Next month will mark 47 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
For 15 tense days, the world waited to see how the potentially nuclear showdown between the United States, led by the youthful John F. Kennedy, and the Soviet Union, headed by Nikita Khrushchev, would end.
Eventually, the Soviet leader turned his subs around, leaving the American seemingly with a clear victory and the world intact.
The truth, according to ethicist and philosopher Jonathan Glover, is more complicated, and could hold the key to resolving some of the many other bloody conflicts around the globe.
Glover reckons with the past century’s disturbingly violent history in Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, an engaging and thought provoking, if inexhaustive book.
Glover opens the work by talking about philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and how leaders and their followers have taken and applied certain elements of his philosophy with destructive results.
The book surveys much, but far from all, of the brutal carnage that accrued due to human action during the past century. He includes discussions of trench warfare, the Nazis, the bombing and starving of civilians during World Wars I and II, the genocide in Rwanda, the slaughter in Bosnia, and the regimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, among others.
Humanity, in short, is not a book for the proverbial faint of heart.
The book is replete with stomach-turning, sleep disturbing details of people’s inhumanity to each other. I found the description of the terror induced in the former Soviet Union during the Stalin era particularly chilling, particularly in its erosion of objective truth and the search for it, and each reader can make her own judgment there.
Glover is not a historian, and readers looking for either ground breaking revelations about the events during each of these historical moments or a comprehensive list of atrocities are likely to be disappointed. The book’s strength lies in its discussion of moral resources, a sense of human connection to each other, and how these elements are either fostered or broken by the various regimes.
In addition to his discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which he contrasts with the behavior of European leaders at the onset of World War I, Glover also talks about painfully small moments in which a “Live and let live” philosophy prevailed.
One such example is during the famous Christmases truces of the First World War, during the first of which German and British troops left their trenches and played soccer against each other. This kicked off a few days of comity before the destruction resumed.
Glover also talks about how Kennedy left Khrushchev with an opening, heeding one of his adviser’s citation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, while the Soviet leader, toward the crisis’ highest point, wrote in more conciliatory language about the devastating effects of war.
His discussion of hawks and doves during this period is particularly intriguing. Glover notes that many of the hawks overestimated the Soviets’ rational behavior, and instead proposes a model of ordinary and flawed people trying to use their emotions, information and judgment to make decisions of almost unimaginable import and impact.
The model may not be uplifting, and it may be an accurate description of what we have. Beyond this, Glover suggests trying to cultivate moral responses and retain human connection through political measures, but to work on a psychological level, too.
A positive outcome is far from certain, and certainly plenty of conflicts continue, with the possibility of others never far away. Still, the combination of erudition and the spirit behind the Zulu word, ‘ubuntu,’ or interdependence, radiates throughout Glover’s work, leaving this reader with plenty to ponder and a sense of faint, but possible hope.