- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2002

It was February 1990, three months after the Berlin Wall cracked and the Cold War began to melt. Following my lecture, she approached me in the school hallway. Despite the crowsfeet around her eyes, a tattling detail that pegged her on the high side of 40, she had decked herself in the perennially adolescent costume of a 1960s hippie: bandanna in the frizzed hair, faded blue jeans, and a pearl-button shirt best described as vaguely Navaho and LSD.

She smiled self-consciously, then raised a scold's finger: "You write books about war, right? With the end of the Cold War and so many people waging peace, I guess you'll have to find another subject, eh?"

I wasn't sure what rough beast I might represent in her garbled version of the universe, though I felt certain soldier, male and Republican would appear on her list of indictments. With two kids at home, I didn't have a spare six hours to catalog the conflicts lurking in what she believed to be a looming era of global bliss, so I kept my reply brief and Texan: "Well ma'am, it's quite a hazardous form of peace."

Color her a living caricature of trendy leftist politics and a middle-aged woman in desperate need of a fashion consultant. Yup, those are the right Crayolas. Note that within six months, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait; within 18 months, Yugoslavia began to crack; within two years, the Soviet Union shattered and released the seeds of a dozen wars. Three years later, Islamist terrorists bombed the World Trade Center.

Still, in this time of year when we pray to the Prince of Peace, hope for Peace on Earth, and wish one another cheer and good will, it is fair to damn our world's terrible condition.

The numbers appall: In its annual assessment of conflicts, The National Defense Council Foundation identified 59 wars in 2001. My count differs, perhaps because I spend so much time watching Africa and Central Asia. Depending on how one parses the combat, there are at this moment between 110 and 130 armed conflicts (a euphemism for wars grand and petty, but always deadly) plaguing the globe.

Several historical studies have attempted to determine how many years of peace have occurred in humankind's 5,000 years of recorded history. "The results vary from a few hundred to a few dozen years of peace," says noted military historian and editor of StrategyPage.com James F. Dunnigan, "but these exercises always depend on how one defines peace. I would say there have been no years in man's recorded history where there has been no war."

Why is conflict so endemic to our species? The poet Petrarch wrote: "Five great enemies to peace inhabit within us: avarice, ambition, envy, anger and pride. If those enemies were to be banished, we should infallibly enjoy perpetual peace." Avarice, ambition, envy, anger, pride: Shakespeare made villains of them all. They reappear every 30 minutes on all news television. Indeed, they are at the root of September 11, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, ad infinitum.

George C. Marshall, a statesman of impeccable credentials as both warrior and peacemaker, observed: "If man does find the solution for world peace, it will be the most revolutionary reversal of his record we have ever known."

Yes, the 1990s began with the Cold War pulling a slow fade, but in its wake the world discovered a thousand simmering ethnic and historical conflicts, with a dozen little Hitlers stoking these small infernos. This new millennium begins with religious absolutists spewing 10th century rhetoric while seeking modern weapons of mass destruction, their violent schemes leaving thousands murdered. As for our own unperfected democracy, countless micro-conflicts from driveby slayings to gang brawls continue without respite.

What is to be done? The eagle on our national seal casts eyes toward the talons that clutch branches symbolizing peace; the other foot clasps arrows. May God bless our hopes for a world without war. But given the strange mix of heaven and hell that we are, may we pray for the wisdom to prepare for both the worst and the best.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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