We shall remember them ? (repost*)

On Anzac Day, there are two important things to remember

* Thousands of brave men died at Gallipoli and in the Great War and we should always honour their memory

* The Gallipoli campaign was a bloody and pointless diversionary attack in a bloody and pointless war. Millions of soldiers were killed, and tens of millions of civilians starved and mistreated in a fight over trivial causes that were utterly irrelevant by the time the war ended. The War that was supposed to “end war” only paved the way for the even greater horrors of Nazism and Stalinism. Nothing good came of it.

From what I’ve seen of the last surviving Diggers they were fully aware of both of these things. At one time, it seemed possible that, as the generation who fought in the war passed on, we would forget the first of them. Now the danger is that we will forget the second. We should judge as harshly as possible the political and religious leaders who drove millions, mostly young men, to their deaths, and honour the handful who stood out against the War, including Bertrand Russell and Pope Benedict XV.

* I’ve posted versions of this on previous Anzac Days. There is really nothing new to say, except to hope that we will soon be able to celebrate an Anzac Day without the thought that Australians are still fighting and dying in pointless wars.

87 thoughts on “We shall remember them ? (repost*)

  1. It’s telling that Niall Ferguson, coming from a quite different political perspective to Bertrand Russell, comes to almost exactly the same conclusions about the war as Russell in his historical writings about World War I, notably The Pity of War and Virtual History.

  2. It’s telling that the British aristocratic class were fervent in their enthusiasm for the Great War. At a time when their time-honoured place and influence was being eroded by middle-class incursion, they gleaned the opportunity to again demonstrate their collective prowess as the “warrior class” – the knights and leaders of men.
    The women were particularly keen in their support, and worked tirelessly to martial the general population to mobilise against the foe. Of course, history shows us that this class was hit particularly hard in the wash-up of hostilities, losing approximately one fifth of their able-bodied men and heirs during the conflict.

  3. Thank you for this post, a nice corrective to the superficiality and celebratory tone of most Anzac Day coverage in Australia.

    I find it’s a good time of year to re-read Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy.

  4. @Wooster

    Yes, there were a lot of maiden-aunts in the 1940’s spending their days doing ‘good works’ having lost their beaus in the mud of France.

  5. A victory of the Ottoman Empire would have:
    • brought world war 1 to an earlier conclusion; and
    • Allowed for earlier arrests of the perpetrators of the Armenian genocide.

    Gallipoli turned out to be one of the few moral crusades of World War I.

    On May 24, 1915, the Allied Powers jointly issued a statement explicitly charging for the first time ever another government of committing `a crime against humanity’.

    Australian participation in the invasion of the Ottoman Empire as a by-product set the legal and moral infrastructure for the Nuremberg trials: governments would hold others to account for crimes against humanity and genocide.

    Article 230 of the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres required the defeated Ottoman Empire to hand over to the Allied Powers the persons whose surrender may be required by the latter as being responsible for the massacres committed during the continuance of the state of war on territory which formed part of the Ottoman Empire on August 1, 1914

    Various Ottoman politicians, generals, and intellectuals were transferred to Malta where they were held for some three years while searches were made of archives in Constantinople, London, Paris and Washington to investigate the Armenian genocide.

    The Inter-Allied tribunal never solidified and the detainees were eventually returned to Turkey in exchange for British citizens held by Kemalist Turkey.

    As the World War 1, wars by accident, miscalculation, and surprise are common.

    The belligerents could have settled their territorial disputes by artful compromises only if (1) their payoffs from a peaceful settlement are larger than their expected payoffs from a default to war, and (2) their promises not to attack are credible.

    Historically, over-optimism about the prospects of winning a war seems often to have been a factor both in preventing peaceful settlements of new disputes and cause existing peaceful settlements of old disputes to break down.

    Factors that become important include the advantage of attacking over both defending and counterattacking, the divisibility of the contested territory, the possibility of recurring war, the depreciation or obsolescence of fortifications, and inequality in the effectiveness of mobilized resources. Unverifiable innovations, especially innovations in military technology can cause a settlement to break down and renewal of war.

    A country will think that another state’s promise not to start a war is credible only if the other state would be better off by keeping its promise not to start a war than by breaking its promise. Such a further war was World War 2. Wars are more like if the dispute concerns the survival of one of the belligerents or stakes that cannot be divided.

    p.s. opposition to war does not explain how to negotiate peace. The Vietnam War could have ended at anytime by the communists surrendering. Would that have been enough for the peace movement? Did they ever call for that? If not, does that not make peaceniks warmongers?

  6. I agree with the sentiments but disagree with the implied analysis. It is sad that many lost their lives in an ugly war. The war however did not occur because of trival causes. By definition a trivial cause or impetus cannot cause a large and powerful event; not in physics and not in human society.

    To assign WW1 to trivial causes (assination of Archduke Ferdinand etc.) is to misread history in genral and to misread capitalism and imperialism in particular (to name two of the key causes).

    Of course, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois society want to deny the real causes of Western war-mongering namely the oppressive ideology and exploitative economic system.

  7. @Ikonoclast

    Yes, the Great War – like other wars – was about trade and spheres of influence. A continuation of politics by other means.

    It is a shame that politicians are not bound to be in the vanguard when the shells (or IEDs) start bursting; they might otherwise think more carefully about whether they have exhausted other options, whether they can live with a stalemate, etc. etc.

  8. Jim Rose

    Negotiating peace does not mean opposition to war. Warmongers often present this false fait accompli. You need to prevent war in the first place.

    The Vietnam War would have ended if the West had not got involved (as part of igniting a Cold War) and if French decolonisation had been allowed to run its normal but violent course.

    If the French imperialists had not originally invaded there would have been no Vietnam War.

  9. The behaviour of almost all belligerents in WW1 and WW2 was despicable. The belief that we and our allies (the non-German or non-Axis West) are the good guys is naive and simplistic in the extreme. In fact, there are no good guy countries among the large, powerful nations. They are all bad to greater or lesser degrees in ways largely dependent on their instrumental power to have things their own way.

  10. @Paul Norton

    Eh, only because he believes the 20th Century would be less bloody if it was a joint venture between the City of London and the German General Staff – a questionable assumption, especially for those born outside those respective metropoles.

  11. @Ikonoclast
    We were pretty close to being the good guys in the Second World War. In the years leading up to the invasion of Poland, the principal allied country’s were were pacifist to a fault. Eventually, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan left the world three choices: Fight now, fight later, or be totally destroyed. We should be grateful to Hitler and Hirohito in only one small respect; they made our decision to commit to total war easy. Post-1945 revelations only make this more clear.

    It’s my belief that WW2 was the single most important event in all of human history so far. If the Axis had won, it would have destroyed the Enlightenment and led to the eventual murder of billions. Its historical outcome is the very best thing that has ever happened that might have been otherwise.

  12. Generally, I agree with JQ’s take. WW I was a criminal waste of life and played a role in the horrors of the two dictators who rose in the misery that followed.

    I have no doubt that many who lost their lives on all sides were brave. But I do not honour them, because to honour them is to value something I would not like repeated.

  13. War, as beneficial as it appears to be for the development of the State and “military Keynesianism”, is a pretext for behavior often both violent and immoral.

    The Second World War, while sides engaged in criminal behavior, was the last war in which the European participants sought to adhere to a common code of war, as it could apply in the deserts of North Africa. Industrial death dealing overcame the remnant of knightly code, evoking Salidin to something wholly sinister. Recall the aerial fire-bombing of the cities of Germany and Japan were topped by the mushroom cloud over two Japanese cities. Recourse to extreme measures in these contexts is always justified by necessity.

    Colonial and imperial wars, as the evidence of recent revelations of the cover up of atrocities by the British in East Africa are testament, have always been simply criminal. That judgement applies equally to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as it does to the settler reign of terror and dehumanization that took place across Australia and in New Zealand, which strangely are not occasion for memorials to the heroics of human sacrifice.

  14. Strategic bombing was wrong but it was not exclusively an Allied practice. The people of a number of Chinese cities experienced it long before any German city. The first embargo was placed on Japan in retaliation for the repeated firebombing of Chongqing. A number of English cities were firebombed long before any German city. Neither Coventry nor Chongqing make incendiary bombing anything but wrong, and of course the Allies far out-produced and out-bombed the Germans and Japanese towards the end of the war. It is however necessary to see both sides of the question.

    It is not really a hard argument that what distinguished the Axis powers was not so much how they ran their military activities. It is in their treatment and exploitation of conquered peoples where the real abominations happened and that not only had no military justification, towards the end of the war the Nazis actually prioritised their extermination programs over military operations. It is, by contrast, a really hard argument to say that the Allies set out to exterminate entire peoples like the Rom.

    You will not find many Koreans or Poles (picking names out of a hat) who see the Axis and Allies in the same terms.

    WWII also provides a really interesting case when war was perhaps justified and not fought. Czechoslovakia was a democratic state with an excellent army. If Anglo-French promises to Czechoslovakia had been kept the war would almost certainly have been either much shorter or even perhaps not have happened at all.

  15. @Sam

    Yes, in WW2, we were in some ways the “least worst” by a considerable margin. However, WW2 as a world event is less black and white than many paint it. Perhaps it was black and all shades of grey incuding very dark grey (as Stalin’s Russia was one of the West’s allies).

    In all seriousness, the Axis was never going to win once the full sides lined up. Let’s see, it was basically Germany, Italy, Finland and Japan versus the Rest of World. The U.S. alone, in the 1940’s, accounted for 45% of the world’s productive power. Then there was manpower; U. S. A. plus Gr. Britain and the Commonwealth plus Russia plus India plus China… need I go on?

    It is a major mistake to regard WW2 as a neat or a discrete event. Finland was more fighting its traditional enemy Russia than a true ally of Germany. Hitler and Stalin initially cosied up while looking for openings for a stab each other in the back. France half resisted and half collaborated with the Nazis (Vichy France) and the English and French navies fought a pitched battle off the coast of N. Africa.

    In some ways WW2 was simply a resumption of much unfinished business from WW1, a kind of round two. Neither did WW2 end cleanly in 1945. Russia essentially conquered and occupied Poland, East Germany, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia turning them into satellite states. As soon as WW2 ended the West and USSR were mortal enemies once more. U.S. General Patton wanted to drive to Moscow. WW2 then shaded into the Korean war where again former “allies” China (thru its proxy Nth Korea) and the U.S.A and allies under the banner of U.N. forces, lined up against each other. General MacArthur wanted to use and the nuke (and probably drive to Peking). Sanity only prevailed because of war exhaustion, war revulsion and fear the Bomb (nulcear weapons). States forever jockey for position, alliances shift and there is only (morally) black and shades of grey.

  16. @Ikonoclast

    Agreed. It actually makes much more sense to look it as a single event encompassing the WWI, WWII, the Cold War and probably the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. Beside the cataclysmic death rates in China and the Soviet Union the campaigns in Western Europe, North Africa and the Pacific. Events across the whole of Eurasia have been quite closely linked since at least the 800s.

  17. leinad @ #10 said:

    Eh, only because [Niall Ferguson] believes the 20th Century would be less bloody if it was a joint venture between the City of London and the German General Staff – a questionable assumption, especially for those born outside those respective metropoles.

    The best piece of counter-counter-factualism I’ve seen on this endlessly counter-factualized event. A German-dominated Europe – lorded over by Junker warriors, financed by City bankers and armed by Jewish nuclear physicists – would have been an unholy terror and recipe for war-without-end.

    Its not true that the Great War was a “pointless” war in the sense that the basic cause the Allies fought for was fraudulent or futile. Most of the Diggers were “fully aware” that the war against Prussian militarism was critical to enforcing “the rights of small countries”. Subsequent unpleasantness proved them right.

    Furthermore, they started it and we won, which is certainly a more righteous place to be than the other way around.

    No doubt we would have been better off without WW1 ever starting, giving the horrors it set in train. But the our side did not have much of a say in the matter given the German-Austrian General Staff’s determination to annihilate the Triple Entente.

    And we had a taste of what a German dominated Europe would have been like with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which set the seal on the Second Reich’s ruthless policy of conquest and exploitation. Fat chance of a “peace without annexations” when dealing with that lot.

    The core of the Europe’s German problem was the German military aristocracy which obstinately dominated the state, with Junker’s martial aggression built on the Konzerne’s industrial expansion, giving it an irresistible drive to continental-wide dominance. There was a natural evolution of post-Bismarkian German foreign policy from the Second Reich though to the Third Reich, just as WW1 naturally evolved into WW2.

    Ludendorff, from the outset of hostilities, naturally emerged as the war-lord of Germany and he was a fascist in everything but name. Only the individual Bismark was able curb the institutional Junker’s will-to-power. And he, regrettably, was mortal and unable to dictate a succession.

  18. @Ikonoclast
    More or less in agreement here I suppose. Some objections:

    Bad as he was, there’s no evidence Stalin was looking to break the Non-aggression pact. He was reported to have been in shocked disbelief during the first few days of operation Barbarossa.

    Prior to Pearl Harbour, it was by no means clear the US would actually enter the war of its own choosing, so that would have been 45% of productive forces essentially neutralised. We shouldn’t forget how strong the isolationist sentiment was then. It took a Japanese invasion, and a German declaration of war, to get them to send troops. This might not have happened.

    Russia and Great Britain both may well have eventually fallen without Uncle Sam in Europe. Certainly China was unable to put up any effective resistance of its own. Japan could easily have taken an isolated Australia. India had its own anti-British, pro-Nazi element. Once the rest of the world had fallen, the Third Reich and the Co-prosperity Sphere could have eventually turned their vast, Eurasian slave army to the US. Without prior military engagement, there may have been no Manhattan Project, and America could have been eventually defeated.

    Given their track record of sneak attacks and mutual racial hatred, it seems very likely Germany and Japan would have then turned on each other, possibly with their own nuclear weapons by that time. Billion would eventually have died.

    But none of this happened. Alt WW2 stories are a staple of comic horror sci-fi, and nothing more. Yes, there were small wars after this, about the same amount of famine, and injustices affecting a few million people at a time. But by and large the world got to continue haphazardly groping towards freedom and prosperity and peace. The Allies’ triumph did not bring Heaven to Earth; but it did stop Hell from coming.

    None of this was automatic, none of it was certain. It took millions of brave men and women to make it happen, and today is the day I honour their memories.

    Lest We Forget.

  19. this wikipedia article lists links to other wikipedia articles about various counterfactual literary fictions, comics, plays, movies, tv shows and computer games predicated on the alternative premise that the nazis won world war 2:-

    ridley scott is reported to be adapting philip k dick’s “the man in the high castle” as a four part miniseries for the bbc:-

    i can’t help but wonder what things might have been like if the racist naval treaties of the 1920s & 1930s had not been so pointedly biased against japan. that an industrialised country which had whopped the russians in 1905 & had aligned itself with the angels in world war one, should be so shabbily treated by the vaunted defenders of liberal democracy & vanquishers of prussian militarism was unconscionable, bore in itself seeds of bitter future conflict and ensured it a racialist character when it came.

  20. Although I agree that the outcome wouldn’t have been so clear if the US hadn’t been dragged into the war, I think the master races may have suffered from problems of overreach if they had conquered the whole of Eurasia.

    Just as the Americans have found, even if winning the initial war is easy, consolidating gains is another matter. Unless, of course, you slaughter all the original inhabitants.

  21. Stalin, unlike Hitler, was bright enough to recognise that 2-front wars are a bad thing. Soviet forces under Zhukov had already clashed with the Japanese army on the Manchukuo/Mongol People’s Republic border. Google ‘Khalkin Gol’ or ‘Nomonhan’ some time.

    The outcome was a very one-sided Soviet victory that almost certainly decided the Japanese, already at war with China, to strike south into the European and US colonies in Southeast Asia. They could not do that without first destroying the US Pacific Fleet. Stalin joined the Allied Powers only once Japan was clearly (over-)committed in the Asia-Pacific. The rest is history.

    Even without the US I doubt the Axis could actually have conquered the Soviet Union. It’s also really hard to see (1) how Japan could have launched its strike south campaign while the US remained a significant Pacific naval power or (2) how Japan could have persisted with a strike north campaign.

    Both Axis powers were exceedingly good at waking up sleeping giants.

  22. @alfred venison

    the Washington Naval treaty was not particularly racist. It imposed a ratio of 5:5:3:1.75:1.75 on Britain, the US, Japan, Italy and France. It was directed against the outbreak of a British/American naval arms race that broke out after WWI. The treaty was actually relatively generous to Japan which did not have to defend 2 separate coastlines like the US or a huge empire like the British. In 1915 Japan demanded a protectorate over China in the Twenty-One Demands. By 1920 Japan had already imposed a particularly brutal colonial regime on Korea and Taiwan, establishing unhappy precedents they were later to follow in large parts of China and most of Southeast Asia. Japanese expansion in Shandong, Manchuria and Taiwan in 1895, Korea in 1910 and China in 1915 cannot have been caused by a treaty signed in 1920.

    Empires try to expand in all directions and empires extract resources but that does not mean all empires behave equally badly. The brutally extractive regimes Japan imposed on those countries, by explicit government policies, also cannot have been caused by a treaty signed after the policies were imposed.

  23. Jim Rose:

    A victory of the Ottoman Empire would have:
    • brought world war 1 to an earlier conclusion; and
    • Allowed for earlier arrests of the perpetrators of the Armenian genocide.
    Gallipoli turned out to be one of the few moral crusades of World War I.

    Is a risible example of the triumph of ideologically driven wishful thinking over logic.

    1. When the Dardenelles campaign was projected, the plight of the Armenians was irrelevant to their plans.

    2. In May 1915, after the Entente’s invasion of the Ottoman Empire, the Entente did draw attention to the plight of the Armenians. Thus, the Entente had an additional reason for defeating the Ottoman Empire. Yet, the Entente did not intensify their efforts to achieve victory on Gallipoli. Thus, beyond reaping propaganda value from the plight of the Armenians, the Entente did nothing in 1915 to help the Armenians.

  24. Jack Strocchi:

    Most of the Diggers were “fully aware” that the war against Prussian militarism was critical to enforcing “the rights of small countries”. Subsequent unpleasantness proved them right.

    But NO Diggers were told by their superiors of the annexationist secret treaties that drove the diplomatic history of the Great War. In other words, the Diggers were stooges of imperialists.

    The world didn’t find out about these annexationist treaties until Trotsky broadcast them to the world in early 1918. By then, the Diggers found themselves subject to military discipline. Any protest was interpreted as mutiny.

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