Is warfare a human destiny?
It’s been several decades since “The Report From Iron Mountain” titillated the U.S. political scene. The book was a bestseller and translated into more than a dozen languages.
In November 1967, U.S. News & World Report quoted an unnamed government official who said that when President Lyndon Johnson read “The Report” he hit the roof and ordered it suppressed. It wasn’t of course, as its New York Times best-seller status attested.
The question in most readers’ minds was, is The Report serious or a spoof? One couldn’t determine. It read like a government study and yet it was so, well, different. And who leaked it if it were a product of the government? Readers simply didn’t know. Was it the product of a presidentially-directed, ultra-secret study group charged with examining whether world peace was possible; or was it an extremely clever satire on humankind’s inability to do anything in that regard except start more wars.
At the end of the day, whether it was a well-crafted satire by Leonard C. Lewin (that was the speculation anyway), or a genuine report of a special study group composed of luminaries as disparate as E.L. Doctorow and John Kenneth Galbraith, is still undetermined. Though legal controversy enshrouded the book’s provenance and possible further publication, several editions have come out since 1967, including a new paperback edition in 2008.
‘The Report” is still with us because it is so provocative, relevant, and arresting — in addition to being mildly shocking. One sentence from the book is sufficient to illustrate its resonance and its fundamental relevance as well as its shock power: “War itself is the basic social system, within which other secondary modes of social organization conflict or conspire. It is the system which has governed most human societies of record, as it is today.”
Such firm conclusions are made all the more electric by the purpose of the alleged study group making them: to examine whether or not general disarmament and peace would ever be possible. In fact, the book’s full original title was “Report From Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace.” One is tempted to claim that the book, whatever its origin, was a response to President John Kennedy’s remarkable commencement speech at American University on June 10, 1963, where the president spoke forcefully not only of a plan to limit nuclear weapons, but of a plan for a realistic route to world peace. This at a time when the Cold War had twice — in Berlin and in Cuba — threatened to destroy the world.
The book’s answer, however — such as it was and as the citation above implies — was a resounding negative. Because of war’s essential nature within cultures, societies, nation-states, indeed within the human consciousness, peace seemed utterly impossible.
In the book, there is even a rather unique implication that when Karl von Clausewitz, perhaps the world’s most imminent war theorist and often quoted in this regard, opined that war was an extension of politics by other means, he performed a maximum disservice to the search for peace because he rationalized war. But he did so not in the sense of what could be done to prevent it; rather in the sense to perpetuate it as the controlling social system by which humans manage their affairs; in short, to make war more palatable.
Because Napoleon Bonaparte — the prince and the battlefield commander in one person — was Clausewitz’s suspected role model, the war theorist’s seminal contribution is cast in an altogether new light, a morbid, disturbing light.
Thus we find in The Report’s “Summary and Conclusions”, these words:
War is not, as is widely assumed, primarily an instrument of policy utilized by nations to extend or defend their expressed political values or their economic interests. On the contrary, it is itself the principal basis of organization on which all modern societies are constructed. The common proximate cause of war is the apparent interference of one nation with the aspirations of another. But at the root of all ostensible differences of national interest lie the dynamic requirements of the war system itself for periodic armed conflict. Readiness for war characterizes contemporary social systems more broadly than their economic and political structures,
Today, one cannot sanely look at the conflict in Ukraine — indeed at the many wars that have ravaged the planet for the past three decades and thus lie most distinctly in our human memories — and not grasp the essential truth in these words. And the hopelessness they engender, whether for Ukraine, Israel, the Palestinians, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, or the entire human race. Add to that reality the presence of nuclear weapons in nine existing nation-states whose economic and political structures are based on war, and the danger is manifestly huge.
The Report, however, has another point to offer:
…a viable substitute for war as a social system cannot be a mere symbolic charade. It must involve real risk of real personal destruction, and on a scale consistent with the size and complexity of modern social systems. Credibility is the key. Whether the substitute is ritual in nature or functionally substantive, unless it provides a believable life-and-death threat it will not serve the socially organizing function of war.
The existence of an accepted external menace, then, is essential to social cohesiveness as well as to the acceptance of political authority. The menace must be believable, it must be of a magnitude consistent with the complexity of the society threatened, and it must appear, at least, to affect the entire society.
Reading the Technical Section of the report briefed on February 28 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, one is compelled to pose the following question:
“Have we, by a divine providence or an accident of fate, been handed in this indisputable certainty of our wholesale destruction the instrument of our salvation?”
In this regard, it seems the question of whether the book is a formal study group product or a satirical essay matters very little. “The Report From Iron Mountain” poses the question of our time, very likely of all time.