Unnecessary Wars

A long-running theme of this blog has been the disaster of the Great War, and the moral culpability of all those who brought it about and continued it. It’s fair to say, I think, that the majority of commenters have disagreed with me and that many of those commenters have invoked some form of historical relativism, based on the idea that we shouldn’t judge the rulers (or for that matter the public) of 1914 on the same criteria we would apply to Bush, Blair and their supporters.

It’s fascinating therefore to read Henry Reynolds’ latest book, Unnecessary Wars about Australia’s participation in the Boer War, and realise that the arguments for and against going to war then were virtually the same as they are now. The same point is made by Newton in Hell-Bent: Australia’s leap into the Great War (recommended in comments a while ago by James Sinnamon. He shows how, far from loyally following Britain into a regrettably necessary war, leading members of the Australian political and military class pushed hard for war. In Newtown’s telling, the eagerness of pro-war Dominion governments helped to tip the scales in the British public debate and in the divided Liberal candidate. I don’t have the expertise to assess this, but there’s no escaping the echoes of the push towards the Iraq war in 2002 and early 2003, when this blog was just starting out.

The case against war was fully developed and strongly argued in the years before 1914, just as the case against slavery was developed and argued in the US before 1861. Those who were on the wrong side can’t be excused on the grounds that they were people of their time.

The only defence that can be made is that those who were eager for war in 1914 had not experienced the disaster of the Great War and its consequences. The failure of today;s war advocates to learn from this disaster makes their position that much worse. But the same is true of anyone defending the warmakers of 1914 on any grounds other than that of their ignorance.

39 thoughts on “Unnecessary Wars

  1. @Tom the first and best

    The British did put considerable weight behind stopping a general war. They initially refused to back the French and Russians and proposed a general conference (the accepted way of settling great power differences). What pushed them was German demands on France, German refusal of a conference, the invasion of Belgium and the background of a decade of bellicose behaviour from Germany coupled with the German threat to command of their home waters.

  2. @Tom the first and best
    Your #23 and #25

    the UK Parliament still had full legislative authority over Australia at that time and could have tried to impose the war on Australia against the Government`s wishes. That could have got messy for Australia.

    Well I’m really glad we took the totally unmessy step of entering WWI without being commanded to by Britain, then. Just think, we might have had to deny some British Parliamentary legislation and instead all we did was sent hundreds of thousands of Aussies overseas and get tens of thousands of them killed with nearly as many to die in the next few years as well. So much cleaner, wasn’t it.

    Of course, as the early volunteer rate for service in WWI showed, British intervention wasn’t needed, but as the failure of Billy Hughes’s conscription plebiscites showed, Aussie enthusiasm for dying for the Empire wasn’t unlimited. So, I would say that Australia could have stood out of WWI if enough Aussies had wanted too – after all, what would Britain be able to do about it, come and invade us ?

    The deaths, on all sides, were far too high in WWI and much could have been done to significantly reduce them in number.

    Oh, ok, how many deaths would you call just enough, then ? 30,000 perhaps ?

    Had the British put their full might behind stopping the war, it might have been stopped. However the UK did not want Germany to dominate Europe

    Right, so of course the rabid slaughter of WWI – estimated to be about 11 million military personnel and 7 million ‘civilians’ along with a lot more in the few years after 1918 – was just a small price to pay to prevent Germany from “dominating Europe”. I’m sure we can all agree to the wisdom of that.

    not coming to the aid of the UK would have hurt our ability to be defended.

    Oh yes, all those Royal Navy vessels patrolling around Australia and defending our shores. But just who were they defending us from ? I don’t think America was interested in invading us back then.

  3. Greg McKenzie – there are numerous Vietnam veterans that turned to poetry; my favorite is Michael Casey. Here’s an excerpt from ‘A Bummer’ from his first book, Obscenities:

    If you have a farm in Vietnam
    And a house in hell
    Sell the farm
    And go home

  4. John after reading Richard Davenport-Hines book on the great man “The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes I now have a better understanding of why the Great War began and why WW2 began.

    Furthermore, there can be no such thing as a good war, all wars are bad on any level of understanding. I say that as a son of WW2 veteran. Churchill sent my father to Greece to become cannon fodder for the Germans. This manouvre was executed by Churchill on the pretext of trying to get the US to support the British.

    While men lust for power, money and glory we will always have wars!!!

  5. In economic terms, WWI was a continual auction for primacy in Europe. Simplifying grossly, Germany opens. “I bid 50,000 dead German soldiers.” France says “I see your 50,000 dead and raise you 10,000”. Germany counterbids 70,000. Continue to 11 million.The point being that at any given moment in the war all the old deaths were sunk costs, and as such irrelevant; the original objective – mastery in Europe – was thought to be worth the number of extra deaths in the next bid, and it was only those extra deaths that were at issue, which meant that it was worth bidding. If the Germans had had to open with a bid of five million, or if they had and the French had to decide whether to bid six million, the results might have been different; but that’s not the way it worked.

  6. Kevin O’Neill, the only poetry I heard from the Vietnam regs at Singleton was all unprintable. Most were senior NCOs just back and very scarred individuals. My next door neighbour was conscripted and came back a broken man, he eventually killed himself. Nothing very poetical there. But I do take your point about dark side poetry, until the Vietnam conflict I did not get poetry at all, but the dark stuff makes sense. Let’s not ever let the Vietnam conflict get to become another nationalistic myth. War is hell and few people come back from hell unharmed.

  7. Well sir, I’ll briefly recount a family tale, documantarily verified, in which a great uncle who was well in touch with the anti-war arguments of the IWW, initially refused to enlist in WWI and then succumbed, after small town pressure in a mining community full of Wlesh, Scots and the Eglish, to anonymous white feathers in the mail. The sign of the coward. An homosexual (relish that) and a pacifist he managed to enlist in the field ambulance where he was posted to Egypt and France. According to official docs presented by the Museum of Wars and Bloody Nation Building, he spent a large amount of time AWOL or recuperating from an STD, apparently most of them, in hospitals in London.

    A sensible man who who responded to the horrors of the battle front by running away and rooting himself senseless whenever possible.

    He retired to a lower-Hunter nest where he became a ‘personal attendant’ to a Chinese market gardener once known as ‘Chinaman’s Hollow’ but which is now, amazingly, dedicated as a peace park by the local council.

    Having inherited his opium pipe, locally employed as an undistinguished clerk, one day I read about how opium poppies had been discovered growing in the area then known as ‘chinaman’s hollow’. The state authorities were tearing out the largest wild cannabis crop in Australian history, on the banks of the Hunter River, sometime in the early seventies, when they discovered my great uncle’s heritage.

    A solid contribution to Australia, the clever old bugger, as they say, from a man who was as well educated then as to the insane hazards of life as anyone could be today. A clever ct to follow.

  8. Professor Quiggin wrote:

    The same point is made by Newton in Hell-Bent: Australia’s leap into the Great War (recommended in comments a while ago by James Sinnamon.

    Thank you, Professor Quiggin.

    In 2014 – before July 2014 when “Hell-Bent” was published – I have deduced – Douglas Newton also published “The Darkest Days – the Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914”. Other titles by Douglas Newton listed on DouglasNewton _dot_ net include: “Germany 1918 – from Days of Hope to Years of Horror” (2016), “British Policy and the Weimar Republic” (2016), “British Labour, European Socialism and the Struggle for Peace 1889-1914” (2016). (He seems very prolific in writing about topics which are of interest to me. I will be sure to make enquiries at my local bookshop and library.)

    Anthony Nolan, your grandfather’s experience seems similar to those of Ernest Hemingway in Italy in 1918 as described in his book “A farewell to Arms” (1929).

    I disagree with what John Bentley wrote:

    Churchill sent my father to Greece to become cannon fodder for the Germans. This manouvre was executed by Churchill on the pretext of trying to get the US to support the British.

    /p>

    … which appears to have become established wisdom. Had Churchill (for all his terrible faults) not sent Commonwealth forces to Greece, Hitler would have been able to launch his invasion of the Soviet Union some weeks earlier than 22 June 1941 and the German Army would have almost certainly defeated the Red Army before the 194/42 winter set in.

    The consequences for humanity would have almost certainly been even more terrible than that which subsequently occurred. Eastern Europe, and much of Russia, would have been depopulated, with starvation, bullets and extermination camps, to create Lebensraum for the Aryan “master race.”

    Today, almost certainly, we would, at best, be living in a bi-polar world, divided up between the Third Reich and the United States.

    The terrible sacrifice made by Australians, New Zealanders, British and Greeks against the Italians and Germans in 1941 was clearly a sacrifice that was vastly preferable to the alternative.

    So, whilst I agree with Professor Quiggin that the First World War was a stupid unnecessary slaughter, humanity truly had a stake in the outcome in the Second World.

    The “Balmain Trotskyists”, including Nick Origlass, Issy Weiner, Jim McLelland and Laurie Short, in accord with the views on held by Leon Trotsky, before his murder in August 1940, applied the template, through which they had correctly viewed the First World World War, to the Second World War.

    As shown in “The Battle for Australia” (2013) by Bob Wurth, industrial action by trade union militants as advocated by the “Balmain Trotskyists” on a number of occasions, hampered efforts to defend Australia. This included industrial action on the Darwin waterfront in January 1941 (p59, p107).

    The contrary view, which applies the abovementioned Trotskyist paradigm, which I consider flawed, to the Second World War is to be found in “Australia’s Pacific War” (2011) by Tom O’Lincoln.

  9. @James
    Your #33

    Today, almost certainly, we would, at best, be living in a bi-polar world, divided up between the Third Reich and the United States.

    So, you reckon the Third Reich would have conquered the whole of Asia, then ? Japan and China would have been speaking German ? And India ?

  10. @GrueBleen,

    I have since corrected what I wrote above that
    @GrueBleen,

    After I made that post, I modified what I had written above on an adapted copy of that post published on my own web-site:

    Today, almost certainly, we would, at best, be living in a world divided up between the German Third Reich, the Empire of Japan and the United States. At worst, we would be living in a bi-polar world, split between Germany and Japan.

    Had Nazi Germany, and its allies Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Italy – conquered the Sovier Union, they would, from the resources they would have been able to plunder from Russia and other Soviet republics, been able to give Japan sufficient resources to conquer the rest of Asia and Australasia.

    What made it posssible for the Soviet peoples to prevent this, but at terrible cost were:

    1. The delay to the launch of Operation Barbarossa caused by the necessity of Nazi Germany to first conquer Greece and Yugoslaeavia. Clearly the bravery of, and sacrifice by, Australians (including John Bentley’s late father), New Zealanders, British, Greeks and Yugoslavs in early 1941 almost certainly changed the outcome of that war; and

    2. Supplies from the United States of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and the entry of the United States into the war against Japan on 7 December 1941 and against Nazi Germany a few days later.

    So (as I said above), unlike the case with the First World War, the Second World War was one in which humanity had a vital stake in the outcome.

    Australia’s Labor Prime Minister John Curtin, who conscripted Australians to fight against the Axis powers during the Second World War, campaigned to defeat conscription during the First World War.

    Clearly, if he were around today, he would agree with me.

  11. @James
    Your #36

    a bi-polar world, split between Germany and Japan

    .

    So, who would have conquered the Americas (North, South and Canada) and why wouldn’t the victor have used the enormous industrial and resources (eg oil) facilities of the ex-USA to conquer the other one ? I presume neither would have been interested in Africa, and presumably you would expect Japan to conquer China and India.

    the Second World War was one in which humanity had a vital stake in the outcome.

    Mebbe. What do you estimate is the lifetime of the human race ? One million years ? 10 million years ? One hundred million years ? One hundred years ?

  12. Hitler would have been able to launch his invasion of the Soviet Union some weeks earlier than 22 June 1941 and the German Army would have almost certainly defeated the Red Army before the 194/42 winter set in.

    Well, no, because the red army was retreating in reasonable order and had lots of strategic depth: it wasn’t close to beaten by the time the german advance peaked, and additional materiel deployed against it wouldn’t have pushed it over.

    Which isn’t to say that the greek invasion was wasted or anything — the greek campaign may have even been a net bonus — it’s just that it didn’t have the critical effect you think it had.

    [Churchill had a full-on obsession with opening sideshows that were supposed — by long and implausible chains of consequences — to be “decisive”; it’s dardenelles all over again. Probably this killed more men than it saved — burma certainly did — probably most of them were colonials and coloured, apparently because churchill didn’t have a very high regard for the fighting abilities of the english.]

  13. GrueBleen wrote:

    So, who would have conquered the Americas (North, South and Canada) … ?

    Given the United States’ meddling in Latin America after the Second World War – in Guatemala, Costa Rica, British Guiana, Haiti, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Uruguay, Chile, Jamaica, Argentina, etc., could the outcome possibly have hardly been better be any better in world in which Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and their had conquered the Soviet Union and Japan had conquered the rest of Asia and Australasia.

    A United States government, that was prepared to make peace with such evil, would hardly be a government would be less prepared to meddle in the affairs of Latin America, with or without the collusion of the Axis powers.

    Collin Street in response to:

    Hitler would have been able to launch his invasion of the Soviet Union some weeks earlier than 22 June 1941 and the German Army would have almost certainly defeated the Red Army before the 194/42 winter set in.

    … wrote:

    Well, no, because the red army was retreating in reasonable order and had lots of strategic depth: it wasn’t close to beaten by the time the german advance peaked, and additional materiel deployed against it wouldn’t have pushed it over.

    In 1941, the Red Army suffered catastrophic defeat after catastrophic defeat. Time and time again – at Smolensk, Minsk, Kiev, vast armies were encircled and hundreds of thousands died and hundreds of thousands more were captured.

    By the time Nazi Germany was defeated, a staggering number of Soviet citizens had died. The numbers are estimated to be between 20 million and 25 milliod n military and civilian. By Comparison (from my recollection), around 400,000 Americans had died and 300,000 members of the British Commonwealth had died. As terrible as these death tolls are, they are more than an order of magnitude less than that of the Soviet Union.

    Years ago, in a television documentary about that war, I learnt that of every 200 soldiers in the Red Army in 1941, only 3 were still alive at the end of the war. This even makes the Jewish holocaust look tame by comparison.

    The person who, more than anyone else, helped make this possible was Stalin. Stalin had infamously purged the best officers from the Red Army in 1938.

    In 1939, by signing the Stalin-Hitler pact and supplying Nazi Germany with vast quantities of raw materials, he made it possible for Nazi Germany to conquer Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and France. Fortunately for both the British and the Soviet Union, this proved insufficient to enable Nazi Germany to invade Britain in 1940.

    Stalin was warned repeatedly, by the Americans, the British, his own agents, including the German Communist Richard Sorge, who worked in the German embassy in Tokyo, that Nazi Germany was going to invade in the middle of 1941, but he ignored those warnings. On one occasion, a German soldier, who escaped to the Red Army lines to warn them of the invasion, was shot.

    The terrible slaughter of Red Army soldiers did not end with the first defeat of German Armies at Moscow in the winter of 1941/42. The death toll suffered by the Red Army in its victory at Stalingrad was twice that suffered by Nazi Germany.

    The terrible carnage continued right up until the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945.

    If it were not for Stalin, Nazi Germany would have been defeated years earlier, at a small fraction of the cost to the British Commonwealth, America, France and other allies and most of all, to the Soviet Union.

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