Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 27, 2018

Is Peace as Deadly as War?

Could peace be as deadly as war?

It seems absurd. War is a bad thing. Peace is a good thing.

But we can get too much of a good thing. Does that apply even to peace?

Exhibit A: Snowflakes Fallen

In 2018, many people become hysterical at the slightest hint of disagreement. They interpret normal conversation as micro-aggression. They complain that classic literature triggers them. They think that seeing a MAGA hat is equivalent to being attacked with a tire iron. They need stuffed animals, hot chocolate, social workers, and diversity commissars — which is pretty good for social workers and diversity commissars, even if not for anyone else.

When I was growing up, I had a privilege that they didn’t: I had a sane, involved father. He knew that facts were facts. He knew that wishing your dog was a cat didn’t make it one. He knew that crying about life’s difficulties was pointless. He knew that we could solve problems only by confronting them.

And as a combat veteran, he knew the difference between real dangers and imaginary ones. He told me:

“When I went to college and medical school, I studied hard, but never spent any time worrying about grades. I had already faced the ultimate issue: whether I was going to live or die. Compared to that — a test in biology? What the hell is that?”

Fred Reed, an ex-Marine with whom I worked as a newspaper reporter in the 1990s, had similar insights. He proposed them for reforming the universities:

“As for higher education, it will actually be higher. To begin with, all applicants to college will be required to go through Marine Corps boot camp, reconstituted to the standards of 1965. This will work miracles. Our pansified little darlings will then know what trouble is and not go all limp over Microaggressions.”

Exhibit B: Prediction Fulfilled

In 1906, the philosopher William James gave a talk at Stanford University that was later published as “The Moral Equivalent of War.”

James observed that in spite of its obvious evils, war is part of our very nature:

“For most of the capacities of human heroism, we have to thank this cruel history … Modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war’s irrationality and horror has no effect upon him. The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis.”

He warned that “the transition to a ‘pleasure-economy’ may be fatal to a being wielding no powers of defense against its disintegrative influences.”

And he summarized what many people saw as the utility of war:

“Its horrors are a cheap price to pay for rescue from a world of clerks and teachers, of co-education and [animal rights], of consumer’s leagues and associated charities, of industrialism unlimited, and feminism unabashed. No scorn, no hardness, no valor any more! Fie upon such a cattleyard of a planet! Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible.”

Most college-educated Americans live in a pleasure economy. We see its “disintegrative influences” all around us. Our lives are bureaucratized and regulated. Our heroes are defamed. Our history is erased. Our culture is dissolved. We are coddled, but caged. Most of us wouldn’t know “the strong life” if it bit us on the ankle. And even if it did bite us, we’d sit and whine instead of fighting back.

Exhibit C: Utopia Depopulated

In 1968, scientists at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) wanted to see what would happen to a population that was protected from all hardship and danger. As far back as Thomas Malthus, people expected that its size would increase indefinitely. As long as there was plenty of food, plenty of space, no disease, and no predators, there would be no limit to its growth. But was that really true?

The scientists couldn’t try it with people, so they used mice. They created a 71-square-foot living space, bounded by walls four feet high. The space had all the physical features that mice needed: nesting rooms, tunnels, and common areas. The scientists carefully controlled the temperature and air flow. From another laboratory, they got mice that were guaranteed disease-free. They started the experiment with four pairs of mice (male and female). Nothing much happened until the first litters were born. After that, the population exploded, doubling every 55 days. The graph at the beginning of this article shows the process.

But starting at day 315, a strange thing happened. The growth rate dropped from doubling every 55 days to doubling every 145 days. Many male mice withdrew from interaction with others, becoming sedentary except for occasionally fighting with other withdrawn males. Female mice became more aggressive, attacking other mice or even their own children, which at other times they abandoned.

Young mice, abandoned by male parents and abused or neglected by female parents, failed to socialize normally. They were unable to bond with other mice or to engage in courtship behavior that would have led to mating. Some of the male mice, which scientists dubbed “the beautiful ones,” never attempted normal mating but spent all their time eating, drinking, sleeping, and grooming themselves. By day 560, population growth stopped and the population then started to decline.

Withdrawn males. Aggressive females. Abused or abandoned children. “The beautiful ones.” Declining population. Does any of that sound familiar?

The scientists’ report concludes:

“Autistic-like creatures, capable only of the most simple behaviors compatible with physiological survival, emerge out of this process. Their spirit has died (‘the first death’). They are no longer capable of executing the more complex behaviors compatible with species survival. The species in such settings die.”

If the utopian mice had understood English, they might have agreed with William James’s warning that “a pleasure-economy may be fatal to a being wielding no powers of defense against its disintegrative influences.”

Escape from Utopia

We are the mice. That’s clear. But we have one advantage over mice: we can think. Maybe we can think our way out of the lethal “utopia” in which we find ourselves.

William James believed we could find a “moral equivalent of war” that provided all of war’s benefits without its horror and destruction. One need not agree with all of James’s ideas to think that he was on to something:

“We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built … The only thing needed henceforward is to inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.”


  1. This reminded me immediately of Israeli society. At 18 everyone with few exceptions has to serve in the military and much of opportunities for one’s advancement in that society is tied to one’s military performance. it is also a vibrantly alive, highly innovative and disproportionately successful country in spite of being very tiny and having few natural resources.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment! That’s a great point.

      America really started to come apart in the 1970s when the government abolished the military draft. Before that, rich and poor families had members serving together as soldiers, so they got to know each other. As with other countries in history, the rich could often buy their way out of military service, but I think it was considered dishonorable to do so. William James proposed some kind of national service, just like Israel has now.

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