Between 1945 and about 1965, atom bombs and then hydrogen bombs were devised and demonstrated by the two biggest Great Powers, and then manufactured and attached to rockets in sufficient numbers to cause any all-out war between these two superpowers very probably to be a catastrophic defeat for both, to say nothing of being a similar catastrophe for all other humans, within a few hours. This new kind of destructive power also spread to a small club of lesser Great Powers.
This did not happen overnight. It didn’t all come about in 1945. But it happened pretty quickly, historically in the blink of an eye. It changed the world from a place in which Great Wars between Great Powers had to be prepared for, at all costs, to a place in which Great Wars between Great Powers had to be avoided, again, at all costs. That is a very big change.
I do not assert that all wars have ended. Clearly they have not, as one glance through a newspaper or news website will tell you. Small powers still have small wars, and Great Powers regularly join in, in small ways. Sometimes, Great Powers start small wars, like the one in the Ukraine now. But even these small wars have been getting less numerous and smaller in recent decades. Small wars can get big, so even small wars are now discouraged by Great Powers.
Nor do I assert that all preparations for war by Great Powers have ceased, or that they should. But more than ever, the purpose of such preparations is to enable mere confrontations to be emerged from victoriously or failing that satisfactorily, rather than for such preparations – such weapons – constantly to be “used”, in the sense of being fired, fought with, and so on. The purpose of weapons is to scare, as well as to win fights, and they are being “used” whenever anyone is scared by them. Great Powers will still spend lots of money on weaponry.
But what has not happened, for many decades now, and what still shows no sign of happening despite all kinds of diplomatic, ideological and financial turbulence, is an all-out fire-every-weapon-we-have war involving two or more Great – by which I of course mean nuclear – Powers. In this sense, countries like mine, and almost certainly yours too given that you are reading this, have become peaceful in a way that they have never experienced before in all of human history before 1945.
In case anyone mentions Iran, I don’t believe that Iran’s leaders want to use nuclear weapons, as in: detonate them. I think they want to scare their enemies while trying to win other, non-nuclear victories, just like any other nuclear power. I didn’t believe Chairman Mao when he played the nuclear madman either. He was just trying to scare people, and he succeeded also.
And if you want to say that like all historical trends, this one could end, because of this or that imaginable or unimaginable circumstance, then I of course agree with you. History keeps on happening. But for the time being, the trend is as I have described it. We now, still, live in an age of peace more profound than any of our ancestors have ever experienced.
There have already been many, many consequences of this historic turnaround, this Great Change, and there will surely be many more. Indeed, I would say that just about everything of importance, not just politically but in the wider culture, that has happened to the world, anywhere and everywhere, between 1945 and now, can only be understood properly if you factor in the invention of and the deployment of nuclear weapons.
Do I really mean that? Yes, I really do mean that. Indeed, I offer the world, and in particular the Samizdata commentariat, a challenge. Tell me about a change that has happened in the world in recent times, any change, to absolutely anything, and I will be able to show you, at about one or at the most two or three removes, how your particular change has been affected by this great thermonuclear transformation, this Great Change, that I have just described. Indeed, there is nothing in the entire world, I assert, that has not been affected, often very profoundly, by this Great Change. (I don’t promise actually to answer all such comment-challenges on the spot. I merely announce that if I had nothing else to do for the next week, I could. So, let’s make it a team effort. Let those of us who already understand the truth of what I am saying respond as a tag-team to those who are still unconvinced.)
Talking of team efforts, let me offer the example of sport, and in particular the inexorable rise in the importance and in the social and economic impact of professional sport, during the last clutch of decades.
Professional sport is on my mind today, because today is the first day of the final game in the so-called Ashes “test” cricket series between England and Australia, already mentioned earlier here by Michael Jennings, very unhappily, on account of his preferred team having already lost this series of games 3-1 with just the one game, the one that starts today, still to be played. That I will be paying attention to this game for the next few days is one of the reasons why I do not now promise actually to answer, although I know now that I easily could, all the challenges that may or may not now materialise, about how needlework or the internet or motorways or teaspoons or sex are all different now to what they would have been, because of H-bombs.
So yes, as Michael Jennings would say: professional sport.
I do not know if there was a meeting, in about 1961, of a subcommittee of the Bilderberg Commission (itself a characteristic consequence of the Great Change) at which it was resolved that, what with Great Wars needing now to be things of the past, some harmless outlet now had to be found for all those nationalistic passions which until so very recently it had been necessary for Great Powers to keep permanently inflamed (in case they found themselves having a Great War), but which they now needed to extinguish (in case these passions started a Great War). Discuss. Having created nationalism, what were the Great Powers now going to do with it? One big answer: sport. Don’t have the hoi polloi wave their national flags and have big urban demonstrations and nationalistic ecstasies and lamentations in their newspapers and internet sites and city squares because of war. Let them indulge in these things because of sport.
As I say, maybe there was such a meeting and maybe there has never been such a meeting. But, if such a meeting had occurred, events would probably have unfolded, in sport, much as they actually have. What did definitely happen, I assert, is that the end of Great Wars, and the coming of the Great Peace, has left a war-shaped gap, so to speak, in all the cultures of the Great Powers. And one of the many things that has flowed into this gap, like molten metal into a mould, has been professional sport.
The “professional” bit is important. The former manager of the Liverpool football team Bill Shankly once famously said something like: “A lot of people say that football is a matter of life and death, but it’s a lot more important than that.” And one of the ways in which it is “more important than that” is that the most successful sportsmen, successful footballers especially, are now paid such huge sums of money, a lot more now even than in Shankly’s time.
Professional sport means more, especially to spectators, than mere sport does. If a game is “only a game”, then people simply don’t watch it in large numbers. They may participate in large numbers, but when it comes just to watching, too little is at stake, in an “only a game” game. But if what potential spectators are offered as entertainment is the public struggle to become one of the absolute best at whatever it is, and as an intrinsic part of that the struggle to be either averagely well-off or worse (because of having placed your bets on sport and lost), or super-rich, depending on how things play out during the next hour or two, then millions will pay to attend. And that sets a positive feedback loop in motion, of more money being paid by spectators (including television spectators) and hence even more money being paid to the contestants, and hence even more being at stake when the contestants have their contests. And whereas the careers of earlier generations of sportsmen, then very poorly paid indeed compared to their successors, were often interrupted and frequently terminated by Great Wars, now, there is no such upheaval on anyone’s horizon, either to wreck sporting careers or to put sport into anything resembling “perspective”, in other words to make it not seem like a matter of life and death.
So, is sport in any sense a matter of life and death, or even, as Shankly said, only partly in jest, more than that? For many years I was puzzled by the constant use of the adjective “gladiatorial”, with all its ancient Roman associations of fighting literally to the death, to describe modern sporting contests. But recently, the experience of giving a talk about the sort of stuff in this posting made me realise that this is not an unreasonable way to describe something like this Anglo-Australian set-to that will be starting in about half and hour, as I first write this.
Nor is it coincidence that the original version of gladiatorial sport emerged into prominence during that earlier Great Peace, the Pax Romana. That too was a Great Peace that happened at a time when smaller wars continued, these smaller wars or the threat of them being the means by which Rome’s Great Peace was continuously contrived.
Meanwhile, in our own time, consider the predicament of a certain Adam Lyth, one of England’s recently recruited cricketers. Adam Lyth will, as soon as England bat (which could be very soon indeed if England bat first), himself be batting, because he is what is called an “opener”. He and his captain and fellow opener Alastair Cook will both walk out to open the England innings.
For Cook, this will be a high pressure set of circumstances, but nothing like as high pressure as these same circumstances will be for Adam Lyth.
Alastair Cook is an established England batting star. Of course he is, he’s the England captain. He has made more runs in international five day (“test”) cricket than any other England batsman. He has been in an England Ashes-winning team about four times, twice as captain. True, his team got thrashed 5-0 last time they visited Australia, so he hasn’t won them all, but he is assured of a place in the cricket pantheon, and most certainly the English bit of it. He will be paid lavish sums of money for the rest of his life just to open his mouth at dinner parties, never mind whatever else he may contribute of value to the world, in between his international cricket retirement and his actual death.
For Adam Lyth, on the other hand, matters are very different. To say that Lyth is now playing for his life, and that those first minutes – if all goes well, that first hour – of his next batting effort for England will be, for him, a matter of life and death is somewhat of an exaggeration, but only somewhat. Lyth made a very good hundred against New Zealand earlier this season. But if he fails yet again to make a decent score against Australia, as he has failed to do all through the current series so far, then he is liable to be dropped from the England team, quite likely then never to return. More failures after that and he will definitely be dropped. He could end up as something like a badly paid pub-landlord in some Yorkshire backwater, Yorkshire being his county team. In Yorkshire he will still be remembered. But for non-Yorkies like me and like Michael Jennings, he will soon only be a name, and then scarcely even that.
If, on the other hand, Lyth now nails down his place in the England side with a big score, that could be his next step towards an international sporting career of real substance, with an income-flow and an adulation-flow attached to it that will be the difference between just about everything, and just about nothing.
If Lyth fails today or tomorrow, he will not literally die. The Yorkshire team will welcome him back with open arms. But it will feel a lot like he did die if he fails now, and not only to him. Everyone who knows anything about England cricket just now knows what I have just been telling you. Lyth is the sort of batsman who looks great, right up to the part where he gets out. So he could look great, and then get out, and everyone at the Oval and everyone watching on TV or following the game on the radio or on Cricinfo will know that this could be curtains for him as an England player, and the difference between him becoming either a front-rank British sports celeb, or else just another of sport’s almost-unknown warriors.
England have won the toss and have chosen to field first, so Adam Lyth’s ordeal has been postponed. But even if England do today to the Australian first innings something resembling what they did to the Australian first innings in the previous two games, and even if England then, again, pile up the runs in reply and win easily, if Lyth himself does not get a decent slice of those runs, then for him, the game will be yet another failure, all the more galling because of the success he will again be surrounded by, which he personally will have done so little to make happen.
Actually, following some diversions and some polishing of the above, I can now report that Australia have already made a very good start with their batting. In the previous game they were all out before lunch! For 60! Now, at lunch, they are 82 for nothing, and the odds have shifted strongly towards an Australia win, or even a draw, and away from another England win. But win, lose or draw, for Adam Lyth personally, his personal contribution to the England cause may well be personally decisive, for the rest of his life. He still has everything to play for, everything to win, and everything to lose.
Cricket, more than most team games, is also a very individual sport. At its heart is a personal confrontation between one bowler and one batsman. It is, you might say, particularly gladiatorial.
To all those who think that this posting has been an exercise in descending from the portentous to the trivial, from grand history to the mere gibberings of a sports fan, let me explain that my entire point is how deeply the Great Peace is influencing … everything, including and especially things that are often considered trivial, like professional sport. Sport just happens to be something I get excited about, and is hence a good way for me to illustrate the general point about how very different the times we live in are to former times. There are plenty of other impacts of the Great Peace that I could have written about, and although I promise nothing, I hope in due course to be proving this in future postings here.