Book Review: War, An Enquiry by AC Grayling


Back in the mid-1980s, (the time of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles and the SS21 and Reagan’s “Evil Empire speech” there was a group called Frakie Goes to Hollywood which had a hit with a song which opened “War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” Seven words which made a point with admirable clarity, albeit the argument was a bit skimpy.

Three decades later A C Grayling has emerged from St Anne’s College, Oxford and published this tome which pretty much asks the same question, but then has 200 pages of analysis before reaching a similar conclusion to the Frankies. The approach is of course much more serious and opens with the obvious questions of how and why wars start, whether they can be ethically justified and whether they should be ethically fought.

The introduction then seeks to set the terms of the enquiry, and this is perhaps where the trouble begins. In the preface the author makes is clear that he abhors war as a concept, which is of course his right, but it does mean that the enquiry is somewhat biased.
His general presumption that war represents failure of diplomacy, and therefore is failure is facile and wrong. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and indeed Hitler’s of the Sudetenland and the Anschluss with Austria were resounding success, achieving what diplomacy could not deliver. William the Bastard’s trip to Hastings in 1066 turned out pretty well for the Normans too. So I’m afraid I took against the argument by about page 10.

The book is divided into three parts. The first is a necessarily glib canter through the history of warfare form 10,000 BC to the modern day. The author picks examples to suit his supposition and gets very tangled in Clausewitz and Dohet while skipping Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. It then moves on to the causes and effects of war, which he concludes is often worse for non-combatant women than for combatant (male) soldiers. He offers no data and no discussion of (the admittedly appalling question) whether being raped is “worse” than being killed in close combat on the Eastern Front.

The final part covers the ethics and law of war and again, this gets very convoluted. While the development of western ethics is discussed in detail, he never addresses the core question of whether it is sensible to seek to apply rational analysis to the often irrational environment of the battlefield. He then concludes that the solution to war is greater international “friendship”, abhors the nation state, falls into the trap of citing the EU as the preventer of war in Western Europe since 1945 – not even a nod to NATO or Mutually Assured Destruction –  and concludes that the UN needs to work better.  Hardly original.

This book fails completely in making its case. However, it is not a wasted read as it demonstrates the abject failure of intellectual ethicists to produce coherent thinking on war, international relations and pretty much anything else. A better book would start with the pragmatic observation that wars occur despite the best endeavours of the intellectual elite and ask why that is.

This is a facile tome.  But it is worth reading for the insight of the utter vacuousness of those who purport to be “progressive intellectuals”, a term that is oxymoronic.

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