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. 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.

  2. 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”.

  3. 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.

  4. @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.

  5. @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.

  6. 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.

  7. @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.

  8. @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.

  9. 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.

  10. @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.

  11. @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.

  12. @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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