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Armistice Day

November 11th, 2009

91 years ago, the world marked the end of the Great War that had consumed tens of millions of lives, mostly those of young men sent to die far from home in a cause that few could explain, then or now. It was a false dawn. The chaos unleashed by the Great War spawned more and greater wars, revolutions and genocides that continued through most of the 20th century and still continue, in places, even to this day.

I’ve written in the past about the futility of war, and that is the most important thought for this day of remembrance. But there is something else that demands more attention than it has received. The cataclysm of the Great War brought forth monsters like Hitler and Stalin, who killed millions. But the War itself, with the millions and tens of millions of lives it took, directly and indirectly, was loosed on the world by political leaders more notable for mediocrity than for monstrous greatness. 

The names of Asquith,  Bethmann-Hollweg, Berchtold and Poincare are barely remembered, yet on any reasonable accounting they belong among the great criminals of history. Not only did they create the conditions for war, and rush (eagerly in most cases) into it, they carried on even as the death toll mounted into the hundreds of thousands and beyond. Even as the original grounds for war became utterly irrelevant, they continued to intrigue for trivial postwar benefits, carving up imagined conquests among themselves. Eventually, most were displaced by leaders who were marginally less mediocre, and more determined to win at all costs (Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Ludendorff, Hindenburg and others).

How could such ordinary, seemingly decent, men pursue such an evil and self-destructive course, and yet, in most cases, attract and retain the support of their people? I find it hard to understand. 

Posted via email from John’s posterous

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  1. silkworm
    November 11th, 2009 at 23:06 | #1

    Look no further than that moron-in-chief George W Bush. What he lacked in intellect he made up for in ego. I read recently that the psychopathic alcoholic Bush invaded Iraq not because of the oil, which was above his level of understanding, but because of his ego, because he thought he could be a great president by being a war president. He invaded by telling lies to his gullible base, the same bunch of morons that populate the Tea Parties.

  2. Andy
    November 12th, 2009 at 05:31 | #2

    Well said silkworm. Its always best to infuse personal attacks and unsupported insults into vicious, pointless diatribes. You’ve certainly moved the debate forward with your post. Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Mike
    November 12th, 2009 at 07:51 | #3

    The result of George Bush’s efforts in Iraq look reasonable. You might think they were worth it, but reasonable people can. It is not 2006 any longer.

  4. Jim Birch
    November 12th, 2009 at 08:05 | #4

    The result of George Bush’s efforts in Iraq look reasonable.

    Please explain.

  5. iain
    November 12th, 2009 at 08:11 | #5

    Seeing John Howard at remembrance day ceremonies promulgating “lest we forget” whilst at the same time embarking on illegal invasions of other countries always made me angry.

    For all practical purposes, we have forgotten.

  6. silkworm
    November 12th, 2009 at 08:48 | #6

    Lest we forget. What the hell does that mean anyway? You can read into it anything you want. You can use it to justify your support of illegal wars or you can use it to condemn illegal wars. And what war isn’t illegal?

  7. Alice
    November 12th, 2009 at 09:21 | #7

    @Mike
    Reasonable? George Bush’s efforts in Iraq – a war that never should have started, a war that remunerated the likes of Halliburton? A war that was really a profiteering expedition. A war started on a false premise. A war now responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent US troops and even more innocent Iraqis. A war that resulted in the distortion and twisting of US government intelligence. A war that brought millions across the world to the streets in protest. A war that was flawed run by a president and his team, that was deeply flawed.

    Mike apparently thinks Iraq was “reasonable.”

    I wont forget.

  8. PHB
    November 12th, 2009 at 09:25 | #8

    The results of Bush’s Iraq war cannot be defended on any level. It has been a total catastrophe for US power. The US began as an unchallenged superpower and will by the end be no more than one of four major powers, on a par with China, Russia and India.

    The ‘success’ of the surge is vastly over-rated. The war is already lost because we cannot possibly hope to emerge from it with a better security situation than we had going in. Iran has strengthened its influence in the region to become a regional superpower at least on a par with Israel.

    The reason for the ‘success’ of US policy post 2006 has one cause alone, the defeat of the Republican party in the 2006 mid terms and the widespread expectation that the US occupation would be terminated in the near future. The date for the withdrawal of the troops was never so critical as the sincerity of the withdrawal plans. Bush/Cheney and the neo-cons clearly intended to stay permanently and were planning accordingly building permanent bases from which to control the region.

    One side effect of the invasion is that it is clear that the pentagon budget must be reduced severely in order to protect the country from the next bunch of idiots who believe that the military is invulnerable. The US cannot afford to be a superpower if the cost is going to be an unnecessary war every other decade.

  9. Mike
    November 12th, 2009 at 09:31 | #9

    The result — at this point — in Iraq is a stable country with a relatively accountable political system. It may not last, but at this point it is the most democratic political system in the Arab Middle East (not saying too much) and better than much of the world. As compared to a world with Saddam Hussein in control of Iraq, it is a big improvement. As I said above, you might not think it was worth it, but it is a significant improvement.

  10. Fran Barlow
    November 12th, 2009 at 09:37 | #10

    How could such ordinary, seemingly decent, men pursue such an evil and self-destructive course, and yet, in most cases, attract and retain the support of their people? I find it hard to understand

    I feel sure you know how Marxists would answer that question …

  11. iain
    November 12th, 2009 at 09:43 | #11

    Do you want the Rudyard Kipling version or the Laurence Binyon “enhanced” version that has been misappropriated/added for glorifying war?

  12. R J Stove
    November 12th, 2009 at 09:44 | #12

    I’m wondering if Professor Quiggin isn’t too harsh on Asquith, who did, after all, suffer the loss of his son Raymond. Today’s presidents and prime ministers never run that sort of familial risk.

  13. iain
    November 12th, 2009 at 09:56 | #13

    Mike – lol, “significant improvement”

    Compared with effective diplomacy and effective sanctions? We’ll never know because of people like you.

  14. Ken Lovell
    November 12th, 2009 at 10:13 | #14

    Perhaps their capacity for doing evil lay in their very ordinariness, which meant they lacked the imagination and intellect to grasp the consequences of their actions. I believe John Howard is also such a man – mired in mindless cliches about terrorists and Western values and incapable of understanding the human costs of his decisions.

    I don’t know why you call them seemingly decent. They were war criminals lacking any shred of decency. Even in November 1918 they were more concerned with ‘honour’ (i.e. their egos) and saving face than with the thousands being slaughtered every day.

    Most Americans and Australians have happily acquiesced in their governments waging wars of aggression and occupation, demonstrating that they are just as prepared as anybody else to condone mass murder committed in their names. Nothing changes, except perhaps that the smug myth of Western moral superiority has been comprehensively exposed as the fraud it always was.

  15. silkworm
    November 12th, 2009 at 10:13 | #15

    From this morning’s news:

    Australia has just committed to being in Afghanistan for the long haul. “Lest we forget” should be turned into “we never learn.”

    Prince Charles talks about the strains of having a son at war (Afghanistan). Oh boo hoo. You are part of the establishment that started that war. You have to live with the consequences of your son’s decision (or was he pushed into it by the establishment?) to put himself in harm’s way.

    Bring on the Australian republic, and kick out the warmongers.

  16. Alice
    November 12th, 2009 at 10:33 | #16

    @Mike
    says “the result (of the war on Iraq) is that Iraq is now a stable country.”
    With an average of four people a day dying from suicide bombers. Thats stable?

  17. silkworm
    November 12th, 2009 at 10:42 | #17

    I am appropriating November 11 as Anti-War Day.

  18. Dave Leflar
    November 12th, 2009 at 10:46 | #18

    Thanks for this thoughtful comment, John. Do you know Tom Russell’s song “Veterans Day”? If not, you should go over to YouTube and search Tom Russell Veterans Day, then listen. Somehow I think it would strike a chord with you.

  19. Ragout
    November 12th, 2009 at 10:47 | #19

    Since Quiggin finds Poincare’s and Asquith’s actions hard to understand, let me try to explain. France was invaded and Poincare mobilized the military to defend his country. Asquith led Britain into the war to fight the aggressors; aggressors who were pursuing a naval armament policy that seemed aimed squarely at his country. Hardly the actions of the “great criminals of history.”

  20. November 12th, 2009 at 11:37 | #20

    “I’ve written in the past about the futility of war…”.

    That’s overstating the case. Not all war is futile.

    “…on any reasonable accounting they belong among the great criminals of history”. That happens not to be the case, if for no other reason than that they too were caught in things (and see Bertrand Russell’s observation below). Neither were they nor their successors mediocre – though, as chance would have it, Britain’s best generals died or were killed too soon, so by comparison (which is how it is defined) the ones who were involved were mediocre.

    “How could such ordinary, seemingly decent, men pursue such an evil and self-destructive course, and yet, in most cases, attract and retain the support of their people? I find it hard to understand.”

    Two observations:-

    - It was the other way around. Bertrand Russell describes his shock on realising when war broke out that it was actually popular, that the people wouldn’t take peace under the circumstances.

    - There was a money auction in operation (see also War of Attrition, that that links to).

    Silkworm wrote “And what war isn’t illegal?”

    Quite a few, actually. Though I suspect you meant immoral.

    PHB wrote “The results of Bush’s Iraq war cannot be defended on any level. It has been a total catastrophe for US power.”

    Isn’t that evidence in its favour?

    “The war is already lost because we cannot possibly hope to emerge from it with a better security situation than we had going in”.

    That’s not the test of losing; by that definition a Pyrrhic Victory can be a loss.

    Silkworm wrote “Bring on the Australian republic, and kick out the warmongers”.

    What, both? They are unconnected.

  21. jquiggin
    November 12th, 2009 at 12:08 | #21

    Good to see you back Ragout, and to see you demonstrating the point that ignorance is a major cause of (support for) war. For the record France had mobilised (regarded at the time as a virtual declaration of war) and rejected a German demand for neutrality before Gemany declared war (of course, this doesn’t diminish the guilt of the German government in any way). More importantly, the war having started, no one on either side made any serious attempt to stop it.

    However, at least those who made the decision had the excuse of being men of their time. Apologists for mass murder such as yourself have no such excuse. You were permanently banned from Crooked Timber for this kind of thing, and you’re permanently banned here as well.

  22. R J Stove
    November 12th, 2009 at 12:20 | #22

    Prof Quiggin writes: “More importantly, the war having started, no one on either side made any serious attempt to stop it.

    Ah, but surely Lord Lansdowne did, in 1917? Which was rather late in the day, true, but at least he tried. And as for the Central Powers, shouldn’t some note be taken of Austrian Emperor Karl’s peace initiatives?

  23. Ken Lovell
    November 12th, 2009 at 12:25 | #23

    Off-topic but since others have raised the issue, here’s a timely post to put in perspective the claim that we have ‘made things better’ in Iraq.

    http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2009/11/11/iraq/index.html

    Years of slaughter to replace one strong man with another. A triumph. Just like Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the endless waves of useful idiots keep coming, bellowing about how the military will fix everything up if only they can have a few thousand more soldiers and a few billion more dollars.

  24. Peter T
    November 12th, 2009 at 12:37 | #24

    The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our [leaders] but in ourselves.

    From my reading, the First War was widely popular at the start – and even more so the sabre-rattling and devotion to armaments that went before it. It’s also worth noting that war was – up to 1914 – both “normal” and often profitable for most European countries, Britain spent half the 18th century in European wars, and most of the 19th in colonial wars. It’s also worth noting that how bad war is is in contrast to the conditions of peace. A good many English farm labourers and Welsh miners remarked that in the trenches you at least got fed decently (one I read said it was an escape from a life of being overworked and underfed), with not much more danger if you kept your head.

    Another point is that the elites suffered more than most – a higher proportion of British aristocrats died than from any other class.

    This is not to say that it was worth it in any way – just that the madness can be of crowds as much as leaders, and that democracies (and often even dicatorships) find it hard to resist collective delusions.

  25. R J Stove
    November 12th, 2009 at 13:05 | #25

    Peter T says: “Another point is that the elites suffered more than most – a higher proportion of British aristocrats died than from any other class.

    True. In 1914-18 more French than British died in absolute numbers, if I recall correctly, but a smaller proportion of upper-class French than upper-class British died. (Though even the upper-class British body count was smaller, proportionately as well as absolutely, than the upper-class Russian body count.)

    Somewhere in a 1950s British novel (Anthony Powell perhaps?) there is a character who says of his active service in World War Two that yes, wartime had its inconveniences, but it was so much less unpleasant than being flogged and tortured as a schoolboy at Eton, as to be a bit of an anticlimax really. We shouldn’t overlook how popular wars tend to be, and how many people prefer the military life to being on the dole, down a mine, or on a farm.

  26. Matt C
    November 12th, 2009 at 13:08 | #26

    John this is an overly simplistic and uninformed analysis of the origins of WWI. Claiming Asquith was mediocre is one thing, evil is quite another.

    There is a much more varied debate over its origins. I have never seen French mobilisation argued for as the decisive factor (note that these were only ‘standby’ orders not full mobilisation). Much more important was the ‘blank cheque’ that Bethmann-Hollwegg (inadvertently) gave the Austrians. And, the British proposed a summit in late July 1914 but none of the European powers were interested.

    Here is a nice summary of the histiography.

    http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/~zeppelin/originsww1.htm

  27. November 12th, 2009 at 14:17 | #27

    Pr Q says

    How could such ordinary, seemingly decent, men pursue such an evil and self-destructive course, and yet, in most cases, attract and retain the support of their people? I find it hard to understand.

    The simple answer is patriotism: “my country, right or wrong”. In-group loyalty is certainly a genetically endowed part of human nature. And it the nationalist meme was reaching its peak in human culture in the Edwardian era, what with high-birth rates, nation building and empire building.

    Respect for institutional authority was also very high right up until 1917. Respect for authority declined once authorities were revealed as less than infallible, which is why mutinies and revolutions started breaking out thereafter.

    I hypothesize that the delayed emancipation of women was the main reason that these very ordinary politicians were able to get away with mass-murder of their sons. Female suffrage still years or even decades off on the eve of the Great War.

    Although Australia was one of the few combatant countries did have female suffrage before the War and it did not seem to dull the enthusiasm of the electorate for prosecuting the battle with utmost vigor. But we did reject two conscription referendums which at least ham-strung the political establishments efforts to intensify the conflict.

    I just checked wikipedia and there is some evidence for this speculation. It reports that womens organizations and the trade union movement were in the forefront of opposing the sacrifice of their sons:

    Anti-conscriptionists, especially in Melbourne, were also able to mobilise large crowds with…a “parade of women promoted by the United Women’s No-Conscription Committee – an immense crowd of about 60,000 people gathered at Swanston St between Guild Hall and Princes Bridge,

    An anti-conscription stop work meeting called by five trade unions held on the Yarra Bank mid-week on October 4 attracted 15,000 people.

    The Age noted, in an article Influence of the IWW, that “the great bulk of the opposition to conscription is centred in Victoria.”.

    Of course Melbourne was in the van of reform, as usual.

    I think if the Great War had occurred ten years later when more countries had given women had the vote it would have been harder for the banality of evil to occur, or at least go on for as long as it did. The fact that pacifism was widespread in the thirties after women got the vote is evidence for this. And the fact that WWII was started by ultra-machismo dictatorships is further evidence again.
    If there is hope it lies in the proles and dolls.

  28. November 12th, 2009 at 14:22 | #28

    I should add that those promoting the widening of the suffrage at the turn of the century were an instance of modernist liberal reformers actually doing some good. As contrasted with the post-modernist liberal “reformers” of our generation of swine, who are generally in it for fast bucks, cheap thrills or moral vanity.

  29. robert
    November 12th, 2009 at 14:44 | #29

    Perhaps Jack Strocchi can advise me about this. I was under the impression that when women did get the vote in France and Italy, which wasn’t till 1945 or thereabouts, the loudest opponents of female suffrage included the Communist parties. These parties justified their opposition by insisting that women were wholly under the thumbs of their priests and would simply vote the way that Father in the confession booth told them to. But I can’t recall where I read this allegation, nor has a Google search revealed anything to me thus far.

    There is, however, anecdotal evidence to suggest that the women’s vote helped put De Gaulle (no pacifist he) in power in 1958:

    http://www.h-france.net/vol2reviews/walton.html

  30. silkworm
    November 12th, 2009 at 15:10 | #30

    “Bring on the Australian republic, and kick out the warmongers”.

    What, both? They are unconnected.

    I didn’t say they were.

  31. Peter T
    November 12th, 2009 at 15:57 | #31

    Can I add something – really a question for John. The original question struck me as reflecting the general difficulty economists have with war – and I can see that as an activity it is hard to square with rational self-interest. I have read economic histories of Britain and Industrial Revolution, for instance, from which one would never know that Britain was intensely warlike throughout the period, that most revenue went on war, and that the Navy was by far the largest single industrial and food and textile purchasing element in Britain. As one historian remarked, a bit like leaving mountains out of Swiss history.

    Where they go into the issue, historians of World War I usually take it for granted that the leadership (and everyone else, with some few exceptions) thought this would just another war – and that the winners would gain something, and the losers lose not too much (“over by Christmas”). They underestimated their own power to mobilise and sustain. But few people were adverse to war as such – pacifism had no constituency.

    Interesting question is – why do economists in general either ignore war or assume – contrary to the general attitude through most of history – that it is a purely negative experience?

  32. PSC
    November 12th, 2009 at 21:33 | #32

    Why is Poincare a criminal and Enver Pasha not?

  33. SeanG
    November 13th, 2009 at 04:20 | #33

    @silkworm

    Quite a bizarre claim to say that Prince Charles was part of the establishment which started the war. Nothing really to back that up other than muddled political opinions.

  34. jquiggin
    November 13th, 2009 at 05:24 | #34

    @PSC
    As I mentioned on the parallel thread at Crooked Timber, I omitted Enver Pasha not because he wasn’t a criminal, but because he was a revolutionary dictator, not a mediocre run-of-the-mill politician like the others. And my ignorance of Russian history is such that I didn’t feel confident in picking a name – a commenter suggested Sazonov.

  35. November 13th, 2009 at 05:41 | #35

    Robert@#29 November 12th, 2009 at 14:44

    There is, however, anecdotal evidence to suggest that the women’s vote helped put De Gaulle (no pacifist he) in power in 1958

    The women of France deserve credit for their political savvy, and much else.

    De Gaulle was, like Nixon, a consummate machiavellian not a compulsive militarist. He pretended to hear the bellows of rage from the pied noirs with a famous declaration “I have understood you”. But he then proceeded to grant Algerian independence anyway, a statesman like deed that earned him an execution contract from the OAS.

    A general rule of thumb of modernist history: the greater the feminist emancipation the greater the militarist emasculation. Feminist suffrage + low birth rates is usually a sufficient condition for the attenuation of militarism. Not a necessary condition given the experience of the ever-sensible Swiss.

  36. November 13th, 2009 at 09:42 | #36

    Pr Q says:

    But the War itself, with the millions and tens of millions of lives it took, directly and indirectly, was loosed on the world by political leaders more notable for mediocrity than for monstrous greatness. The names of Asquith, Bethmann-Hollweg, Berchtold and Poincare are barely remembered, yet on any reasonable accounting they belong among the great criminals of history. Not only did they create the conditions for war, and rush (eagerly in most cases) into it, they carried on even as the death toll mounted into the hundreds of thousands and beyond.

    Institutional factors, rather than individual leaders, were mainly responsible for starting the Great War. These systems, combined with ever-present instinctual factors, made the drive to war in some sense beyond the control of individual leaders. So Pr Q’s indignation is unjustified as to initiation, although justified regarding prolongation, of conflict.

    Institutionally speaking, the proximate causes of the Great War was the general “wiring for war” throughout Europe which was set in train generations before the WWI leaders took office: the long-standing diplomatic alliances and the all-pervasive logistics of mobilization. The ultimate cause of Great War was the emergence of the mighty German military-industrial state in the mid-19thC which destabilised the post-Napoleanic balance of power.

    This institutional explanation of causes, and ascription of blame, apply only to starting the war in 1914, when most people – masters and masses – thought it would be “over by Christmas”. I agree that individual leaders were “the great criminals of history” for prolonging the war when it was obvious that the costs were excessive, methods were barbaric and gains were ill-gotten. By 1915, once the magnitude and futility of the conflict was apparent, it was the responsibility of all individuals to stop the war. They mostly failed, with honorable exceptions.

    The very generality of the war, and mediocrity of war-leaders, suggests that its probably a category mistake to lay criminal charges on them for starting the war. Criminality is, by definition, a breaking of law. Most leaders felt they were honoring their legal obligations, enshrined in treaty, by going to war. Criminality is also typically a deviant event. But Pr Q defines deviancy up until it becomes the norm for all parties. This is absurd.

    And if one wants to blame individual countries for starting the War then it is unfair to make the Allied powers morally equivalent to the Central powers. The Central Powers were planned and primed for aggressive war from the get-go. In all cases, except for the UK, it was the Central Power leaders that initially threatened war, ordered mobilization and issued declarations of war. Which is why the European theater of the Great War was fought, almost totally, on Allied territory.

    The von Schliefen Plan was the smoking gun of Germany’s aggressive intent. You cant compare this to France’s Plan XVII which was a counter-attack to recover its lost eastern province. In that sense it was fair enough for the framers of the Treaty of Versailles was to lay the blame for starting the war on Germany, although they were unwise to levy reparations.

    More generally, it was the rise of German institutionalized militarism which destabilised the European balance of power. The new German nation had an institutional tendency towards aggressive militarism, only moderated by the individual sagacity of beloved Bismark.

    The German military-industrial “war machine” was the loose cannon on the deck of the European Great Power game, somewhat analogous to the France in the middle of the 18thC. It was the source of immense strategic irritation throughout Europe, angering the French by annexing their province of Lorraine, threatening the British with a naval arms race aimed at dominating the Channel Ports and menacing Russia by longing for lebensraum “to the East” (caught red-handed at Brest-Litovsk).

    The proof of this was the re-emergence of the “German problem” after the Great War in almost exactly the same form. Hitler’s geo-political strategy was little different in conception from the Kaiser’s, although his tactical and technical execution was superior. Europe could not fix the German problem by itself. It required extra-European intervention (from the USSR and USA) to do the trick.

    Pr Q’s scathing characterization of Europe’s WWI leaders looks fair and reasonable in the post-1915 period. It was then that individual leaders conspicuously failed to do their duty, with some honorable exceptions. They made little serious effort to stop the carnage. Quite the opposite they mostly looked to profit from it with the proliferation of secret treaties and plans to extend post-war empires.

    Italy is especially culpable in this respect, having entered the war when it was obviously hell-bent, schemed to gain territories and continually scuttled efforts, by the Pontiff no less, to bring about an end to hostilities. The Treaty of London is the worst example of this villainy.

  37. silkworm
    November 13th, 2009 at 12:27 | #37

    “Feminist suffrage + low birth rates is usually a sufficient condition for the attenuation of militarism.”

    This is one of the few occasions on which I agree with Mr Strocchi. I would simply change “feminist suffrage” to “women’s suffrage,” as suffrage was not just for feminists. I would also add that that bane of Catholics, birth control, is a major contributing factor to low birth rates, and from an environmental and humanistic point of view, is a desirable thing.

  38. November 13th, 2009 at 13:55 | #38

    silkworm@#6 November 12th, 2009 at 08:48

    Lest we forget. What the hell does that mean anyway? You can read into it anything you want. You can use it to justify your support of illegal wars or you can use it to condemn illegal wars. And what war isn’t illegal?

    Wars of self-defence are obviously legal.

    And “Lest we forget” reminds us to remember and be grateful for our ancestors sacrifice, which they did in good-faith.

    You obviously need all the intellectual help thats on offer. A constructive suggestions: try not to be so aggressively wrong and offensive at the same time. That may avoid further embarrassment.

  39. silkworm
    November 13th, 2009 at 14:49 | #39

    And “Lest we forget” reminds us to remember and be grateful for our ancestors sacrifice, which they did in good-faith.

    Do you talk to the dead, Jack? Do they talk back to you? Now who’s embarrassing himself?

  40. November 13th, 2009 at 15:09 | #40

    silkworm@39 November 13th, 2009 at 14:49 | #39

    Do you talk to the dead, Jack? Do they talk back to you? Now who’s embarrassing himself?

    Virtually all of the AUS’s battle casualties in foreign wars were volunteers. This implies that they made their sacrifices in good-faith with the cause of their nation.

    There were few if any reported cases Australian forces involved in mutiny. Therefore there is no reason to believe that the servicemen lost that faith.

    Arguing with silkworm is “embarrassing” me alright, embarrassingly easy.

  41. November 13th, 2009 at 15:10 | #41

    Ken Lovell@#14 November 12th, 2009 at 10:13

    Perhaps their capacity for doing evil lay in their very ordinariness, which meant they lacked the imagination and intellect to grasp the consequences of their actions. I believe John Howard is also such a man – mired in mindless cliches about terrorists and Western values and incapable of understanding the human costs of his decisions.

    Yes, the human costs of Howard’s militarism were appalling. Lets count AUS battle fatalities in various conflicts under Howard’s 11 year premiership: ETimor: 0, Iraq: 0, Afghanistan: 11 (virtually all commandos, raring to go). That works out to an average of one military fatality per year, year in year out. Oh, the blood thirsty tyranny of Howard-the Hun.

    Howard-hating hysterics have howled endlessly about his “mass-murdering” activity over the past decade or so without being able to point to a single civilian that he ordered killed. All this does is induce the audience to mark down the credibility of the howlers.

    Back from bizarro-world it is obvious that Howard was well-aware of the risks of various military actions. He obviously managed them well in a machiavellian sort of way, going by the low-profile military ventures. So whatever one might think of the ultimate wisdom of his national security policies it has so far turned out alright. This says alot for his intellectual, if not his moral, imagination.

    On the moral side a good case can be made for the general good done by the ADF in both ETimor and Afghanistan. In all probability the ADF has saved, rather than taken, civilian lives in these military operations. Rules of engagement were very strict, firepower at force disposal was parsimonious rather than promiscuous and relations with the civil community were generally cordial.

    These places suffered from rampant insecurity (banditry, war-lordism and militas) before, during and after main-force hostilities. So having a reasonably well-behaved military patrolling the area has generally staunched the non-combatant blood-letting.

    Ken Lovell says:

    I don’t know why you call them seemingly decent. They were war criminals lacking any shred of decency. Even in November 1918 they were more concerned with ‘honour’ (i.e. their egos) and saving face than with the thousands being slaughtered every day.

    I dont think it makes any sense to label as “criminal” the statesman who led the various countries into war. In going to war they mostly responded to imminent threats to national security or to their law-enshrined treaty obligations. This was certainly unwise, even reckless. But not criminal.

    Although I would acknowledge that the Prussian military establishment was essentially criminal in its constitution and strategic posturing.

    I’ll grant you that the longer the war went on, the more the political classes mistakes gravitated from civil negligence to criminal culpability. By the end of the war I would agree they had lost “any shred of decency”.

    Ken Lovell says:

    Most Americans and Australians have happily acquiesced in their governments waging wars of aggression and occupation, demonstrating that they are just as prepared as anybody else to condone mass murder committed in their names. Nothing changes, except perhaps that the smug myth of Western moral superiority has been comprehensively exposed as the fraud it always was.

    Most Australians were dubious about the Iraq war before it was launched, with unconditional support for joining the conflict never exceeding 50%. Public support for this unwise and unlawful war has plummeted since then. This steadily increasing public disenchantment trend is duplicated in the Afghan war, although this war is lawful enough.

    Other than Iraq the ADF has not participated in a war of “aggression and occupation” since the attack on Gallipoli. So whilst, for most of the past 100 years, we may not have much reason to be “smug” about our “Western moral superiority” we are by no means complicit in “mass murder”.

    Americans are a little less-skeptical of their governments military endeavours. This has led to some moral blindness to some of them (Vietnam and Iraq to name the two most obvious). But in general the US has been a force for global good in its military ventures throughout over the past century or so. At least going by its most determined foes, if not its convenient friends.

  42. November 13th, 2009 at 15:54 | #42

    Peter T@#24 November 12th, 2009 at 12:37

    The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our [leaders] but in ourselves. From my reading, the First War was widely popular at the start – and even more so the sabre-rattling and devotion to armaments that went before it.

    The European citizenry were as belligerent as the leaders in the period leading up to the start of the war, which significantly diminishes lets the leaders criminal culpability, if not civil liability, for their initial participation. Given the general pro-war consensus both within political, financial and cultural elites and amongst the populus as a whole it is hard to imagine leaders acting other than they did in 1914.

    In the early years of the 20thC nationalist militarism was as rife in both European elites and populus. Crowds rejoiced the outbreak of war, men in their millions flocked to recruiting stations and the press, mostly reflecting the views of readers, were relentlessly pro-war.

    Astonishingly, most of the socialist leaders (-communists and wobblies) were strongly pro-war for the duration. That includes socialists in the main combatant nations: Germany, France, Britain and Russia.

    Australian socialists were even more blood-thirsty than their opposite numbers. Fisher’s dedication to the British Empire would have embarrassed Menzies. AUS, in 1916 when the scale of the bloodshed was readily apparent, only narrowly rejected two referendums to increase the militarization of the conflict.

    That initial wave of public enthusiasm subsequently hardened into dogged perseverance. But it was only by 1917 that any serious signs of public discontent were apparent.

    But that more charitable judgement of leaders initial actions does not apply to events as they developed throughout the war. So far as I am aware over the duration of the war there were no major elections held in Germany, Britain, France or Russia. This surely removed the major hindrance to the strategic machinations of the more imperialist and militarist sections of the political elite.

    The only election during the war by a major combatant power was held in AUS in 1917. It resulted in a massive 7% swing in favour of Hughes militaristic government. This suggests that the war remained remarkably popular even in a country which had suffered grievously from its ravages.

    People were different then. They were more willing to make sacrifices for the collective good (which is the definition of morality). And they really had no idea of the scale of the disaster that they had embarked on. Most thought it would be “over by Christmas”.

    For a good comparison one only has to compare the actions of European statesmen between the wars. These were men of much the same class and culture as pre-war European statesmen. For the most part they were no less keen to expand their empires wherever it was possible But the second time around they had a much better idea of the costs of war. So they strove mightily to avoid it, with pacifism and appeasement being very common amongst leaders.

    So it is unwise to make sweeping generalisations about the “criminality” of political leaders who, in most cases, were doing their duty by complying with treaty obligations or the electorates wishes.

  43. iain
    November 13th, 2009 at 17:13 | #43

    jack – “lest we forget” is used on Armistice Day to rejoinder Laurence Binyon. Binyon himself didn’t use the line. It just got grabbed from Kipling.

    It certainly can be used to highlight that we shouldn’t forget sacrifices made by others. But it shouldn’t be used to excuse warmongering either. The use of chemical weapons by the allies in World War I should also be remembered, alongside remembering the otherwise senseless loss of lives.

    Remembering also how our political and social institutions fail so spectacularly when the warmongers are allowed to go unchallenged should also be remembered.

    Political leaders have a duty to lead in a community’s best interest. Warmongering should be the absolutely last option for resolving disputes – on this point the leaders failed without question.

    Lest we forget.

  44. silkworm
    November 13th, 2009 at 18:44 | #44

    In all probability the ADF has saved, rather than taken, civilian lives in these military operations.

    Highly dubious, and totally unevidenced speculation.

  45. Rob
    November 13th, 2009 at 23:34 | #45

    I’m interested to know how we might have done any better than Asquith. If we were discussing him in 1913, we’d probably regard him as a liberal hero. He broke the power of the Lords, forced through much of the People’s Budget (state pensions, progressive taxation, and nearly land value tax), enacted Irish Home rule and so forth – not to mention defeating the conservatives in two general elections. If we were to imagine that a terrible war were to break out, we’d be confident that Asquith would do the right thing; we’d certainly be unlikely to identify a better alternative.

    I think that this lends weight to the theory that individuals cannot be held fully responsible for the continuation of the war, though the leaders of Europe may collectively be held to blame. It certainly argues that if we want to avoid similar wars in future, the status of ‘liberal hero’ is not necessarily a signal of ability to do so.

  46. Ubiquity
    November 14th, 2009 at 00:47 | #46

    War is absurd. It is often a mix of nationalism and state objectives that fuel war. At the time that leaders decide to war the citizens will initially support the war for absurd reasons.

    It is the (negative) existential quality of Otto Von Bismark who in order to control Germany between 1862 and 1890, found enemies first in other nations and then once Germany had enough territory he found liberals and socialist to persecute. Bismark had no real political ideals, other than the illusion that he alone should rule.

    Then Hitler perverted the idea of Nietzsche “superman”, what was a debating point became a belief system. Another existentialist optismist view debased by a mass murderer of Bismarks quality.

    The French had the same delusions of power that Germany had. History shows France invades Germany, Germany fights back, Germany attacks out of anger, the French public demands a tougher stance…blah blah, the cycle continues. When WW1 finished the French public demanded that Germany be punished severly. What the French governments and people did not comprehend was that they would be responsible for the instability of Germany and the rise of Hitler to power. The Treaty of Versailles placed an unreasonable stress upon German economy and newly formed democracy. French hubris resulted in German rage.

    A lot of what went on back then still goes on now. It is the structure of our state that selects “our leaders” who debase optimistic existentialist views and war for reasons other than reasonable ones. The less power the government has the less likely one of these individual mad hatters can cause trouble. In fact it was the capacity pf these indiviual mass murderers, JQ mentions, to use the state as a weapon of mass (people) destruction that resulted in all these meaningless wars.

  47. November 14th, 2009 at 20:49 | #47

    The people who started the war, and those who went to war against those who started the war, weren’t stupid, and they weren’t even mistaken. They all believed, correctly, that their aims – positive, as in German hegemony/Austrian security, or negative, as in no German hegemony/Austrian security – couldn’t be attained without war.
    That is to say, you can’t have it both ways. It’s not a matter of saying “They could have achieved their aims in other less murderous ways.” They couldn’t. The only way for Asquith to avoid war would have been, essentially, to take the decision to lose it. That would have been a very courageous decision, in the Sir Humphrey sense.
    The same with Iraq. The issue isn’t “is the world better off without Saddam?” It’s whether the good of having no Saddam is worth the evil of not having the what, half million to a million Iraqis who died along the way.
    Which does, to some extent, underline that the person who starts it – who walks across someone else’s border carrying a rifle – bears a heavy responsibility. Then, Bethmann-Hollweg and Berchtold. Now, George Bush.

  48. jquiggin
    November 14th, 2009 at 20:56 | #48

    It looks as if trackbacks mess up the comment count

  49. jquiggin
    November 14th, 2009 at 20:57 | #49

    Rollover

  50. jquiggin
    November 14th, 2009 at 20:57 | #50

    Rollover#2

  51. jquiggin
    November 14th, 2009 at 20:57 | #51

    Rollover#3

  52. John H
    November 14th, 2009 at 21:33 | #52

    How could such ordinary, seemingly decent, men pursue such an evil and self-destructive course, and yet, in most cases, attract and retain the support of their people? I find it hard to understand.

    It is a sad truth about human behavior that is evident in history and a host of studies on behavior. Long ago I read a text, “Human Behavior in the Concentration Camp” by a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps. I read it once, thereafter I viewed it with great trepidation yet it remains one of the few books I have kept in my library; if only to remind me there is no limit to human cruelty.

  53. iain
    November 15th, 2009 at 13:04 | #53

    Another issue is that all these people are middle aged / elderly men from (generally) similar socioeconomic and class background. To the extent that our social and political institutions reflect a disparity towards a small and unrepresentative minority – is the degree to which future conflicts based on senseless ideologies (inherent to that particular grouping) may occur. If women held all the major power and rights in Europe at the time (for example), you may (obviously) have had a different outcome.

  54. November 18th, 2009 at 09:27 | #54

    In WWII it was easy to identify blame because a single individual – Hitler – was the dominant factor. But in WWI pretty much all individuals were equally liable. This points to an institutionalist, rather than individualist, explanation of the causes. At least as far as WWI is concerned we must get past the “Bad King John” school of historical methodology.

    Basically WWI is a classic example of the unintended consequences of purposeful human action, a staple of both social theory in general and game theory in particular. Steve Sailer, back in FEB 06, pointed out that the leaders responsible for launching WWI were mostly ordinary men who were just carrying out their lawful duties:

    In 1914, a whole bunch of fairly reasonable men, none of them a Hitler, were responsible for just about the worst thing that ever happened. Historian David Fromkin’s recent re-examination of who started the Great War concluded that the man most responsible for WWI was von Moltke the Younger, the head of the German General Staff.

    Maybe, maybe not, but the point is that von Moltke, or General von Hotzendorff of Austria, or Colonel Dragutin Dimitrievitch, the leader of both the Black Hand terrorists and military intelligence in Serbia, or Sir Edward Grey, or whomever you want to pin the blame on is a pretty boring villain compared to Hitler.

    The point is that WWI came about through all the proper bureaucratic channels, without the impetus of anybody who seemed overtly evil — except for the fact that they played a role in bringing about four years of slaughter..

    Its interesting that the two most reviled figures of the day, Kaiser and Rasputin, were actually the leaders most opposed to the war.

    The most picturesque villains of the time were Kaiser Wilhelm II and Rasputin. But the Kaiser in this case was quite reluctant to go to war and had to be dragged into it by his generals. Rasputin was utterly against war on the grounds that too many Russian peasants would die. But he couldn’t work his usual magic on the Czar and Czarina because he was laid up in a Siberian hospital after being stabbed by a young lady he had trifled with.

    Wikipedia elaborates the Fromkin thesis:

    Recently, American historian David Fromkin has allocated blame for the outbreak of war entirely to elements in the military leadership of Germany and Austria-Hungary in his 2004 book Europe’s Last Summer. Fromkin’s thesis is that there were two war plans; a first formulated by Austria-Hungary and the German Chancellor to initiate a war with Serbia, to reinvigorate a fading Austro-Hungarian Empire; the second secret plan was that of the German Military leadership, to provoke a wider war with France and Russia.

    He thought that the German military leadership, in the midst of a European arms race, believed that they would be unable to further expand the German army without extending the officer corps beyond the traditional Prussian aristocracy. Rather than allowing that to happen, they manipulated Austria-Hungary into starting a war with Serbia in the expectation that Russia would intervene, giving Germany a pretext to launch what was in essence a preventive war.

    Part of his thesis is that the German military leadership were convinced that by 1916–18, Germany would be too weak to win a war with France, England and Russia. Notably, Fromkin suggests that part of the war plan was the exclusion of Kaiser Wilhelm II from knowledge of the events, because the Kaiser was regarded by the German General Staff as inclined to resolve crisis short of war. Fromkin also argues that in all countries, but particularly Germany and Austria documents were widely destroyed and forged to distort the origins of the war.

    Based on the theories of Weber and Knopfelmacher I came to the same conclusion as Fromkin- on the special wickedness of the German General Staff, led by von Moltke. The latter stuffed it up by famously losing his nerve and “weakening the right flank”. It was this group that planned, executed, extended and intensified the the war.

    Weber was ambivalent about the war. As a patriot and German nationalist he instinctively supported his own side. But as a social scientist he identified what we might call the “German governance problem” – the conjunction of an irrational reactionary (later revolutionary) political head on an ultra-rationalist professional body of techno-bureaucrats – as a systemic cause of European instability. Colonel von Blimps suddenly put in charge of the “iron cage”.

    The Fromkin thesis more or less strengthens the Fischer thesis which argued that Germany has planned a general European War from the late 19thC onwards. The smoking guns are all over the place von Schliefen plan and 1912 War Council. Wikipedia elaborates:

    In 1961, the German historian Fritz Fischer published the very controversial Griff nach der Weltmacht, in which Fischer argued that the German government had expansionist foreign policy goals, formulated in the aftermath of Social Democratic gains in the election of 1912, and had deliberately started a war of aggression in 1914. Fischer was the first historian to draw attention to the War Council held by the Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Reich’s top military-naval leadership on December 8, 1912 in which it was declared that Germany would start a war of aggression in the summer of 1914.

    In 1973, the British historian John Röhl noted that in view of what Fischer had uncovered, especially the War Council meeting of December 8, 1912 that the idea that Germany bore the main responsibility for the war was no longer denied by the vast majority of historians.

    What is striking about Fromkin’s thesis is the overall similarity in strategies between the German General Staff in both WWI and WWII. The main difference being that Kaiser was reluctant to wage war whereas the Fuhrer was all-too willing.

    The WWI leaders were certainly delinquent in their duty in not attempting to resolve the crisis and avert disaster once it was apparent the war would be a criminal act of self-destruction. But even as the war dragged on most decision making centres – in the military, politics on both sides and the clergy – hardened their resolve. Popular opposition to the war was minimal until the latter stages. And it was not until 1917 that the troops started to show reluctance to fight.

    More generally, from the early 20thC onwards, it was apparent that the long reign of progressive liberalism was coming to an end, symbolized by the death of our illustrious former Head of State and state eponym, Queen Victoria. One can generalise and say that the 19th C reformatory zeal was replaced by a clash between the reactionaries and revolutionaries.

    The era of genocidal social, racial and national conflict was approaching fast, effecting both European and Asian powers. This was signaled by the liquidation of the Armenians. Nippon played little or no part in WWI and yet developed into a monstrous totalitarian militarism playing in the same league as the Nazis and Bolsheviks.

  55. Peter T
    November 18th, 2009 at 21:25 | #55

    As a side note, while World War 1 was a catastrophe for European liberal civilisation, some quick research suggests this was not because it was unusually bloody by European historical standards.

    I was struck by some figures I came across for 16th and 17th century wars – eg something close to 20% of Germans died in the 30 Years War, and there are estimates that a quarter of the Irish population died in Elizabeth’s wars, and another quarter in Cromwell’s wars.

    Again, around 6% of the French perished in the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars, and I was surprised to find 3% of the UK population did (figures from Wikipedia).

    Figures for World War 1 are 2.19% for the UK, 4.2% for France and 4% for Germany.

    And these figures are mostly smaller than for World War 2, which was much less socially dislocating.

    I don’t know what to make of this, other than to suggest the war catalysed a whole series of social cleavages (something argued by George Dangerfield in his classic The Strange Death of Liberal England), and therefore the casualties loom larger. In which case, assigning fault is maybe a bit pointless.

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