What Slavery, Ordeals, Duels and Lynching Can Teach us About Abolishing War

When it comes to war, deja vu can be a depressing thing. With the U.S. military in Iraq once again, this time to battle Islamic State fighters, it is tempting to see the cycle of war as endless. Over two millennia ago, Thucydides wrote that “peace is merely an armistice in a war that is continuously going on.” But what if he had it wrong? What if we can actually end war once and for all, much as we did other violent practices once thought impossible to abolish?

A world without chattel slavery was inconceivable for almost all of recorded human history. From around 10,000 B.C., it grew to become a pervasive global institution, existing, as the historian Orlando Patterson writes, “in every region of the world, at all levels of sociopolitical development, and among all major ethnic groups.” While isolated slave revolts or calls to improve the living conditions of particular slaves did pop up here and there, slavery itself existed as an unquestioned and normal part of the human condition for millennia. It wasn’t until only around 250 years ago that a movement arose to end it as such – to abolish slavery as an institution wherever it existed. Chattel slavery had been around for almost 120 centuries, yet over the course of just one, this movement managed to abolish it from almost every nation on earth.

Trials by ordeal and combat dominated European judicial proceedings for between 500 and 1,000 years depending on the region, yet today we look back and find the practice of determining guilt and innocence by fighting to the death or plunging someone’s hand into boiling water absurd, even comical. The same goes for the prospect of two accountants resolving a perceived slight at yesterday’s staff meeting by taking turns firing guns at each other at dawn in the parking lot, but the formal duel was an integral part of many societies for five centuries. And in the not-too-distant past, it was not unusual for American communities to lynch black men in public displays of agonizing torture and slow death, all accompanied by a festive atmosphere of civic celebration (kids dismissed from school, ice-cream stands, chartered trains for out-of town tourists coming to watch), yet today seeing such a thing in the town square seems unimaginable.

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