Armistice Day

As Armistice Day comes around again, I find it more and more difficult to avoid despair. Each new war seems even more brutal and pointless than the last, bringing nothing but ruin and destruction to all concerned. And yet, opposition to war in general, or even to involvement in any particular war, is increasingly being seen as unpatriotic.

My annual ritual of writing a post on this day hasn’t helped at all. I’ve repeatedly had it explained to me by learned commenters that the mass slaughter of 1914 to 1918 (and, by implication, the even more massive slaughter that followed it over the 20th century) was a right and necessary response to German imperialism, or that it must be understood in its historical context. I need only change a few place names, and substitute different enemies, to hear the voices of our present leaders, explaining the need for our armed forces to deliver more death and destruction, because “we must do something”. The fact that our current enemies are of our own direct creation, and that a decade or more of these wars has succeeded only it making matters worse, seems irrelevant.

Just about the only consolation is the fact that the scale and loss of life from war has been decreasing over time. Large areas of the world once riven by war now seem to be free of it, or nearly so.

Against that, however, is the ever-present shadow of nuclear cataclysm. The world has managed to survive, permanently within a few minutes of catastrophe, for 70 years now. But can that continue indefinitely? when belief in the rightness of war and the need for military strength is such a powerful force among ordinary people, and even stronger among the rulers who have the power to launch these weapons. Without radical changes in thinking, it seems almost certain that nuclear weapons will be used, sooner or later. Even a limited nuclear war, between India and Pakistan for example, would be a disaster as bad or worse than the World Wars of the 20th century.

42 thoughts on “Armistice Day

  1. a right and necessary response to German imperialism

    We were loosely allied with Serbia, and Serbia was attacked so..

    What doesn’t make sense is Germany’s response to a declaration of war on it by France. If all it did was defend against an attack from France then it could easily have finished off Russia and Serbia. But a declaration of war at that time apparently meant “go ahead, see if you can beat us” to Germany.

  2. Lest we forget.

    On the matter of regional conflict this may be of interest ROBOCK, A., OMAN, L., STENCHIKOV, G. L., TOON, O. B., BARDEEN, C. & TURCO, R. P. 2007. Climatic consequences of regional nuclear conflicts. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 7, 2003-2012.

    Basically the message based on climate modelling is that even a ‘modest’ nuclear conflict (100 Hiroshima sized devices) in the subtropics would lead to a climate disruption greater than for the 1815 Tambora eruption and for a short period more severe than the Little Ice Age.

  3. I don’t see what you’re worried about, ProfQ: at most a nuclear war could perhaps annihilate a species that’s so stupid that it keeps inventing and making – and mostly using – better ways to destroy itself.

    A species in which the few members that have any brains are completely powerless to use them.

    In any case, the expanding, heating sun will wipe out all life on Earth in a hundred million years or so – no loss, really.

  4. The most distressing development in war is the asymmetry of weapons and expectations. On the one hand, first world countries can deal out death and destruction without risking even a single military casualty. On the other, non-state actors and failed states have become so extensive and so impervious to conventional notions of defeat and victory that conflicts simmer for decades without any prospect of resolution.

    Like John, I fear that sooner or later this endless uncertainty will provoke someone to use a nuclear weapon in an attempt to break through the stalemate. Once upon a time, I would not have believed the US capable of such a reckless act. Today, I am more inclined to believe that sooner or later, it will do it.

  5. @Chris O’Neill

    You are the victim of a misapprehension.

    There was no such thing as ‘Germany’s response to a declaration of war on it by France’ since there was no such thing (in 1914) as a declaration of war on Germany by France. There was a declaration of war on France by Germany.

    The sequence of declarations of war by the major powers on each other was as follows:
    1 August Germany declared war on Russia
    3 August Germany declared war on France
    4 August UK declared war on Germany
    6 August Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia
    12 August UK and France declared war on Austria-Hungary

    I have not been able to discover that either the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia or the German invasion of Belgium was preceded or accompanied by a formal declaration of war.

    On the larger point: the evidence suggests that the German high command calculated roughly as follows:
    if we have to fight against Russia and France at the same time our chances are poor;
    Russia is simply too big to be defeated quickly but it operates so cumbersomely that it will be slow to get actively involved in any war;
    our best chance is to defeat France before Russia can get actively involved, so that we are free to concentrate on Russia;
    therefore in any war we must strike France as rapidly as we can.

    In hindsight calculations like that don’t look shrewd, but they would explain why Germany struck at France so swiftly in 1914.

  6. @GrueBleen

    a species that’s so stupid that it keeps inventing and making – and mostly using – better ways to destroy itself.

    Yet the species keeps getting bigger in number.

  7. These two remarks:

    …I find it more and more difficult to avoid despair. Each new war seems even more brutal and pointless than the last


    Just about the only consolation is the fact that the scale and loss of life from war has been decreasing over time. Large areas of the world once riven by war now seem to be free of it, or nearly so

    don’t seem to be compatible with one another.

    Surely the latter statement, if true, is cause for hope, rather than despair.

  8. Well if:

    was a right and necessary response to German imperialism,

    then the Germans would have described their military push was a right and necessary response to the Triple Entente.

  9. Some celebrate (need to?) the bravery and heroism of the troops during WW1 but the reality was that it was a mindless carnage and we ie the nation should be ashamed at sending those young men to their death.

  10. @Tim Macknay

    I think the latter is true. Asia (east of the Middle East) is pretty much at peace (for now, in any case), there’s nothing going on to speak of in South and Central America, Africa is relatively peaceful and its 20 years since Europeans killed each other in large numbers (though the Russians in Ukraine …)

  11. I think there is hope. In general we have to say the following. Despite war, progress has continued. Despite war, population growth has continued. (Though of course population now needs to be stabilised.) The general law must be that human production is greater than human destruction. In the sphere of human life and activity, human production, including reproduction, precedes human destruction. Human destruction must use produced persons and instruments and can then only destroy a proportion of production before these themselves (the persons and instruments of destruction) are exhausted or destroyed. If nothing is produced, then nothing can be destroyed. If something is produced by humans (other humans and goods), then the general law is that only a proportion of it is destroyed by war.

    On the other hand, the raw, inanimate powers of the physical universe and other biological powers, especially viruses and bacteria, are always greater than human life and “contain” it; can sustain or destroy it. When we unleash these forces against ourselves we are in danger of destroying ourselves and breaking the “general law” I refer to above. Natural forces like fire, fission, fusion and plagues and other potential runaway process (like climate change) are our real dangers. It is these forces we need to accede to, as it were, and never use them in war or the pursuit of excessive wealth. Of course, ideally we would not practice war at all.

  12. In most wars (perhaps not all, but certainly most), one side is predominantly (perhaps not solely, but predominantly) responsible for bringing on the conflict by its aggression.

    If Country X launches an attack on Country Y, there will almost certainly be loss, suffering, and death, no matter how Country Y chooses to respond. Country Y may have the option available (at least in theory) of submitting and accepting subjugation and thus avoiding war (although probably not of entirely avoiding loss, suffering, and death), but if Country Y (or its leadership) chooses self-defence that decision is not in the same moral category as the decision of Country X (or its leadership) to launch the attack.

    I have seen the Central Powers blamed for launching the First World War and I have also seen the Allied Powers blamed for launching the First World War. If you blame one side for launching the war, I don’t see how you can attach equal blame to the other side for choosing self-defence.

    Moving to a more detailed level of analysis — from considering each side as a unit to considering individual countries — there’s a big difference between the decisions made by the government of Belgium on the one hand and the decisions made by the governments of Italy on the other (even though both fought on the Allied side). Belgium chose to resist an unprovoked attempt at occupation and subjugation; the people and leadership of Belgium in no way share equally with the leadership of Germany in responsibility for the loss, suffering, and death experienced by Belgians in the war. Conversely, the Italian government made the voluntary choice to join the war in pursuit of glory and/or territorial gain, and has a large share in the responsibility for the loss, suffering, and death experienced by Italians in the war.

    War is horrific, but that does not mean that every participant is equally responsible for its horrors.

  13. @Uncle Milton
    Just another of the many ways this species is destroying itself. But this particular way aims at taking most of the larger lifeforms with it.

    So yes, cheers mate, let us breed and breed and breed.

  14. If it’s any consolation, Australia is possibly the best refuge in a nuclear war occurring mostly in the northern hemisphere.

    Lots of beaches to be on, too.

  15. “For Sr-90 in mid-latitude rainwaters, the seasonal variation pattern is not so closely reproduced from year to year, but shows a broad summer maximum and winter minimum. It appears that the bulk of the bomb particulate products mixes southward within the lower stratosphere and enters the troposphere at mid-latitudes, the seasonal fallout variation being similar to that found for the Northern Hemisphere, but 6 months out of phase.” – A comparison of tritium and strontium-90 fallout in the Southern Hemisphere.

    We might last six months longer so, no, it’s not any real consolation.

  16. Is it true that ‘opposition to war in general, or even to involvement in any particular war, is increasingly being seen as unpatriotic’, or is only true that it has always been seen as unpatriotic and that the only thing that is increasing is your consciousness of that fact?

  17. @J-D
    Yes, reading the Crooked Timber article Prof Q linked to, I got the impression that, rather than being a sign of increasing militarism in society, the examples of bullying in the article were equally well explained as (yet another) example of social media amplifying voices on the fringe. I don’t recall there being much public enthusiasm for the recent wars in which Australian forces have been involved – my impression at the time was that the majority opinion was that they were a bad idea (and I believe the opinion polls confirmed this).

    Perhaps Prof Q is comparing the present day to the Vietnam war era, in which there was sustained mass protest against Australia’s involvement. I imagine it’s probably the case that people’s opposition to war becomes more heated when there is the possibility they (or their loved ones) will be conscripted.

  18. @Ronald Brak
    And in addition to nuclear winters, government-issue suicide pills and unfortunate authorial puns, we cannot discount the prospect of the radiation awakening vast, prehistoric monsters from the bowels of the Earth.

  19. I’d put Germany behind Serbia, Russia, France and possibly Britain as the major drivers on the road to WW1.

    Surely the stupidest war in history.

  20. The search for causes of complex, distributed phenomena like major wars is a kind of philosophical non sequitur. No matter how many pieces of evidence we assemble, they will not come close to modelling the complexity of events nor the supposed chain of causes of causes that lead up to it. Statements like “The direct cause of WWI was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914,” or “Serbia caused the war,” are among the most absurd theories. I am not saying anyone in the thread above said these things but high school history books tended to make such absurd statements in the “old days”.

    One could say, with maybe a little more justification, that a “cause” of WW1 was the extended great power rivalries of France, the German states including Prussia, Austria-Hungary, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and other players over several hundreds of years leading up to WW1.

    However, I’ve said it before. We should not be searching for causes, we should be searching for “Laws” and “Tendencies”. There is an important difference. Here is something I have taken from the net;

    “There is some debate if causation exists at all. One of the founders of that debate was Hume. He observed, that one thing we don’t observe is causation. We see A happening, afterwards we see B happening, and sometimes we say “B happened because of A”. But the one thing we don’t perceive is A causing B, just a succession of events. The causing is invisible. Kant agreed to a degree and proposed, that causes are not “out there” but are the way we structure the world. Nagel was convinced that causality is just a maxim (applied) to scientific work; but it has no empirical content.”

    I would come down on the side of the argument which says there are no such things as causes (or if there are we have never isolated them). There are only laws (where we can discover them). A law links event B to event A not via the interpolation of “cause” but as follows. “A law not only describes a pattern in nature, but distinguishes between patterns that arise by chance and those that are always there, independent of the particulars of a situation.” – John Roberts.

    Laws describe regular dependable patterns and distinguish law governed patterns from chance events. The things we should be studying are the laws of wars not the causes of wars. The first steps (and I know researchers have done this) would be to correlate basic parameters. An example of this work is the correlation of food prices and food shortages with civil unrest, riots and then civil wars. Another example would be the correlation of unemployment with the same things. Clearly, the next step is combining correlations. International wars would be another level of complexity altogether.

    I don’t know where this type of work would or could lead but I strongly suspect it would prove a more fruitful field than assigning “causes”. Causes are mere metaphysical or moral philosophy (non-empirical) hypotheses. Causes are pet theories with no rigorous empirical bases. “Causes” in social, sociological and historical phenomena are in fact tied up with “blame”. Assigning “causes” is a moralistic game engaged in by moral entrepreneurs. A scientist of the hard or soft sciences would search for laws and tendencies and be done with the moralism of causes.

  21. Has patriotic fervour ever been stronger or more ignorant than it is today. Not in my lifetime. I hope this is simply a cycle that will soon head towards a trough by more centrist rulers but it has been nurtured, sold and manipulated for quite some time. The “virtue of the vicious”.

  22. Hell-Bent – Australia’s Leap into the Great War (2014), by Australian author Douglas Newton, is a groundbreaking account of Australia’s international diplomacy up to the start of the War to End All Wars, sorry, the First World War in 1914.

    This book shows that, as well as being a victim, with 59,330 military deaths by one estimate, or 1.2% of its 1914 population of 4,948,990, Australia was also a perpetrator, which on three occasions – the 1911 Moroccan Crisis, the Second Balkans War of 1913 and during the crisis from June until August 1914 which led to the outbreak of war – did all it could to influence Great Britain to declare war. It was quick to offer volunteer expeditionary force and to offer to hand over the command of the Royal Australian Navy to Britain.

    On the first two occasions the Australian government and the forces seeking war in the British cabinet and across Europe were thwarted by popular protests, led by the likes of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Vladimir Lenin and Jean Jaurés against war.

    On the last occasion, the war-makers succeeded. The consequences include not just the 15 million military and civilian and dead of the First World, but also 60 million dead of the Second World War and a massive destruction of much of the world’s material a wealth.

    The tragedy of the First World War could have been minimised after the establishment of trench warfare. Had the generals just left soldiers on all sides to defend their ground and had the politicians transparently negotiated an end to that war, the scale of the catastrophe would have been vastly reduced. Instead on both sides, but particularly the Anglo-British-Russian Enténte, again and again, insisted on ordering their soldiers to make suicidal attacks across the mud and barbed wire of no-man’s land into rifle and machine gun fire and artillery counter-bombardment.

    In April 1917, after the disastrous Nivelle Offensive soldiers in the French Army mutinied. They told their commanders they would defend their ground but not attack. Some even marched on Paris. Sadly the mutiny was crushed and many of its leaders executed. The bloody war was to continue for one and a half more years, and we were to live with yet more of the terrible consequences throughout the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st century.

  23. @Houso Bob

    Has patriotic fervour ever been stronger or more ignorant than it is today.

    Yes, often. And much.

    Not in my lifetime.

    Are you sure? How long has your lifetime been?

    If you try to measure the extent to which people in different parts of the world feel connected with each other and conscious of their common humanity, I defy you to find evidence of any period in history that rates higher than the present.

  24. @J-D

    Its interesting to recall that Anzac day was in the doldrums in the late 70’s. I guess with Vietnam still a very recent and unhappy memory, no one wanted reminding of wars. But now, as involvement in wars which resulted in the deaths of more than a few handfuls of Australian soldiers recedes into the distance, we are getting more jingoistic again.

    I think my generation remains fairly firmly anti-war, but not some others, both younger and older.

  25. After the atrocities in Paris yesterday François Hollande is promising retribution, and the BBC is reporting his comments as indicating “revenge terrorism”.

    If this is indeed how France and its allies anticipate enacting their responses, woe to the planet. Ikonoclast’s salient points kept in mind, the current IS phenomenon is a direct result of the insane Bush/Blair/Howard excursion into the Middle East, and there is not one iota of evidence that more of the same will in anyway produce any mitigation of that ongoing disaster.

    It will become far worse before it ever “gets better” with the way the West currently treats the world, whether one speaks of geopolitics, economics, climate change, or just about anything else.

    Forget shark boats, we need bigger brains.

  26. @John Brookes

    Some people are truly exceptional; however, if you tell me that you are an exceptional person, although it may possibly be true, before I accept it I am going to need some evidence beyond your bare assertion. Likewise, if you tell me that your generation is an exceptional generation, before I accept it I am going to need some evidence beyond your bare assertion.

  27. @Bernard J.

    The problem with retribution, as opposed to criminal justice, is this. Who do you hit? The target is not distinct and unambiguous. Retribution will likely get sprayed around indiscriminately like the automatic fire in the attacks themselves. The issue develops the characteristics of a blood feud with escalating cycles of retaliatory violence.

    The victims of the attacks are not to blame. However, our own political and wealth elites do bear a large proportion of the blame. They are the ones who have prosecuted and promoted illegal and immoral wars along with the general oppression and exploitation of peoples in the Middle East (and elsewhere). These actions have prompted reactions. Our elites are cowards who use their own populations as human shields.

  28. I just had a look, with the Paris events unfolding and thought, pretty fair stuff.

    I agree that the locus of struggle and violence has shifted from Europe to the Third World, for massacres of vast numbers of plebs who get in the way. And we haven’t learnt the lessons of what comes of Othering, in fact that sort of stuff has been closed out of much of Media and press.

    Everything and nothing changes.

  29. @Bernard J.
    “Forget shark boats, we need bigger brains.”

    Right on, BJ !

    Err, well actually, instead of bigger brains, maybe we just need better brains. After all, whales and elephants have very big brains.

    But also, agreeing with Ikonoclast, having bigger and/or better brains won’t actually achieve anything because, of course, there’s no causality.

  30. @Ikonoclast

    That article reports that sometimes countries go to war with each other and sometimes they don’t; and that maybe the US and China will go to war with each other and maybe they won’t.

  31. @Ikonoclast

    And more of it!

    It appears that we have different views of the merits of the article you linked to. I indicated my view, that it doesn’t provide any important insights; it seems that you consider that it does provide important insights. So where can the discussion go from there?

    Well, it doesn’t have to go anywhere. It could just be left there. You indicate your evaluation, I indicate mine, we leave it at that.

    On the other hand, if we wanted to take the discussion further, we could investigate whether there’s some way we can resolve our disagreement.

    But what you’ve chosen, in preference to either of those options, is to use my disagreement with your evaluation as a basis for accusing me of being a troll. So how is the discussion supposed to proceed after that?

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