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Acceptance of war

Posted on August 10, 2011

Acceptance of war.

“Man…. homo sapiens? More like Homo stupidissimo. We have learned… nothing. Man and his endless wars. Endless. “
This was a comment made by Francis Meyrick on the YouTube video M*A*S*H Opening Song & Slideshow, to which I replied: “See? You have learned something! War is endless, it’s normal. War is even older than peace. War is older than civilization and indeed spawned civilization in the first place. Every great step taken in history has been decided by war (may it be civil war, revolution or an insurcengy as well). War and violence has solved a hell of a lot more issues than peace has ever done. Piracy in Somalia is one great example of how peace and laws of peace solve nothing. “
He misinterpreted this reply as glorification of war, but he did concede that he might have misunderstood me. I produced a more extensive message, explaining my views. He then thought I should post it here, and so I have. However, this text is a grossly expanded version of the original message, developing further on some points as well as bringing up new points. The gross expansion of it is only matched by its gross fractioned character. It was a hastily written message, confusing even for me as I read it over. Unfortunately my expanding of it lead to so many side-paths that it only grew more confusing, irrelevant side-paths some would say. This is basically me writing what my head was thinking.

I do not glorify war, I accept it. I judge the immorality and evilness of wars based on the impact on civilian society. Yes, i feel you can measure the evil of war, from no evil (granted though that such a war has yet to occur), to a preponderance of evil. War is often
(though not always) about criminals, thieves and rapists, having their way with civilian society. It’s sadly enough a natural state of affairs for some kinds of war, as counter-insurgency wars (Vietnam, Iraq) or the medieval and renaissance wars in which the belligerents financed their wars precisely by looting towns and villages; indeed, battles did not decide medieval conflict, the chevaucee, the systematic destruction of civilian infrastructure and produce, did. Modern warfare too will inherently cause great suffering to civilian society, as the concentration in time and space of battles has expanded a hundredfold if not more, encompassing entire cities and the full length if national borders, not to mention strategic bombing and nuclear weapons. But then we have those wars that was a near fulfillment of the utopia of warfare – soldier against soldier on a distant battlefield away from civilian society, soldiers whose very mindset to some degree shielded them from the dire psychological consequences our contemporary soldiers suffer from, fighting for formal legal states with moral and legal scruples and an economic system sound enough to finance the war without resorting to pillaging. Both political and social attributes of the time explain this. The wars I refer to in this instance are mainly those of the 18th and 19th centuries, but of course civilians suffered then too. The scale of civilian suffering, however, was very much different then. The suffering that was inflicted was accidental, rather than deliberate.

I have read somewhere that during the 18th and 19th centuries the proportions of war casualties was on average 80% soldiers and 20% civilians – the figure of the 20th century is likely the reverse. Reasons for this was partly that wars of this era were often fought outside Europe in desolate places, that the warfare of the time emphasized field battles as opposed to siege battles (siege battles having a tendency to end in total carnage, if not by the conqueror’s sword once in the streets of a city, then by disease), the disciplined nature of standing armies, and that the “honour ” and moral code of the gentlemen leading the armies of this time obliged them to restrain their men from atrocities. One example is to be found in the American Revolutionary war, in which Joseph Brant, an Indian ally of the British brought up by English standards of conduct, went ahead of his war party to warn the frontier village they were about to attack; he successfully averted a massacre of women and children. Another example is from the French and Indian war, in which French soldiers actually died defending English captives from French-allied Indians. POW:s were treated exemplary, not only gentlemen, but also the rank-and-file captives. This moral climate explains the great outbursts of public outrage whenever a massacre of unarmed people or the looting of a town occurred.

Then something happened: the French Revolution. The Revolution brought middling men into the officer ranks, men without “honour “. Post-revolutionary France displayed a very different climate from what had been before. Like a force of nature the most radical ideas of enlightenment were realized in one form or the other, and the turmoil and upheaval, as well as the perceived grandness of and importance to implement these radical ideas, allowed and justified atrocities. We all know the French Revolution was a bloody story, but it not only included the Terror and all the other more immediate effects on civic society and government; it translated into a more ruthless kind of warfare. The political war, or “people’s war “, was born. Something akin to the political war had been the religious wars; the same in mobilizing and harvesting the passions of the masses, different in what cause incited it. The 18th century was something of an intermezzo between these two forms of war, with enlightened monarchs governing with a firm hand the passions of the mob. The successful monarch, however, would to some degree indulge the masses to let out steam on occasion. French absolutism did not, and thus paved the way for an enthusiastic popular response to any challenges to its legitimacy.

The ruthlessness of the French revolutionary armies and later imperial armies was a prelude to the utter destruction of wars such as WW2, the Chinese Civil War, the Russian Civil War, the Finnish Civil War etc. What caused this ruthlessness, as far as I can tell, was that the plebeian people who had in the past fought with an indifference to the cause of the conflict, since the cause was often that of a monarch or a cabinet of ministers and thus above the heads of ordinary people, were integrated into the world of ideas and ideologies. Suppressed grievances combined with literacy and the rather extraordinary growth and distribution of newspapers in the second half of the 18th century partly explains this. The consumer revolution, which stretched from about 1750-1850, is also instrumental for an understanding of the matter; the common people became more assertive and bold, and thus ripe for demagogues and responsive to any ideology which would promote their interests. What this boils down to is that war became a personal matter, where every participant felt he had a stake in the contest, and thus the enemy, a term now extending beyond soldiers to include civil citizens of the opposing society, was viewed with a personal hate. In any case, Napoleon may be said to have been the inventor, or re-inventor, of the ruthless war, the immoral war. He was a member of the lesser gentry, and was certainly influenced by his uncle’s methods in the guerilla war fought on Corsica during Napoleon’s youth. To begin with he did nothing that any other revolutionary commander hadn’t done; cutting down people on the streets of Paris with artillery. That incident made his name, which goes to show what kind of men the political leadership of France at that time sought. He then went on by executing 3,000 Ottoman POW:s during his Egyptian campaign, after giving his word they would go free if they surrendered to him. As emperor, he ordered brutal shows of force first in Germany, and then in Spain (which set off the bloody insurgency war there). The French soldier was also, out of necessity, to live off the land to an extent not seen since the Thirty Years war, with obvious consequences for civilians. After the Napoleonic wars this conduct was dormant for some time, once the bourgeois and nobility had retaken control of Europe by granting great or small concessions on matters concerning the common man, as well as being prepared for subsequent attempts at revolution. (The Parisian boulevard’s main purpose was to make it harder for rebels to barricade streets, as well as allow for the easier deployment of artillery and military formations to combat rebels).Worth mention is that on the eve of the Revolution, both Britain and Austria-Hungary were carrying out extensive liberal reforms; unfortunately, the carnage of the French Revolution spooked the gentry rulers and intellectuals behind these reforms, making them fear similar carnage and upheaval in their own societies if authority was loosened, and thus postponed these reforms for decades. The ruthlessness of Napoleonic warfare would not show itself again in Europe until the passions of the masses was once again released in the Russian and Finnish civil wars.

My point is that there is a difference to be made between personal wars and impersonal wars, a difference in intensity and ability to endure, a difference in morality and costs. Not even war is as black and white as some would have it. For example, we today feel for our soldiers, because they are not very different from us, and most are just as innocent as us civilians when they go into service. This does partly explain our current moral code towards war, our abhorrence towards it; it destroys fine young people. But not long ago armies were composed of the scum of society, the same sort of men that are causing such devastation in the streets of London as I write. When we can be sure of such a difference between ourselves and our soldiers, perhaps we would look at war differently, as indeed people once did. I’m not promoting such a society, I’m merely stating how things were and might be again, and how that would probably change our view of war radically. Indeed, a militarized society is the last thing I want, Sweden has had it before, and it brings only misfortunes, not to mention that I would never be able to stand the “poor victim/great national hero ” rhetoric aimed at veteran soldiers, a rhetoric abundant in America since the Vietnam war. An interesting generation of soldiers, who first faced the full might of a near treacherous anti-war society at home only to now be revered as half-gods. Soldier should be viewed for what they are, just as war itself; they are not only crooks, not only heroes, not only victims, they are everything and none of it. The hero title in particular is very cheap in some circles.

War is what we make of it. War has overwhelmingly generally been celebrated by both tax payers and soldiers. The sense towards war is, as all doings of men, subject to flowing and changing feelings and value codes towards it. Can someone really blame the Victorian British for being so war-mongering, when the wars were fought on a another continent as well as justified by the moral consciousness of those times, not to mention that the colonial wars enriched the nation? In today’s post-imperialistic, post-Cold war and post-ww2 world it is natural for us to alter our values to detest war. But this has happened before, the Thirty Years war and Napoleonic wars spawning intellectual as well as public apprehension to war – for a while. We live in such a time, but every year of failure of peace to resolve issues will make war popular once again. That is why it might be necessary to know when it’s time to bring out the guns. Let war loose in proportions, so that we may be spared from a flood. To avoid a wholesale resort to war-mongering policy, we need to discard our current wholesale peace-mongering policy. Let the UN send an expeditionary force to Syria, let the CTF 150 treat the Somali pirates by martial law, let us use gunboat diplomacy to correct the situation in Belarus etc. Fight wars with clear objectives. The failure to do this is what made Vietnam so bloody, the success of it was what made the 19th century so comparatively humane after 1815. Furthermore, if we stop considering every coming war between Great Powers as the final war to end war, and instead accept it as just another war, it would do a lot to make these big wars tolerable. In the end though, I believe it’s money, not morals, that has kept us away from these “surgical ” military interventions.

It is truly a great irony that the closest we ever came to something remotely resembling world peace was when the Western empires were in their ace. Great imperial interests on other continents made Europe uninteresting, with the effect that those wars that were fought on European soil were very short and limited, a trend followed in the colonial wars as well, since it was not necessary to employ full-scale military efforts at natives with melee weapons. And these colonial wars in turn had the natural consequence of pacifying the rest of the globe outside of the Western world. Powers whose main interest did lay in Europe also fought limited wars in Europe so that they wouldn’t attract too much attention from the imperial powers; a frame constructed and broken by Germany. Germany’s greatest guilt is that her inferiority complex destroyed that world by revisiting Europe itself with total war, only this time the ideas that spawned the war, WW2, remained to be part of our established politics to this day. Maybe it’s more accurately Bismarck’s fault, for not explicitly making his policy of restricted war Germany’s policy. Bismarck guided Prussia throughout her 19th century expansion, and one of the reasons Prussia got away with her aggressions was that the wars were short, not one of them lasting over a year. Once Prussia achieved the objectives of a war, they sat down at the peace tables, not making up new objectives as the opportunities arose. Sadly, Bismarck past away without having standardized this policy.

Am I being racist, being content with a stable West and a world pacified by the West? Make no mistake, world peace will never ever be accomplished by the sole reliance on the goodness and sociability of the human race, there will always be someone itching for a fight, always somebody there to take advantage of others distress. And do not forget that while we Westerners have deeply entrenched anti-war sentiments, deeply rooted in us after two world wars and several genocides, almost no other culture on earth share this profound distaste. It is unique to us. And I doubt anyone is so naïve as to think China and Russia will restrain themselves from using their military resources in the future (one estimate is that China will be ready for offensive warfare in about 15 years). We must either convert every man on earth to our beliefs, or someone must be stronger than all the rest of the world combined, if we are to have any lasting world peace. I prefer that the West be that strong one. Imagine the world with China being the trendsetter as the West has been for the last centuries – what would become of human rights, of humanitarian aid, of law as we know it? The West is flawed in its upholding of these matters, partly because we refuse to go to war over them, but somewhere I feel this upholding would not only be flawed, but non-existent, with any other than the West at the lead. I may be biased, but somehow I think the whole world, not only the West, would be better off with Europe and America in command. And powers are now growing who by themselves can challenge the whole West, combined they may even defeat it. A big war will come, and we must be willing to fight it. Indeed, it might even be necessary with a preventative blow, to take the opportunity while there is still time for the West to dominate completely on the battlefield. Our air forces alone can win a conventional war today. And it will not be the last war, nor must it be fought as if it was, or we will have a nuclear winter. As long as a war is necessary, how can it be any different?

That is why my attitude towards war is what it is – not glorifying, but accepting, even promoting to some degree I grant, but not naïve. I may glorify war per se, the act of war, but I harbor no illusions as to the nature of war. Ultimately, though, war is what we make of it, in practice I mean now. I believe there can be glory in war, that it has been glory in war. Was the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava a meaningless folly? Of course it was, on the part of the men in command. Was it folly of the men who actually carried out the charge, a charge they knew very well went against common sense as they trotted on into the valley? It might be argued it was a folly by men harboring romantic notions of duty and glory to the point they’d die for them; but doesn’t romanticism stop exactly there, where reality begins? The reality is that they did ride on, despite shocking casualties they rode on with cannons firing at them from both flanks and front and very nearly succeeded. When people hold true to their convictions in the face of brute reality in such a situation, it is glorious bravery, not mindless romanticism. Such acts lends substance to what we otherwise would dismiss as ridiculous men’s fantasies. My reasoning is crystal clear in my mind on this matter, I can only hope I managed to translate it in these lines.

As long as we view war for what it is and never forget its costs on all levels of society, we can have a world where we choose our wars carefully. In the near future though, we might not be able to choose when and how, which makes it all the more clearer that we must soon choose to fight some wars while we still hold the reigns and can contain it. I am being my own judge now, and other may and will judge differently, and I accept that too.

Last edited by Faxe on August 11, 2011, 4:44 pm


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One response to “Acceptance of war”

  1. Thank you for posting, and challenging my outlook in a stimulating, intellectual manner. That is what Writers Harbor is also about:  interesting debate.

    You make me need to dive back into some of my old History books.
    I want to address several of these issues, but I’m going to take my time and quote some sources. I do believe the 1936 "Neutrality Act" in the USA, and the way this was passed with overwhelming popular support, is relevant to several point you make.
    Why? Because here we saw a widespread revulsion to the horrors of World War One, and a wide ranging determination amongst average Americans to never repeat such a tragedy.
    But a few years later, the popular mood was entirely different. What happened?
    In a name: Franklin D. Roosevelt, a most manipulative, unscrupulous, anti-American.

    I’m at work, and I will revert in more detail. I also have questions to ask you.

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