History forecasts inevitable major war

by John M. Crisp

Our future is foreshadowed by our past, and few human activities have shaped our history more than our near-irresistible compulsion to fight each other. War is as characteristic of humanity as religion and the drive to procreate.

At our best, we aspire to beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Religion has generally made a virtue of peace. History is replete with organizations that have campaigned against war in the abstract. Even now, the aptly named British-based MAW (Movement for the Abolition of War) asserts that war is not inevitable and imagines its eradication.

Whether the admirable goals of these efforts were ever actually realistic is not as important as the regrettable fact that they have manifestly failed. The scent of war is in the air, and it’s growing stronger. And as much as we may hate it, we cannot ignore it.

We sometimes speak of “just” and “unjust” wars. Unjust wars contain subcategories: wars that are “ill advised,” “based on misinformation” or “just plain stupid.” Unfortunately, we usually make these judgments only in retrospect, long after great resources and many lives have been wasted.

But history doesn’t run in retrospect, and the current war in Ukraine lies before us. Locally, the war is about territory and sovereignty. Globally, the stakes are much higher. It’s not unduly idealistic to characterize the war as a showdown between authoritarianism and democracy, between tyranny and freedom. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that the West must choose between these polar opposites.

Thus far, the West has chosen. The United States, NATO and the European Union have engineered a calibrated response that, combined with Ukrainian courage and will, has brought the war to a precarious stalemate.

The stalemate is unlikely to last, however, and although the Biden administration has committed to standing behind Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” there’s no guarantee that a Republican-controlled House — or many ordinary Americans, for that matter — will be willing to maintain this level of support.

In fact, polls and prominent Republicans — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, former president Donald Trump, presidential aspirant Ron DeSantis — have shown signs of waning support for Ukraine. Concerns about the war are legitimate. But much of this equivocation reflects domestic politics: Many Republicans would rather see Joe Biden lose in Ukraine than Vladimir Putin.

But before we bail on Ukraine, consider two stark facts:

First, there are “good guys” and “bad guys” in this global conflict. We are on the side of the “good guys.” I’m wary of the term “exceptional” to describe our nation. It sounds like bragging, the sort of thing that other people should say about us, rather than what we should say about ourselves.

But despite our flaws and failures our system of governance is far superior to Russia’s, China’s, Iran’s, Saudi Arabia’s, Hungary’s or that of any of the burgeoning autocracies in the world.

Unfortunately, autocracy and tyranny are the historical default, and maintaining an exceptional democratic nation in a dangerous world requires positive action.

Second, positive action in defense of democracy often requires force. The last war that we could reasonably call a “good war” was World War II, the worldwide struggle to defend Western values — freedom, individual rights, equality, self-governance — from Nazi Germany and an imperialist Japan.

The war in Ukraine is that same struggle, writ small.

Do not mistake me for a hawk. I came of age in a generation that made an anthem out of “All we are saying … is give peace a chance.” But the growing conflict between freedom and tyranny is unlikely to be resolved peacefully. The fact that the major opponents in this conflict have nuclear weapons makes our prospects unimaginably dangerous. A major war would be catastrophic. Nevertheless, this is a war that the West cannot afford to lose.

One hopes for a diplomatic resolution. History suggests otherwise.

In fact, we often say that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Unfortunately, even those who remember history are often doomed to repeat it, as well.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Texas and can be reached at jcrispcolumns@gmail.com.