John Gittings. The Glorious Art of Peace: From the Iliad to Iraq. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 320 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-957576-3.
Reviewed by Jordan Hayworth (University of North Texas)
Published on H-War (April, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
John Gittings, a former East Asia editor at the Guardian and currently a research associate of the Center of Chinese Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, has written a timely and engaging contribution to the growing field of peace studies. A member of the editorial board for The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace, Gittings brings a tremendous amount of knowledge and passion to this history of peace discourses from ancient times to the present. Gittings argues that peace--not war--has been the essential requirement for human progress and prosperity throughout history. In addition, Gittings contends that warlike discourses tend to dominate human thought, disrupting the long, complex, and ultimately glorious process of building peace.
As the subtitle indicates, Gittings pursues the theme of peace thought from ancient Greece to modern America, with a clear focus on Western and Chinese cultures of peace. While the subfocus on China prevents this from being a completely Eurocentric work, Gittings does not achieve a truly global focus. Nonetheless, the author has produced a well-written volume intended for the general reader in order to “provide an overview of the way that peace has been perceived (and misperceived) from ancient times to today, and to bring to life at least a small portion of the wealth of peace advocacy and imagery, in philosophy and political argument, in literature and art, which has accumulated over several millennia” (p. 8).
A useful introduction discusses the challenges of defining the term “peace” while outlining the main arguments of the book. The first chapter utilizes insights from diverse fields such as linguistics, statistics, history, and anthropology to critique war discourses, and contends that peace is the primary agent in historical development. The subsequent seven chapters follow a chronological framework covering ancient Greece and China, Christian peace narratives from Jesus Christ to the European Crusades, Renaissance humanism, Enlightenment peace theory and nineteenth-century pacifism, the League of Nations and interwar peace initiatives, the Cold War, and peace building from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the 2003 Iraq War. Gittings concludes with an assessment of the prospects for peace in the twenty-first century.
While the bulk of Gittings’s book addresses literature, art, and philosophy, he is well versed in the social science theory of peace movements. The author rejects simplistic definitions of peace as merely “the absence of war,” building on the arguments of Kenneth Boulding, Johan Galtung, and Francis Beer. Gittings proposes that peace be viewed not as a perpetual state but as a dynamic process that humans must actively strive to achieve and maintain, although he asserts that “no culture has a monopoly on its definition” (p. 3). In addition, Gittings urges caution in attempts to equate peace building with pacifism. He warns that states have often misused pacifist labels to “present their military action in the best possible lights: this applies particularly to the doctrine of ‘Just War’ and to the claim of ‘self-defense’” (p. 4). Regardless of the problems of definition, Gittings contends that peace is essential and necessary for human civilization. Put simply: “Without peace, we would not be here today” (p. 5). Military historians will most likely take issue with many of Gittings’s assertions in this respect as, unfortunately, warfare has also been a key agent of historical change.
The approach that Gittings takes in navigating peace thought from ancient times to the present contrasts the modern focus on past conflicts with past emphasis on peace. For example, in chapter 2 Gittings contends that both ancient Greece and Warring States China saw the emergence of peace thought, despite the fact that, in Gittings’s judgement, historians have overwhelmingly viewed these as periods of great conflict. Surprisingly, the author represents Homer’s Illiad--often claimed as the great martial epic--as an example of Greek ambivalence about the glorification of war. As Gittings reminds us, “the Illiad contained a stratum of ‘heroic’ celebration of war, overlaid with a more ‘humane’ view of its horrors as seen in retrospect from a less martial age” (p. 46). Similarly, Gittings finds substantial evidence of pro-peace, antiwar arguments in the records of ministerial councils, works of Confucian political philosophy, and literature of ancient China. In particular, he documents the emergence of popular hostility to warfare in The Book of Songs, a verse anthology from the Spring and Autumn periods. While readers will likely find Gittings’s discussion of ancient Chinese literature impressive and informative, his comments on the ever-changing present politics of China might raise eyebrows: “China’s rulers in the twenty-first century advocate building a ‘harmonious’ society at home, and a peaceful world abroad, in terms which appeal explicitly to this presumed tradition of ‘peace and harmony’ in Chinese history” (p. 72).
Chapter 3 examines the development of peace thought in a decidedly Western context from the Roman Empire to the Crusades. Gittings references the emergence of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus Christ as “crucial to the discussion” of peace thought. He provides a sober assessment of Christianity and warfare, asserting that “the evidence for a pacifist outlook within the Christian Church is most widespread in the earliest period preceding its rapprochement with Constantine, although the subject remains controversial among many religious historians” (p. 75). Rather than breaking new scholarly ground, the author delivers an adept synthesis of the works of Roland Bainton, John Cecil Cadoux, and Peter Brock. In addition, he highlights a shift in historiographical attention regarding early Christian peace theories: while the topic received much attention in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Gittings asserts that it has recently been marginalized by increasingly greater interest in Christian views of war. Unfortunately, he bases this conclusion on an incomplete review of recent literature. For example, while he states that a total of three recent popular histories of Christianity do not discuss Christian pacifism, he does not mention Diarmaid MacCulloch’s highly regarded Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (2009), leaving the reader uncertain of the overall validity of this historiographical analysis.
Chapters 4 and 5 offer a terse but interesting discussion of Western peace discourses from the Renaissance through the Hague Peace Conference of 1899. Gittings attempts to draw a direct line of influence from the humanist scholars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to the peace theorists of the Enlightenment and the pacifists of the nineteenth century. He begins by emphasizing the landmark contributions of Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus to European peace thought. Gittings alleges that Michael Howard in his classic work War and the Liberal Conscience (1978) “dismissed” Erasmus’s important influence on pacifism. Drawing insight from Peter van den Dungen, whom Gittings correctly identifies as a “leading Erasmus scholar,” the author asserts that Erasmus’s works “were not devoid of political insights and practical suggestions” (p. 101). Gittings does a fine job synthesizing the philosophical treatises and literary depictions of war and peace of the Renaissance, including in-depth discussions of Juan Luis Vives, Niccolò Machiavelli, and William Shakespeare. In chapter 5, he offers an overview of Enlightenment peace thought and European pacifist movements in the nineteenth century, yet unfortunately he relies on general surveys of peace movements by scholars such as David Barash and David Cortright rather than specialist literature on the periods under consideration. For example, readers will be disappointed to find that Gittings does not engage the controversial arguments advanced by David Bell in The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (2007), which argues that Enlightenment peace advocacy paradoxically provided the intellectual foundations of Napoleonic “total war.” Although Gittings admirably describes Immanuel Kant’s theory of perpetual peace while linking Kant’s writings to subsequent peace initiatives, his account of this period suffers from historical inaccuracies. For example, after discussing the 1795 Franco-Prussian Peace of Basel, he erroneously states that “Prussia became France’s ally against Britain in the subsequent war [The War of the Second Coalition] but changed sides again when the Third Coalition was formed against Napoleon in 1805” (p. 127). In addition, the absence of Paul Schroeder’s The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848 (1994) in the footnotes or bibliography is alarming.
Chapters 6, 7, and 8 are the most impressive in terms of research and originality of argument. Gittings confronts the troubling paradox that the early twentieth century was both the height of world peace movements and the most violent period in human history. He contends that cultures of war and violence from the nineteenth century, rooted in Social Darwinism, made peace impossible and that only after the bloodletting could humanity recover. Gittings attempts to revise the generally negative consensus on the League of Nations, asserting that, at least for Britain, collective security and appeasement reflected public opinion. Referencing a wide range of intellectual leaders such as Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, he concludes that “the growing lethality of war, and the great publicity given to the efforts of those who sought to resist it, have helped to enlarge the concept of non-violence as an alternative strategy of resistance” (p. 167). The peace of 1945 is described as flawed despite the creation of the United Nations. Gittings observes that “there has always been a tension between the desire of the great powers to dictate its decisions--or else to ignore them--and the principle of universality and democratic decision-making” (p. 12). Even the fall of the Berlin Wall--the supposed “End of History”--failed to erode “the traditional mindset in which war or its threat is the default mechanism” (p. 12). Instead, Gittings regretfully notes that the War on Terror has led to the persistence of militaristic thinking that culminated in the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, which he calls a “disaster” (p. 13).
Many readers of H-War might take issue with Gittings’s view of the field of military history. Although only a small part of his book, many of his assertions about the field lack substantial scholarly support and rely instead on personal opinion and anecdotes. In fact, most academic volumes on warfare and particular wars address an important issue in the emerging field of peace studies: the reasons for the failure of peace and the outbreak of wars. Military historians actually contribute to the field of peace studies by showing the true horror of what occurs when peace has failed. In addition, Gittings has a habit of making disparaging remarks about military historians. While he describes the late Gabriel Kolko as “the leading historian of war,” he argues that a “culture of war” has “a sizeable fan club in academic circles” (p. 8). Furthermore, he asserts that “although the field of war studies professes to be much more realistic than that of peace scholarship, it is often prone to make glib and sweeping judgements which reveal a hidden subjectivity” (p. 16). Gittings’s determination to chastise military historians while promoting peace studies strikes this reviewer as needlessly combative. A better approach would have been to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration between the two fields. Nonetheless, all readers will find the book an interesting, eloquently written, and thought-provoking introduction to the growing field of peace studies.
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Jordan Hayworth. Review of Gittings, John, The Glorious Art of Peace: From the Iliad to Iraq.
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