Monday, September 10, 2007

September 2007 Book Club Selection: Weapons and Hope, Freeman Dyson

Dyson reflects upon pacifism and its limitations

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Scarcely 20 years ago, the dominant security concern in the entire world was nuclear weapons. Today, it's terrorism.

Yet, despite this drastic shift in the focus of the national security policies of most western countries, many things have remained the same. Weapons and Hope, a book about nuclear weapons proliferation and international stability and security, reveals this simple reality.

Dyson tackles many different topics in his book. Among them are the differences between "warriors" and "victims". Dyson classifies "warriors" as inherently conservative, and were prone to resort to weapons proliferation (be it offensive or defensive, nuclear or non-nuclear) as a formula for international stability. "Victims" Dyson classifies as inherently liberal, and more preoccupied with the threat posed by these weapons and the instability they arguably wrought.

Dyson notes, however, that an ideological boundary divided (and continues to divide) "warriors" and "victims", preventing each from understanding the important concerns of the other. Simply put, neither in "warriors" nor "victims" does Dyson argue that a monopoly on wisdom exists, but rather that engagement between the two are necessary to reach an understanding that can effect a reasonable solution to international conflict.

Dyson, a pacifist, also writes about pacifism, and notes the failings of rigid pacifism in the face of the threat posed by Hitler. Dyson's ability to transform his pacifism into a more pragmatic form of the concept eventually allowed him to join the ranks of Britain's #6 Bomber Command, about which he writes about the book's other major topic.

That is, the tendency of weapons proliferation (and their inevitable use) as a form of resolving international conflict: it continually leads into folly. If the current Iraq war isn't a good example of such folly, then the failure to develop the Identify Friend/Foe systems necessary to make the use of the automated defense gunnery systems developed for use in bombers tenable certainly qualifies. In the end, Dyson notes that the bombing campaign against Germany itself was a historical folly, which likely had little effect on the outcome of the war.

Weapons and Hope remains a very useful book today, in the face of the war on terror. While the war on terror remains a necessary fight against an implacable foe, it has also led to folly, and there remains no guarantee that it will ever give way to a peaceful world order.

Then again, Dyson himself would be the first to remind us that a peaceful world isn't a stable one, and a stable world tends to not be peaceful.

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