September 05, 2007

Why wars are neccessary

Chris Bradley like most of us is in an ideal world a pacifist and to be honest I agree with him entirely about that- a world without war would be a fine thing. Chris in the post linked to above goes a little further- and I think its worth following him to speculate about the causes of war. Just war theory is of course one of the oldest branches of philosophy and is exceedingly complicated- but there is something in Chris's article that I think needs to be addressed and its in the way that during his discussion Chris deals with the origins of the second world war.

For most of us the instant response to pacificism and a valid one is what would you (the pacifist) have done about Hitler. Hitler being here the archetype of totalitarian evil- though as Chris notes he didn't kill as many people as either Stalin or Mao. In 1939 would your pacifism have gone as far as saying that we should not have fought the invasion of Poland, would your pacifism have gone as far as tolerating the invasion of France, Greece, Russia, Rumania, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Norway and so many other 'old and famous states'. Would your pacifism have remained coherent when Hitler bombed London or when he gassed the Jews. All these are questions a Pacifist has to answer- and some sincerely answer that yes the evils of war would be worse than the evils of oppression. Chris though doesn't make that argument- rather he states that the reasons for Hitler's rise lay in a foolish postwar settlement in the 1918- that the causes for the second war lay in the mishandling of the aftermath of the first.

He is right- the Treaty of Versailles and the myth that Germany had been stabbed in the back, combined with the economic crisis of the late 1930s were fundamental to Hitler's rise. Both in that the huimilation to the Prussian officer elite meant that many of them secretly supported Hitler in the 1920s as Ian Kershaw's biography makes plain, and that the situation supplied Hitler with the popular cause to animate his movement of misfits. Chris therefore leaves the reader with the impression that if only the Treaty of Versailles had been drafted in a more sensible way- then the choice of 1939 would not have existed. The corruption of Versailles preceded the corruption of war- in a sense he is obviously right- but in a very real sense he is also wrong.

Its often rightly said that Generals fight the last war in their battles in the next war- the French command in World War Two who set up fantastic lines of trenches, lines which would have stopped Moltke, but couldn't stop the panzer tanks and bombers, are a wonderful example. But the same thing applies to peace treaties- they are often made to prevent the last war. The Treaty of Versailles was made to prevent a European war caused by the preponderence of Germany on the continent- Germany was taken down to a more managable size- and most of the clauses of Versailles were about the solution to what those statesmen saw as the German problem. Their measures failed of course- and they were wrong in their analysis- but its worth remembering that before using hindsight to condemn them. For it also illustrates another big issue- that we ourselves may unwittingly be here today stoking the fires of future wars- there is no way of us knowing it but we may. Its worth remembering that in the 1920s one of the major causes of anxiety was the fear of a world war- between Europe and America- or between the West and Russia- all that seems obvious today might not seem so obvious in the future.

The problem illustrated by Versailles is that situations indeed do cause wars but that the fundamental elements of those situations are unpredictable. The Great Depression and the individual actions of a couple of foolish German politicians led to Hitler's rise and dominance as well as Versailles. Indeed its perfectly possible to imagine a situation in which Germany formed part of a Western alliance against Russia in this period instead- or in which there was no war at all. Just because history happened in a certain way, doesn't mean it had to happen that way. The problem with saying that war can be avoided if we are not foolish, is that we do not know what the word foolish means- we can guess and most of our political debate is a guess- but ultimately we do not know and will never know until its too late to reverse our own Versailles.

The problem with Chris's argument is that its too easy to go back to the past and find the mistakes that led to war. People at the time didn't plan for war- nobody in 1918 wanted the second world war to start! They planned for peace- their plans were disastrously wrong partly because of things that they could never have predicted, because of information they did not know, because of errors that were implicit in the very way that they understood international politics. As its my belief that you will never eliminate mistakes from diplomacy, its also my belief that you will never really eliminate the need to ask the question, what happens if despite everyone's best efforts another aggressive tyranny like Nazi Germany arises and invades other countries, for me I'm afraid the answer is that in that case we have to go to war.


Lord Nazh© said...

The biggest thing to remember is that treaties don't stop wars. Ever.

Pacifism only works if EVERYONE is an advocate.

dreadnought said...

An interesting post. Nobody who has even the slightest understanding could wish for war: the lowest and foulest state of the human condition. Every effort should be made to avoid war, but it should not be avoided at all costs. Where the nation’s future, and the liberty and way of life of its citizens are directly threatened, how can it be avoided? Pacifism in this instance is the bastion of the misguided or foolish and the coward. The pacifist would accept the sacrifices of others to preserve his own freedoms. In your example, would the Nazi state be tolerant of the pacifist? It would not. Being misguided or foolish, or a coward are arguments too easily made and can be said about any number of other scenarios, but when the future of the nation is at stake, surely it is incumbent of the whole population to act? This is not some right wing view; Michael Foot said that Britain during World War Two, when the whole nation was mobilised for the common good, was the only state of socialism he had known.

Of course, you are right when you say it is far too easy to go back into the past and find mistakes. Hindsight places today’s values on the currency of that time. It is easy to criticise those who created the Treaty of Versailles. But Versailles should be viewed as being totally understandable. The victorious nations had just lived through a war, which cost millions of lives and vast fortunes. Germany was blamed for starting the war and must pay the consequences. Europe had lived under the threat of German militarism for long enough. It was never to be repeated. Additionally, the post war world not only had to be modelled to the requirements of the victorious, it had to be modelled to the requirements of the most powerful nation of the victorious, which happened to be Britain, or so it was believed. In this respect Versailles was no different to any other preceding, post war peace settlement. To enter into ‘what ifs’ is utterly pointless. What if the western allies had not accepted the offer of the Armistice in 1918 but decided to press on with the war until victory was total. With Germany wholly defeated, a Versailles type settlement would not have been required. Would a second world war have ever then occurred? What if the Schlieffen Plan had been successful (some would argue by the way that it was doomed to failure from the outset)? Would the bloodletting of the next 40 years and the rise of soviet communism ever occurred?

I have to take exception at your comment on Generals fighting the last war in their battles in the next war. The fighting of war is a continuous learning experience. One half of the example you use, namely the German invasion of France in 1940 disproves your argument. The German all arms, armoured assault was an evolutionary development of the operational methods employed by the BEF in certain battles of 1918. Germany did not employ anything like this method at any stage during the Great War. It is certainly true that part of the French strategy was based on fixed defensive fortifications but they were influenced by their experiences of the war of movement in 1914, when their casualties were heaviest. Analysis of this period compared to the subsequent siege warfare and their ‘triumph’ at Verdun led them to believe that defence was still in the ascendancy over the attack. The conclusion they took from the Great War was incorrect. They did not collate the experiences of the BEF during the autumn of 1918, which had developed a successful operational method for the assault and had proved that fixed defences were not invulnerable. The fact that the French gleaned the wrong conclusions does not substantiate your claim. The German Army recognised the reality of modern warfare and subsequently fought a new kind of campaign.

By the way, trenches did not stop Moltke. The traditional landscape of the Great War had not yet developed.

Winchester whisperer said...

You've probably addressed this in one of your previous posts, but the interesting thing about 21st century warfare is how much can be done remotely. Drones being operated by computers in Nevada can kill Iraqis. I think we should revert to the ancient Greek idea and simply have a duel between the two best warriors. Life's too shortened...

Gracchi said...

Lord N- yes Pacifism only works if everyone is an advocate. I wasn't saying incidentally that peace treaties stop wars merely that in the case of Versailles there is substantail evidence to suggest that a peace treaty set up a war.

Winchester Whisperer (great name by the way) yes I agree with you remote warfare and biological and chemical warfare have changed the rules of the game. One of the most interesting developments about which I must sometime write is the erosion of the concept of the civilian- but you are right the nature of warfare has changed. I'm not sure about the idea of Homeric duals deciding things but its an interesting idea!

Gracchi said...

Dreadnought- wonderful comment- there is so much to discuss in your comment and I'm going to miss large segments of it here- but here goes.

I think we are in agreement about Versailles- the other aspect of that settlement is that of course lots of the most agrieved reaction was about territorial losses from Germany especially to Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1918- which firstly was about the enforcement of the principle of self determination and secondly was a recognition of things that had already happened. The extent to which in Eastern Europe, the priorities of Versailles were formed by the treaty of Brest Litovsk is unrecognised- and of course insofar as Versailles left both Germany and Russia losers in the East it did it because of that earlier treaty and the boundaries it had set along with the retreat of the German army.

To your point about the Generals- I apologise for the quip- yes I agree with you about perhaps lesson being the wrong word. Obviously the BEF in 1918 could have provided instruction. I think to some extent there is a degree of pace in technological development between the two wars- the tank and the bomber becoming key instruments of war. I'm no military historian- but I do think that for the French in particular your statements about defensive war are right- there is a sense in which the most significant impression of World War One was the BEF advance, but the most dominant was trench warfare and that's the one they took away with them. There were also all kinds of defficiencies in the French High Command at the time- I seem to remember but wouldn't like to go further because I don't have the knowledge.

Btw I wasn't I hope saying that trenches stopped Moltke. I was I hope joking that if Moltke's army had faced the Maginot line it would have been stopped whereas Hitler's of course wasn't.

One last interesting question- since you are much more of an expert than me on this- is whether the Seigfried line could have been turned in the same way as the Maginot line was- were the Germans as vulnerable in 1939 as the French were in 1940.

Thanks for your comment though- I really enjoyed reading it- and please put me right on the military history, its not my subject.

Lord Nazh© said...

You would (imo) be more apt to say that the peace treaty (Versailles) set up Hitler's move to power. It didn't set up the war itself (which would not have occurred without the preceding decade of Nazi empowerment). Hitler used the 'overwhelming' peace treaty to unite the German people to his Nazi party. (yes he used quite a few other things to accomplish this, but one factor was the 'de-arming' of the German Motherland by the allies).

But to outright state that the treaty is a substantial cause of the next war would be (imo) wrong. The treaty did what it intended, the people that were supposed to make sure the treaty was honored did not.