The Great Graveyard of Humanity
Kant's choice between the destruction of warfare and the hope of perpetual peace
“A war of extermination, in which both parties and, moreover, all right can be eradicated simultaneously, could bring about perpetual peace only over the great graveyard of humanity. Such a war, therefore, and hence the use of the means which would lead to it, must be utterly forbidden.” - Immanuel Kant
Of all Immanuel Kant’s writings, I return most often to his 1795 essay “Towards Perpetual Peace”. I find in these thoughts of his not only a great insight into the trajectory of the previous two hundred years of international history, but also inspiration for how we might approach the coming centuries. Undoubtedly, Kant writes from a perspective decidedly rooted in our past, one all too easily dismissed as having been invalidated by the unprecedented events that followed. Yet if our hearts yearn for peace, the issues raised by this wide-reaching exploration of the politics of warfare are well worth reflecting upon.
For Kant, war was something of a barbaric sport between kingdoms. He had witnessed the Seven Years’ War, in which his native Prussia, Great Britain, and Hanover battled with Austria, France, Saxony, Russia, and Sweden - essentially plunging all of Europe into a state of war, and embroiling the colonies of seafaring nations like Britain and France in more distant disputes, including in the Americas. While he had admiration for the way that the military of his time brought out the bravery and selflessness of soldiers, he was also acutely aware of the destruction wrought by warfare, and it was his hope that it might be possible to escape it.
Among his ‘preliminary articles’ for establishing a path towards perpetual peace, Kant insisted upon the necessity of gradually abolishing standing armies. Military forces equipped for war at all times necessarily prompt other nations to attempt to “outclass” one another in terms of the size of the forces, “a number that knows no limits”. Surely it is not a coincidence that Kant was writing just four years after the Second Amendment to the United States constitution, which also cautioned against holding a standing army. Indeed, amidst the interminable squabbles over gun laws in the US, it beggars the imagination that nobody will admit that the point of arming citizens was to avoid having a standing army. Not one political faction seems to take the Second Amendment seriously, but Kant clearly did.
To defend against the outbreak of war, Kant felt the need for a federalism of free states cooperating to uphold what he called ‘cosmopolitan right’. This, in effect, foreshadowed what his philosophy eventually brought about - human rights agreements, supposedly to be ratified by all nations. Kant argued that the emerging international community of his time meant that the violation of what is rightful in one place on our planet could be felt everywhere - but he expressly rejected the idea that this entitles one nation to invade another to enforce its conception of rightfulness, nor indeed to interfere with its government or constitution surreptitiously. In this regard, his warning has most certainly fallen upon deaf ears.
Kant’s hope was that ‘the spirit of trade’ would take hold of this alliance of free nations and serve to discourage armed conflict, since trade and war are incompatible. He recognised that the power of money was reliable (while not being moral...) but could not have anticipated the situation that readily came to pass, in which the concentration of wealth within trading groups would come to eclipse that of the nation state, over which terrible leverage could then be exerted. Nor would Kant ever have expected that trade in the machinery of warfare would become so vastly profitable that far from dampening the zeal for battle, it would in itself devour the taxes of citizens in order to perpetuate endless war.
Along with the relentless avarice of the arms traders, their corporate cousins have secured their own profitability through the gradual usurpation of our human rights agreements. This is the final insult to the legacy of Kant, ensuring the inevitable return to international warfare we are now witnessing. The ‘war of extermination’ Kant feared is today very far from forbidden: genocide, alas, seems grotesquely back in fashion. Between nuclear weaponry, killer drones, and myriad other engines of destruction, we find ourselves in precisely the predicament Kant warned about: the only perpetual peace upon the horizon lies beyond our own extinction, in the stillness of the great graveyard of humanity.
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