that was the state of technology of the time. Offensive charges led by cavalry, the formula for success for hundreds of years, were rendered useless by machine guns and barbed wire. Until the invention of the tank, armies could no longer mount an effective offense. But the warring parties persisted in the attempt, spurred on by their outmoded ideas of how to fight, leading only to the sacrifice of millions of lives in exchange for no territorial gain. Another part of the reason that the First World War seems so pointless is that we have trouble discerning its causes and purposes. Hochschild pointed out that before World War I, the countries and heads of state of Europe were getting along remarkably well. Then suddenly, they were engaged in existential conflict. Perhaps because the causes of the war are so elusive, and because victory on the battlefield was so difficult, the outcome could not produce any real resolution. At the conclusion of World War I, the participants were all left worse off in every conceivable way, and the war mainly resulted in sowing the seeds for World War II.
Hochschild focuses on the war resisters, mentioning how torn some of them were between their belief that the war was wrong, and the pressure they faced to support the cause. In response to a question about the kinds of rhetoric that we all hear during international conflicts, Hochschild talked about how inflamed both sides became in demonizing the other, and the extent they used some of the new media of the time to disseminate propaganda. Both sides equated their cause with the need to preserve civilization as they knew it, or national honor, or numerous other justifications for fighting. The war itself then became its own justification, as deaths of soldiers inspired others to make sure they had not died in vain. In order to understand the real issues involved in the conflict, Hochschild said, you need to cut through all of the hot air being spewed by both sides that was used to justify continued conflict. Once you do that, it becomes apparent that to the extent there were real conflicts between the participants, they involved territory and conflicting colonial ambitions, probably not the kind of stuff that would have inspired so many to lay down their lives.
In the field of less violent conflict resolution, we also see inflamed rhetoric, irrational justifications, and the conflict itself, acting to spur parties on to continued conflict. Most mediation training emphasizes the need to vent all of that hot air. Mediators are supposed to listen carefully to all of the parties’ arguments and grievances, however tangential they might be to the issues at hand. They are supposed to empathize, even with fears that the mediator might think are completely crazy or irrelevant. They are supposed to allow parties to express their feelings before they can lead parties to a more rational discussion of what is really at stake in the conflict.
I agree with all that, because I think you have to show that you are willing to listen to and understand what somebody else is saying before they will be willing to listen to you. But what Hochschild’s talk also made me think about was how often we need to cut through all that heated rhetoric and help parties understand how counter-productive it all might be to solving whatever real problems might lie at the heart of their conflict. How you go about telling someone that their concerns are illusory or that their goals are unobtainable or that their reasons for continuing the conflict are bogus; now there’s a challenge for the field of conflict resolution.