Remembrance Day

Over the fold is the piece I wrote for the Fin which ran yesterday, on Remembrance Day. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the last couple of paras, referring to the present and future, so I need to spell them out a bit more.

First, while I was, in 2002, a fairly enthusiastic supporter of the decision to go to war in Afghanistan, subsequent events and the evolution of my own thinking have led me to qualify that view, and to conclude, in particular, that Australia should withdraw its troops in the near future.

First, some general thoughts

* War is justified only in self-defence (including collective self-defence), and only to the extent that there is a reasonable expectation that going to war will yield a better outcome than not doing so
* Even when war is justified by self-defence, it should not be used as a pretext for securing benefits that go beyond restoration of the status quo ante bellum (bearing in mind that war changes things, so exact restoration is often not feasible).
* Political and public thinking is biased in favor of the belief that military force is an effective way to deal with political problems and a successful use of military force (even if justified) reinforces this bias. So it is important to create whatever institutional constraints are possible, such as requirements for Parliamentary approval of decisions to go to war
* Even when justified ex ante, war is unpredictable and likely to go badly. The idea that having started on a war that has turned out badly, we should “see it through” is a mistake

Coming to Afghanistan, I think the self-defence case is clear-cut. The US was attacked by terrorists trained in and led from Afghanistan, by a group supported by the Taliban government. It’s possible to make a hypothetical case that absent the incompetence and malice of the Bush Administration (backed by Blair and Howard in the decision to start a new war in Iraq) that there was a reasonable expectation of success. However, I observe with some discomfort that much the same case is put forward by many on the left who backed the Iraq war, where, however, the self-defence case was a transparent sham. In any case, we are past the point where continuing the war can be expected to produce benefits for either Afghanistan or the world. It would be better to withdraw and spend some of the money saved as a result (many times Afghanistan’s annual national income) on aid.

Finally, I concluded my post by saying “On this Remembrance Day, we should honour the sacrifice of all those who died by giving up, once and for all, the belief that war should be part of our national policy.” To be clear, I am not a pacifist and do not oppose fighting in self-defence. The idea that “war should be part of our national policy” means to me, that the use or threat of military force can and should be used to advance our perceived national interest. This idea, which forms the basis of military policy in most countries, appears to to both morally wrong and factually false.

It is now ninety-two years since the guns fell silent on the Western Front of what was variously called The Great War, the War to End War and, when both of these descriptions were rendered grimly obsolete after 1939, World War I. The commemorations of the end of the war were similarly renamed, from Armistice Day to Remembrance Day.

The Great War cost the lives of 15 million soldiers and civilians, with another 20 million wounded, many maimed for life, by bullets, high explosive and poison gas. Far from being a war to end war, it brought forth the horrors of Nazism and Bolshevism and paved the way for World War II, and for the long series of conflicts that were collectively called the Cold War.

The consequences of the Great War are easy to see, and some are still with us (for example, the last of Germany’s war debt was repaid only a couple of months ago). The causes, on the other hand, are obscure to the point of invisibility. The spark that set off the war was the assassination of an Austrian archduke. At a marginally deeper level, the rush to war reflected simmering disputes between the European state over colonial possessions, economic rivalry and the like.

More fundamentally, though the cause of the War was a belief in war itself. Political and military leaders, along with the mass of the population, believed that countries could, and should, advance their interests through military force.

A few years before the outbreak of war, British writer Norman Angell had demolished this idea, in a book called The Great Illusion. Angell pointedg out that, in a modern economy, an expansion of national territory through war can provide no significant benefit to the citizens of the ‘victorious’ country, any more than New South Wales would benefit if it could annex Queensland. Any attempt to profit from military victory by confiscating the wealth of the conquered will cause economic damage to the country pursuing such a path, and such damage will far outweigh the temporary benefits of plunder.

Subsequent writers have suggested that Angell’s argument that militarism had become obsolete was refuted by the outbreak of war. But in reality, the whole history of the 20th century demonstrates Angell’s points. The great empires that went to war in 1914 had mostly been destroyed by the time the war ended.

The victorious allies, seemingly determined to test Angell’s arguments, sought massive reparations from Germany, and a combination territorial advantage and strategic influence for themselves. All they achieved was to sow the seeds for Hitler and World War II.

The Axis powers not only confiscated the wealth of the conquered, but brutally enslaved captive populations. Yet with most of the wealth and people of Europe and Asia at their command, they were unable to match the output of the Allies and were ultimately overwhelmed.

Finally, in 1945 the Western Allies had learned some of Angell’s lessons. Instead of seeking to impoverish and exploit Germany and Japan, the Marshall Plan and other initiatives promoted their recovery and prosperity. Stalin, on the other hand, pursued the traditional policy of expropriation, stripping East Germany of much of its capital and shipping it to Russia. The results speak for themselves.

These days, the idea that war is motivated by a desire to seize the assets of other countries is indignantly disclaimed. But marginally more subtle versions of the same fallacious idea remain influential. The idea that military force provides a way of ‘projecting power’ and thereby enhancing the national interest remains a staple of strategic thinking. In plain words, this means that a country with a strong military can threaten war against others who do not do its bidding.

The temptation to solve problems by military force remains strong. Yet the evidence of the 21st century is just as negative as that of the 20th. The US has already spent a trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with little to show for it. The total bill,, will be at least two trillion or about 20 per cent of US GDP. The same money could have saved millions of lives and lifted a billion or more people out of poverty.

On this Remembrance Day, we should honour the sacrifice of all those who died by giving up, once and for all, the belief that war should be part of our national policy.

30 thoughts on “Remembrance Day

  1. @jquiggin

    There’s nothing in international law, with or without the ICC that suggests that a country can’t defend itself against military attack without first going to a court.

    That’s true of course. While it is certainly handy politically to have something that looks like a Chapter 7 Resolution behind you, the principal restraints on initiating military action have always been technical — do we have the resources to do this and emerge in front when the dust settles? States sometimes get this judgement wrong, but the US has never acted like a power encumbered by international law in respect of significant military deployment.

    Just war is a useful idea to plant in the minds of the domestice populace, (alongside military glory and booty) but it is merely a desirable rather than an essential feature of war as foreign policy

  2. Fran, you’re missing my point. In international law, waging a war of aggression is a crime, even if it rarely gets prosecuted.

    The right to self-defence is not merely a convenient rationalisation, it’s a generally accepted principle, applicable in the case of the Afghan war. The case against war is not that it’s unjustified but that it’s unsuccessful.

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