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The World War I Problem

As I’ve been told many times, pacifists, to believe in their silly, idealistic philosophy, have to deal with a problem. I call it “The World War II problem”. As Michael C challenged me in his post on civilian bombing: what about World War II, the most unassailable just war?

At the very least, the Allies saved continental Europe from fascist, dictatorial rule. At the very best, they saved the entire world from Hitler and accidentally saved tens of millions from the concentration camps. Craig Mullaney, as a conflicted young cadet at West Point, discusses his lack of enthusiasm for killing with his priest in The Unforgiving Minute:

    “...Do you believe in a just war?”
    “I think so, Father, like World War II.”
    “Sure, that’s a good example. Do you think Hitler could have been stopped without war?”
    “Of course not, Father.”
    “So you agree that war, although always evil, is sometimes necessary to stop evil?”

The World War II problem: how do you stop Hitler, the embodiment of evil, without war? There isn’t a good answer, ergo, the position of pacifists is morally untenable. Take that pacifists.

Not so fast “just war”-iors. From my perspective as a pacifist, I think soldiers--and war hawks, Gingrich-type realists, pro-war pundits and politicians--have a different problem, one that questions their entire reason for supporting the use of deadly force. I call it “The World War I problem”.

How does a soldier justify fighting in World War I?

World War I was essentially a pointless war, fought for no reason, costing millions of lives.

Look at the casualties alone: 21 million injured, 16 million dead, including 5 million civilians. That’s about 10,000 people dying every day. Putting that in perspective, that’s more people per day than America has lost in both the 9/11 and the war on terror. Counting total death tolls including American, Iraqi and Afghanistan deaths, using the most generous estimates, this war was 32 times as deadly in a world one fourth the size.

And no one died well in World War I. Trench warfare, the ugliest, most fatalistic style of war ever created, meant charging over a trench wall, essentially committing suicide by machine gun fire, all the while dodging sniper fire, artillery and gas. If you retreated, you could be shot for treason. That’s if you didn’t die in the trenches from disease.

Yes, as many, if not more, people died in World War II. And yes, proportionally more people died in the Thirty Years War. What’s more upsetting than the casualties are what the soldiers “died for”. They died for nothing. European “entangling alliances” and military buildups forced by pushy generals created the keg, and the anarchist-inspired assassination of an insignificant archduke lit the fuse. There was no reason to fight and no reason to keep fighting, except to honor those who had already died.

America’s entry into World War I is even more illogical. We had nothing to do with either side, had stayed out of the war for most of it, and only joined because German submarines kept sinking our ships.

Worse were the tangential effects. The Ottoman empire committed not one but two genocides. The Russians killed 60,000 to 200,000 Jewish people in Pogroms. The Germans raped Belgium. Long term, World War I caused both World War II--because of the Versailles treaty--the Cold War--because of the Russian revolution--and twenty years of economic calamity--because of reparations. World War I disenfranchised, ruined, an entire generation.

All of this loss, for what? Not security. Not safety. What? Again, and I can’t emphasize this enough, World War I was a pointless war, horrific in its costs and senseless in its purpose.

Which brings me back to my original question. Instead of pointing to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II, let’s look at the Mexican American War, or World War I, or Vietnam, or the Spanish American War. Let’s look at the pointless, needless wars. The Franco Prussian war, the Crimean War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Thirty Years War, the Gallic Wars, the Punic Wars, and like 1,200 Chinese wars.

How do soldiers, “just war”-iors, war hawks and “war is war”-iors justify the pointless wars? Instead of pointing to the most just war of all time asking, “How could you not fight that war?”, I point at World War I and ask, “How can you possibly go to fight that war?”

To put it more bluntly, how can a soldier who fought in World War I justify what he did? You killed other men, took lives, for no reason. How can you justify that?

There really isn’t a good answer. Just like pacifists, the position of soldiers is morally untenable.

sixteen comments

Eric C’s final sentence is a doozy and, more than proving his own position, he shows that his position is not “untenable”. Basically, if both positions are untenable, then we need to rethink the debate. I love the final line, though as a soldier, I obviously have my disagreements with it.


One could also argue – with some merit – that had WWI not been fought (and the post-war politics been so hideously botched) WWII would not have happened at all.


The WW2 problem is no real problem for most pacifists (only radical pacifists reject self-defence; there are shades of grey). Hitler, the Imperial Japanese and to some degree Stalin were all defeated or kept in check by defending against them.

The hawks and warmongers do not ask for alliances against evil, but for assaulting evil before it strikes itself. That’s an altogether different concept that played no role in WW2.

In fact, Western warmongers are more similar to Hitler in ’41 than to Roosevelt in ’41.


A couple of things about WWI. In the book A Rifleman Went to War, the author contended that when and where he was, there was huge room for individual initiative and skill. Harry Truman saved his battery once strictly on personal initiative. The popular idea of waves of ill trained infantry being mowed down like on the first day of the Somme happened but it wasn’t always that simple. And in places WWII wasn’t much different, Russian attacks in the first year of the war and the Marines being mowed down in the open at Tarawa being two things that come to mind (though Tarawa was smaller scale).

As far as why, in another book I read called Sliderule by Neville Shute, recounted what he though as he graduated from school in 1918. He thought he would be dead the next year. It was a certainty. He would die in France. But I don’t remember if there was any thought about not going or why. It just was. I would guess that he was going because his mates were going and it was expected. That is all.

I don’t know if hawks call for striking evil before it strikes. When I was growing up, long ago, it wasn’t about striking evil first, it was more about resisting evil early. This because it was perceived that there were numerous chances to stop Nazi Germany before Sept 1939, but nobody had the moxie to seize the opportunity. Sort of-you have to chance fighting the little war in order to avoid having to fight the big war later.


To put it more bluntly, how can a soldier who fought in World War I justify what he did? You killed other men, took lives, for no reason. How can you justify that?

There really isn’t a good answer. Just like pacifists, the position of soldiers is morally untenable.

I think this line of contention is establishing a false dichotomy.

A pacifist, by definition, is “a person who believes in pacifism or is opposed to war or to violence of any kind.” Inherent in the definition is the implication that pacifism is a belief, not a commission, as opposed to…

the jobs of soldiers.

Soldiers are told what to do. They don’t generate the nation’s foreign policy. They don’t decide when to venture into war. Etc.

So for this notion that pacifists are on equal grounds with soldiers — I disagree.

How do soldiers, “just war”-iors, war hawks and “war is war”-iors justify the pointless wars? Instead of pointing to the most just war of all time asking, “How could you not fight that war?”, I point at World War I and ask, “How can you possibly go to fight that war?”

Based one my first premise, there’s a conflation of soldiers and those who decide or influence policy (e.g. the neo-conservatives and Iraq) in this piece. When was the last time a Specialist, a PFC, or a Captain was ever asked about what he or she thought about venturing into war?

Yup, exactly my point.

I also reject the notion that if you’re not a pacifist, you must be a “war is war”-iors (or in this article’s case, a soldier). How about in between? I’m planning on serving in the Army now, but if it were Vietnam, I’d be burning my draft card right alongside the anti-war protestors.

As Michael astutely suggests, “we need to rethink the debate” — this article as no exception.


Oh, and —

as a student of history, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the historical speculation that is omnipresent in this article.

Well, if WWI wasn’t fought, would WWII have even occurred?

Well… if humans were perfect, would we need war?

I agree that these are important questions; however, they should be that: questions about how we as human beings can progress and learn from our past mistakes. However, I don’t agree that the (extraordinarily) hypothetical answers to these inquiries can substitute as indisputable premises.


Joseph,

As a student of history you must, surely, appreciate the enormous influence the Versailles Treaty had upon the internal dynamics of 1920’s and 30’s Germany. Added together with the imposition of a democratic process that never really progressed beyond constitutional haggling, there are few who would argue that WWII was not a consequence of WWI.

All wars have consequences – few of which are forseen by those who start the wars in the first place – and very often rise to become a greater threat than the original cause of the war.

You also say that, though you would have burned your draft card had you been called to fight in Vietnam (an easy enough statement, given that you likely did not live through the fear-mongering of 50’s and 60’s American anti-communism) you are willing to fight in Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran, Syria, Yemen, or wherever “orders” may send you. Do you really believe that a fringe element of a fringe element, based on a broadly discredited fundamentalist reading of religious texts, represents a greater threat to the 300 million people of the United States of America, than the combined expansionism of Soviet and Sino communism?


Steve,

I agree with your first paragraph. I never stated that these questions shouldn’t be answered, simply that they shouldn’t be used as strong premises (as I contend that this article does).

All wars have consequences – few of which are forseen by those who start the wars in the first place – and very often rise to become a greater threat than the original cause of the war.

Would you be able to clarify here? “All wars” is obviously, very encompassing — you further imply that they, usually, aren’t worth fighting at all (based on a holistic cost-benefit analysis [so, taking into account lives lost, the treasure of a nation, etc] due to this “trend” you see). So, when would you even consider violent intervention? Would you at all? Based on what criteria?

(an easy enough statement, given that you likely did not live through the fear-mongering of 50’s and 60’s American anti-communism)

I’m sorry — I didn’t know that we were attacking each others’ personalities based on our positions. I would’ve thought that perhaps since you’re an accomplished film-maker, you would’ve been a bit more intellectually mature. I’ve seen your comments on this blog and I truly respected them; however, I’m hard-pressed to say that’s my perception at this point in time.

I was considering responding to this last bit of yours, but I have absolutely no interest in furthering this discussion.


Joseph,

I’m sorry if my last para appeared to be a personal attack. It was not meant to be, and I apologize.

What it was meant to be was part of a broader question to you about the consideration of credible threats. The 50’s and 60’s enemy was communism – a threat that continued to be expounded (though with waning enthusiasm) until such time as the whole Soviet edifice collapse about its own ears. I had never been to Russia during the Soviet era but to see early 1970’s style cars still being driven around by the masses into the late 90’s, along with the generally crumbling infrastucture, one could see that someone had been pulling a fast one in the analysis game. One such was the last Defense Secretary who, in his tenure as DCIA, continued to purposefully ignore his analysts and persist in the elevation of a threat that was no more than a myth.

So, my question is, if Vietnam was not worth fighting (and I think the jury returned a verdict some time ago) why is everyone suddenly so terrified of a few hundred Arab amateurs that we have to send armies around the world to have a war with them? It makes no sense to me and I still fail to see how so many people have been duped by such a hyped up threat.

On the broader question of wars that are, or are not, worth fighting, I would not deny that WWII became a necessary war, even though it was such a pity that it was allowed to happen in the first place. But I think both world wars prove the point: don’t go to war unless you have absolutely no choice other than to do so.

In my lifetime I have not seen such a war and believe I am highly unlikely to.

Some would argue that the post-9/11 invasion of Aghanistan was just and proper – a good war. But was it necessary? I have always believed it was not, based on there being alternative measures – both punitive and preventative – that could have been taken instead.

On a personal note, for you, there are a number of reasons why a citizen of the United States or any other NATO member country might reasonably join the armed forces. I don’t believe that defending our citizens or national interests is among them and, given the current political rush for the Afghan exit door, I don’t seem to be alone in that belief.

Put plainly, if “staying the course” in South Asia were so important to our way of life and collective interests then we would have seen a very different level of political committment this past decade and a great deal more would have been demanded of our citizenry.

Finally, I don’t know whether you have read them, but if not I do recommend two excellent books that inspire a great deal of thought on this subject: the first is “The Utility of Force” by Rupert Smith and the other is “Every War Must End” by F.C. Ikle.

Good luck.

Steve


@ Steve – Any more info on those two books?


@ Joseph – I will say I think this article furthers debate because of the overwhelming focus by most Americans on WWII to influence all policy.

In short, and I need to expand this idea in longer posts, we need to make war much harder to start. WWII—because of its success—makes war too easy. And the fact that most people believe it stopped future wars—as opposed to the spread of democratic institutions, global trade, atomic weapons, the Marshall plan—has kept the US fighting wars ever since, though on much smaller scales.


Michael,

I don’t know if this article “furthers” the debate. These are points that have been time and time again. I stand by my positions that:

  • This article conflates the responsibility soldiers (especially in a conflict where they were drafted) and those who actually influence foreign policy.
  • It establishes a false dichotomy: that if one isn’t a “war is war“ior, one must be a pacifist opposed to all wars. This is especially illustrated by the last sentence:

There really isn’t a good answer. Just like pacifists, the position of soldiers is morally untenable.

  • It poses the age-old question: which wars shouldn’t we fight? I agree with the sentiment of the question, but this post fails to answer its own question.

In addition to those points I already made, on my second read:

  • This post fails to answer the implied question it itself poses: that is, which wars should we fight? What is the criteria for such wars? How should we intervene? Unilaterally or multilaterally?
  • Lastly, within the argumentative parameters of the false dichotomy I contend this article has created, it makes a straw-man argument:

The World War II problem: how do you stop Hitler, the embodiment of evil, without war? There isn’t a good answer, ergo, the position of pacifists is morally untenable. Take that pacifists.

Eric quite blatantly states that “soldiers—and war hawks, Gingrich-type realists, pro-war pundits and politicians” are the ones posing this question. Again, I don’t believe it’s this simple (most especially with soldiers). If one isn’t a pacifist, by Eric’s standards, one must be (implicitly), for war.

Back to my original point: I’m not sure if it furthers discussion.

I think the sentiment of this article’s main proposition is a very important one: that there have been “unjust” wars (with 20/20 hindsight), so how do we avoid fighting more in the future? Given this, I don’t think it’s original or articulated as well as it could be.

I will say I think this article furthers debate because of the overwhelming focus by most Americans on WWII to influence all policy.

Sure, one may say WWII. One could also say intervention in Bosnia. Or non-intervention in Rwanda (or perhaps you know something about WWII, statistically believed by Americans, that I don’t)?

I simply believe that it’s a case-by-case basis on which wars to fight (if it ever reaches that point, as I believe that war should be one of, if not the, last option).


I’m addressing a much simpler philosophical/logical conundrum:

To disprove pacifism, pro-war advocates feels that they only need to prove the justness of one war, and the position is squashed. Usually World War II is the example. Take the quote I opened the passage with.

I wanted to do the same with people who support war. And I’ll say this: unjust wars happen a lot more. We’ve had at least one in the last ten years.


Eric,

Again, I’m not sure I agree with your dichotomy.

To disprove pacifism, pro-war advocates feels that they only need to prove the justness of one war, and the position is squashed.

As far as I know, people usually aren’t absolute pacifists or absolute “pro-war advocates”. I don’t see a clear definition of either of the two in this piece, let alone any grey area in between them.

I “supported” the war in Iraq (in principle, at the absolute minimum). Practically however, I’m quite staunchly against it.

It seems to me that following your rationale, if I could prove that one war is just, then “all wars” must be just (including the Iraq War, which I “supported”).

Furthermore, you don’t answer either the question posed of you or the one you pose. You answer neither “Which wars should we fight?” nor “Which wars shouldn’t we fight?” in your piece.

I contend that every war is based on a case-by-case basis (so, taking into consideration geopolitics, international relations, domestic resources, threat levels, etc), which is why I have a problem with the “you’re either with us or against us” mentality in this post: can’t people be for some wars yet oppose others?

Moreover, I don’t sit well with the 20/20 hindsight analysis you present in this piece. Based off your content of choice (e.g. body counts), you view what wasn’t done right without offering alternatives to what should’ve been done instead. i.e. You don’t offer a practical alternative, even with 20/20 hindsight. Sure, you can criticize without alternatives — but what good does it do if it isn’t justified (and especially with such a messy topic like foreign policy)?

I was hoping to find answers to the questions in this piece, but on my third read through, I fail to do so.

- Joseph


A couple things, and you’re mostly right in a lot of your posts. The world isn’t black or white, this or that, like you say.:

1. I didn’t have the space in a post this small to address all these issues.

2. We actually will be discussing when/what wars to fight in upcoming posts, with Michael C writing about his disappointment with Just War theory/Just War theories abuse by theorists/pro-war advocates.

3. A lot of this post was written in response to comments/arguments I’ve recieved heard, as a pacifist.


Hi Eric,

Thanks for the comments. I just wish you’d put a bit more context about who you’re addressing specifically and if you could refrain from lumping everybody into one monolithic “groupthink” machine when you do so.

2. We actually will be discussing when/what wars to fight in upcoming posts, with Michael C writing about his disappointment with Just War theory/Just War theories abuse by theorists/pro-war advocates.

Cool. Looking forward to your guys’ posts.