Slightly-Less-War Prize Goes to US CommanderOctober 11th, 2009

If not for war, people would have no concern for peace. We would take peace for granted, like daylight or air. We might want less noise, less commotion, but peace as the relative absence of armed conflict wouldn’t be on our minds.

It probably was on the mind of Alfred Nobel when he signed his will a hundred or so years ago, in the hope of burnishing his public image. Nobel’s scientific accomplishments as a chemist–he invented dynamite–were eclipsed by his success as a dealer in ordnance and ammunition. He was the richest war profiteer of his time and was considered a merchant of death by many of his critics. He may have hoped to purchase redemption by dedicating most of his estate to the recognition of scientific, literary and humanitarian accomplishments.

If Nobel intended something more of his legacy than personal aggrandizement–to put an end to war, for example–he was on a fool’s errand. Despite the grave consequences suffered by 20th century warriors, nations are armed to the teeth in the twenty-first, and generals worldwide still tremble with excitement at the prospect of seeing “the arms and legs fly,” as one American commander famously remarked, confessing his personal fondness for war.

War should have become an anachronism by now, so that the Nobel Peace Prize would more often come in recognition of “the most or the best work for fraternity between nations,” as Nobel referred to this qualification in his will, than for the disengagement of armies. Instead, warfare is as common today as it was in Nobel’s time. If I were on the Nobel committee, I’d refuse to award a prize until nations stop making war. Whatever individual people have done to end war, it hasn’t been enough, and nobody deserves a prize.

Nobel’s will mandates a prize every year, and so you can see why the people who are on the committee, obliged to make an award even in time of war, might have to give it to the commander-in-chief of the US armed forces. Obama’s not unlike the heroic firefighter who’s also an arsonist or the doctor who poisons patients so that he can rescue them from impending death. As the world’s prime warmaker, he gets to say how much war there will be, and any interruption, any forbearance at all is greeted with appreciation and even applause.

Never mind that of all nations the USA sheds the most blood with bullets and explosives, displaces the most families, destroys the greatest number of neighborhoods, towns and villages, and sanctions the greatest breakdown of law and order. Despite all that, we maintain an armory so destructive that we could do much worse, and so give our commander the prize for not killing everybody. Or else.