Home > Life in General > Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day

November 11th, 2014

Every year on this day, I post on the futility of war, arguing that wars and armed revolutions are almost never justified. I haven’t convinced anyone, and there are probably more wars, frozen conflicts and insurgencies now than there were when I started blogging.

And I realise I haven’t even convinced myself. Intellectually, I know that wars will always turn out badly, but still when a new conflict erupts, I find myself picking sides and cheering for the good (less bad) guys.

Why do we fall for the spurious appeal of a simple, violent solution to complex and intractable problems? And why is it so hard to end a war once it has started? I have some half-formed ideas, but I’ll leave it to others to discuss.

In the meantime, Lest we Forget.

Categories: Life in General Tags:
  1. iain
    November 11th, 2014 at 19:17 | #1

    testosterone. An advanced alien civilisation would long ago have scrubbed such things from their world, in order to just survive.

  2. rog
    November 11th, 2014 at 19:36 | #2

    Or, why is it easier to commit resources to war than it is to peace?

    Some years ago I was in Bathurst during Anzac Day and while the mood was of respectful remembrance all I could think of was the way that the recruiters went around the country promising travel and adventure to these green farm boys. They harvested humans like wheat.

    Nothing much has changed, as a society we are being directed to cut costs from essential services to achieve balance and to commit to fighting infinite wars with mythological beasts.

  3. wilful
    November 11th, 2014 at 19:39 | #3

    On RN today there was a fantastic recording of some bush bloke, recorded in 1958, where he gave his considered views on the awful horror of war, from his loved experience of WW1. Certainly a counterpoint to the banal cliches spouted by Brendan Nelson about how Gallipoli made our nation and was the single most important thing about the Australian identity.

  4. Megan
    November 11th, 2014 at 19:40 | #4



    As reported from a private conversation in December 1917 between David Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister during much of the first world war, and CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian. “If people really knew the truth,” the prime minister said, “the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know.”

    That’s from a Pilger column in the Guardian from December 2010 “John Pilger: Why are wars not being reported honestly?”

    A snippet:

    On the walls of the Saigon bureaus of major American news organisations were often displayed horrific photographs that were never published and rarely sent because it was said they were would “sensationalise” the war by upsetting readers and viewers and therefore were not “objective”. The My Lai massacre in 1968 was not reported from Vietnam, even though a number of reporters knew about it (and other atrocities like it), but by a freelance in the US, Seymour Hersh. The cover of Newsweek magazine called it an “American tragedy”, implying that the invaders were the victims: a purging theme enthusiastically taken up by Hollywood in movies such as The Deer Hunter and Platoon. The war was flawed and tragic, but the cause was essentially noble. Moreover, it was “lost” thanks to the irresponsibility of a hostile, uncensored media.

    His film “The War You Don’t See” explains it all in depth.

  5. Ivor
    November 11th, 2014 at 20:24 | #5

    11 November,

    Wasn’t that the day they hung Ned Kelly?

  6. November 11th, 2014 at 21:23 | #6

    My inclination is to say something like no matter how abhorrent or repugnant war is, it is still somehow more imaginable than peace. Our collective mindset seems oriented towards objective outcomes like winning and it could be argued that wars can be won despite the obvious fact that such victories come with huge costs. Imagine someone advocating a war and admitting it isn’t winnable or that the cost will be astronomical.

    Peace by contrast seems less tangible, but for a culture that finds thinking about being uncomfortable that is hardly surprising. In short it seems possible that peace is a social state we tend to take for granted without considering how it can be won since winning is reserved for the things we fight for.

  7. Megan
    November 11th, 2014 at 21:25 | #7

    Carl Bernstein wrote about the CIA and its infiltration of, and cooperation with, the establishment media in ‘Rolling Stone’ in 1977.

    Two extracts:

    Among the executives who lent their cooperation to the Agency were Williarn Paley of the Columbia Broadcasting System, Henry Luce of Tirne Inc., Arthur Hays Sulzberger of the New York Times, Barry Bingham Sr. of the LouisviIle Courier?Journal, and James Copley of the Copley News Service. Other organizations which cooperated with the CIA include the American Broadcasting Company, the National Broadcasting Company, the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, Hearst Newspapers, Scripps?Howard, Newsweek magazine, the Mutual Broadcasting System, the Miami Herald and the old Saturday Evening Post and New York Herald?Tribune.

    By far the most valuable of these associations, according to CIA officials, have been with the New York Times, CBS and Time Inc.


    Many journalists who covered World War II were close to people in the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime predecessor of the CIA; more important, they were all on the same side. When the war ended and many OSS officials went into the CIA, it was only natural that these relationships would continue. Meanwhile, the first postwar generation of journalists entered the profession; they shared the same political and professional values as their mentors. “You had a gang of people who worked together during World War II and never got over it,” said one Agency official. “They were genuinely motivated and highly susceptible to intrigue and being on the inside. Then in the Fifties and Sixties there was a national consensus about a national threat. The Vietnam War tore everything to pieces—shredded the consensus and threw it in the air.” Another Agency official observed: “Many journalists didn’t give a second thought to associating with the Agency. But there was a point when the ethical issues which most people had submerged finally surfaced. Today, a lot of these guys vehemently deny that they had any relationship with the Agency.”

    This certainly isn’t just a “US” thing, of course. But the point is that you can never have a war without the consent – even if that consent is by ignorant acquiescence – of the populace funding and fighting the war and in whose name it is being waged.

    You cannot get that without propaganda. The establishment media is the essential part to this. Without their assistance there would be almost no, and certainly fewer, wars – the people simply would not allow it.

  8. Patrickb
    November 11th, 2014 at 21:27 | #8

    What we are seeing is a far better example of the ‘death cult’ than anything the PM might be capable of dreaming up. As an exemplar, I heard today a minister in the SA government make the suggestion that people who are expecting a baby should consider choosing the names of dead soldiers for their children. His rationale went something like, the soldiers, who are dead, would be very pleasantly surprised that they have some sort of vicarious presence via a similarly named infant. What about girls I hear you ask? Dead soldiers are overwhelming male. Well the minister, almost as an addendum, suggested that there were nurses and other female types who could be pressed into service to provide monikers for the patriotic. Quite bizarre but not if you consider it as some sort of tribal or cult ritual or shibboleth. I think that is an extreme example of an apologia for war that sits within a discourse that has gained a great deal of power in this country over the last 20 to 30 years. The example above is one of the terms of this discourse, the overall purpose of which is to marginalise rational analysis of the reasons for and the risks of entering into a conflict and its potential outcomes. Anyone else have a view?

  9. melaleuca
    November 11th, 2014 at 22:07 | #9

    All of my life up to the beginning of this century, I believed the world was a civilised place with occasional eruptions of barbarism in third world countries. I’ve come to believe the world is a barbaric place with small pockets of civilisation; and the barbarism is not confined to the third world – it is just as manifest in Australia as anywhere, and Australian troops in Iraq is but one example.

  10. kevin1
    November 11th, 2014 at 22:15 | #10


    Or, why is it easier to commit resources to war than it is to peace?

    David Kilcullen, the acknowledged and contemporary military expert adviser to General Petreus etc. reminded us tonight on The Drum that we, the people, are nowadays divorced from the blood and guts associated with war. The rise of professional armies and the decline of combat troops in favour of electronic battlefields and technological warfare was documented by Noam Chomsky’s 1969 book on Vietnam, and how the theatre of war had become war as theatre, or at least TV entertainment to be ingested with the TV dinner: war as a technical function.

    The above technology, plus drones, non-military cyber attacks, and corporate outsourcing means we have minimal skin in the game, and can just keep on mowing the lawn and firing up the barby while our military wreaks death and destruction. I previously thought that a volunteer force was the way to keep leaders honest: the warmongers amongst us would treat war as a last not first resort, if their own and their children’s lives were being put on the line; a moral hazard approach. We have compulsory voting to “force” people to participate in decisions which affect them, so I’m more inclined now to think that should also apply to the greatest decision a state can make: if you’re prepared to believe, be prepared to bleed. And this time without the class and age biases: no exemptions for students but not workers, or aimed at 19 year-old males exclusively.

    With these consequences, perhaps some of the shallow rubbish coming from our local commentariat might be more closely scrutinised. Have any of them tried to rebut the Guardian article last Friday by Ian Black “The US strategy against Isis is working – for Assad” which claimed that Syria’s Assad now has a smile on his face after being told at the UN that the US signalled that they were focused on the ISIL and would not be assisting the anti-Assad non-ISIL rebels. What a boon! While the “coalition” deals with IS, Assad can now target the rest and get the upperhand. The four westerners beheaded by ISIL have trumped the 200,000 Syrian deaths as an issue.

  11. kevin1
    November 11th, 2014 at 22:26 | #11

    My above comment a bit mixed up: should read “I previously thought that a volunteer force was the way to keep leaders honest: it acts as a constraint on adventurism if they can’t convince sufficient citizens of the right sort to sign up voluntarily.” Both approaches have moral hazard aspects if I understand the concept correctly.

  12. Patrickb
    November 11th, 2014 at 23:04 | #12

    Further to my last comment, a quote from the minister himself:

    “You may not have known it back in 1914 when you gave up your life for your country whether it was Gallipoli or on the Western Front but all these years later, 100 years later, you have a great-great-great descendent who’s being born today who’s going to carry your name and we’re going to bring them up in memory of you. ”

    An interesting insight into some people’s material view of time and history.

  13. November 11th, 2014 at 23:20 | #13

    There may be simple principles of conflict. One I suggest is that he more violence involved in a situation the more intractable it becomes. Violence takes on different forms. For example, with sufficient violence it may be possible to restore the old colonial boundaries and establish an unstable peace at great cost in human lives and money and for some ulterior motive e.g. to protect the oil Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The alternative is to use nonviolent means, including democratic processes and diplomacy. Does these means deal with the accumulated violent history and structural violence? To deal with those issues it is necessary to foster reconciliation, recognition of human rights and past wrongs, including reparations. That nations and national leaders choose to act outside the rule of law and that democratic governance has not be extended globally are fundamental problems which sanctions violence as means and domination of resources as the end.

  14. kevin1
    November 11th, 2014 at 23:26 | #14

    Good that there are “honest historians” trying to get some objectivity into this highly political area. http://www.honesthistory.net.au/

  15. November 12th, 2014 at 00:14 | #15

    War gives a focus to life, a common purpose. I make the analogy with sport. At work, I do what needs to be done, and have some scope for invention. But there is no great urgency, no imperative. With sport you can put your heart and soul into it. You exhort each other to greater efforts. And kicking the winning goal will make you a hero in a way that successfully organising a conference won’t.

    And I guess war is like sport. The common purpose, the urgency, the heroics.

    Of course after war, we have a distaste for it. And after the huge joint effort that WW2 was, we created a more equal society, perhaps in recognition of how we’d all contributed to the war effort. But as WW2 recedes into unreality, we have jettisoned the equality. And with the rise of inequality, and inevitable tensions in society, perhaps it will be back to war. Except that technology precludes us doing it like we used to.

  16. zoot
    November 12th, 2014 at 01:14 | #16


    You may not have known it back in 1914 when you gave up your life for your country …

    My great uncle died at Passchendaele and from what I have learnt about the incident, he didn’t “give up his life”, it was wrenched away from him with extreme violence. The minister may want to reflect on that. (As if)

  17. Megan
    November 12th, 2014 at 01:45 | #17

    @John Brookes

    I spluttered at this:

    War gives a focus to life, a common purpose…And I guess war is like sport.

    Perhaps it is. For the financiers, managers, equipment suppliers, administrators, “journalists”, corporate media and spectators.

    But for the “players” there could not be two pursuits more different.

    In war you get killed as part of the “rules” by the other “team”. You also must kill the other participants. Innocent people, including women and children, will also be killed – sometimes by you and sometimes by the other guy, but no penalties are handed out when this happens.

    There is no ‘half-time’ or ‘full-time’, at least not until a sufficient number of humans have been killed. There is no time limit after which everyone knows they can have a hot shower, a cold beer and shake hands.

    The rules are bogus and the winner is the guy who cheats the most. There is no referee.

    There is a very serious and harsh ‘post-match’ tribunal, but it is stacked with people from the winning team and nobody from their team gets charged.

    In the US at least 22 war veterans commit suicide every single day – and they are supposedly the “winners” of all these wars.


  18. November 12th, 2014 at 04:33 | #18

    Ok with the sentiment. But I think JQ needs to look at the data, eg from SIPRI. The trend in casualties from war (and organized violence more generally) since 1945 has been steadily down. 2,000 soldiers died on the Western Front in the morning of November 11, 1918 before 11 a.m. after the Armistice had been signed. We don’t see anything like that today. The trend is even stronger if you leave out violence involving non-state actors on at least one side, like ISIL vs. peshmerga. Is there a single interstate war going on today anywhere?

    The decline in numbers has coincided with the growth of the “global village” of TV and the Internet, bringing graphic images of violence to everybody’s house and, nearly, hut. That has created opportunities for clever psychos like ISIS to manipulate large audiences; but it has also increasingly constrained the options of governments in the use of violence. Contrast the actions of the Chinese government – essentially the same élite – in Beijing in 1989 and Hong Kong in 2014. Other forms of oppression and control have become more effective, like electronic surveillance. A police state is an evil thing. But it does not rely on the glamour of war.

  19. November 12th, 2014 at 07:14 | #19

    The First World War started out as a cynical exercise by the world’s colonial powers – Germany, France, Britain, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, etc. – to re-divide the territory which had been taken from the rest of humanity in the preceding centuries. In the West, the war turned into an astonishing series of prolonged and pointless slaughters, in which many hundreds of thousands died to capture or defend a few square miles of muddy bombed-out terrain strewn with barbed wire.

    Whilst it may be possible to argue about whether or not one side or the other or no side at all was justified, the sacrifice of lives in those pointless battles on the Western Front – Ypres, Verdun, the Somme, the Nivelle Offensive, Passchendaele, etc, – was clearly not. After the disastrous Nivelle offensive of 1917, French soldiers mutinied. They told the French government that they would defend their trenches, but not attack.

    Had every side adopted that eminently sensible suggestion after the stalemate of trench warfare had begun in late 1914, an end to the war could have been negotiated by the leaders of the warring nations and only a small fraction of the ten million combatants and 8 million civilians killed in that war need have died.

    Sadly the 1917 mutiny was crushed by the French Government and its leaders were tried and executed.

    However, in the Second World War, unlike with the First World War, humanity truly had a stake in the outcome. For all the faults of the allied powers – the United Kingdom, China, the United States and the Soviet Union ruled by the tyrant Josef Stalin, etc. – their defeat by Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire would have started a new global era of slavery which would have lasted at least for many decades. Whilst the world that emerged from the Second World War was a long way short of perfect, we could have got a lot worse.

  20. Steve
    November 12th, 2014 at 07:17 | #20

    “Why do we fall for the spurious appeal of a simple, violent solution to complex and intractable problems?”

    It’s a self-answering question. The problems are complex and intractable, there is no obvious solution on offer. Under such circumstances the simple and violent “solution” seems relatively more favourable.

    I guess its the same kind of thinking that, in earlier decades, had people banging the sides of analog TV’s with a fist to try and improve bad reception. Easier than trying to understand the ins and outs of TV electronics, signal processing and wave transmission optimisation. Sometimes it even worked, almost by accident.

  21. rog
    November 12th, 2014 at 07:53 | #21

    @James Wimberley re history of war; Harry Clarke links to this study into the history of violence – Steven Pinker indicates that it is education, not affluence, that is the key driver of peace.

  22. jungney
    November 12th, 2014 at 08:11 | #22

    My great uncle was an unwilling participant in WWI who enrolled in a medical corps after being sent white feathers, denoting cowardice, while he lived in a small Hunter Valley mining town; he was a pacifist and member of the IWW. Most of his records are available online at the War Museum archives and it appears that he spent almost as much time AWOL and then in treatment for sexually transmitted diseases as he did on front line duties.

    Counter intuitive as it may seem there is evidence of the decline of war which appears to mirror other evidence (Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process) as to declining levels of vioence among humans.

    The argument put forward in the above linked article is that ““Interstate wars” (which) are those fought between national armies and have historically been the deadliest” are in decline over time. The definition of ‘war’ is “armed conflicts that cause at least 1,000 battle deaths in a year — soldiers and civilians killed by war violence, excluding the difficult-to-quantify indirect deaths resulting from hunger and disease” and these are becoming less frequent.

    What about other kinds of armed conflict, like civil wars and conflicts that miss the 1,000-death cutoff? Remarkably, they too have been in decline. Civil wars are fewer, smaller and more localized. Terrible flare-ups occur, and for those caught in the middle the results are devastating — but far fewer people are caught in the middle. The biggest continuing war, in Afghanistan, last year killed about 500 Americans, 100 other coalition troops and 5,000 Afghans including civilians. That toll, while deplorable, is a fraction of those in past wars like Vietnam, which killed 5,000 Americans and nearly 150,000 Vietnamese per year. Over all, the annual rate of battle deaths worldwide has fallen from almost 300 per 100,000 of world population during World War II, to almost 30 during Korea, to the low teens during Vietnam, to single digits in the late 1970s and 1980s, to fewer than 1 in the 21st century.

    My own experience of war is nil except as a witness but I had the great fortune in my youth to meet a cohort of WWII diggers who were all communists and steadfast in their denunciation of war. I may be wrong but I suspect that the rash of suicides among US troops, along with PTSD, partly derives from the troops’ realization of the sheer political purposelessness to which they had been put in recent war adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Lest we forget.

  23. Ikonoclast
    November 12th, 2014 at 08:22 | #23

    War is a contest for resources. The goals are power and wealth but these come from the control of resources. Here, “resources” must be understood in the widest sense. Control of land and people as resources confers the control of the natural resources.

    James Wimberley might well be correct about recent history. The statistics seem to be that total casualties from war have been declining since WW2. This tells us a lot about war exhaustion, the post WW2 accomodation and nuclear deterrence but not necessarily a lot about a permanent end to war. In a period following a flu epidemic, deaths from flu decline. No medicial authority however would ever suggest that this means there will never be another flu epidemic.

    We are entering a period of serious and protracted global resource shortages. This will be due to limits to growth (LTG), Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) and related issues. History would suggest more outbreaks of war in these circumstances but the three legacies of WW2 might hold albeit in a slightly different form. War exhaustion will occur more quickly. There are no new resources to be won, only existingm and declining resources to fight over. The post WW2 accomodation might hold. It is holding in the main in Europe, Asia, the Americas and Oceania. It is failing in the Middle East and Africa is perhaps dubious too. Finally, nuclear deterrence continues to be the factor which prevents major powers going to war (except via proxy wars in border areas).

  24. Dave Lisle
    November 12th, 2014 at 08:32 | #24

    @ Steve – the TV reception analogy is particularly apt. It is the result of the same search for simplicity in the midst of complexity that sees the G20 leaders following the inimitable Joe Hockey into solving all social problems by ‘going for growth’ – in this case an extra 2% above whatever the figure was that someone’s pet DSGE model threw up (as in vomited). It is the politics of ‘just do something’.

    I am not so sure about @ James Wimberley’s solution to the problem of war though. The idea that we can wish it away via statistical obfuscation.
    Although I take the point about declining battle deaths, when you push the argument further looking for a stronger trend by pretending we live in Clausewitz’s world where states are the ‘only’ actors you suggest that we can safely ignore battle deaths where one side in a conflict is not a state actor. But is there really that much less human suffering involved in wars that are not officially declared interstate wars? (This reminds me of the ‘red line’ debacle in Syria when after more than 100,000 had died from ‘kinetic’ weapons the US decided that death by ‘chemical’ weapons was beyond the pale.) And do we want the Faustian bargain of a police state?

  25. Ikonoclast
    November 12th, 2014 at 10:01 | #25

    John Mearsheimer’s theory of “Offensive Realism” has the most explanatory power about modern war, IMO. Sometimes it is called “offensive neorealism”.

    The theory is grounded on six central assumptions and is predicated on the modern system of nation states;

    1. States have survival as their primary goal.
    2. States are “rational actors”, capable of coming up with sound strategies that maximize their prospects for survival but also capable of making miscalculations and mistakes.
    3. All states possess some offensive military capability.
    4. States can never be certain of the intentions of other states.
    5. Great powers are the main actors in world politics.
    6. The international system is “anarchical”.

    “Anarchical” in this context means there is no effective higher arbitrating or policing power that to which states can appeal. It is easy to see this “natural” system will generate arms races and conflicts for more power and influence.

    “Ultimately, Mearsheimer’s offensive neorealism draws a much more pessimistic picture (than defensive realism) of international politics characterised by dangerous inter-state security competition likely leading to conflict and war.” – Wikipedia.

    “To the contrary of defensive neorealism according to which states are status quo powers seeking only to preserve their respective positions in the international system by maintaining the prevailing balance of power, offensive neorealism claims that states are in fact power-maximising revisionists harbouring aggressive intentions. Indeed, in offensive neorealism, the international system provides great powers with strong incentives to resort to offensive action in order to increase their security and assure their survival.” – Wikipedia.

    While all of the above appears true, offensive neorealism properly applied in detail also demonstrates that no one nation can become a world hegemon and that attempts to become so are misguided and self-damaging. Offensive neorealism properly applied by the USA would see it “content” to remain a hemispheric hegemon and not a global hegemon. Though still far from ideal, this situation would better for Americans and everyone else than the current attempt by the USA to become the sole global hegemon.

  26. Dave Lisle
    November 12th, 2014 at 11:02 | #26

    Yes Ikon, there are some structural explanations for the continued presence of war. But Mearsheimer’s structural reductionism is often criticized for its lack of attention to agency. It does not explain why in (nominally) democratic societies we accept our leaders involving us vicariously in killing. In Australia polls show significant support for Abbot’s current ‘humanitarian war’. This is, the IMO, a more interesting conundrum – and one that theorists such as Mearsheimer with his very strong priors (i.e. his recourse to the timeless verities of realism) signally fail to grapple with.

  27. Donald Oats
    November 12th, 2014 at 11:17 | #27

    The reasons for war vary greatly, and rather obviously, due to circumstances unique to each of them. The more interesting case is the way in which for a given war, the reasons that political class members have for going to war is often quite different to that of the governed masses. For example, John Howard was utterly determined to see Australia at the front line for invading Iraq in the Iraq Mk II conflict, and yet Australia was quite split on whether to be involved or not. Time has demonstrated the lie and folly of that particular excursion, for there is no way to put the Iraq Humpty Dumpty back together again, and it has provided a fertile breeding ground for new wars.

    The most recent wars in which Australia has contributed militarily have been breathtakingly easy for the political class to get us into, virtually ignoring the great unwashed’s opinions. I think an essential element in this disconnect is the fact that we have a professional military, one that consists of people who have made the choice to enlist, rather than an armed force with a compulsory draft, for example. This means that relatively few Australians are directly affected by the blood and guts part of making war, effectively insulating them from the emotionally traumatic element of seeing loved ones machine gunned, bombed, knifed, hacked, smashed, crushed, tortured, traumatised. Instead, all that the general population get is the reflected pride of kicking someone else’s arse. Politicians and media personalities habitually talk up the pride thing, and the elite nature of our armed forces; not that much different from barracking for the local footy team.

    Even within the political class, even within a single individual from the political class, there are disconnects. Witness the PM Tony Abbott, merrily talking us into another war, the SAS on the front line in leadership roles (once the game of moving goalposts comes to its intended objective), and yet in another situation of great urgency and dire need—the Ebola response—he cringes and draws away from the very notion of committing people into harm’s way, finding every excuse under the sun to delay the inevitable. The difference in language is quite deliberate: the people who could most assist with the Ebola outbreak are volunteering in the full knowledge of the risks, and yet Abbott’s government talk of “not committing people” until it is safe to do so—as if people are going to be ordered over there against their wishes.

    Lest we forget. Indeed.

  28. rog
    November 12th, 2014 at 11:24 | #28

    A “humanitarian war” is how leaders rally their troops. Prior to invading USSR Hitler gave a long speech listing all the wrongs of the world, their world, and that this invasion was necessary to fix things.

    “The purpose of this front is no longer the protection of the individual nations, but rather the safety of Europe, and therefore the salvation of everyone.”

    Of course it’s all propaganda.


  29. Ratee
    November 12th, 2014 at 11:28 | #29

    My father, who was in the navy and lost an older brother in WW2 (airforce), always said that war was just a huge shemozzle with lots of near disasters and lots of disasters, nothing to redeem it. Peace was not an outcome of war, there was peace before the war and war could have been avoided with effort. He had 3 other brothers and a sister and all were devastated by the loss but none more than his mother and father.
    My mother also used to say that her mother never got over the loss of her brother in WW1!
    I think that their attitudes have been passed on to me an my sister.
    However, if you make war and preparations for war a full time and permanent occupation within your society and economy you embed the inevitability of wars.

  30. Fran Barlow
    November 12th, 2014 at 11:36 | #30

    Every Remembrance Day at my school, no matter which class I’m teaching, I stop for a short discussion of what it’s all about.

    Yesterday, I had the year-six-coming-into-year-seven group from one of our feeder schools — I’m to be one of the two year advisers next year — and after an IT-based activity, I settled them down and gave them the talk.

    Naturally, I spoke of the horrors of life in WW1 and how these mocked the hopes that many of the Australian recruits had at their great adeventure with their buddies. I spoke of how grievous a detour in the culture it was to ask people, taught from birth never to kill or injure seriously another human being, to kill without mercy people they’d never met, on the basis of duty, and to see following orders or perhaps solidarity with one’s comrades as of greater priority than living. I invited them to wonder how those who had endured that and perhaps the loss of many of their friends, might then be asked to forget all that, never speak of it again, precisely because it was so shocking, and settle back into life as an upright citizen.

    I also speak of how war has changed even from what seemed at the time like its modern form in 1914. Whereas in WW1, most of the casualties were in uniform, today, most of the casualties are civilians and other non-combatants. We sepak so often of soldiers, because if the nationals of one country are seeking to occupy another, they are ‘our people’ but we scarcely think about what happens to the local folk. I spoke of industrial scale rape and murder. When all the rules are cast aside, barbarism results, and the Armenian genocide of 99 years ago was a foretaste at the horrors to come later in the century. I pointed out that in Iraq, a gang of democidal thugs known as Jabhat al Nusra had just defiled some of the remains of those who had survived that genocide.

    I asked them to consider what it was that we were being asked to recall on this day. I pointed out that it was not merely ‘the fallen’ — those who lost their lives arms in hand, but all the many victims of war and national hatreds. I reminded them that war is probably the most brutal systematic thing that humans do to each other and that despite this ‘remembrance’, almost all of the 177 nations of the Earth endorse the principle of war, by equipping forces whose main purpose is to threaten to murder, or perhaps murder other people in the name of the nation. I said to them that if there was any point at all to remembering all those who had suffered and died in wars, it was to ensure that never again would someone say in public that war was the best option, or that the casualties were were worth it. I reminded them that war was going on right now, and that again, civilians were dying in large numbers, and that the combatants, every one of them, plead that god or their nation was behind them, when really, the main duty each of us has to our fellows was to honour their life and to work for the betterment of all.

  31. Ikonoclast
    November 12th, 2014 at 12:27 | #31

    @Fran Barlow

    It’s a dilemma. Say nothing and you leave the propaganda field to those promoting and glorifying war. Get into the brutal realities and one could argue that’s too strong for those so young.

  32. Ikonoclast
    November 12th, 2014 at 12:35 | #32

    @Dave Lisle

    You answered your own proposition. You said in “nominally” democratic societies etc. That is the answer. We are not really democratic. We don’t vote for or morally accept these wars. We get over-ruled by the oligarchic and corporate elites who have effective control of our society. Our clear need is to overcome the corporate capitalist oligarchy who rule us and democratically claim and run our society.

    This does not obviate Mearsheimer’s theories. It’s simply the case that a truly democratic nation would be a more intelligent rational agent (more cognistant of elightened self interest, public interest, national interest and even of humanitarian concerns) and would thus be less inclined to aggressive war.

  33. November 12th, 2014 at 12:38 | #33

    Thanks for doing this JQ. I wanted to write a post on war and the way we think about it on my blog yesterday but ended up writing something about the research project. It’s a temptation to write mainly about the social issues of the day, but every now and then I’m reminded that the major purpose of my blog is supposed to be providing information on the project.

    I do think a lot about this though. I especially think that now we have the international mechanisms to deal with problems within and between states, such as the UN’s peacekeeping role itself, and also specifically the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, why don’t we use them more instead of going to war?

    I guess the short answer is political conflict between nation states, but particularly the imperialist alignments of the ‘great powers’ on the security council – so their decisions tend to be political rather than humanitarian.

    More deeply I think the cause is patriarchy. I am not far enough advanced in my ecofeminist readings yet to say whether ‘war’ as such could be said to have existed prior to patriarchy (which Lerner dates as beginning about 5000 thousand years ago I think), but I don’t think it probably did.

  34. Mr T
    November 12th, 2014 at 12:44 | #34

    my Dear Mr Quiggan …

    You are “Wrong”, “incorrect”, and “off the mark again”.

    I have been profoundly influenced by what you have written on this subject.

    I am not quite at where you are yet, but but my position has moved quite substantially in the past couple of years.

    A couple of years ago, you wrote about the cost of going to war. I thought you underestimated that cost, by not including the cost to the individual soldiers and their families from the effects of war. these costs are shifted from the government to the individual, so was not included. But I think that the costs are real and should be included.

    I have noted that the outcome of military intervention in recent times has not really been very positive. Both Iraq and Afghanistan, are a mess, and it is hard to see benefits either to the west (self interest) or the countries themselves (altruistic). Yet Australia continues to be the first country to volunteer military support to the USA.

    I have started to think in this fashion about all the conflicts since 1900. It started with Vietnam for me. The American involvement was a nett negative. when they pulled out, the government that emerged was actually much better than what was in place.

    I certainly think differently about the First World War, on the basis of your comments about your thoughts about it being a war about control of oil, and the control of colonial empires.

    I am not at your position about the Second World War. Given that the Nazis were in control of Germany, I am not sure of the correct response of the allies. I certainly agree that the Versailles Treaty lead to the Second World War. I still thinking about this.

    I have started thinking about the economics of war. Prior to 1900, I think it was possible to construct a scenario where war made money. My hypothesis is that if a country could steal another countries colonial possessions, war could be made to pay. I don’t think that is now possible.

  35. November 12th, 2014 at 12:47 | #35

    And further to my point – I will quote (as I often do) Weber:

    [The origin of politics is competition between men over] “women, cattle, slaves [and] scarce land”

    “Like all the political institutions historically preceding it, the state is a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (ie considered to be legitimate) violence”

    Max Weber 1918 (Weber, Gerth et al, 1991: 165, 78).

    I think it would be safe to guess that Weber thought that was also what wars are about – men dominating men, men competing for control of women, nature, and subordinate races/defeated populations (the “slaves”)

  36. Fran Barlow
    November 12th, 2014 at 13:15 | #36


    Say nothing and you leave the propaganda field to those promoting and glorifying war. Get into the brutal realities and one could argue that’s too strong for those so young.

    One could argue that, but I’d reject it. Children need to know how the world works. If you can teach them about s*x ed, in part so they are not exploited in the most personally profound of ways, then you can surely explain the charnel house that is war.

    These days, they see mock violence everywhere — injury without apparent pain or even disability. They should know that war is not a game or an anomaly. It’s a product of human system failure, and it’s corrosive of the possibility of everyone.

  37. November 12th, 2014 at 13:56 | #37

    @Fran Barlow

    Well thats it Fran. Tony Abbott will be marching down to your school to give the kids a pep talk about doing their bit for Australia!

  38. Fran Barlow
    November 12th, 2014 at 14:11 | #38

    @John Brookes

    I’d love him to pop in and try the pep talk. I could get all Socratic with him … 😉

  39. Doug
    November 12th, 2014 at 16:15 | #39

    James Wimberly – while the number of combatants in each war may be falling the ratio of their losses to civilian casualties has been rising – last ratio I hear quoted was about 1 combatant to 10 civilians and rising.

    Another question: Do the SPRI figures deal with conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and surrounding areas?

  40. Ikonoclast
    November 12th, 2014 at 17:36 | #40

    This page is interesting re Global Trends in armed conflict. Hope the big long address works.


  41. J-D
    November 12th, 2014 at 18:14 | #41

    The choice to make peace is better than the choice to make war, but there’s an important asymmetry: it takes two to choose to make peace, but only one to choose to make war. In 1835 the Moriori people had a choice between using violence to resist the genocidal attacks of the Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama people, on the one hand, and, on the other, maintaining their adherence to the law of Nunuku and not using force to resist; but it was not within their power to choose that the genocidal attacks not happen.

  42. Ikonoclast
    November 12th, 2014 at 18:21 | #42


    Yes, “The Parable of the Tribes” by Andrew Bard Schmookler (born 1946) covers this issue.

    His NONE SO BLIND site might be of interest.

  43. November 12th, 2014 at 18:51 | #43

    Dear John

    It pains me to keep explaining why remembering the glorious dead is a dubious response to the horrors of war. They talk of ‘fallen’ soldiers. What rubbish! They didn’t slip on a banana skin. They were murdered. Often they were shredded or burnt beyond recognition. Then there are those who return but never pick up the pieces of their lives and sanity.

    Worse still, because the reasons for war are never examined honestly, the commemoration tends to glorify war, or at least ensure that the next generation will be readily persuaded to go.

    I did not join the British Army to go to war. I wanted and was promised a trade that would be useful in civilian life. Furthermore, the trade I chose was supposed to be useful in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. It is unfortunate that I discovered what I had been doing in NE Thailand in 1966 was actually part of the CIA’s Secret War in Laos and preparations for a Commonwealth invasion, partition and occupation of Laos which did not go ahead. If it had, we would have been stuck there with our US masters for decades.

    I wrote this in 2006:

    Willy Bach

  44. J-D
    November 12th, 2014 at 19:43 | #44


    According to the information at the page linked, SIPRI takes into consideration (I presume, to the extent that they find information available) all conflicts above a threshold death toll of 25. So presumably if there’s any data available about deaths in the conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding areas, they’re taking it into account.

  45. Salient Green
    November 12th, 2014 at 19:56 | #45

    @Fran Barlow
    I have not always agreed with Fran’s worldview despite being a fellow member of the Greens but that post, that insight into the fearless and stark reality of war related to young people gave me goosebumps because I know they will take it to heart and therefore the rest of their lives.
    There is a lot of anxiety amongst kids these days but I don’t believe shielding them from reality is the solution, rather mutual support and cooperation in the face of threats could build more resilient people and society.

  46. jungney
    November 12th, 2014 at 21:44 | #46

    What a dismally predictable response. You reach into a little known cupboard of the past involving (broadly) the Maori and the Chatham Islanders for an example of savagery and expect your POV to be carried by your afficiendo example of barbarity. Its as if the weight of arcane and exotic knowledge proves the point: no matter where you look, even into the romantic myth of the South Seas, all you will find is brutality.

    I’m not impressed by this quasi-anthropological example. Barbarity? I’ll give you industrialized barbarity that trumps the sheer pre-modern barbarity of the Maori slaughter of the Chatham Islanders in spades: the Shoa; the ongoing genocide of Aboriginal Australians, the Belgian genocide in the ‘Congo’; the US genocide in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos.

    War results from the primitives being in positions of power. Sometimes that was useful. But it is no longer advantageous, from an evolutionary viewpoint, to have such genes around.

    I suggest an alternative reading of big history in which we understand that fully evolved humans, aware of the tendency of unreflexive, basically pre-modern humans, to act out their primitive biology through violence and war, are comprehensively purged from the planet … guided by the best of gene science.

    If you think that the organized killing of others is merely a part of human ‘nature’ then you relaly ought to consider the consequences of that trajectory because we are in the epoch where humans will decide what aspects of ‘nature’ are fit to advance or not. Psychopaths, sociopaths and pre-moderns will not be welcome in the very near future.

  47. J-D
    November 13th, 2014 at 06:09 | #47


    It’s not surprising that you find the target of your attack ‘predictable’, since it was conjured almost entirely out of your own imagination and bears only the most tenuous relationship to the actual contents of my comment. None of the points you imagine are ones that I was making. Notice all the terms found in your comment that were not in mine, and also not part of my underlying thoughts: ‘savagery’, ‘barbarity’, ‘brutality’, ‘primitives’, ‘evolutionary/evolved’, ‘biology’, ‘human “nature”‘. I was saying nothing about any of those concepts.

    The one point I was making — and if it wasn’t clear to you, it seems as if may have been clear to Ikonoclast at least, judging by the response — is that peace only happens to people who choose it, while war happens both to people who choose it and to people who don’t.

    I chose to illustrate the point with an example which was present in my mind, and which struck me as having the advantage of being exceptionally clearcut, but it can be illustrated with other examples — I’ll use one of the ones you offer yourself, the genocidal atrocities in King Leopold’s Congo: equatorial Africans could choose to resist the invading Europeans with violence or they could choose not to, but it was not within their power to choose for the attacks not to happen.

    I will comment on the subjects of human nature and evolutionary biology now that you’ve raised them. Maori and Moriori, Europeans and Africans: they’re all human, so all their choices and actions — violent and pacific — are products of human nature. It is human nature to be peaceful and human nature to be warlike. And in the events in the Chathams, and in the events in Leopold’s Congo, and in any other example you care to name, there was no influence of any difference in the evolutionary biology of the participants: it wasn’t any biological evolutionary difference that made the Maori choose to fight and the Moriori choose not to.

  48. John Quiggin
    November 13th, 2014 at 06:40 | #48

    @Mr T

    WWII is one of the rare exceptions

  49. J-D
    November 13th, 2014 at 07:34 | #49

    @Mr T

    Was there a different course of action which could have been taken after the First World War that would have averted the Second World War? Yes: if the terms of the Treaty of Versailles had been enforced, the Second World War could not have happened. All the terms of the Versailles settlement which are alleged to have been causes of the Second World War were applied after that war, and yet no third war followed. It is at least as reasonable to attribute the war to the failure to enforce the treaty as to the terms of the treaty itself. Given the options that were available to them, the people who wrote the treaty did about as well as could have been expected.

  50. QuentinR
    November 13th, 2014 at 09:12 | #50

    I see most responses getting side-tracked, but I’d have to side with Ikonoclast’s first posts:

    Ikonoclast :War is a contest for resources. The goals are power and wealth but these come from the control of resources. Here, “resources” must be understood in the widest sense. Control of land and people as resources confers the control …


    Ikonoclast :John Mearsheimer’s theory of “Offensive Realism” has the most explanatory power about modern war, IMO. Sometimes it is called “offensive neorealism”.
    The theory is grounded on six central assumptions and is predicated on the modern system of nation states;
    1. States have survival as their primary goal.2. States are “rational actors”, capable of coming up with sound strategies that maximize their prospects for survival but also capable of making miscalculations and mistakes.3. All states possess some offensive military capability.4. States can never be certain of the intentions of other states.5. Great powers are the main actors in world politics.6. The international system is “anarchical”.
    “Anarchical” in this context means there is no effective higher arbitrating or policing power that to which states can appeal. It is easy to see this “natural” system will generate arms races and conflicts for more power and influence …

    IMO, a violent solution appeals when the threat of violence against us is too large, by some measure. JQ’s “picking sides” is what we all do, aligning with what we (individually) think is the right thing to do, given our education, background and understand of the situation. Some Australians will go overseas to fight for those with whom they align, even if our government thinks that that group are the bad guys.

    And “why is it so hard to end a war”? Without cleansing the world of some particular opponent, there will always be supporters somewhere, prepared either to seek retribution, or to continue to seek a redistribution of power and wealth by violent means.

  51. jungney
    November 13th, 2014 at 16:06 | #51

    Yeah, but you said exactly what I was criticising in your initial comment:

    It is human nature to be peaceful and human nature to be warlike.

    Well, wrong. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking current war or traditional war in the Papuan Highlands. War, killing and maiming others for one reason or another, demands warriors who require an immense amount of acculturation in a specific type of masculinity, the warlike, for which type of masculinity the planet is now too small.

    Being warlike is not the other half of human nature. The sheer amount of human cooperation and collaboration, across all elements of social life, far and far outweighs the sum total of human acts committed in the cause of war.

    Your argument is that war is inevitable. Well, that’s my point: it is if voices like yours go unchallenged.


  52. J-D
    November 13th, 2014 at 17:09 | #52


    It is not my argument that war is inevitable. I didn’t write that and I don’t mean that. I did not write that the invasion of the Chathams was inevitable, and I don’t take that view; I did not write that the invasion of the Congo was inevitable, and I don’t take that view. What I did say is that it is not within the power of people who have been the victims of invasion to choose for the invasion not to have happened. People who are the targets of violence have it in their power to choose not to respond to it with violence, they can choose their own actions, but they can’t choose the actions of those who attack them.

    As for you other point, I agree that warlike behaviour is the product of acculturation, but so is peaceful behaviour; all human behaviour beyond the simplest infant level is the product of acculturation; it is human nature to be acculturated. If it’s true that human beings engage in cooperation and collaboration more than they do in competition and conflict, it may also be true that they are acculturated to engage in cooperation and collaboration more than they do in competition and conflict. Incidentally, the waging of war is also a cooperative and collaborative activity; one person alone does not wage war.

  53. November 13th, 2014 at 19:23 | #53

    I agree with you, Jungney, it is that kind of warlike – hierarchical, competitive, prepared to follow orders blindly – masculinity that war depends on, and that is created in the patriarchal societies Weber described, as in my previous comments.

    The interesting issue is what alternative kinds of masculinity can we imagine in peaceful, egalitarian societies? Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I think I see it already in my sons-in-law and nephews – still quite ‘blokey and jokey’ but very caring and nurturing, and not putting women down. Let’s hope I’m right.

  54. November 13th, 2014 at 19:26 | #54

    And also you are right about war being a cooperative endeavour in itself – it requires dualism and blind allegiance to the ‘team’ against the ‘enemy’, but on your ‘own’ side, there has to be a lot of cooperation.


  55. November 13th, 2014 at 19:28 | #55

    Sorry my #3 was meant to be a reply to Jungney, though also relevant to J-D

  56. alfred venison
    November 13th, 2014 at 20:30 | #56

    before ww2 denmark did not have conscription. the officer corps were recruited from old danish families with history of military service and as it transpired with professional & familial ties with germany (remembering schleshwig-holstein). during ww2 denmark was taken without difficulty, because, while the bulk of the army was massed for battle at the border, the germans using speed boats took the undefended capital by sea. incompetence? after ww2 denmark decided to introduce conscription.


    honest to god: i can’t wait to see what happens with official war/nationhood hagiography when we get to the centenaries of the conscription referendums and the railway strike.

    imho, the two conscription referendums were as much an expression australian national character at the moment of its forging, as rallying to the empire had been 1914. to extoll one as exemplary without the other is basically dishonest. i wonder if anyone’ll think to interview dr metherell, after all, he did his phd on the conscription referendums and greiner’s been rehabilitated and has nothing to offer the centennial of ww1.


    perhaps if the versailles negotiators had been allowed to discuss the race equality declaration in 1919 there may have been a speed bump or detour on the road to ww2. but certain parties got it taken off the agenda. -a.v.

  57. jungney
    November 14th, 2014 at 15:16 | #57

    I agree with you that ‘warlike’ is a natural expression of our species being. The normalization of organized conflict among (usually) men is a part of a ‘natural order usually precedes the gambit of arguing for war as a steady state. Its pretty much what has happened in the US and in Australia since Howard went for the khaki election back then. There is a deep politics around ascribing any human characteristic to nature, as you’d know. It usually acts as some form or another of ideological justification, the appeal to nature.

    Otherwise, your rebuttal of what I stated is accepted.

  58. J-D
    November 15th, 2014 at 06:36 | #58

    It occurs to me that it’s easy to go through history and list people who chose to make wars because they thought it would get them what they wanted — and they were right. I think of Tiglath-Pileser III, Alexander the Great, Caesar, Charlemagne, Jenghiz Khan, Timur, Henry Tudor, Frederick the Great, Bismarck — the wars they waged were bad for other people, but good for them.

  59. alfred venison
    November 15th, 2014 at 08:52 | #59

    amid discussion of war as diplomacy by other means, this man’s biography makes an interesting footnote to any remembrances of hmas sydney forcing german raider emden aground off the cocos islands a hundred years ago last weekend.

Comments are closed.