To End All Wars

February 11, 2012

30 years ago I spent a week or two reading one of the finest history books I have ever encountered, The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. I recall starting the book reluctantly. Someone had recommended it, but it was history, it was thick, and it was about an event of limited interest: World War I.

World War I had always struck me as a distant affair, fought long ago, perhaps by relatives, certainly by unknown men crawling out of trenches armed with antique weapons. The war had not involved America to any great extent. And, perhaps the most important thing in my thinking was this: the war didn’t seem to “settle” anything. Two decades later, England, France, and Germany were at it all over again. Despite this, I picked up the book. Before I knew it, I was carrying it with me everywhere, eagerly turning pages, taking in an amazing story of carnage, courage, and incompetence on a massive scale. As I read, I asked myself again and again, how could the most civilized countries on earth behave so stupidly?

Adam Hochschild revisits much of the same territory in To End All Wars, but with some key differences. First, he focuses on the English side of the conflict. Second, he covers a much longer period, starting with the Boer war and eventually following World War I all the way to its final conclusion. Third, although he provides a richly detailed account of the fighting, he also casts a sharp eye at the social and political structures of the time. Like a surgeon hunting for a stray piece of shrapnel, he peels back layer after layer of British society, trying to understand why this country, an economically thriving democracy, so overwhelmingly embraced total conflict, why that commitment remained strong long after the war’s devastation and futility should have been apparent, and how this affected the turbulent fortunes of Britain’s pacifist movement.

Of course, a century later, with years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan behind, with, and still in front of us, we might ask these same questions about our own country. Are there lessons we could have learned from World War I? At one time or another, our leaders reassure us that 1) democracies don’t wage offensive wars, 2) economic globalization is a deterrent to war, and 3) wars, when they must be fought, can be fought on our terms, namely, our advantages in technology, training, and character will guarantee us a quick, cheap, painless victory. In fact, those arguments were all in play in 1914. And they surfaced again in 2001. But look what happened …

Sadly, memory is short and unreliable. As Hochschild points out, lies have a way of crowding out the truth. There were the big lies cranked out by Britain’s propaganda machine, and the little lies that soldiers and citizens told each other as a way of sparing themselves from the harder realities. One particularly good example of the latter was provided by the massacre of British troops at Loos on September 26, 1915 (p. 165). “Near criminal” bungling led to huge losses (in one campaign over 8,000 men were quickly killed or wounded out of a force of just 10,000) and yet the typical soldier did not complain. “For them to question the generals’ judgment would have meant, of course, asking if their fellow soldiers had died in vain. From the need to avoid such questions are so many myths about wars born.”

Even when both sides had settled deeply into the trenches and battle after battle had achieved nothing, peace remained a remote dream. In “Drowning on Land” (Chapter 18), Hochschild claims, “If there were ever a war that should have had an early, negotiated peace, it was this one.” In fact, the international relationships that could have created a basis for negotiations were all there, but each side clung stubbornly to certain ideas that were unacceptable to the other so “no one could come up with a peace formula that satisfied both sides.” Ironically, the huge costs of war were themselves an obstacle to peace: “Men had been maimed and killed in such unimaginable numbers that any talk of a compromise peace risked seeming to dishonor them and render their sacrifice meaningless.”

How can we ever hope to resolve conflicts when compromise, the half-baked and half-eaten cake, remains a dirty word to both parties?

To End All Wars is a great read, partly because for its vivid portraits of individual civilians and soldiers. One of my favorite characters, Bertrand Russell, who was the grandson of a prime minister and a future earl of the realm, emerges several times. Here is one description from the end of “As Swimmers into Cleanness Leaping (1914)” (Chapter 9):

“Part of Russell’s intellectual bravery lay in his willingness to confront that last set of conflicting loyalties. He described himself poignantly in the autumn of 1914 as being “tortured by patriotism…. I desired the defeat of Germany as ardently as any retired colonel. Love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess, and in appearing to set it aside at such a moment, I was making a very difficult renunciation.” What left him even more anguished was realizing that “anticipation of carnage was delightful to something like ninety per cent of the population…. As a lover of truth, the national propaganda of the belligerent nations sickened me. As a lover of civilization, the return to barbarism appalled me. As a man of thwarted parental feeling, the massacre of the young wrung my heart.”

Over the more than four years of fighting to come, he never yielded in his belief that “this war is trivial, for all its vastness. No great principle is at stake, no great human purpose is involved on either side…. The English and French say they are fighting in defense of democracy, but they do not wish their words to be heard in Petrograd or Calcutta.” He was dismayed to see two-thirds of Cambridge and Oxford undergraduates enlist in the wars opening months, their powers of reasoning “swept away in a red blast of hate.” These convictions, expressed in an unceasing blizzard of articles and speeches, would soon land him in the forefront of a slowly growing antiwar movement, while losing him old friendships, his Cambridge lectureship, and his passport. Eventually, they would put him behind bars.

Antiwar beliefs were severely tested by the mass patriotic hysteria of the war’s first months. “One by one, the people with whom one had been in the habit of agreeing politically went over to the side of the war,” as Russell put it, “and as yet the exceptional people … had not yet found each other.” How hard it was, he wrote, to resist “when the whole nation is in a state of violent collective excitement. As much effort was required to avoid sharing this excitement as would’ve been needed to stand out against the extreme of hunger or sexual passion, and there was the same feeling of going against instinct.”


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