Last night I was lucky enough to catch a talk in Derby from Adam Hochschild based on his book To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain. Hochschild once declared his interest in ‘ writing about times and places when people felt a moral imperative to confront evil’, and his talk was mainly concerned with the experience of the men and women who opposed World War and sometimes actively resisted it.
They included well-known anti-war activists such as Jean Jaures, Rosa Luxemburg and Keir Hardie, and also names that I hadn’t heard of, such as Charlotte Despard, the pacifist sister of the British commander Sir John French and Derby’s own Alice Wheeldon, whose granddaughter was present yesterday in the post-talk panel.
Wheeldon was once imprisoned on fabricated charges of attempting to assassinate Lloyd George, though her real crime was her opposition to the war and her role in sheltering deserters. Hochschild also spoke about the West Indian and other colonial soldiers called up to fight in the war, whose discriminatory treatment even when they were supposedly fighting in the great civilisational struggle led many of them into postwar independence activism.
Such opposition was airily dismissed by Jeremy Paxman in his recent gung ho celebration of the war, when he described WWI conscientious objectors as ‘cranks’. Hochschild movingly demonstrated that this was not the case, and celebrated the moral courage or wartime resisters who continued to oppose the war even though they were a minority in their own societies.
Their opposition flew in the face of the deep and powerful national hatreds unleashed by the war, nourished by what was then the most powerful and sustained militarist propaganda campaign in history. Many of them saw what was coming, even when enthusiastic crowds were gathering in the streets of various European capitals to celebrate the outbreak of war.
As Hochschild reminded his audience, many of the soldiers who rushed jubilantly to join the contending armies did not expect to die, and their governments did not expect them to die in such large numbers. Popular perceptions of the war were still shaped by years of easy colonial victories, by expectations of dashing cavalry charges and ‘Napoleonic’ decisive battles.
These illusions, as the world well knows, were brutally unraveled by the new killing power of modern artillery and the machinegun, in confrontations between industrialised societies with vast economic resources.
The result was an unprecedented level of slaughter and devastation, in which war spilled beyond the ‘battlefield’, into scorched earth campaigns and military occupations, into zeppelin bombings of cities and the advent of air power, in economic blockades whose explicit objective was to starve opposing civilian populations into submission.
These illusions were not simply manufactured by the upper classes in order to send the working classes off as cannon fodder; they shared them. As Hochschild pointed out, the upper classes sent their own sons to war, and even in armies stratified by class hierarchies the officers died in huge numbers.
It’s that stark contrast between pre-war expectations and outcome, between the ‘innocence’ of Rupert Brooke and his golden generation and the horror and carnage that followed, that has always given the ‘great war’ its special fascination. World War I was probably the last war in which crowds massed in the streets to actually celebrate the fact that war had broken out.
In the century that followed, war has gone through various permutations that have made such enthusiasm difficult, if not impossible to achieve. Today, few armies expect to win or even fight a ‘decisive battle’. The Iran-Iraq war was probably the last confrontation of that kind, and in the end that war also became a war of attrition. For the most part war has become a nebulous and amorphous process, in which long-established military concepts such as the concentration of force on ‘decisive points’ have become outmoded and irrelevant, and the ‘battlefield’ now includes the whole of society.
In these ‘modern’ or ‘post-modern’ wars the distinctions between combatants and civilians are frequently eroded, there are no decisive battles, and even the definition of ‘victory’ is not always clear. In the ‘war on terror’ and its offshoots there is, and never has been, any ultimate outcome, beyond a great deal of wooly talk about ‘degrading and destroying’ al Qaeda or the latest terrorist enemy or eliminating its ‘command-and-control’ centres, as if such organizations functioned like Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s Spectre.
Critics of what used to be called the ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWOT) have sometimes described this absence of strategic clarity as a ‘mistake’. But from the point of view of our present ruling elites, the beauty of this war is that it doesn’t need an ultimate strategic outcome. There won’t ever be any final surrender or flag raised over Iwo Jima, because the war on terror is not supposed to end. As politicians never cease to remind us, it will last for ‘years’ or ‘generations’.
This absence of clarity is not accidental or the result of stupidity, though stupidity is not absent. When the Bush administration declared war on ‘terror’, it established a carte blanche for American military intervention anywhere, forever, against anyone. In doing so it provided a conceptual template for permanent war, in which war could once again become a first-choice instrument of policy.
Unlike World War I, today’s ruling elites do not send their sons off to war. You will not find the children of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Blair, Obama or Cameron coming back in boxes. In addition the popular militarism that was present in early 20th century Europe has largely vanished from the 21st century.
In Britain the huge demonstrations against the Iraq war were part of the largest antiwar movement in history, and even if they failed to prevent the war, they suggested that even if the British public is not necessarily pacifist or even specifically anti-militarist, it is at the very least unmilitarist and no longer willing to provide unconditional or uncritical approval of whatever wars the state decides to fight.
Even though the Blair government and most of the political class ignored these demonstrations, the public’s antipathy to war remains a problem for the proponents of endless war. In strictly military terms, new technology, the advent the volunteer professional army and the subcontracting of military services makes it possible to wage war with very little public participation.
But national and international public opinion is still seen as a political and military obstacle to the new 21st century militarism. That’s why the Pentagon has spent so much money on ‘public diplomacy’ that includes putting pro-war pundits on news and chat shows in order to ‘shape the narrative.’ It’s why governments routinely exaggerate the powers and capabilities of our current enemies and attempt to terrify the public into supporting ‘preemptive’ war to prevent terrorists getting hold of WMD etc, etc
Today’s elite-driven wars may not need millions of young men rushing to sign up, but they do want the approval and at least the acquiescence of the public. In Britain the Brown government and the Coalition have set out to ‘remilitarize’ British society by boosting the public profile of the armed forces, and presenting the military as a catchall solution to British social problems or indiscipline in schools. The World War I centennial has also become part of this process. Back in 2012, Cameron promised to a commemoration that ‘captures our national spirit in every corner of the country…like the Diamond Jubilee’, and this is what the Coalition and many others have tried to do.
They have celebrated a very specific version of the war with an eye to the present. Hochschild’s talk did the same thing from a very different perspective. Today, western governments and their allies have shown that they are willing to wage war anywhere and for anything in order to achieve their geopolitical objectives, even if they destroy entire countries and regions in the process.
In this context, Hochschild has done a great service in rescuing the men and women who once tried and failed to stop the ‘great’ war from obscurity. Their memory can and must galvanize us to oppose the efforts to remilitaize society, and prevent the 21st century from being defined by the nightmare vision of endless war.