Why Peace

By Athena

A story about human nature, with a strange kind of optimism.

Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International public license.

Tell me, Ambassador, would you like to know why humans try so hard to maintain peace?

Well, most people assume you’re simply naturally peaceful, or at least very risk-averse, said the crab-like creature in almost-English.

The human minister chuckled. Have you ever known a human to be particularly risk-averse? Or to back away from a good brawl?

Not really.

No. It’s more complicated than that. She paused. It’s not because we fundamentally dislike or disapprove of violence, or that we are afraid of defeat. We are afraid of something worse. We fear victory.

Fear victory? Why would you ever fear victory?

More precisely, we fear what comes after victory. The memories of the killing. The psychological scars. You see, when humans fight a war, we fight to win.

Everyone fights to win.

No they don’t. They think they do, but they would back away from things a human leader would do a hundred times without blinking. Vaporizing cities, creating artificial plagues, …. She trailed off. You don’t really want to know. But, you see, we will do atrocious things. And then we’ll regret it. But still do it, knowing we’ll regret it. We don’t fear victory itself, but we fear having done what we are willing to do to achieve it.

I… He was at a loss for words.

Our last major war before first contact killed over one hundred and twenty six million humans, all told.

The Ambassador’s eyes instinctively tried to retract.

We demolished each other’s cities, we killed indiscriminately, we erased millennia-old cultural heritage. Do you know what it was over?

I assume it must have been-

Wrong. Fishing rights. A tiny territorial dispute, two lines on a map, six degrees of angle. And a web of hundreds of tangled alliances. It started small, but it didn’t stop escalating until every military force on Earth was involved. And the death toll could have been forty, fifty times worse. Or extinction. We managed to hold ourselves back from that. We won’t quite do anything, I suppose.

There was no possible response.

Have you ever heard the term mutually assured destruction? I hope not. It was how we kept from wiping ourselves out once we invented nuclear fission weapons. We built thousands of them and pointed them at each other on a hair trigger.

He clattered incoherently.

Indeed. But it did work. No one was willing to actually use a nuclear weapon, because the inevitable result would be that everyone and everything would be destroyed. The only way to stop a human from using a weapon when she thinks it is the only way to avoid defeat is to convince her that doing so will bring more harm to her own people than being defeated. Effects on the target never enter into it, until the regret sets in later. In the moment, the psychological calculation is that simple and that uncaring. And, we can be surprisingly elastic about what we consider more harmful.

How did you ever survive?

By pointing thousands of nuclear weapons at each other. And, eventually, by learning to avoid conflict. Our racial knack for diplomacy really developed in the same century as World War III. Mostly in the decades spent rebuilding after it. We briefly thought each of the first and second world wars would be the last big war. It took yet another shock to make us finally realize we weren’t going to stop escalating things, were never going to outgrow our inner beast and learn to fight one-for-one like civilized people. So we avoided all conflict, insisted on defusing everything before it could spark war, made rules and committees and courts covering every possible dispute. Our pacifism is learned.

At least you did learn.

Eventually. Even nuking ourselves didn’t do it.

You actually used them?!



And that was when we first invented them. We didn’t get rid of them after that. No, we came up with mutually assured destruction instead.

I can hardly believe this is the same species who will sit in council chambers for years to come to a deal with a single-planet state with a population under three billion.

Like I said, we learned to avoid conflict. You never know when it could escalate to make you do something beyond anything you’d ever have wanted.

Sometimes I swear humans could have made a non-aggression pact with the Locusts.

We wouldn’t have.

Well, of course. No one could.

That’s… not what I meant. The beast is still there, Ambassador. We stopped fighting, but that doesn’t mean we got rid of our weapons, or our ideas of war.

Well, no one can afford-

We never did get rid of the nukes.

You still have-?!

Eighty thousand or so on inventory. Variable-yield, up to ten gigatons for the big ones. Remarkably clean nowadays, at least by comparison. She took a drink and continued softly. Like I said. We don’t fear doing terrible things. We fear having done them. That won’t stop us if we’re pushed far enough, or if we feel justified. The thing you should be most afraid of is making us feel justified. Because then, we won’t regret it.

There was silence. The ambassador’s shell was turning a distinct mauve.

Good night, Ambassador. It was almost a whisper. Louder, Don’t forget your umbrella.

The door opened and shut, briefly letting in the sound of London rain as the minister finished her whisky.