The Nature and Future of War

Dialogue between Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda

The following is excerpted from Choose Life: A Dialogue (I.B. Tauris, 2007), a record of the wide-ranging dialogue between influential historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) and SGI President Daisaku Ikeda and the carried out in London in 1972 and 1973. First published in 1976, it has since been translated into 28 languages.

The Commemorative Monument of Peace and Unity, Davao, Philippines [© Chris Stowers/Panos Pictures/Uniphoto Press]

Daisaku Ikeda: Biologists tell us that Homo sapiens is the only species known to kill its fellows with systematic violence and cruelty. Do you believe that war is something humanity is destined to suffer? How do you think we can avoid a global nuclear war and achieve lasting peace?

Arnold Toynbee: Our present knowledge about human feelings, thoughts, value judgments and actions extends backwards in time no farther than the most recent period of human history; that is, no farther than the period for which there are surviving contemporary records in writing. This period is only the latest five thousand years, and our ancestors may have become human one million years ago.

It is certainly true that, during the last five thousand years, war has been one of the major institutions of mankind. We have spent on war by far the greatest part of our surplus product; that is, the greatest part of what we have produced in excess of the product spent on bare subsistence--spent, that is to say, on keeping ourselves alive and on saving our species from becoming extinct. But surely war is impossible without the production of a surplus, because war requires the uneconomic use of working time, food rations, materials and industry for the conversion of these materials into weapons and other military equipment.

War is not identical with violence and cruelty. It is a particular manifestation of human violence and cruelty. I believe that these evil impulses are innate in human nature and are intrinsic to life itself. Every individual living organism is potentially violent and cruel. War is an organized and institutionalized commission of cruel violence. In war, human beings fight and kill each other under orders from public authorities--governments of states or improvised government in civil wars. Soldiers fight without personal animosity. Most of them are not acquainted with each other personally.

Ikeda: You have said that man has spent much of his surplus product on war, but I think he has in fact spent much more than surplus in terms of destroyed homes, ravaged agricultural lands and the common necessities of life that are taken from ordinary people in wartime. An interesting example of the amount of a people's production that must be spent on military matters is the samurai of medieval Japan. Considered the highest of all Japanese social classes, they exploited the agricultural and commercial classes. Even in modern Japan a not completely dissimilar situation exists. As the self-defense forces grow larger, improvements in the living conditions of ordinary people must be sacrificed to support them. I suspect, however, that all countries in the world that have some kind of military preparedness face a similar dilemma.

Toynbee: Without doubt they do, but let me return to your earlier question. Is war part of the fate of human nature? For the historical reason that I have mentioned, I think that it is not. I do think that violence and cruelty are innate in human nature. As you point out, biologists tell us that man is the only known species of living being on this planet that fights fellow members of his own species to the death. When male animals of other species fight each other for winning the females, one combatant eventually surrenders and the victor then spares his life. Crimes of violence, not stopping short of murder, have, we may suppose, been committed by our ancestors ever since they became human. But, even within the last five thousand years, human violence and cruelty have not manifested themselves in the form of war at all times and places.

Japan, for instance, seems to have been free from domestic warfare, though not from aggressive border warfare against the Ainu, for more than five hundred years, ending in the 12th century of the Christian era. After that, Japan tormented herself with incessant civil wars for more than four hundred years. Under the Tokugawa regime from the early 17th until the middle of the 19th century too, she was at peace, both at home and abroad. Since 1945 Japan has renounced war.

The Norwegians were not at war at any date between 1814 and 1940, but in the Viking age they were one of the most warlike peoples in the world, and they fought vigorously in World War II after they had been attacked and invaded.

During the periods of Japanese and Norwegian history that were free from war, there were still private murders and public executions in both nations. This shows that we must distinguish war from our nonmilitary killing and violence.

Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda in London, UK, in 1972 [© Seikyo Shimbun]

Ikeda: You are absolutely correct in insisting on this distinction. Execution for crime is perhaps different, but murder is always an act of the individual. Murder occurs in all lands, and all nations forbid it strictly and punish it severely. The same nations that punish murder, an individual act, however, have no systems of punishment against warfare, a criminal act committed by nations. The barbaric law that has obtained throughout the ages is that he who wins is just. But the contradiction inherent in this idea is so blatant that no one can find such a definition of justice tenable. Nonetheless, man has given tacit assent to this irrational law for thousands of years.

Tacit approval seems to suggest that people regard warfare, or conditions based on warfare, as the normal circumstance among nations. It is apparently thought essential to be prepared for war at all times and to be at sword point with all neighboring nations. Peace, then, becomes no more than the interval between wars. I do not believe that this is the way things ought to be.

In my view, all people must come to think of peace--the time when no human beings fear any others, when all trust and love each other--as the natural and ordinary way of life. Only when this belief is our guiding principle can a truly human society be created. I regard the propagation of such belief and the consequent building of a human society as the prime duty of political leaders, philosophers and intellectuals.

Toynbee: War can be abolished, even if it were to prove impossible to cure all human beings of committing nonmilitary crimes of violence. I think the invention of nuclear weapons makes it probable that we shall succeed in abolishing war, in spite of the difficulty of giving up a habit that is five thousand years old. The assumption underlying the institution of war was that one of the belligerents would win, that the other would lose, and that the advantage of victory for the winner would be greater than the cost. This calculation often proved wrong. Wars were often disastrous for the victors too. But it is clear that, in a war fought with nuclear weapons, there can be no such thing as even a costly victory. This prospect deprives states of a rational incentive for going to war.

However, human nature is only partially rational. It is conceivable that we might irrationally commit mass suicide. The institution of war cannot be abolished without replacing it by a new institution: world government. War, even in the nuclear age, will remain a possibility so long as the present 140 local states have not subordinated themselves to a single worldwide authority equipped with effective power to compel even the most powerful local states to keep the peace.