Home Page Fiction and Poetry
Essays and Reviews
Art and Style
World and Politics

The Use of Violence

By Mike Mercer

The Montreal Review, April, 2010

The Consequences of War, Rubens

Mike Mercer argues that man's actions can be controlled by violence but their minds can not, thus violence is no real solution. 


"Violence never solves anything." In this article, I aim to examine this contentious statement. On the surface it would seem true. People often resort to violence in order to settle a dispute, but victory does not always bring a real end to the problem. If we allow that the statement is true, we must admit that humans are foolish creatures because they continually think and act as if violence will resolve a problem. However, if the statement is false, we are faced with the idea that violence is a valid means to an end.


Why violence does not solve anything? First, violence carries only the power to compel action, not the power to persuade opinions. Thus, a defeated foe may be forced to take certain actions or accept certain conditions, but his mind is unaltered. The views he held before the war may still be held, reinforced by a hatred of the victor. He is usually convinced that his side was right in whatever dispute started the war. Second, most violence does not destroy the enemy entirely. The enemy is left reduced in strength and numbers but with a surviving core that can carry a grudge. Thus, violence may be useful in the short term to secure a limited goal, control of a territory for example. But it offers no long term solution to any dispute. In fact, violence usually has the opposite effect: the defeated foe desires revenge, under the mask of justice.

An example that springs to mind is the trouble with Alsace - Lorraine. A small territory in Europe between France and Germany , it has been in dispute from the time Germany became a unified state. It was an issue in WW I & II, with both France and Germany claiming it as a "natural" part of their lands. Force of arms allowed it to be captured, but did not ensure that it would be kept.

The use of force and the threat of future violence can keep a people under control, so long as the ruler is willing and able to employ these ruthless tactics. However this is not a real solution, it is a suppression of the symptoms. The underlying cause of conflict, usually linked to unjust acts of the ruling peoples, remains and can surface at a later date. An example here would be the Native Americans. They were forced out of their lands, their numbers greatly reduced, their movements and actions controlled through the diplomacy of violence. The use of punitive expeditions may control a people but it can not address the deeply held views of said people. Thus after the will to oppress slackened, the Natives began making calls for the redress of past wrongs. Violence won the invading Europeans a continent but it did not ensure a conflict free future. Thankfully, the conflicts we see here are mostly battles of words.

So far, it would seem that violence does not solve anything. However, our exploration of the use of force has only been generic, we have not yet looked at specific forms or war. There are two types of violence of interest which may offer a counter argument to our basic maxim; first a genocidal war, second an honorable war.

The Biblical Old Testament actually offers us a lesson on genocide. After the Israelites had escaped Egypt and were on the march, God told them "Destroy your enemy totally; kill every last man woman and child, even their animals." Theological questions about God aside, this was a sensible tactic. It would eliminate any chance of rebellion from a slave people or re-conquest from a displaced people. But the Israelites found this order morally difficult to carry out. So in the next battle, God said "Kill all those over age six, and take the children as your own." The aim here is the same, eliminating a nation as a cultural group so they can never cause problems in the future. Under this harsh logic, violence performed to an extreme would settle things permanently.

Fast forward to the age of the Persians, Greeks and Romans. It was their strategy to kill all adult men then sell the women and children of a defeated enemy into slavery. To modern readers this seems barbaric, but it is really a sort of half measure of the Genocidal strategy. It destroys the continuity of the enemy nation, but survivors can remember and pass on culture even as slaves. Under these conditions, feelings of revenge may fester even if they have little chance to be realized.

Today genocide is right off the list of civilized war strategies - it is a crime. This is what we call moral progress. However, there is an unavoidable consequence of our humane policy. Defeated enemies are able to keep conflicts alive and cause future problems. We have ensured that violence no longer has the valid power to provide a final solution to a problem.

Honorable war offers a ritualized solution to conflicts that is almost the opposite of genocide. It is the sport of kings. It places one army against another in an open field battle, with the winner gaining the disputed territory. In an honorable war there is very little deliberate damage to the civilian population or property, they are the prize being fought for. There is also no drive to destroy the enemy's institutions or culture. Disputes are essentially about territorial ownership. The people have little interest in the matter because daily life changes hardly at all, no matter who their lord is. All this presupposes several factors:

1. that sides are similar in culture,

2. that sides are nearly equal in power,

3. that sides are willing to keep to the terms of their war treaty,

4. that national feelings do not run strong in the common people.

Honorable war is clearly a thing of the past, doomed most defiantly by the rise of nationalism. If a nation today is defeated in a single battle and its government surrenders, we may expect official or unofficial resistance activity to continue indefinitely. Almost every aspect of honorable war is out of place in the modern world, they have been replaced by a new form of war in which the rules are quite different.

Modern war is something of a paradoxical box. The western world insists that only a defensive war is a just war. Thus, you must be defending yourself or an ally from an aggressive danger to make the use of force valid. Once this condition is met, you are expected to destroy the enemy's ability to make war. This means targeting his infrastructure and his military forces, while trying to keep civilian casualties low; a tricky list of objectives unless you have the best high-tech weapons to use. Further more you are allowed to invade an enemy in an effort to subdue him, but you are not allowed to conquer his land with the intent of keeping it. This is where the divide between modern and historic warfare gets increasingly wide. Having defeated your enemy, you may not loot and pillage, you may not demand tribute payments. What you are expected to do is help rebuild his country.

Let us consider this pattern for a moment. The goal of war has become a simple one; neutralize the danger posed by an enemy. Basically a punitive / preventative raid. War no longer provides an increase in territory or income; however, the victor is expected to help rebuild the defeated nation's infrastructure. This becomes a problem because it requires the victor to act like an occupying power in the short run, with out the actual authority invested in being the new overlord of a territory.

In this situation the use of force can achieve the primary aim, neutralize the danger posed by an enemy. However, violence solves nothing, because the enemy remains alive and able to hold a grudge while the victorious nation is tied up in the affairs of the defeated foe. Thus modern behavior while seeming to be a moral advance with the support of human rights does actually make a serious conflict harder to solve. Having rejected both the genocidal "kill all your enemies" tactic and the war of conquest "we are your masters now so you better learn to love the empire", we have entrenched the idea of nationalism "a cultural group should be a nation-state" we find that all the old solutions to conflicts unworkable.

Violence no longer can offer any sort of final solution. So we must turn to the social-psychological theories, as presented by authors like Hampson and Kelman. If an enemy is allowed to live and continue as a cultural group, then we must address the underlying cause of the conflict. We are back to the beginning argument in this paper: that men's actions can be controlled by force but their minds can not. Conflict is rooted in the thoughts and feelings of a people. To solve the problem we must change their minds about it. This is clearly the work of diplomats, negotiators and sadly propagandists; it is not a job for the military.


Dear Reader, if you wish to comment this article or to express different opinion please feel free to write to themontrealreview@gmail.com.

All comments, opinions and suggestions will be published within a week after their submission.

All letters should include your name.


Submissions Guide
Letters to the Editor

All featured book titles
home | past issues | world & politics | essays | art and style | fiction and poetry | links | newsletter
The Montréal Review © 2009 - 2012 T.S. Tsonchev Publishing & Design, Canada. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911
about | contact us | copyright | user agreement | privacy policy