Imagination of Conflict in History

One can, and often does, read history as a narrative of conflicts. The school-book history is designed as a sequence of wars and winners, its causes and aftermaths. Even when one wants to get away from the history of celebrities, which our stories of Kings, Queens and great men (and some women) usually are, our thematic narratives of Colonialism, Class Struggle, Revolutions and even Scientific Progress are usually built around conflicts - of powers, institutions and ideas - progressing and regressing in some sort of eternal motion. 

One may claim that all history, therefore, is history of conflicts. However, it is equally possible to see that our ideas shape conflicts. I have three favourites - the Iron Curtain, the Clash of Civilisations and the Thucydides Trap - ideas that defined our past, the present and possibly the future conflicts.

So, when Churchill was speaking at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946, he conjured up the Iron Curtain, a dividing line from the 'Free World' running right through the middle of Europe in his imagination, marking the Soviet sphere of influence. He did not mention the fact that this is what he, along with other world leaders, agreed upon during various war time conferences - spheres of influences that would divide the world. He did not mention that he did his best to impose upon Greeks, for example, a king that they did not want, because Greece apparently fell in the Western sphere of influence, and he himself tried desperately to deny the Greek partisans, who fought the Nazis bravely and with great sacrifice, a seat on the table in Post-War Greece! And, indeed, he did not bother to say that he was only plagiarising - 'Iron Curtain' is an old metaphor but was only recently used to describe the East-West political divide by Joseph Goebbles, no less! But, he succeeded brilliantly - Iron Curtain was easy to visualise - and not just his side, but even the Russians eventually bought into the imagery by building the wall running through Berlin in a few years' time.

Same, I shall claim, goes with Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilisation thesis. It is an old idea seeing history in civilisational terms, except that in Huntington's vision, these civilisations would inevitably collide. He might be invoking the ideas of the Crusade, but overlooking more history than he was taking account of: The modern world has been shaped not by a 'Christian' civilisation battling against a 'Islamic' one, but rather, the conflicts of the Catholics and the Protestants (leading to the bloody Thirty Years War) and then conflicts of empires, nations and political ideologies. But, ideas of conflicts are powerful - and Huntington's thesis is proving self-fulfilling: Right now, politics and policies of many Western right-wingers are defined by the incontrovertible 'fact' of the Civilisational War (as for the imagination of left wingers, they have the 'humanity' fighting with aliens in Star Wars).

In contrast with the above two ideas, the Thucydides Trap is less well known, but it is increasingly in vogue: Named after the historian of the Peloponnesian War, this is the thesis that when an emerging power confronts the hegemon, it leads almost inevitably to bloodshed! Seen in the context of China's rise and the potential to challenge the global supremacy of the United States, this idea is already making rounds and influencing thinking. As in case of these theories, the reality matters little: The Chinese State is very much part of the American world, and the Americans go by, for a very large part, recycling the Chinese surplus! They are part of one, intertwined, global system - China produces and saves, America spends the money - and one without another may not thrive. This is very different from the competition for colonies at the turn of the last century, when the only route to prosperity was defined by the control of the resources. 

The point I am trying to make is that it is possible to separate the Conflicts of history from the history of conflicts, and see, perhaps more often than not, that imagination of conflict preceded the real ones. The way we talk about conflicts today remind me of an old statement I often saw printed on election posters in my native Calcutta, a bastion of Indian Communist parties (once): "Marxism is true because it is a science"! (perhaps unconsciously derived from Giambattista Vico's claim of 'True because factual' claim for his 'new science') This is the sort of circular reasoning, claims of being self-evident, that underpins our ideas of Conflict, and it is us, by believing these theories and acting on the basis, make them happen.

However, there is another way of looking at history, and that is, difference does not always lead to conflict. Our history is also a history of cooperation, however much we try to ignore it. It is also a history of collaboration, often between unlikely peers (Churchill and Goebbles, united by their piece of rhetoric and objective, as in the above example), and flow of ideas from one to another (like the Europeans learning the use of gunpowder from the Chinese, and Mongols learning the art of Alexander's seize from a self-congratulating Marco Polo). These 'histories' perhaps fit less into our idea of heroism, purpose and destiny, and are less useful to Monarchs and Presidents who wish to make people sacrifice their well-being and lives: No one indeed goes to battle so that the King can keep his kingdom, or so that George W can ingratiate his Saudi friends, but rather to defend the motherland or free world or something such.

Therefore, we can resist to fulfil the false prophecies of conflict that are thrust upon us. We can refuse to be civilisational warriors by getting to make Muslim friends (most Americans, self-declaredly, have never met any Muslim person in life) and seeing beyond the imagination of Conflict. Even if we are destined to make history in circumstances not of our choosing, we may shape some of it with ideas of our own.

Photo Credit: Everystockphoto


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