War is Dumb

You know how kids sometimes have this uncanny ability to cut to the chase and tell the truth? That’s what happened years ago when Dana and I were watching the TV mini-series, “Winds of War,” based on Herman Wouk’s novels about World War II. Dana was 9 or 10 at the time. As she watched the war unfold on TV, all of a sudden she blurted out, “War is dumb. Why can’t they just talk?”

toendallwarsI thought of Dana’s outburst many times while I was reading Adam Hochschild’s 2011 book about World War I, entitled To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918. The book focuses mostly on Britain’s involvement in World War I, profiling the military and political personalities who master-minded and promoted the war as well as those who resisted it and in many cases ended up in jail for doing so. I was particularly interested in these war resisters because my great-uncle, Ernest J. Swalm, went to jail as a conscientious objector in 1918 for refusing to join the Canadian army, and because I too am opposed to war.

There are so many facets of the book that I found illuminating and instructive, it’s hard to know where to start. Here are a few passages that jumped out at me:

“Since all of the nation’s wars in living memory had been victorious, many influential Britons expected that a brisk campaign in Europe would be a welcome spine-stiffener for a country in danger of going soft. ‘Peace may and has ruined many a nationality with its surfeit of everything except those tonics of privation and sacrifice,’ wrote a commentator in the Daily Mail in 1912. ‘But the severest war wreaks little practical injury'” (p. 69).

So many times, especially at the beginning in the build-up to the war, it seemed like the people in power believed that there is nothing like a good war and were itching for an opportunity to go to war. There didn’t seem to be much talk of negotiation or diplomacy to avoid war. In fact, at one point Hochschild notes, “If there were ever a war that should have had an early, negotiated peace, it was this one” (p. 275). Dana’s question rang in my ears: “Why can’t they just talk?”

“Hardie [a war resister] faced a dilemma common to peace activists then and now: how do you oppose a war without seeming to undermine the husbands, fathers, and brothers of your fellow citizens whose lives are in danger?” (p. 100).

I have felt this dilemma many times. How do you separate principled opposition to war in general or one war in particular from the people who are fighting the war? Perhaps more importantly, how do you demonstrate compassion and caring for military personnel in practical ways when you don’t support the war they’re fighting and don’t want to support the entire military system?

“Antiwar beliefs were severely tested by the mass patriotic hysteria of the war’s first months. ‘One by one, the people with whom I had been in the agreeing politically went over to the side of war,’ as [Bertrand] Russell put it. . . . How hard it was, he wrote, to resist ‘when the whole nation is in a state of violent excitement.” (p. 113).

Again, I have experienced this personally. I remember the build-up to the first gulf war in 1991, when I was part of efforts to stop the rush to war. A friend was part of a peacemaking delegation to Iraq to try to help Americans put a human face on “the enemy”; she and other members of the delegation were soundly criticized for not being patriotic, for consorting with the enemy, etc. And of course, the nationalistic/patriotic fervor that swept the U.S. after 9/11 contributed to the willingness to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and had to be stopped militarily. We know now that wasn’t true, yet it was extremely difficult for many members of Congress to oppose the rush to war for fear of being called unpatriotic and soft.

“Today it is easy enough to look back and see the manifold tragic consequences of the First World War, but when the guns were firing and the pressure from friends and family to support the war effort was overwhelming, it required rare courage to resist” (p. 188).

When conscription began in Britain in 1916, the law provided an exemption for conscientious objectors. By the end of the war, more than 20,000 men had refused to join the armed forces, but many were denied CO status. More than 6,000 resisters spent time in prison. In Canada there was also conscription, and initially there was an exemption for conscientious objectors, but as more bodies were needed for the war, the draft was extended with no exemptions for anyone. That’s when my great-uncle was drafted and imprisoned for refusing to join the army. While he personally had courage and a deep Christian faith, he and others like him also had the strong support of their families and the wider church community.

A few additional notes:

  • I think I have generally associated the arms race more with the nuclear age than with previous generations. So it was interesting to note the significant arms race that took place during the four years of World War I: from cavalry and bayonets to trench warfare, barbed wire as defense, poison gas (chlorine) then mustard gas, tanks, submarines, machine guns, bombs dropped from airplanes and launched from far away. Every time one side came up with something new, the other side had to counteract it with another more powerful and horrific weapon. I kept thinking about Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book, which I read to my grandchildren the last time they visited!
  • More than 8.5 million soldiers were killed, and more than 21 million were wounded. Britain alone lost 722,000, plus 220,000 in the rest of the British Empire. Civilian war deaths were estimated at 12-13 million. By 1918, British war-related spending was 70 percent of the gross national product, and the national debt increased more than ten times. The numbers are mind-boggling!
  • Ongoing public support for the war was aided by the collusion of the press and by censorship. Despite Britain’s commitment to a free press, many articles submitted to newspapers were censored and the publications of war resisters were routinely shut down or severely hampered. Reporters were embedded with the army and filed reports that omitted much of the awful truth of what was really happening. Hochschild writes about “the most sophisticated propaganda operation the world had yet seen” (p. 289).
  • The “war to end all wars” set the stage for World War II and other future conflicts. Take Germany as the most obvious example. German civilians suffered painful privations, so much so that the average German adult lost 20 percent of his or her body weight during the war. These privations “inflamed an angry nationalism in Germany, producing a foretaste of the hysteria that, a quarter century later, would reach a climax of unimaginable proportions” (p. 312). Then as a result of the treaties from the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Germany’s territory was reduced by 10 percent and the country was required to pay huge reparations and acknowledge guilt for starting the war. Hochschild writes, “The public ignominy of being dictated to by the Allies rankled deeply. . . , providing essential grist for the rise of Hitler” (pp. 357-358).

The idea that “war is dumb” might sound overly simplistic, not acknowledging moral complexities and the choices between two or more evils we often feel we have to make. Yet when I read a book like this that so clearly shows the headlong rush to war by many, the colossal expenditure of human and material resources, the ability of humans to devise ever more deadly and horrific means to kill each other, and how the seeds for future conflict were firmly planted in fertile soil, it’s hard not to default to the simple: “War is dumb. Why can’t they just talk?” From this war “to end all wars” a century ago, how many more wars were set in motion? In what ways are we still reaping the results of that war? Do those of us who are conscientiously opposed to war have the courage and integrity to stand up for our convictions, maintain a consistent witness for peace, and promote alternative and nonviolent methods for resolving conflict, even conflicts between nations?

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One thought on “War is Dumb

  1. Pingback: Honoring People While Opposing War | Pieces of Peace

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