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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 9/12/17

How Outlawing War Changed the World in 1928

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When I wrote a book about the Kellogg-Briand Pact my goals were to draw lessons from the movement that created it, and to call attention to its existence as a still-current law being routinely violated -- in hopes of encouraging compliance. After all, it is a law that bans nations from engaging in war -- the primary thing my nation's government does, with a half-dozen U.S. wars going at any time now.

Now Oona Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro have published The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World. Their goals seems to be to show us how different and worse the world was in certain ways before the Pact, and to claim for the pact enormous success and general compliance.

I have learned a great deal from this phenomenal book, easily the best book I've read in years. I could write an essay about each of its over 400 pages. While I agree with a great deal of it and strongly disagree with certain parts, the two are easily separable. The brilliant sections are no less valuable because of those sections that fall short.

This book constitutes the ultimate refutation of the childishly simplistic notion that because World War II followed the outlawing of war in 1928 that outlawing was a failure -- a standard that as far as I know has never been applied to any other law. (Has no one driven drunk since the banning of drunk driving?) In fact, the very first prosecutions for violation of the law, at Nuremberg and Tokyo, have been followed by a reduction in wars that has most notably included the absence of any further wars waged directly between wealthy well-armed nations -- at least so far.

As Hathaway and Shapiro show, the Peace Pact of Paris has so transformed the world that it is hard to recall what preceded it. War was legal in 1927. Both sides of a war were legal. Atrocities committed during wars were almost always legal. The conquest of territory was legal. Burning and looting and pillaging were legal.

War was, in fact, not just legal; it was itself understood to be law enforcement. War could be used to attempt to right any perceived injustice. The seizing of other nations as colonies was legal. The motivation for colonies to try to free themselves was weak because they were likely to be seized by some other nation if they broke free from their current oppressor.

Economic sanctions by neutral nations were not legal, though joining in a war could be. And making trade agreements under the threat of war was perfectly legal and acceptable, as was starting another war if such a coerced agreement was violated. Raping a woman in war could be illegal, but killing her could be in perfect compliance with the law. Killing was, in fact, legal whenever deemed part of a war, and illegal otherwise.

Some of this may sound familiar. You may have heard Rosa Brooks tell Congress that drone murders are acceptable if part of a war and crimes otherwise, whereas torture is a crime either way. But the extent to which the label of "war" is understood to permit killing today is limited greatly in theory and significantly even in reality. And today war is understood to license mass murder alone, whereas it used to give free rein for participants to murder, trespass, break and enter, steal, assault, maim, kidnap, extort, destroy property, or commit arson. Today a soldier can return from a mass killing spree and be prosecuted for cheating on his taxes. He or she has been given a license to kill and only to kill, nothing more.

Demanding today that the U.S. Congress repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force of 2001 and revert to its old practice of declaring wars, rather than simply funding (and whining about) any wars a president wages, may or may not be an effective means of curtailing warmaking, but it does amount to demanding a return to a barbaric antiquity, a practice that when it was used constituted an announcement that all would henceforth be permitted as long as it victimized whichever people war was being declared against.

To the very limited extent that the pre-1928 world had laws against wars, they were only laws against particular atrocities. In other words, the world in which Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch try to live today, in which war is perfectly acceptable, but each inevitable atrocious component of the wars is a crime: that was the best the West had to offer from ancient times through 1928.

The world after 1928 was different. The outlawing of war reduced the need for large nations, and smaller nations began to form by the dozens, exercising their right to self-determination. Colonies, likewise, sought their freedom. Conquests of territory after 1928 were undone. The year 1928 became the dividing line for determining which conquests were legal and which not. And the Pact of course was central to the prosecution of (the losers) of World War II for the crime of war. International trade has flourished in the absence of legal conquest. While it is not even true, much less a statement of causation, that nations with McDonalds do not attack each other, it may be true that a world with a reduced risk of attack, for better or worse, generates more McDonalds.

All of these positive changes have indeed come about as a result of a treaty generally mocked when not ignored. But they don't add up to the positive view of the world pushed by people like Steven Pinker as well as Hathaway and Shapiro. That positive view of a world ridding itself of war comes about through selective statistics, also known as lies, damn lies, and U.S. exceptionalism. In Pinker, deaths are radically undercounted, then compared to the entire population of the world rather than the relevant nation, or erased by re-categorizing them as "civil war" and therefore not war deaths at all.

Hathaway and Shapiro recognize one U.S. coup (Iran) and war (Iraq) as if none of the others have happened or are happening. The Nakba seems not to exist. That is, the crime and the suffering it entailed do not get mentioned, though the "Arab-Israeli conflict" does.

The authors refer to Iraq 2003-present as a war that in 2015 had "greater than ten thousand" people killed in "battle-related" killing. (I'm unclear which killings are excluded by "battle-related.") Never do they mention that "greater than one million" have been killed in that war.

Since World War II, during what the authors call a "period of unprecedented peace," the United States military has killed some 20 million people, overthrown at least 36 governments, interfered in at least 82 foreign elections, attempted to assassinate over 50 foreign leaders, and dropped bombs on people in over 30 countries. This extravaganza of criminal killing is documented here.

The United States killed some 5 million people in Southeast Asia in a war that Hathaway and Shapiro mention only as an act of conquest by the North of the South when the invaders finally fled. I arrive at that number using the Harvard study from 2008 on Vietnam (3.8 million) plus Nick Turse's case in Kill Anything That Moves that this is a significant under-counting. Using 4 million for Vietnam, I add 1 million for the combined hundreds of thousands killed by the U.S. bombing campaigns in each of the two countries of Laos and Cambodia (both rough estimates). I do not add in the 1 to 2 million killed by the Khmer Rouge, though blame can be given to the United States (without taking it away from anyone else) for that horror. While the United States military did not kill all of the 4 million killed in Vietnam, there would not have been a war, or certainly not a war resembling what the Vietnamese call the American War without the United States.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)
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