John Gittings

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“La pace igiene del mondo”  --  “Peace which heals the world”

[Interview by Ennio Caretto in the literary supplement of the  Corriere della Sera (Milano), 29 April 2012, re-translated from the Italian].


War, not peace, is the real driving force of human technological progress. That is the argument of the English historian John Gittings, author in the past of important works on China, in a book which is causing a stir in Britain and the US. Foreign editorial writer at the Guardian from 1983 to 2003, and now working with the Oxford International Encylcopedia of Peace, Gittings has written an original re-appraisal of  history which opens up the prospect of a new, pacific, world order. In his book The Glorious Art of Peace. From the Iliad to Iraq, Gittings does not only challenge the view that the matrix of science and technology is overwhelmingly warlike. He also asserts that if we revisit millennia of history, we will find there the guide-lines, more valid than ever today, for a peaceful and just world.

How did you arrive at these conclusions? I have always believed that peace is the ultimate human condition and the one which is more favourable to progress. In my youth, I took part in the anti-nuclear and pro-peace movement of Bertrand Russell. But as time went on I became more aware that historians write predominantly about war. If we visit Foyles in London, the biggest bookshop in the world, we’ll find 280 shelves of books about war, but less than one on peace –although other books which mention peace are scattered over 40 shelves.

And do these books on wars maintain that these are the origin of the main scientific and technological discoveries? On the whole, yes. This is the “theory of the chariot” according to which the invention of the war chariot transformed the Bronze Age, just as the discovery of nuclear energy has transformed our age. But if it is true that wars stimulate discoveries, then it is even more true that peace stimulates even more -- and often the most important -- discoveries. This is the “theory of the water-hoist” to which I subscribe, according to which peace is the pre-requisite for ther cultural development of society.

Why is it called this? The doctrine takes its name from the water-hoist [or shadouf], a pole with a counter-balanced bucket, invented in Mesopotamia to bring up water from wells, more or less contemporaneously with the invention of the war chariot. A discovery which was decisive for irrigation of fields and for agricultural development. Let us not forget that over millennia the greater part of humanity has not experienced war. Nevertheless the historians generally omit this other story.

Why is this so? Basically for two reasons. Wars appear more fascinating than peace to the majority of historians; for some of them even, peace is just an interval between wars. Yet the reading which they give of events and of crucial movements is partly errroneous, and it reflects a sort of prejudice. Take the case of Charles Darwin who is regarded as the theorist of the doctrine of “survival of the fittest”, the so-called view of Social Darwinism. In fact Darwin said that as humanity progressed, it would evolve from competition to cooperation.

You also regard as mistaken the reading of Homer, Shakespeare and Tolstoy as narrators of war, to cite a few of the great writers of whom this is said? This is a one-sided reading of their work. Let’s take the Greek historian Thucydides who is judged to be favourable to war, yet in his narrative there are still hints of peace. Homer too lets us see the alternative to war. At a certain point the Greek soldiers abandon the siege of Troy, misled by a speech of Agamemnon, and only the gods manage to stop them [from running away].  Scenes of  rural work and of dancing are inscribed on the Shield of Achilles. The same can be said of Shakespeare. And in Russia Tolstoy’s tales of war [from the Crimea] were censored because the writer asked why soldiers should kill one another.

Is not pacifism a recent phenomenon? No. In the age of the Warring States in China, Confucius sat in a tea-house at the gate of a city-state giving advice to its rulers on how to gain and to maintain peace. Many influential voices have been raised against war in the course of millennia, but their words were often stifled.  It’s often said that history has been written by the winners – I think it is also written by the warriors.

You stress the teachings of Erasmus of Rotterdam, the apostle of Christian humanism. In my book I contrast Erasmus to Machiavelli. Everyone knows The Prince  and the Art of War of Machiavelli – these have been almost war manuals for generals and rulers and for some of them they still are. But few know  the Education of a Christian Prince of Erasmus, which [includes] almost a pacifist tract. If we return to Foyles, the bookshop displays many editions of Machiavelli and none of the work by Erasmus which denounces the costs of war, proposes negotiations and mediation for peace. Happily Erasmus did have an influence on the philosophers who followed him and the Enlightenment.

Are you convinced that the past provides us with guide-lines for peace? Yes. Erasmus’ teachings are still useful for us. If we understand more deeply  the long-term arguments for and against war, we are more likely to avoid war. The case of the Iraq War is typical: who would have started it if the ultimate cost had been known in advance? The same goes for peace negotiations: the principle needs to be accepted that one has to make concessions in order to achieve the goal. Public opinion is also an important factor, and it has more weight now than in the past. Looking back, we can see that public opinion can also claim to have contributed to the reduction of nuclear weapons.

Yet these teachings have not spared us two world wars and the cold war. We have missed some big opportunities for peace because we have been unable to absorb the lesson of history. As the centenary of the First World War approaches, we are still asking ourselves why it broke out. We misunderstand [the peace and disarmament initiatives of] the 1930s which were at first positive and not negative. We don’t admit that the Cold War could have been avoided. We wonder why we have not succeeded in creating a new world order in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union.  We need to change.

Have you not been too optimistic in suggesting in your book that the current century could be distinguished by peace? The 20th century was a century of blood, roughly 80 yerars of war out of a 100. We have the means to ensure that this is not so also for the 21st century. I don’t delude myself that all problems can be solved. We are in the age of globalisation and the situation is complex – our solutions must be complex too. It’s not just a question of preventing wars from breaking out, but of reducing poverty and inequality and of preserving the environment. Science and technology are not enough by themselves.

Does it need a cultural revolution? In a sense yes, althoough I haven’t used the term. We need less self-interest on the part of the ruling powers, less intellectual machismo on the past of historians, more international collaboration, more emphasis in schools and in the media on the peace dividend which we have recently failed to secure. On television, when the Afghan war is discussed, they invited experts on war, not experts on peace – this has to change.