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War is a Racket - Incredible Essay by General Smedley Butler

War is a Racket

Dear friends,

That war is a racket has been told us by many, but rarely by one of this stature. Though he died in 1940, the highly decorated General Butler deserves to be heralded for his timeless message. His riveting 1935 booklet War is a Racket merits inclusion as required reading for every high school student, and every member of our armed forces today. After reading the following excerpts from this amazingly revealing essay, please forward it to all your friends. By spreading the word far and wide, we can and will create a brighter future for ourselves and for our children.

To read General Butler's entire booklet (only 20 pages), go to:

http://www.veteransforpeace.org/war_is_a_racket_033103.htm

First, an excerpt from a speech delivered in 1933 by General Smedley Butler, USMC

War is just a racket. I wouldn't go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.

It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers.

I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.

I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.


WAR IS A RACKET- by General Smedley D. Butler


CHAPTER ONE

WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

In the World War [I] a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.

Out of war nations acquire additional territory. If they are victorious, they just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few - the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill.

Take our own case. Until 1898, our national debt was a little more than $1 billion. Then we became "internationally minded." We forgot George Washington's warning about "entangling alliances." We went to war. We acquired outside territory. At the end of the World War period, as a direct result of our fiddling in international affairs, our national debt had jumped to over $25 billion. [Please note that these are 1935 US dollars, to adjust for inflation, multiply all figures X 10]

It would have been far cheaper (not to say safer) for the average American who pays the bills to stay out of foreign entanglements. For a very few this racket brings fancy profits, but the cost of operations is always transferred to the people - who do not profit.


CHAPTER TWO

WHO MAKES THE PROFITS?

The World War, rather our brief participation in it, has cost the United States some $52 billion. Figure it out. That means $400 [that is in 1935 dollars = over $4,000 in today's dollars] to every American man, woman, and child.

The normal yearly profits of a business concern in the United States are six to twelve percent. But war-time profits - ah! that is another matter - sixty, one hundred, three hundred, and even eighteen hundred per cent - the sky is the limit. All that traffic will bear. Uncle Sam has the money. Let's get it.

Of course, it isn't put that crudely in war time. It is dressed into speeches about patriotism, love of country, and "we must all put our shoulders to the wheel," but the profits jump and leap and skyrocket - and are safely pocketed. Let's just take a few examples:

Take our friends the du Ponts, the powder people - didn't one of them testify before a Senate committee recently that their powder won the war? Well, the average pre-war earnings of the du Ponts for the period 1910 to 1914 were $6 million a year. Now let's look at their average yearly profit during the war years, 1914 to 1918. $58 million a year profit we find! Nearly ten times that of normal times, and the profits of normal times were pretty good. An increase in profits of more than 950 per cent.

Take one of our little steel companies that patriotically shunted aside the making of rails and girders and bridges to manufacture war materials. Well, their 1910-1914 yearly earnings averaged $6 million. Then came the war. And, like loyal citizens, Bethlehem Steel promptly turned to munitions making. Did their profits jump - or did they let Uncle Sam in for a bargain? Well, their 1914-1918 average was $49 million a year!

Or, let's take United States Steel. The normal earnings during the five-year period prior to the war were $105 million a year. Not bad. Then along came the war and up went the profits. The average yearly profit for the period 1914-1918 was $240 million. Not bad.

A little copper, perhaps. Anaconda, for instance. Average yearly earnings during the pre-war years 1910-1914 of $10 million. During the war years 1914-1918 profits leaped to $34 million per year. Or Utah Copper. Average of $5 million per year during the 1910-1914 period. Jumped to an average of $21 million yearly profits for the war period.

Let's group these five, with three smaller companies. The total yearly average profits of the pre-war period 1910-1914 were $137 million. Then along came the war. The average yearly profits for this group skyrocketed to $408 million. A little increase in profits of approximately 200 per cent.

Does war pay? It paid them. But they aren't the only ones. There are still others. Let's take leather.

For the three-year period before the war the total profits of Central Leather Company were approximately $1.2 million a year. Well, in 1916 Central Leather returned a profit of $15 million, a small increase of 1,100 per cent. That's all. The General Chemical Company averaged a profit for the three years before the war of a little over $800,000 a year. Came the war, and the profits jumped to $12 million, a leap of 1,400 per cent.

Listen to Senate Document No. 259. The 65th Congress, reporting on corporate earnings and government revenues. Considering the profits of 122 meat packers, 153 cotton manufacturers, 299 garment makers, 49 steel plants, and 340 coal producers during the war. Profits under 25 per cent were exceptional. For instance the coal companies made between 100 per cent and 7,856 per cent on their capital stock during the war. The Chicago packers doubled and tripled their earnings.

And let us not forget the bankers who financed the great war. If anyone had the cream of the profits it was the bankers. Being partnerships rather than incorporated organizations, they do not have to report to stockholders. And their profits were as secret as they were immense. How the bankers made their millions and their billions I do not know, because those little secrets never become public - even before a Senate investigatory body.

But here's how some of the other patriotic industrialists and speculators chiseled their way into war profits.

Take the shoe people. They sold Uncle Sam 35 million pairs of hobnailed service shoes. There were 4 million soldiers. Eight pairs, and more, to a soldier. My regiment during the war had only one pair to a soldier. When the war was over Uncle Sam had a matter of 25 million pairs left over. Bought - and paid for. Profits recorded and pocketed. There was still lots of leather left. So the leather people sold your Uncle Sam hundreds of thousands of McClellan saddles for the cavalry. But there wasn't any American cavalry overseas!


They sold your Uncle Sam 20 million mosquito nets for the use of the soldiers overseas. Well, not one of these mosquito nets ever got to France! There were pretty good profits in mosquito netting, even if there were no mosquitoes in France.

Airplane and engine manufacturers felt they, too, should get their just profits out of this war. Why not? Everybody else was getting theirs. So $1 billion - count them if you live long enough - was spent by Uncle Sam in building airplane engines that never left the ground! Not one plane, or motor, out of the billion dollars worth ordered, ever got into a battle in France. Just the same the manufacturers made their little profit of 30, 100, or perhaps 300 per cent.

The shipbuilders felt they should come in on some of it, too. They built a lot of ships that made a lot of profit. More than $3 billion worth. Some of the ships were all right. But $635 million worth of them were made of wood and wouldn't float! The seams opened up - and they sank. We paid for them, though. And somebody pocketed the profits.

Undershirts for soldiers cost 14¢ [cents] to make and uncle Sam paid 30¢ to 40¢ each for them - a nice little profit for the undershirt manufacturer. And the stocking manufacturer and the uniform manufacturers and the cap manufacturers and the steel helmet manufacturers - all got theirs.

Why, when the war was over some 4 million sets of equipment - knapsacks and the things that go to fill them - crammed warehouses on this side. Now they are being scrapped because the regulations have changed the contents. But the manufacturers collected their wartime profits on them - and they will do it all over again the next time.

It has been estimated by statisticians and economists and researchers that the war cost your Uncle Sam $52 billion. Of this sum, $39 billion was expended in the actual war itself. This expenditure yielded $16 billion in profits. That is how the 21,000 billionaires and millionaires got that way. This $16 billion profits is not to be sneezed at. It is quite a tidy sum. And it went to a very few.


CHAPTER THREE

WHO PAYS THE BILLS?

Who provides the profits - these nice little profits of 20, 100, 300, 1,500 and 1,800 per cent? We all pay them - in taxation. We paid the bankers their profits when we bought Liberty Bonds at $100.00 and sold them back at $84 or $86 to the bankers. These bankers collected $100 plus. It was a simple manipulation. The bankers control the security marts. It was easy for them to depress the price of these bonds. Then all of us - the people - got frightened and sold the bonds at $84 or $86. The bankers bought them. Then these same bankers stimulated a boom and government bonds went to par - and above. Then the bankers again collected their profits.

But the soldier pays the biggest part of the bill.

If you don't believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit any of the veteran's hospitals in the United States. On a tour of the country, in the midst of which I am at the time of this writing, I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are a total of about 50,000 destroyed men - men who were the pick of the nation 18 years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital; at Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed at home.

Boys with a normal viewpoint were taken out of the fields and offices and factories and classrooms and put into the ranks. There they were remolded; they were made over; they were made to "about face"; to regard murder as the order of the day. They were put through mass psychology and entirely changed. We used them for a couple of years, and trained them to think nothing at all of killing or of being killed.

Then, suddenly, we discharged them and told them to make another "about face!" This time they had to do their own readjustment. We didn't need them any more. Many, too many, of these fine young boys are eventually destroyed, mentally, because they could not make that final "about face" alone.

In the government hospital in Marion, Indiana, 1,800 of these boys are in pens! Five hundred of them in a barracks with steel bars and wires all around outside the buildings and on the porches. These already have been mentally destroyed. These boys don't even look like human beings. Oh, the looks on their faces! Physically, they are in good shape; mentally, they are gone.

In the World War, we used propaganda to make the boys accept conscription. They were made to feel ashamed if they didn't join the army. So vicious was this war propaganda that even God was brought into it. With few exceptions our clergymen joined in the clamor to kill, kill, kill. To kill the Germans. God is on our side. It is His will that the Germans be killed. And in Germany, the good pastors called upon the Germans to kill the allies...to please the same God.

Beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to die. This was the "war to end all wars." This was the "war to make the world safe for democracy." No one mentioned to them, as they marched away, that their going and their dying would mean huge war profits. No one told these American soldiers that they might be shot down by bullets made by their own brothers here. No one told them that the ships on which they were going to cross might be torpedoed by submarines built with United States patents. They were just told it was to be a "glorious adventure."


CHAPTER FOUR

HOW TO SMASH THIS RACKET!

WELL, it's a racket, all right. A few profit - and the many pay. But there is a way to stop it. You can't end it by disarmament conferences. You can't eliminate it by peace parleys at Geneva. Well-meaning but impractical groups can't wipe it out by resolutions.

To summarize: Three steps must be taken to smash the war racket:

1. We must take the profit out of war.
2. We must permit the youth of the land who would bear arms to decide whether or not there should be war.
3. We must limit our military forces to home defense purposes.


CHAPTER FIVE

TO HELL WITH WAR!

I am not a fool as to believe that war is a thing of the past. I know the people do not want war, but there is no use in saying we cannot be pushed into another war. Looking back, Woodrow Wilson was re-elected president in 1916 on a platform that he had "kept us out of war." Yet, five months later he asked Congress to declare war on Germany.

In that five-month interval the people had not been asked whether they had changed their minds. The 4 million young men who put on uniforms and marched or sailed away were not asked whether they wanted to go forth to suffer and die. Then what caused our government to change its mind so suddenly?

Money.

An allied commission, it may be recalled, came over shortly before the war declaration and called on the President. The President summoned a group of advisers. The head of the commission spoke. Stripped of its diplomatic language, this is what he told the President and his group:

"There is no use kidding ourselves any longer. The cause of the allies is lost. We now owe you (American bankers, American munitions makers, American manufacturers, American speculators, American exporters) five or six billion dollars. If we lose (and without the help of the US we must lose) we, England, France and Italy, cannot pay back this money...and Germany won't. So..."

Had secrecy been outlawed as far as war negotiations were concerned, and had the press been invited to be present at that conference, or had radio been available to broadcast the proceedings, America never would have entered the World War. But this conference, like all war discussions, was shrouded in utmost secrecy. When our boys were sent off to war they were told it was a "war to make the world safe for democracy" and a "war to end all wars." And very little, if anything, has been accomplished to assure us that the World War was really the war to end all wars.

There is only one way to disarm with any semblance of practicability. That is for all nations to get together and scrap every ship, every gun, every rifle, every tank, every war plane.


So...I say, TO HELL WITH WAR!


To read the entire booklet (only 20 pages), go to:
http://www.veteransforpeace.org/war_is_a_racket_033103.htm

To order the booklet:
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0922915865/ref=pd_ecc_rvi_1/102-8123938-9404104


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[Oct 23, 2016] Unnecessary wars

Notable quotes:
"... Now the system faces exhaustion, discreditation, crisis and when the masses turn to radical demands on their wealth and power the elite turns to the popular prejudice it holds in the palm of its hand: the lust for war. ..."
"... in a system where state power engineers a national market in a competitive world wide economic system, said state powers will pursue the competition by multifarious means, including state violence, a competition leading to negative outcomes. That, in other words, the breakdown of the general peace between the great empires was an inevitability, even if the date was an accident found by sleepwalkers. No doubt the notion seems outre for those who believe at heart in the magic of the market. ..."
"... I confess it's hard for me to grasp why the experience of the Great War would be internalized as a lesson by today's leaders – by what mechanism? They have no direct experience of it at all. The horror of the war is so remote as to reside in the realm of fantasy or fiction. ..."
"... As to the consequences, today's leaders and war advocates of whom you speak reside in countries that are by and large the beneficiaries of past wars. ..."
"... Since you seem to be interested in the causes of wars, wonder if you are familiar with John Swomley's work. ..."
"... All war is for profit. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought for profit. The profit from Iraqi oil and whatever was expected from Afghanistan were irrelevant. Weapons of mass destruction, the Taliban, even Isis, were and are all issues that could have been more efficiently handled, but instead were pretexts to convince the credulous of the necessity of war. The real profit was the profit taken by the military-political-industrial complex in the treasure and stolen rights of the American people. That is the bottom line for why we went to war, and why we are still there, and why, if our elites persist, we might go to war with Russia or China. ..."
"... The decision to continue it seems to be a natural consequence of the human proclivity towards doubling down. This operates on many levels, some of which are related to the need for vindication of those involved in the decision to start the conflict. There is also the horror that if you end a war without achieving something the masses can identify with as victory, then the families of those killed will see that their loved ones died in vain -- for someone else's mistake (very bad for your political future). ..."
"... Japan currently has a constitution that makes war illegal. ..."
"... John Quiggin- The problem I was trying to suggest was that of presentism. ..."
Oct 22, 2016 | crookedtimber.org

on October 22, 2016

I've written a lot here about 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 Douglas Newton in Hell-Bent: Australia's leap into the Great War . 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.

mjfgates 10.22.16 at 6:19 am ( 1 )

The Napoleonic Wars were no more remote from 1914 than the First World War is from today. If it's reasonable to expect modern leaders to remember the Somme, you can damned well blame Kaiser Wilhelm for not remembering Austerlitz. (Not really meaning to single him out there; I'm pretty sure that everybody had at least one "whoopsie, got a few tens of thousands of our boys killed there" moment between 1799-1815.)

Jerry Vinokurov 10.22.16 at 7:26 am

I forget, did CT ever have a symposium on Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers ?

Timothy Scriven 10.22.16 at 8:59 am ( 3 )

I'm surprised I haven't run into some godawful right-revisionist arguing the allies were on the side of the angels in the great war. No doubt one will present themselves in the comments.

RichardM 10.22.16 at 10:26 am ( 5 )

According to wiki, the Boer War cost £200 million (£22 billion @ 2015). Annual SA gold exports were $3.8 billion USD in 2005. Platinum is similar, diamonds, uranium and chromium significant too. So at the basic level of imperial arithmetic, the claim it was unprofitable would seem to be wrong.

In contrast, the same claim about the Iraq war would be clearly right. Even if you teleported the entire Iraqi oil reserves into a big tank in the midwest, you could barely sell them at a price that would break even on the war.

Which argument is right, and which is wrong, would seem to be at the heart of the issue. In contrast, whether or not you can find someone who made a particular argument doesn't seem that significant. People in the past didn't know the future; some of them will have been wrong about it.

Placeholder 10.22.16 at 11:16 am

Timothy@3
You haven't run into David Cameron; "We should be clear that world war one was fought in a just cause and that our ancestors thought it would be bad to have a Prussian-dominated Europe."
John@0
This blog was created in the Iraq War period when the venture was mounted as the height of ideological preciousness and in the luxurious excess of Aussenpolitik . As before the belle epoque of decades of peace, progress and the liberal way is perished, rather, swallowed up and lost in the infernal device they set running for their ends.

The scene has changed fundamentally. The six weeks' march to Paris has grown into a world drama. Mass slaughter has become the tiresome and monotonous business of the day and the end is no closer. Bourgeois statecraft is held fast in its own vise. The spirits summoned up can no longer be exorcised. Gone is the euphoria.

Gone the patriotic noise in the streets, the chase after the gold-colored automobile, one false telegram after another, the wells poisoned by cholera, the Russian students heaving bombs over every railway bridge in Berlin, the French airplanes over Nuremberg, the spy hunting public running amok in the streets, the swaying crowds in the coffee shops with ear-deafening patriotic songs surging ever higher, whole city neighborhoods transformed into mobs ready to denounce, to mistreat women, to shout hurrah and to induce delirium in themselves by means of wild rumors.

Gone, too, is the atmosphere of ritual murder, the Kishinev air where the crossing guard is the only remaining representative of human dignity.

-"Junius"

Now the system faces exhaustion, discreditation, crisis and when the masses turn to radical demands on their wealth and power the elite turns to the popular prejudice it holds in the palm of its hand: the lust for war. Innenpolitik has returned.

The Second International, which had bravely fought and won for the International Worker's Day on May 1st and International Women's Day on March 8th was swallowed and consumed by the hunger for patriotism and war. The whole conference voting for international peace and solidarity and every constituent party captured by its own 'social patriotism.' Lenin falling of his chair at the news the whole German SDPer to vote for war credits (save Karl Liebknecht). Keir Hardie died a broken man.

And many of us still say the universal conflagration – the lights that went and the world-fire that was set on August 1, 1914 did not burn out until August 15, 1945. That Hiroshima air.

Working men and working women! Mothers and fathers! Widows and orphans! Wounded and crippled! We call to all of you who are suffering from the war and because of the war: Beyond all borders, beyond the reeking battlefields, beyond the devastated cities and villages – Proletarians of all countries, unite!

– Lenin et al., Zimmerwald, 1915.

ZM 10.22.16 at 11:49 am

John Quiggin,

"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. "

But Australia didn't have conscription for the First World War, and also there was a national vote allowed on the matter of conscription. So even if some people did push hard for war, there were a lot of Australians who pushed back against the war drive.

In the town I grew up in one of the big hills overlooking the main street was turned into a white quartz rock billboard with VOTE NO for conscription, although this same hill had a quartz rock V on it at the end of WWII.

I think its difficult sometimes judging if wars are necessary. It can be difficult to decide about a war at the start, and easier to decide about it afterwards unfortunately.

I remember first really learning about the First World War in any detail from The Anne Of Green Gables series when I was a kid. The final proper book in the series ends with the war, and it starts with the young men all sort of thinking of the bravery and so on, and ends with them dying or wounded mostly, although its set at home with the women and older people and children hearing the news and waiting for the war to end. There is a later book in the series part based in the early days of the Second World War, with a lot of bitterness about war in contrast to the WWI book.

But I couldn't really say that WWII shouldn't have been fought by the Allies. But a lot of the information I have to decide that WWII was a just war, if there can be just wars, is based on information that came to light during the war or after the war.

I didn't agree with the war in Afghanistan and went on at least one march against it but I had to think about it a lot and wasn't sure at first, since the Taliban were so terrible, and I had no idea it would turn into this protracted extended group of wars in the Middle East.

But I read something by Kim Beazley saying he already committed Australia to following America to war in the Middle East when he was Defence Minister in a conversation with someone from the USA Government that he didn't realise the significance of at the time.

So it would seem that Australia was already committed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq before they even started.

I would like to see a reappraisal of security policy generally really. The situation with China and America has calmed down since a few years ago, but still has the prospects to be unsettling. And I don't like what's happening with America and Russia at the moment, and Julie Bishop the Australian Foreign Minister said she witnessed a discussion about Syria where trust had completely broken down and she thought that all options need to be on the table to stop destruction now, including no arms sales to Syrian groups. They might not have many munitions factories of their own if other countries stopped supplying them with weapons and ammunition.

stevenjohnson 10.22.16 at 12:11 pm ( 9 )

Looking at the Amazon page on The Sleepwalkers, they describe it as a study of how "well-intentioned" people…it is generally felt that national power and prestige and prosperity are good things to intend. The British Empire in particular was deemed to be an amazingly good thing for humanity, an idea revived for popular consumption in steampunk. And this is doubly true I think when somehow one nation's place in the sun is a bad intention, yet an empire whose place is under the noonday sun, everywhere in the world when it is local noon. Yet if you reversed the proposition, it would be just as senseless. Moralizing about individual psychology, contra Corey Robin, just doesn't seem to be all that enlightening.

I suppose it's possible Clark was misrepresented. But the commercial interest in bottom lining the selling point makes it seem unlikely. Also, looking at the table of contents, the chapter and section titles suggest the book neglects Anglo-French tensions (Fashoda seems to be missing,) the whole Russian-Japanese war and subsequent revolution, the Austro-Hungarian seizures of the Sanjak and Bosnia. The Venezuelan crisis of 1902? At least one of the Moroccan crises and one of the Balkan wars gets into the table of contents.

Still, despite the obvious usefulness of examining the particular crisis that led to the general catastrophe, it is not at all clear that Clark has any notion that any of these crises could have led to war. Nor does Clark seem to have a notion that maybe, in a system where state power engineers a national market in a competitive world wide economic system, said state powers will pursue the competition by multifarious means, including state violence, a competition leading to negative outcomes. That, in other words, the breakdown of the general peace between the great empires was an inevitability, even if the date was an accident found by sleepwalkers. No doubt the notion seems outre for those who believe at heart in the magic of the market.

The OP's concern with the moral responsibility for the war seems to focus solely on one train of events that happened to result in a bad accident, rather than a bad system that would inevitably break down. The comparison to American slavery is suggestive. To avoid the Civil War, the slavers would have had to give up their property and power. To avoid the Great War, the rulers would have had to give up their empires. States would have to forego the good intentions of defending their national interests by all means necessary. Like the slave power in America, though we may wisely declare after the fact their surrender will ultimately benefit even them, however shall we teach them this wisdom in defiance of their daily experience? How shall it profit the rulers to retain their souls if they lose the world?

chris y 10.22.16 at 12:21 pm

mjfgates @1

I was told that until the Great War, the Napoleonic Wars were colloquially referred to as "The Great War". So, not forgotten.

Layman 10.22.16 at 12:47 pm ( 11 )

"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."

I confess it's hard for me to grasp why the experience of the Great War would be internalized as a lesson by today's leaders – by what mechanism? They have no direct experience of it at all. The horror of the war is so remote as to reside in the realm of fantasy or fiction.

As to the consequences, today's leaders and war advocates of whom you speak reside in countries that are by and large the beneficiaries of past wars. The US, UK, Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands – these countries are the very definition of wealth and prosperity. Russia is wealthy and prosperous compared to most other countries, as is Turkey.

Why should leaders of such countries eschew war on the basis of experience? They have essentially no negative experience of it at all, and other people's negative experience of it is hardly transferable over a gap of 100 years.

Placeholder 10.22.16 at 1:02 pm

"But Australia didn't have conscription for the First World War, and also there was a national vote allowed on the matter of conscription. So even if some people did push hard for war, there were a lot of Australians who pushed back against the war drive."
Isn't that the point? The 'british-to-their-bootstraps' establishment wanted to harvest the youth for the most threatening war Europe had ever seen and the 'actually I'm Catholic and I'm here cause you deported my dad' brigades forced and won a referendum against it in Australia.
And Quebec https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription_Crisis_of_1917
And Ireland. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription_Crisis_of_1918
The fact that they failed is not the point. The fact that Gough Whitlam, *cough*, Balibo Five *cough cough* ahem…that's the point.

"But I couldn't really say that WWII shouldn't have been fought by the Allies."
The 'agonizing quandary' of whether America should have gone to war is somewhat undermined by Nazi Germany declaring war on them and the moral complusion 'we must do something' might perhaps be undermined by France doing something and being utterly trounced. Finally the blinding raging sanctimony of the warmongers 'but how can you be pacifist when Hitler is attacking you!!!?!' is a little undermined by the fact that, yes, a global warmonger out to conquer everything in his path will actually be attacking you and not by permanent metaphorical extension. "and Putin-Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, Appeasement Gerry Adams Munich".

"So it would seem that Australia was already committed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq before they even started."
Par vous. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ezs3dp8JKJs

erichwwk 10.22.16 at 1:12 pm ( 13 )

Since you seem to be interested in the causes of wars, wonder if you are familiar with John Swomley's work. Since I only became aware of him through a fluke (happened to be with someone getting an email (believe it was from Elise Boulding) announcing John's death. He was surprised I wasn't familiar with his work , and since he had worked with Elise and her husband Kenneth in Kansas City at FOR Peace Center, I looked into it.

I was so impressed I have read most of John's work. I highly recommend at least "American Empire-the Political Ethics of Twentieth Century Conquests" [ http://bit.ly/2esBKnC ] . Along the lines of AJ Taylor, it pretty much does away with the "devil theory of international relations" and lies to rest MANY previous myths I was unaware I held.

The first eye opener was the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US equivalent of the Reichtags fire. John made a passing reference that the two leading newspapers in Honolulu, had in fact headlined "Kurusu Bluntly Warned Nation Ready For Battle- Japanese May Strike Over The Weekend" on Sunday, November 31, 1941.

I was VERY skeptical, but turns out, not only is this true, [ http://bit.ly/1zuS3nb ] but so were most of his other assertions on causes and events leading to war.

Placeholder 10.22.16 at 1:22 pm

Benk@7 "I'm just wondering why the 1861 sentence didn't read 'the push towards war' instead of 'the case against slavery.' After all, the theme of the whole post…"

See that's what I'm talking about. The Confederacy attacked the vestiges of the Union. Like with 'but WWII' this latest very serious and very necessary war of choice is excused by constant metaphorical extension from an unimpeachable war of alien aggression. Anti-militarism and Anti-imperialism is always obligated to the logic of pacifism.

Brett Dunbar 10.22.16 at 1:47 pm ( 15 )

The situation for the various participants varies.

Serbia, Belgium and France were directly attacked and had no choice other than fighting or surrender. Serbia had agreed to seventeen of the twenty one demands in full, three with reservations and rejected one. Germany and Austria-Hungary were the aggressors and actively sought war.

Italy and Japan were essentially opportunistic, both feeling that they could make gains at a relatively low cost, Japan correctly, Italy incorrectly.

Britain, Russia and the USA were in a position of either fighting or suffering a major foreign policy defeat.

Britain had guaranteed Belgian independence and the brutal German invasion (some of the atrocity stories were false, many were not) convinced Lloyd George that war was a moral imperative, while the attack on France was insufficient. He and his immediate supporters gave the Cabinet a pro-war majority. So it really was about Belgium. This was on top of a German naval programme obviously aimed at Britain. If German aggression were not stopped now then they would be harder to stop next time if France and Russia were German clients.

Russia faced the destruction of its ally Serbia even after Serbia had agreed nearly all of Austria-Hungary's demands.

The USA had got Germany to halt unrestricted submarine warfare after the Lusitania only by threatening war. The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare left them with a credibility problem if no declaration was made.

I'm not very familiar with what happened with the Ottoman empire.

The view that the Entante were morally right is pretty much the consensus in military history. The popular view is extremely dated and not well supported by evidence.

The desire to avoid another world war was one of the reasons that Britain and France were so reluctant to oppose Germany during the 1930s. Faced by a relentless aggressor it is normally better to fight now with as allies than later alone.

ZM 10.22.16 at 2:05 pm

Placeholder,

"Par vous. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ezs3dp8JKJs "

No, I mean years beforehand in the 1980s.

Kim Beazley was the Defence Minister in previous Labour governments, not in the Liberal Howard Government that was in power during the starts of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. It was more a strategic commitment rather than a declaration of war:

"The United States had regarded our contribution to the Tanker War [part of the Iran-Iraq war] activity as an earnest of good faith that new Australian defence policies still contemplated an ability to respond positively to allies.

I did then recollect a call from him sometime in October 1987 when he had opened:

"You remember that conversation we had last year when you said that even though your forces were structured to defend Australia, you would still work elsewhere if your ally needed you? … Well, this is the call."

The conversation he was alluding to was a fierce argument before the White Paper was produced but after the publication of Paul Dibb's Review of Australia's Defence Capabilities.

I had not understood at the time of his call how much of a test he considered it. In his mind it was evidently a little more than normal banter."

http://www.regionalsecurity.org.au/Resources/Documents/vol4no3Beazley.pdf

kidneystones 10.22.16 at 2:09 pm ( 17 )

The role of Commonwealth and Empire troops in Britain's wars is immense and complex. On simple terms, elites in Commonwealth nations often shared values, politics, and economic interests with the 'mother nation' and each other. We should not, therefore, be surprised to find elites in Australia cheering for a war championed by elites in London. Those further down the pecking order were often hostile to the idea of going to war. In India, a sizeable minority elected to fight alongside the Japanese against Britain.

As for learning from mistakes, we clearly haven't. It's too easy to forget how Americans of all political stripes cheered once the bombs started landing in Iraq in 2003. Ignored now by many supporting the only candidate directly involved in America's 21st century wars of choice is the fact that America under the Democrats is now fighting five wars, or the same war on five different fronts. None of which is likely to end in time for the Peace Prize President to declare victory, although the pliant media may oblige with a 'thank goodness we brought that part of Bush's mess to an end.

The press seems much more interested in securing victory for the Democratic candidate before the voters get their chance. A couple of days ago it was difficult to see any other outcome. That's no longer the case. The race had tightened again.

Try as many might to forget the last 12 years of war under two two-term presidents from two different parties with the prospect of at least another four from at least one of the two candidates, ordinary Americans seem quite ready to take a break.

On a personal note. The one lesson learned from the Great Was in my own family was to avoid war if at all possible. My grandfather wounded severely twice and sent back to the front in both instances did all he could to ensure his own sons delayed enlisting as long as possible.

Jake Gibson 10.22.16 at 2:38 pm

World War 2 and possible the American Civil War are just about the only wars that I can think of that might qualify as a "necessary war". I have long held that there are no "just wars", only horrible wars and even worse wars.

3rd time the charm?

rea 10.22.16 at 4:54 pm ( 19 )

you can damned well blame Kaiser Wilhelm for not remembering Austerlitz.

Or at least Jena–Franz Joseph and Nicholas were the ones to remember Austerlitz

Gareth Wilson 10.22.16 at 6:36 pm

I haven't seen any alternate history stories where the British Empire decides not to fight the Boer War and leaves Orange Free State and the Republic of Transvaal independent. Of course, there's probably enough grim dystopias already. And maybe this covers it well enough: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hek-XimOhGA

George 10.22.16 at 7:17 pm ( 21 )

"All history is contemporary history," the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce wrote nearly a hundred years ago. Modern historians' agree to some extent with this, aware that the writing of history is an imperfect reconstruction of the past tainted with contemporary prejudices. Some postmodern historians' go so far as to doubt whether anything approaching genuine knowledge of the past is possible. But most people writing history today do engage to some degree in historical relativism, aware that the past was to some extent unique. To start assigning moral responsibility to past historical figures ignores what the study of history can truly offer. Looking at how historical collective mentalities or institutions shaped individual actions doesn't just help us understand past events, but also can make us more attuned to the existence of these complexities within society, therefore helping us comprehend the present.

stevenjohnson 10.22.16 at 7:34 pm

Gareth Wilson @20 Well, there is the S.M. Stirling Draka series. From wikipedia, "The world of the Domination diverges from our world at the time of the American Revolutionary War, when the Netherlands declares war on Great Britain, resulting in the loss of its Cape Colony to the British. After defeat in Revolutionary War, the Loyalists who historically went to Canada are instead resettled in the new Crown Colony of Drakia (named after Sir Francis Drake) in South Africa, taking their slaves with them. Thousands of Hessian German mercenaries who fought on the Loyalist side are also paid off with land grants in the new colony. The Crown Colony of Drakia (later, the Dominion of the Draka) is an aggressive militaristic slave-owning society, massively influenced by the inherent racist attitudes of these American slave owner settlers that are allowed to run unchecked, reinforced over the course of the late 18th and 19th century by 25,000 Icelanders fleeing their island after the 1783-84 Volcanic devastation. French royalists, 150,000 defeated American Confederates and other reactionary refugees also emigrate to the colony. The much earlier Dutch Boer settlers are completely assimilated by these subsequent immigrants."

This doesn't sound like entertainment to me, so I haven't read a word.

Eli Rabett 10.22.16 at 8:00 pm ( 23 )

All they had to do is remember the US Civil War. Horses charging into machine guns and repeating rifles do not lead to longevity

Scott P. 10.22.16 at 8:44 pm

The difference with the Boer War is the Boers were not a threat to the peace and stability of Europe, while the German military aristocracy certainly were.

bruce wilder 10.22.16 at 8:46 pm ( 25 )

The case against war was fully developed and strongly argued in the years before 1914 . . .

Was it? I wonder about that.

Continuing the war , once the bloodbath is underway and its futility is fully evident (which surely is objectively the case as early as 1915), seems to me to be the point where moral culpability on all sides applies most forcibly. It is on this point that I think arguments from before the war cannot have the weight the horror of experience must give them. Elite leadership across Europe failed. It was a symptom of degenerate aristocracy clinging to irresponsible power. Continuing to turn the crank on the meat grinder without any realistic strategic hope or aim should have condemned the military establishment as well as the political establishment in several countries where it didn't. Hindenburg was there to appoint Hitler; Petain to surrender France. It is inexplicable, really, unless you can see that the moral and practical case against war is not fully developed between the wars; if there's a critique that made use of experience in its details in the 1920s and 1930s and made itself heard, I missed it - it seems like opposites of such an appreciation triumph.

And, before the war? Are the arguments against war really connecting? There's certainly a socialist argument against war, based on the illegitimacy of war's class divisions, which were conveniently exemplified in military rank and reactionary attitudes among the officer class. That internationalist idea doesn't seem to survive the war's first hours, let alone first weeks. Universal conscription in France and Germany created a common experience. Several generations learned not so much the horror of mass slaughter as war as the instant of national glory in dramatic crises and short-lived conflicts with a decisive result.

bruce wilder 10.22.16 at 8:47 pm

Certainly, there had been arguments made before the war and even several disparate political movements that had adopted ideas critical of imperialism by military means. I question, though, how engaged they were with mainstream politics of the day and therefore how fully developed we can say their ideas or arguments were.

Consider the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907 as examples of the state of the practical politics of a program for peace. The first Conference was called by the Czar and the second by Theodore Roosevelt - no little irony in either case. Without looking it up I recall Barbara Tuchman using the 1907 Conference as an illustration of the growing war fever gripping western (so-called) civilization, as many of the delegates apparently sat around discussing how they longed for a cleansing war. I cannot pretend to understand the psychology, but I accept that it was prevalent, as least for a certain class. Morally reprehensible this glorification of war? I certainly think so. Was it engaged by fully developed argument? When?

The long effort by reactionary forces to assemble a coalition capable of defeating Napoleon had created in Europe what for a time was called the Concert of Europe. Austria, Prussia and Russia initially cooperated in suppressing liberal and nationalist aspirations and that effort gradually morphed into efforts to harness or channel rising liberalism and nationalism and industrial power. It was the evolved apparatus descended from Metternich's Congress of Vienna thru Bismarck's Congress of Berlin that made wars brief and generally decisive in regard to some policy end. The long list of successive crises and brief wars that stevenjohnson references above - often cited as evidence of the increasing fragility of the general peace - could just as well be cited as evidence for the continued effectiveness of the antique Concert of Europe in containing and managing the risk of general war. (Fashoda 1898, Venezuela 1902, Russo-Japanese War 1905, Agadir 1911, Balkan Wars 1911-1912 - it can be a very long list).

It was against the background of this Great Game of elite diplomacy and saber-rattling and brief, limited wars that efforts had been made to erect an arguably more idealistic apparatus of liberal international peace thru international law, limitations of armaments and the creation of formal mechanisms for the arbitration of disputes. If this was the institutional program produced by "the fully developed and strongly argued" case against war, it wasn't that fully developed or strongly argued, as demonstrated by the severe shortcomings of the Hague Conferences.

It was one of the mechanisms for peace by international law - the neutrality of Belgium mutually guaranteed by Britain and Germany in the Treaty of London 1839 - that triggered Britain's entry as an Allied Power and general war. There is, of course, no particular reason Australia should have taken an interest in Belgium's neutrality, but it was that issue that seemed to compel the consensus of opinion in favor of war in Britain's government.

The consequences were horrific as mass mobilization and industrialized warfare combined with primitive means of command-and-control and reactionary often incompetent leadership to create a blood-bath of immense scale. (See my first comment.)

What I don't find is the alternative lever or mechanism at the ready, put in place by this fully developed argument against war. The mechanism in place was the neutrality of Belgium guaranteed by international law (arguably reinforced in the stipulations of the Hague Conference of 1907). If Germany doesn't violate Belgian neutrality, the result in the West at least is stalemate as France and Germany are evenly matched across their narrow and mostly impassable frontier; in the East, Russia must concede to Germany even as Austria must concede to Russia; - instead of a general conflagration, the result is another negotiated settlement of some sort, perhaps arbitrated by Britain or the U.S.

The urgent questions of the day regarding the organization of modern liberal polities in the territories of Ottoman Turkey, Hapsburg Austria and Czarist Russia - what is the strongly argued and fully developed case there? How is the cause of Polish nationalism, or Finnish nationalism or Yugoslav nationalism to be handled or managed without violence and war? The antique system of a Concert of Europe had kinda sorta found a way by means of short and decisive engagements followed by multi-power negotiation, a pattern that had continued with the gradual emergence of Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania. But, where was the argument for managing irredentism and nationalist aspiration peacefully?

Jerry Vinokurov 10.22.16 at 9:20 pm ( 27 )

@stevenjohnson,

I don't see how you can get an adequate account of Clark's book just by reading an Amazon blurb and glancing at a table of contents. Your synopsis is totally mistaken (I also don't recall any mention of "well-intentioned people" in the book).

What Clark has done was to write an extremely detailed diplomatic history of the July Crisis and the events preceding it. He gets into some depth on questions like the conflicts over colonies (Fashoda is discussed, starting on p. 132), but he also makes the strong case that this conflict was only one of the contributing factors to the war. His major focus is on the structures of the foreign policy apparatus within the government of each of the participants, and the interactions between the various factions both within and across states. No one comes out looking particularly good from this analysis, but it's not as simplistic as saying that the conflict was predetermined by struggles over capital or whatever; in fact, there were many potential avenues that could have avoided war, and it took the coincidence of some really terrible bluffs being made and called by lots of different people in order for the war to actually happen. I'm happy to cite specific examples if people are interested because I have the book handy.

The Sleepwalkers is really a valuable book; it taught me a great deal that I did not know before (which, granted, may not mean much), but it also really changed the way that I think about WWI. The standard explanation that is often given in college courses, and which pervades the popular imagination, is that either the Germans were wicked mustache-twirling villains, or that the conflict was structurally predetermined by the alliance system. Clark makes a very convincing case that this is incorrect, that in addition to the alliance system which of course provided the framework within which foreign policy decisions were being made, there was a great deal of contingency in the decision to go to war, and that the key decision makers were acting under many misapprehensions of both their own abilities and the abilities and information available to their counterparts. It's really worth your while to read it if you're interested in the causes of the war.

Brett Dunbar 10.22.16 at 9:43 pm

One reason for the high casualties in the American Civil War was that the armies had an unusual habit of marching to fairly close range and then firing volley after volley from short range while static. This surprised foreign military observers who were used to troops firing a volley then charging into the enemy line.

The ACW had had an exceptionally high proportion of casualties due to small arms at about 80%. It seems that having a bayonet helps even thought it was rarely used directly as the soldiers rarely hung around to get stabbed. Charging directly into the enemy formation while you would take heavy casualties if you got there you could scatter the enemy force and win. This had been effective during the Russo-Japanese War, at the time the most recent great power war.

greg 10.22.16 at 11:02 pm ( 29 )

All war is for profit. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought for profit. The profit from Iraqi oil and whatever was expected from Afghanistan were irrelevant. Weapons of mass destruction, the Taliban, even Isis, were and are all issues that could have been more efficiently handled, but instead were pretexts to convince the credulous of the necessity of war. The real profit was the profit taken by the military-political-industrial complex in the treasure and stolen rights of the American people. That is the bottom line for why we went to war, and why we are still there, and why, if our elites persist, we might go to war with Russia or China.

The good news is that, because of the unrelenting depredations by American elites on the treasure and rights of the people, the United States is increasingly unable to wage war effectively. The bad news is that our elites are too blind to see this.

America: Consuming your future today.

dpm 10.22.16 at 11:19 pm

The last big war in western europe prior to 1914 was the Franco-Prussian nonsense in 1870, and that started in August and was over by Christmas, so maybe it wasn't crazy to expect a short war.

I can understand the argument that going to war was wrong in 1914, and certainly agree that continuing it was morally bankrupt after the nature of the struggle became apparent. But I don't understand the argument that the decision to fight was justified in 1939 if it was not justified in 1914. In both cases, Australia followed the UK, and in both cases the UK fought to prevent German domination of Europe, with the proximate cause being the invasion of a neutral country.

Of course, with hindsight Hitler looks much worse than the Kaiser, but its not clear that was true from the standpoint of 1939. At that point, Hitler had never committed genocide, but the Kaiser had (in Namibia).

John Quiggin 10.23.16 at 12:24 am

erichwwk @13 Thanks for the suggestion of Swomley.

George: This encapsulates the problems I have with historical relativism.

"To start assigning moral responsibility to past historical figures ignores what the study of history can truly offer. "

But when does someone become a historical figure? Is GW Bush historical? Kissinger? Mao? Eisenhower?

And if we approach history with a strictly non-judgemental attitude to its actors, how does this help us form judgements about what should be done in the present.

Mark Pontin 10.23.16 at 1:10 am

There's a book called THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE MACHINE GUN by John Ellis, that's very insightful about how WWI turned out like it did.

Very likely some of you have read it. For those who haven't, I recommend it.

Omega Centauri 10.23.16 at 1:13 am ( 33 )

The decision to continue it seems to be a natural consequence of the human proclivity towards doubling down. This operates on many levels, some of which are related to the need for vindication of those involved in the decision to start the conflict. There is also the horror that if you end a war without achieving something the masses can identify with as victory, then the families of those killed will see that their loved ones died in vain -- for someone else's mistake (very bad for your political future).

And of course if you quit, what is to stop the enemy from extracting reparations or worse from you, because in his eyes, you are the criminal party. Much easier to try yet one more offensive, or to lure a formerly neutral party into joining in and opening up another front, which you hope will break the stalemate.

The thing that appalls me so much about the Great War, is how so many nations were dragged in, by promises of booty. In many ways it resembles the Peloponnisian war, in its inability to allow neutrals to be neutrals.

kidneystones 10.23.16 at 1:24 am

The title of the OP encapsulates the problem. I'd argue that all wars fit the bill.

The assumption that some wars are necessary and others are not is built into the discussion and is, for me, the central problem with this and all other discussions on war.

It isn't at all clear to me that any wars are 'necessary.' That is not to say that coercive violence is obsolete and that pacifism is the goal. That seems to me highly unrealistic.

Contra JQm we do not need to understand history to understand that all future wars are the worst possible solution to any conflict. The problem is that when the powerful can impose their will upon the weak they do, and will, unless the weak band together to reduce the power of the strong.

Japan currently has a constitution that makes war illegal.

Surely this form of constraint on state violence should be the norm, not the exception. The fact that so few nations are interested in making war illegal speaks volumes about our general commitment to peaceful conflict resolution. States want a monopoly on violence within the state, but in most 'civilized' societies a host of other institutions and statutes exist to constrain, not eliminate, capricious and unjustified incidents of state violence. Yes, 'bad' actors exist and have to be dealt with. Our current 'solution' to the bad actor problem within states is to arm and fund them.

We invent fantasy patriots, rather than recognize that most/all of these individuals are self-interested individuals seeking to profit from destroying/changing the status quo.

Ben Franklin was a British slave-owner and capitalist who spent his years in the mother nation lobbying the British parliament on behalf of special interests and others seeking to enrich themselves. When better opportunities arrived Franklin and other self-interested actors seized the moment by force. One can make a persuasive case that Franklin and others were right to do so.

We are not, however, living in the latter stages of the 18th century. People do learn from history, or can. We have numerous examples of how the state is not serving the interests of ordinary citizens. In that sense little has changed since the time of Franklin. The US and Russia may be the last nations to surrender the 'right' to attack and wage war on 'enemies.'

That does not mean the other nations should not renounce this 'right' to attack other nations and wage war. There have some rare instances where international police actions/wars have curtailed massacres. Interventions too often occur too late. A great many 'good' state actors such as Sweden and Canada are deeply committed to the international sale of weapons, whilst making weepy noises about the deplorable level of gun violence in the US, the free world's favorite whipping boy.

faustusnotes 10.23.16 at 1:37 am ( 35 )

If any of the major powers in the war had quit in 1915, would the consequences at home have been as limited as simply some leaders losing their positions? The spectre of revolution was haunting the continent, and military failure is associated with that revolution happening in Germany and the USSR. Perhaps the leaders of France and Germany decided not to back down in 1915 because they thought that was a risk?

(I don't know how much the fear of revolution exercised the western leadership at that time, so this is a genuine question).

LFC 10.23.16 at 1:47 am

There is not too much point in arguing about whether "the case against war was fully developed" before 1914, because "fully developed" means different things to different people.

There were various sorts of arguments against war in reasonably wide circulation before 1914 - and this fact is important from a number of standpoints - but there was also a lot of war-glorification in elite and intellectual circles. The devastation wrought by WW1 had an enormous impact on the way war was thought about and discussed in elite European circles: with the exception of certain sectors in Germany and perhaps one or two other places, it was hard after WW1 to find praise for war in elite circles as being "healthy," "cleansing," "natural," "good for the race," "inevitable," and so on.

This kind of language, so easy to find in elite discourse before 1914, largely (not completely, but largely) vanished from elite (and a lot of popular) discourse after WW1. Plenty of Anglophone and other intellectuals before 1914 spoke about war in Social Darwinist, quasi-eugenicist terms (although some pro-eugenicists, such as David Starr Jordan, opposed war on the grounds that it would disproportionately kill "the best" of "the race").

'Pro-war' arguments were still made in various ways and contexts after 1918, of course, but the character and language of those arguments changed. There were some who still adhered to the Social Darwinist notions prevalent before the war, such as the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, who wrote in his memoirs after the war that it had been an inevitable result of "mankind's struggle for existence."[*] But this kind of thinking, as already indicated, became much less prevalent as the war dragged on and then after it ended.

---

[*] "It is in accordance with this great principle [i.e., mankind's struggle for existence] that the catastrophe of the world war came about as a result of the motive forces in the lives of states and peoples, like a thunderstorm which must by its nature discharge itself": Conrad von Hoetzendorff, Aus meiner Dienstzeit , as quoted (and translated) in J. Joll, Europe Since 1870 (Harper & Row, 1973), p.164.
Re the reference to "the motive forces in the lives of states and peoples" and the implication that such "forces" must inevitably bring them into violent conflict: does anyone talk this way any more? Afaik, not even writers for, e.g., The Weekly Standard or National Review or Commentary or The American Conservative would write in this manner today.

Placeholder 10.23.16 at 3:49 am ( 37 )

@kidneystones

Japan currently has a constitution that makes war illegal.

To go further it declares "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained." I know many Japanese who know that. I am yet to meet a German who can provide even a garbled rendition of "Acts tending to and undertaken with intent to disturb the peaceful relations between nations, especially to prepare for a war of aggression, shall be unconstitutional. They shall be made a criminal offence. "

Gareth Wilson 10.23.16 at 6:08 am

It's more important that Japan has a public opinion that makes war unpopular.

kidneystones 10.23.16 at 7:52 am ( 39 )

37 Yes. And given that Japan has morphed from isolationist to empire builder and into the only nation so far to arrive at this relatively enlightened state in only a century, or so, I'd say the rest of us can give it at least a good go.

That topic never comes up, of course. Whatever good points a discussion on 'necessary' wars may have, surely a better discussion is why any of us still consider all war to be anything but a mark of failure.

38. Both are vital, but if I had to choose I'd agree. The problem is that Japan can look around and see, with some justification, that practically no other nation sees the world the same way.

Peter T 10.23.16 at 8:56 am

faustusnotes

fear of "socialism" – meaning, broadly, greater popular participation in politics – was explicitly a major factor in the German and Russian decisions for war. In both cases, they hoped victory would shore up increasingly fragile conservative dominance. It also underlay British and French attitudes. 1870-1914 was a very stressful time for elites.

1915 was too early for any of the combatants to settle. By mid-late 1916 there were some voices in favour of negotiations, but the Germans would have none of it then or in 1917. By the time the Germans were prepared to talk (mid 1918), they had lost. Fear of socialism was again a major factor in the post-war settlements.

Liberals of today see World War I as the great disaster that shattered the pre-war liberal order. In the same way, the generation post 1815 saw the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars as the great disaster that shattered the happy old order. The extent of the damage and loss was much the same in each, although World War I took 5 years to do what the French wars did in 25.

Igor Belanov 10.23.16 at 9:55 am ( 41 )

dpm @30

"Of course, with hindsight Hitler looks much worse than the Kaiser, but its not clear that was true from the standpoint of 1939. At that point, Hitler had never committed genocide, but the Kaiser had (in Namibia)."

Don't talk daft. Wilhelmine Germany was a polity that was heavily skewed towards the interests of the aristocracies and big business, but it was also a state that respected the rule of law and tolerated the existence of multiple political parties (including that of the organised working class). There were no Nuremburg Laws against Jews, and German brutality in the colonies was hardly worse than that of other empires (if anything, 'plucky little Belgium' treated its colonial subjects the worst).

Your theory seems to come close to A.J.P. Taylor's bilge that Hitler was the logical continuation of long-term German historical development.

Peter T 10.23.16 at 10:48 am

"Wilhelmine Germany was a polity that was heavily skewed towards the interests of the aristocracies and big business, but it was also a state that respected the rule of law and tolerated the existence of multiple political parties (including that of the organised working class)."

See Zabern Incident, Prussian three-class voting system, lack of control of Reichstag over budgets or major policy areas, anti-socialist laws…

Wilhelmine Germany was a complex polity, which somewhat resembled the modern US in its multiplicity of veto points and the degree to which industrial, military and landowning elites held control through back-channels and various institutional levers. Many of its mechanisms were deliberately designed to provide the appearance, but not the substance, of parliamentary democracy. For instance, the military took the largest share of the budget, but the responsible ministers were not accountable to parliament (this is not to compare it to Hitler's regime).

Igor Belanov 10.23.16 at 12:04 pm ( 43 )

Peter T @42

"See Zabern Incident, Prussian three-class voting system, lack of control of Reichstag over budgets or major policy areas, anti-socialist laws…"

Well exactly, that is what I meant by 'heavily skewed towards the interests of aristocracies and big business'. But all those instances are a drop in the ocean compared to Nazi Germany.

The complexity of Wilhelmine Germany was probably a result of the political failure of the liberal bourgeoisie in Germany, and the fact that there were no major political rifts to shatter the power of the aristocracy (it took until WWII to finally achieve this). Nevertheless, as Peter T suggests, even though the Prussian monarchical regime retained the formal political ascendancy, it took a byzantine institutional morass to keep different classes and political interests together, and the Wilhelmine elite wasn't alone in seeking to maintain its position by recklessly fanning the flames of national chauvinism. The irony was that 1914 proved that this policy was extraordinarily successful in the short term and subsequent events showed that it was completely disastrous after that.

George 10.23.16 at 12:24 pm

John Quiggin- The problem I was trying to suggest was that of presentism. This is an issue that many university history departments take pains to caution their students about in courses on historiography. Similarly these courses on historiography tend to teach that there is value in explaining the present by looking at the past, but warn that by making past events serve present needs, history can be distorted.

Personally I have found the essays of the late Tony Judt brilliant at explaining the present by referring to history. In one of his essays on how the modern Belgian political system came into being, Judt carefully dissected hundreds of years of economic, political and social to offer an explanation. Obviously he was making a judgement call as to which facts of history were most useful, served his purposes, but reading his essay the reader is aware that Judt is striving for ojectivity, however elusive it might. To me this is the best kind of history writing. What the reader chooses to do with this information, what judgements he or she might wish to make is another matter.

Brett Dunbar 10.23.16 at 3:21 pm ( 45 )

German colonial policy was notably bad. German behaviour in Namibia was worse than almost any other colonial administration. After Belgium seized Congo it had the worst record of any existing regime.

Belgium took over Congo in 1908 before that it had been a private empire under the personal rule of Leopold II until his behaviour led to the Belgian government confiscating it from him. Belgian parliamentary rule, while at then bottom end of colonial administrations, was a pretty big improvement.

Mike Schilling 10.23.16 at 6:03 pm

It seems to be received wisdom on all sides these days that Woodrow Wilson was a warmongering hypocrite for running on a platform of peace and neutrality and then entering WWI shortly after his reelection. But between sinking American merchant ships and conspiring with Mexico to support an invasion of the US, I don't see that Germany gave him much choice.

Jerry Vinokurov 10.23.16 at 7:00 pm ( 47 )

Brett Dunbar writes:

Serbia, Belgium and France were directly attacked and had no choice other than fighting or surrender. Serbia had agreed to seventeen of the twenty one demands in full, three with reservations and rejected one.

This is a vast oversimplification especially as regards the ultimatum, as Clark makes very clear. The ultimatum was delivered on July 23, 1914 and had 10 points (although I suppose depending on how you count various subpoints you may get 21; this isn't especially relevant except that I'm using 10 because that is Clark's enumeration of them). The particular sticking points for the Serbian government were points 5 and 6, which demanded that Belgrade accept Austro-Hungarian collaboration into the investigations of Serbian subversives (point 5) as well as into the assassination itself (point 6). According to Clark, the initial memo circulated by Laza Pacu, who was acting Serbian PM while the actual PM, Pasic, was campaigning for the upcoming elections, indicated that Serbia could not possibly accede to the demands. While awaiting Pasic's return to Belgrade, Pacu and the Prince Regent Alexander both visited Strandmann, the chief of the Russian mission, and both insisted that they could not accept the ultimatum and sought assurances from Strandmann that Russia would back them, even unto war (Alexander actually thought that Serbia should stall for time, as a reply was expected within 48 hours). I quote Clark (p. 461):

All of this might seem to suggest that the Serbian political leadership came almost immediately to the unanimous view that Serbia must resist and – if necessary – go to war. But these utterances were all reported by Strandmann. It is likely that the desire to elicit Russian support encouraged the ministers on hand in Belgrade to insist on the impossibility of acceptance. Other testimony suggests that, among themselves, the decision-makers were deeply alarmed at the prospect of an Austrian attack and saw no alternative to acceptance. The memory of October 1913, when Sazonov [the Russian foreign minister] had advised Belgrade to back down in the face of an Austrian ultimatum over Albania, was still fresh enough to nourish doubts about whether the Russians would support Serbia in the current crisis. Ascertaining the attitude of France was difficult, because the key French leaders were on their way back from Russia, and the French envoy Descos, who for some time had been showing signs of strain, had collapsed and been recalled to Paris; his replacement had not yet arrived.

Faced with this uncertainty, Pasic decided to stall until he could figure out what the Russians would do. Regent Alexander telegrammed the Tsar, stating explicitly that Belgrade was prepared to accept any points of the ultimatum "whose acceptance shall be advised by Your Majesty." Pasic drafted a telegram to Serbian foreign missions indicating that Belgrade intended to offer "full satisfaction" to Vienna and concede on all points. British correspondence from the same time indicates that this would have included the contentious points 5 and 6.

At that point, a telegram arrived from Spalajkovic, the Serbian envoy to Russia, recounting his conversation with Poincare (the French President) during the latter's state visit to the Tsar. Spalajkovic reported that when he told Poincare that the situation in Belgrade was very bad, Poincare told him, "We will help you improve it." Spalajkovic also communictated his conversation with Sazonov, who had told him that the Russian Council of Ministers had condemned the ultimatum and that Serbia could "count unofficially on Russian support," although there was no indication regarding what form that support would take. A second telegram from Spalajkovic reported that Russian mobilization might be imminent and that Russia would soon issue an official proclamation of support for Serbia.

Buoyed by the news from Russia, the Serbian government began drafting a reply to the Austrian ultimatum. I won't get into the details of the reply, which are long, but the basic gist is that Serbia pretended to accede to the Austrian demands, provided Austria supply conclusive evidence on all points before any investigations would begin. I quote Clark again (p. 465):

The claim often made in general narratives that this reply represented an almost complete capitulation to the Austrian demands is profoundly misleading. This was a document fashioned for Serbia's friends, not for its enemy. It offered the Austrians amazingly little. Above all, it places the onus on Vienna to drive ahead the process of opening up the investigation int the Serbian background of the conspiracy, without, on the other hand, conceding the kind of collaboration that would have enabled an effective pursuit of the relevant leads. In this sense it represented a continuation of the policy the Serbian authorities had followed since 28 June: flatly to deny any form of involvement and to abstain from any initiative that might be taken to indicate the acknowledgment of such involvement. Many of the replies on specific points opened up the prospect of long, querulous, and in all likelihood ultimately pointless negotations with the Austrians over what exactly constituted 'facts and proofs' of irredentist propaganda or conspiratorial activity by officers and officials. The appeal to 'international law' though effective as propaganda, was pure obfuscation since there existed to international jurisprudence for case of this kind and no international organs with the authority to resolve them in a legal and binding way. Yet the text was perfectly pitched to convey the tone of voice of reasonable statesmen in a condition of sincere puzzlement, struggling to make sense of outrageous and unacceptable demands. This was the measured voice of the political, constitutional Serbia disavowing any ties with its expansionist pan-Serbian twin in a manner deeply rooted in the history of Serbian external relations. It naturally sufficed to persuade Serbia's friends that in the face of such a full capitulation, Vienna had no possible ground for taking action.

In reality, then, this was a highly perfumed rejection on all points.

Continuing with Brett:

Germany and Austria-Hungary were the aggressors and actively sought war.

This is also deeply misleading and fails to take into account what Clark's research demonstrates, which is that all of the foreign offices had various pro- and anti-war factions; this includes Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, and Great Britain. I can't possibly do justice to the full scope of Clark's evidence here, which spans literally hundreds of pages, but he goes to great efforts to answer the question of who controlled foreign policy in each country. In France, for example, a pro-war, anti-German faction, composed primarily of career foreign office civil servants who, despite nominal subservience to the foreign secretary actually represented a kind of inner circle that pursued its own ends, was consistently leaking anti-German slanders and pro-war propaganda to the press. The British foreign office was likewise filled with with undersecretaries like Francis Bertie and Arthur Nicolson, who controlled the information that reached Edward Grey in such a way that it skewed the argument toward war. Of course Germany and Austria had their own pro- and anti-war factions, but the simplistic painting of the two countries as "the aggressors" is a drastic simplification of a hugely complex state of affairs.

Britain, Russia and the USA were in a position of either fighting or suffering a major foreign policy defeat.

Again, the actual situation is far more complex. Clark says nothing about the US for the obvious reason that the US had no meaningful participation in the July Crisis, but the situations in both Britain and Russia were substantially more complicated. Grey was not necessarily predisposed to war, and if he was, he had a very inconsistent way of showing it. He constantly offered ambiguous assurances to his foreign service counterparts in both Germany and France, hinting that Britain was likely to support France but also that there might be a way for it to remain neutral in a conflict with Germany. Here's Clark again (p. 574):

Whichever view we take – and the disagreement among historians is itself telling [ed: Clark here is referring to the debate over documentary evidence of whether Grey "really did hold up the prospect of British neutrality to Lichinowsky" (the German ambassador) or "perhaps he was trying to accommodate his uncertainty about whether the British cabinet would back his policy of support for France" (Grey having kept the actual cabinet from finding out about many of the things he had hinted to the French) or "maybe Grey was not interested in neutrality at all, but briefly came under pressure from his liberal imperialist ally, Lord Chancellor Haldane, to find a way of preventing of delaying the commencement of hostilities between France and Germany so that there would be time better to prepare and train the British Expeditionary force."] – it is clear that Grey's ambiguities were on the verge of becoming open contradictions. To propose British neutrality, even in the face of a continental war involving France, would have amounted to a crass reversal of the positions the foreign secretary had earlier adopted – so much so, indeed, that it is hard to believe that this was truly his intention. On the other hand, the proposal that France and Germany should maintain an armed stand-off is unambiguously instantiated in the documents. In a telegram dispatched to Bertie at 5.25 p.m. on 1 August, Grey himself reported that he had put it to the German ambassador that 'after mobilisation on the western frontier French and German armies should remain, neither crossing the border so long as the other did not do so. I cannot say whether this would be consistent with French obligations under here alliance.' But even this suggestion was bizarre. since it was based on the supposition that France might be willing to abandon the Russian alliance Poincare and his colleagues had worked so hard in recent years to reinforce. It suggests at best a very weak grip on the realities of the wider political and military situation.

All the evidence seems to suggest that not only did Grey entirely misjudge what was happening then, and what had been happening around him for years, but that until almost literally the last minute he was waffling because he had no way of properly ascertaining the actual strength of his position. For example, in a conversation with Paul Cambon, the French ambassador, on July 29, he intimated that France was allowing itself to be "drawn into a quarrel which is not hers, but in which, owing to her alliance, her honour and interest obliged her to engage," whereas Britain was "free of engagements and would have to decide what British interests required the government to do." He also claimed that it was British policy to avoid going to war over "a Balkan question." Then two days later, when asked by Cambon directly whether Britain would help France if the latter were attacked by Germany, he argued that the full Russian mobilization, which at this point was in effect, was effectively forcing Germany to mobilize. Cambon himself was likewise acting on the assumption that the Entente was much more binding than it actually was, and that it was an instrument by which England intended to contain Germany, as per Clark (p. 539):

He failed to see that for British policy-makers, the Entente served more complex objectives." It was, among other things, a means of deflecting the threat posed to the dispersed territories of the British Empire by the power best placed to do them harm, namely Russia. One likely reason for Cambon's misprision was that he came to depend too much on the assurances and advice of the permanent under-secretary Sir Arthur Nicolson, who was passionately attached to the Russian and the French connection and intent on seeing both hardened into a fully-fledged alliance. But Nicolson, though influential, was not the arbiter of policy in London, and his views were increasingly out of sync with the group around Grey, who were becoming increasingly distrustful of Russia and increasingly open to a more pro-German (or at least less anti-German) course. This is a classic example of how difficult even the best informed contemporaries found it to read the intentions of allies and enemies.

The key point here is that the alliances meant entirely different things to different parties, and that different factions within different foreign offices were engaged in significant amounts of cross-talk in a manner which undermined any specifically unified method of setting policy. Here again the contingent facts of the particular individuals playing particular roles carries much more explanatory power than simple declarations of "German aggression."

Britain had guaranteed Belgian independence and the brutal German invasion (some of the atrocity stories were false, many were not) convinced Lloyd George that war was a moral imperative, while the attack on France was insufficient. He and his immediate supporters gave the Cabinet a pro-war majority. So it really was about Belgium.

This is yet another drastic oversimplification. The decision in favor of intervention actually preceded the German invasion and any atrocities that occurred; that decision came by the end of August 2, two days before German forces crossed the Belgian border, and it was the result of particularly skillful political maneuvering on the part of the pro-war liberals and the conservative opposition. Prior to that meeting, the position in the cabinet had been slanted against intervention, but the anti-interventionists were outmaneuvered by Grey, who afterwards took his case to the House of Commons and secured British commitment to the war. But while Belgium provided one of the pretexts, there doesn't seem to be any evidence that the British leadership held any particular brief for Belgium as such; Grey's speech was primarily pitched in terms of a moral commitment to France and the possibility that British naval resources would be required to defend Mediterranean trade routes if Italy withdrew from its own commitment to neutrality. The relevant cites are on pages 544-546 in Clark's book.

This was on top of a German naval programme obviously aimed at Britain.

German naval expansion needs to be seen in the larger context of Britain's own aggressive naval posture. In 1897, the aforementioned Francis Bertie, in conversation with the German ambassador von Eckardstein, literally threatened war and naval blockade against Germany if any German intervention in the Transavaal were detected. Naturally, German naval expansion was undertaken with some eye towards counteracting British supremacy, but this was par for the course at the time. As per Clark (p. 149), "Until the signing of the Entente Cordiale in 1904, the programmatic documents of the French naval strategists of the jeune ecole had envisioned systematic use – in the event of war – of fast, well-armed cruisers to attack commercial shipping and force the British Isles into starvation and submission. As late as 1898, this prospect seemed real enough in British naval circles to generate panic over the need for extra cruisers and the consolidation of domestic food supplies." Clark goes on:

In any case, it was not the building of German ships after 1898 that propelled Britain into closer relations with France and Russia. The decision to enter into an Entente with France and to seek an arrangement with Russia came about primarily as a consequence of pressures on the imperial periphery. British policy-makers were less obsessed with, and less alarmed by, German naval building than is often supposed. British naval strategy was never focused solely on Germany but on the need to remain dominant in a world of great naval powers – including France, Russia, and the United States. Nor did German naval construction have the mesmerizing effect on British strategists that has sometimes been claimed for it. In 1905, the director of British naval intelligence could confidently describe Britain's naval preponderance over Germany as 'overwhelming.' In October 1906, Charles Hardinge, permanent under-secretary at the foreign office, acknowledged that Germany posed no immediate naval threat to Britain….[other expressions of same follow]… There was good reason for such confidence, because the Germans lost the naval race hands down: whereas the number of German battleships rose from thirteen to sixteen in the years 1898-1905, the British battle fleet rose from twenty-nine to forty-four ships. Tirpitz had aimed at achieving a ratio of one German battleship to every 1.5 British but he never got close. In 1913, the German naval command formally and unilaterally renounced the Anglo-German arms races, Tirpitz declaring that he was satisfied with the ratios demanded by Britain. By 1914, Britain's lead was once again increasing. The naval scares that periodically swept through the British press and political circles were real enough but they were driven in large part by campaigns launched by navalists to fend off demands for funding from the cash-starved British army.

If German aggression were not stopped now then they would be harder to stop next time if France and Russia were German clients.

Why and how would France or Russian become German clients? From pages 159-167, which conclude his chapter titled "The Polarization of Europe," Clark demonstrates that much of the invention of Germany as the implacable foe of Britain was due to the machinations and memoranda written by Bertie, Nicolson, and Eyre Crowe. This was paralleled several years later by Sazonov's aggressive formulation of Russo-German relations, partly in reaction to the Liman von Sanders mission to Constantinople. None of this of course means that there was literally no German aggression or that Germany was somehow an innocent wronged party; it just means that within the contours of European international politics circa the beginning of the 20th century, Germany did not stand out in any particular way from any of its contemporaries.

Russia faced the destruction of its ally Serbia even after Serbia had agreed nearly all of Austria-Hungary's demands.

As I have argued via Clark above, this is not correct; there was no such concession at all.

I apologize for the length of this response, the multiple blockquotes, and the excruciating level of detail, but I'm trying to summarize major points from a 600-page book and this is not easy to do in an internet comment thread. Nevertheless, I think it's really important that the discussion around causes of WWI does not devolve into a simple morality tale of "Germany bad, Entente good." The real picture is infinitely more complex and that complexity deserves to be taken seriously. I don't mean to imply by any means that Clark is the last true word on this subject, but he makes a compelling case, backed by documentary evidence, that the "canonical" (at least, I suppose, in the popular imagination) interpretation of the July Crisis is deeply misleading. Moreover, he places the diplomatic machinations of the various foreign offices in the broader context of international European competition, and underlines the ways in which the offices themselves were not unitary actors but rather home to multiple factions which operated at cross-purposes and often made promises that stood in contrast to the official pronouncements of their own heads of state. I can't possibly do justice to the book here, so I would encourage everyone to read it for themselves.

divelly 10.23.16 at 7:12 pm

See Gen. Butler, "War Is A Racket."

bruce wilder 10.23.16 at 7:17 pm ( 49 )

Peter T @ 40 :

1915 was too early for any of the combatants to settle. By mid-late 1916 there were some voices in favour of negotiations, but the Germans would have none of it then or in 1917. By the time the Germans were prepared to talk (mid 1918), they had lost. Fear of socialism was again a major factor in the post-war settlements.

"too early . . . to settle" - I have no idea what that means.

After nearly 100 years of European wars and crises that had been small, short and decisive, the leadership in each of the Great Powers found themselves mired in something new and horrifying and they seemed completely unprepared to take responsibility for its conduct, its course or its termination.

It is quite remarkable the extent to which the Great Powers heaved themselves into total war, entailing national and imperial effort on a scale unknown since Napoleon and having done so, appear to have had little notion of what their goals were, beyond grasping at a forlorn hope of "winning" on the battlefield, or just staying in long enough to win a contest of attrition, without any realistic notion of what overarching purpose was being served or appreciation of the horrific costs being borne by human beings in the decimation of the polity and its society.

This was in contrast with the long series of crises and short wars that preceded WWI, contests which were short and decisive, precisely because there seems to have been a coordinating consensus on goals and means - almost as if they were playing a game with written rules and scorekeeping. That it was played as a game is not a moral justification, of course. The human costs of such means of rivalry and dispute resolution - not to mention the arrogance of the routine abuse of colonial or just peripheral states and populations - doesn't present a morally admirable picture, but it does suggest statecraft as a purposeful, managed activity.

In retrospect, one can see early signs that the rules and assumptions of "gentlemanly" imperial rivalry were being undermined and transformed by changes in military technology and the rise of nation-states and a more popular sort of politics, but the total breakdown seems to have been a surprise reward for a particular sort of accumulating moral and practical incompetence. In the Agadir Crisis, with its Panther's Spring, or the Zabern incident or l'affaire Dreyfus or the Curragh mutiny, I see more than hints of a moral and/or practical imbecility in the old order as well as a stubborn resistance to liberal reform.

In the event, Wilson and his Fourteen Points (January 1918) was a galvanizing intervention. On a more subterranean level, the almost bizarre musings of the German leadership on war aims, would have serious consequences in the inter-war period. And, of course, we are still living with the consequences of ill-conceived efforts by the British and French and Italians to "manage" formerly Ottoman Arabia.

bruce wilder 10.23.16 at 7:17 pm

Peter T @ 40:

Liberals of today see World War I as the great disaster that shattered the pre-war liberal order. In the same way, the generation post 1815 saw the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars as the great disaster that shattered the happy old order.

There's a certain sort of conservative or reactionary who is inclined to tell liberals that World War I was a disaster that shattered a pre-war liberal order. Somebody like John Keegan will write this way with no consciousness of controversy at all. But, it wasn't actually the liberal order that was shattered; what was shattered was an order of hereditary aristocracy and imperialism.

Liberalism failed conspicuously in the inter-war period, but that's a different narrative if you recognize that pre-war liberalism had come up short in its attempts to reform a non-liberal order which collapsed in senseless violence of its own febrile making.

The trouble with saying that a generation after 1815 looked back and saw the French Revolution and Napoleon as a disaster is that it was only a narrow, reactionary slice at the top of the steep pyramid of political power that held this view without significant qualification and they tended to make themselves look ridiculous when they acted as if the world had been restored to their liking, as when Charles X tried to cure scrofula with the King's touch at his coronation in 1824.

For most people, even or especially the upper reaches of the professional classes and the bourgeoisie, the liberal reforms of Napoleon were as inviolable as a return to general war was unthinkable. It took half a generation to fashion that into the liberalism of compromising on incremental reform in the context of a presumed course of inevitable progress, but that formula worked in the constitutional reforms of the early 1830s, in at least some of the many revolutions of 1848 and became the doctrine of a new conservatism circa 1866-71.

It was the perception of liberalism triumphant that gives a sense of a liberal order emerging in the course of the long 19th century after 1815, but at every step the old order of hereditary aristocracy was preserving itself and its privileges. In the consensus of elite opinion, monarchy (somewhat qualified as constitutional monarchy to mollify liberal sensibility), not republican democracy, is awarded pride of place as the ideal of natural political order.

Even without instruction from the likes of Keegan, I think many small-l liberals and social democrats look back at the period before the First World War with amnesia for the reality of a degenerate political order of hereditary aristocracy and imperialism and project some kind of normal politics, so that WWI shatters normal civilization with the terrible consequences that followed. Many reactionaries have roughly commensurable views that sum up as "Kaiser Wilhelm was OK, what was the big deal?" Niall Ferguson, for example, has offered the view that Britain's entry into war was a huge strategic error; on cost-benefit grounds, he argues that Imperial Britain should have bided its time and conserved its resources, dealing later from relative strength with the German Empire.

In some ways, I suppose, the erasure of historical detail is the flipside of Lind's alleged uniformitarian science fiction narrative that Henry is writing about. Of course, Lind is almost nostalgic for a nationalism that may be only a reactionary vestige in our time. I don't know that qualifies as "presentism" or just a failure of imagination.

LFC 10.23.16 at 8:01 pm ( 51 )

@J. Vinokurov

I haven't read The Sleepwalkers nor even all of your long comment above summarizing it. But from the sentences at the end of your post you presumably realize that Clark is only one of a number of historians who published books about WW1 and its origins around the time of the hundredth anniversary in 2014. (Btw there have been very long threads on CT on this subject with lots of people commenting, some with reading recommendations: e.g. J.C.G. Rohl's essays on the origins were mentioned back then by someone who seemed to know what s/he was talking about; also I. Hull, Absolute Destruction which is not about the origins primarily but more about German 'military culture' and the conduct of the war.) I've no reason to doubt Clark's an excellent historian, but like every historian he has a point of view, and given the enormous extant historiography I don't think there can be such a thing as a definitive account of the origins of WW1, and there also can't be a purely 'objective' one.

You write:

I think it's really important that the discussion around causes of WWI does not devolve into a simple morality tale of "Germany bad, Entente good." The real picture is infinitely more complex and that complexity deserves to be taken seriously. I don't mean to imply by any means that Clark is the last true word on this subject, but he makes a compelling case, backed by documentary evidence, that the "canonical" (at least, I suppose, in the popular imagination) interpretation of the July Crisis is deeply misleading.

I think most here would probably agree that the origins of WW1 can't be fit into "a simple morality tale," and if that's the view of "the popular imagination," it's not right.

Stephen 10.23.16 at 8:18 pm

bruce wilder@49'"too early . . . to settle" - I have no idea what that means.'

And earlier@25: 'Continuing the war, once the bloodbath is underway and its futility is fully evident (which surely is objectively the case as early as 1915)".

Yes, if you look only at the Western front. In the East, 1915 was objectively the year of the fall of Serbia, and far more spectacularly the year of Gorlice-Tarnow: the enormously successful German/Austro-Hungarian breakthrough at the western end of the Russian Carpathian front, followed by rolling up the enemy positions in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, for 200 miles or more, in what even the Russians called the Great Retreat: capture of Warsaw, Lvov, Brest-Litovsk, Vilna, ending with a front line stretching from Riga to the Romanian border.

If the German command did not think that was futile, who can blame them? Do you? If peace had been made in 1915 (and I entirely agree that might in the long run have been preferable) would that not have meant the Central Powers keeping their conquests in Belgium, northern France, western Russia, and Serbia?

Would that have been an acceptable ending for the Entente – who could reasonably hope that the British armies (left untrained and unequipped in 1915 by reason of the British government's not wanting, and not preparing for, an European land war) might in 1916 achieve something? Would it have been an acceptable ending even for the Central Powers, who after such victories in 1914-15 might reasonably hope for an even more favorable settlement after more victories in the East? If not the latter, remember it takes two to make peace.

Stephen 10.23.16 at 8:25 pm ( 53 )

Gareth Wilson@20: "I haven't seen any alternate history stories where the British Empire decides not to fight the Boer War and leaves Orange Free State and the Republic of Transvaal independent."

Given that the Boer War began with the armed forces of the Orange Free State and the Republic of Transvaal invading British territories – hence the sieges of Ladysmith, Kimberly and Mafeking – I find it hard to imagine an alternate history in which the British Empire shrugs its collective shoulders and says, oh all right then, invade us as you please, we won't fight.

Brett Dunbar 10.23.16 at 9:11 pm

Relating to the British declaration of war the Cabinet was split. One faction already supported intervention. Churchill was the most enthusiastic while Grey was somewhat more reluctantly in favour. A second faction were firmly opposed, two resigned in protest. In the middle was Lloyd George and his friends, until the invasion of Belgium he was ambivalent but on balance opposed to a direct involvement. Grey couldn't make a commitment as the Cabinet wasn't willing to commit to defend France.

Serbia's position was analogous with the current position of North Korea, an odious regime which happens to be the client of a great power. Austria-Hungary backed by Germany called Russia's bluff on Serbia, it turned out that Russia wasn't bluffing. Germany then launched an entirely unprovoked invasion of Belgium.

Gareth Wilson 10.23.16 at 9:45 pm ( 55 )

53: That's true, which makes the idea of the Boer War as unnecessary even flimsier.

John Quiggin 10.23.16 at 9:54 pm

I'd be interested to read the views of the pro-war commenters above on more recent wars, particularly those in which the US has been engaged. I can't see any difference between the pro-war cases made above and those for Vietnam, the Iraq wars and others.

Jerry Vinokurov 10.23.16 at 10:16 pm ( 57 )

LFC,

I haven't read The Sleepwalkers nor even all of your long comment above summarizing it. But from the sentences at the end of your post you presumably realize that Clark is only one of a number of historians who published books about WW1 and its origins around the time of the hundredth anniversary in 2014.

Indeed, and if you read, or even skim my post, you will see that I explicitly acknowledge this very fact.

I've no reason to doubt Clark's an excellent historian, but like every historian he has a point of view, and given the enormous extant historiography I don't think there can be such a thing as a definitive account of the origins of WW1, and there also can't be a purely 'objective' one.

I don't believe I have ever claimed this, nor have I ever used the word "objective" in either of my posts in this thread. That said, there do exist documentary records of what various actors were doing and saying at the time; any serious historical exegesis has to take those things into account (and of course the records themselves can often be falsified, as the Russians and French foreign offices both did after the fact). It is my understanding from reading about Clark's work that his greatest contribution has been precisely the depth of his excavation of this documentary record. I brought the book into this discussion because it has been widely acknowledged as a very valuable addition to the scholarship precisely on the strength of this work.

I think most here would probably agree that the origins of WW1 can't be fit into "a simple morality tale," and if that's the view of "the popular imagination," it's not right.

Well, my long post was in response to several points made by Brett Dunbar, which reiterated the idea that the war was simply a result of unchecked and unjustified German aggression. My goal was to show, citing relevant research, that this view is mistaken. I think it is also the view that is most often incorrectly taught at the high school and college level, but if that's not the case then I'm perfectly willing to take back that statement.

Brett,

Relating to the British declaration of war the Cabinet was split. One faction already supported intervention. Churchill was the most enthusiastic while Grey was somewhat more reluctantly in favour. A second faction were firmly opposed, two resigned in protest. In the middle was Lloyd George and his friends, until the invasion of Belgium he was ambivalent but on balance opposed to a direct involvement. Grey couldn't make a commitment as the Cabinet wasn't willing to commit to defend France.

The cabinet had already decided before the invasion had actually commenced that it would intervene if it occurred. If Lloyd George was indeed ambivalent about it, he couldn't have been that ambivalent, since he certainly allowed intervention to be put forth as the official position of the government, which Grey did on August 3, one day before the invasion had actually commenced. Here's some additional background that Clark gives as regards Belgian neutrality (p. 494):

Even the question of Belgium seemed unlikely to trigger an intervention. It was widely assumed, on the basis of both military intelligence secured by the French General Staff and of military inference, that the Germans would approach France through Belgium, breaching the 1839 international treaty guaranteeing its neutrality. But the cabinet took the view that, while Britain was indeed a signatory to the treaty, the obligation to uphold it fell on all the signatories collectively, not on any one of them individually. Should the matter actually arise, they concluded, the British response would be 'one of policy rather than obligation.' Indeed, it is striking with what sang-froid senior British military and political leaders contemplated a German breach of Belgian neutrality. On the basis of Anglo-French staff conversations in 1911, Henry Wilson had come to the conclusion that the Germans would choose to cross the Ardennes through southern Belgium, confining their troops to the area south of the rivers Sambre and Meuse; these findings were presented to the 114th meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence. The same scenario was discussed by the cabinet on 29 July, when Lloyd George showed, using a map, why it was likely that the Germans would cross 'only… the furthest southern corner' of Belgium. Far from greeting this prospect with outrage, the minsters accepted it as strategically necessary (from Germany's standpoint) and thus virtually inevitable. British strategic concerns were focused primarily on Antwerp and the mouth of the river Schelde, which had always been regarded as one of the keys to British security. 'I don't see,' Churchill commented, 'why we should come in if they o only a little way into Belgium.' Lloyd George later claimed that he would have refused to go to war if the German invasion of Belgium had been confined to the route through the Ardennes. British policy-makers assumed in any case that the Belgians themselves would not make their last stand in the south, but would, after offering token resistance to demonstrate that they had not permitted the violation, fall back on their lines of fortification further to the north. There would thus be nothing automatic between a German invasion of Belgium and British intervention in the conflict.

Assuming this chronology is correct, it appears that even at a very late stage in the crisis, the question of Belgian neutrality was not necessarily the deciding factor in the decision to intervene. There's definitely a possible timeline in which Britain does not declare war almost immediately following the German incursion into Belgium.

Serbia's position was analogous with the current position of North Korea, an odious regime which happens to be the client of a great power. Austria-Hungary backed by Germany called Russia's bluff on Serbia, it turned out that Russia wasn't bluffing. Germany then launched an entirely unprovoked invasion of Belgium.

It's not clear that Austria-Hungary could have been said to even understand that they were calling a bluff. Clark's argument on this point is spread out across many pages, but generally amounts to the contention that Austria viewed the ultimatum as an affair strictly between it and Serbia. One can (and Clark does) fault the Austrians for their short-sightedness and their failure to properly assess the international situation, but they were certainly not alone in this.

bruce wilder 10.23.16 at 10:19 pm 58

JQ: I can't see any difference between the pro-war cases made above and those for Vietnam, the Iraq wars and others.

Really? I don't know that I made a "pro-war case", per se, but I think I understood the cases made. As far as I know, neither Vietnam nor Iraq (2003) attacked the United States or any formal allies of the U.S.



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