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War, part 2

I am reposting some longer pieces I wrote some years ago. Here's another.


Now I want to contrast what I said in the first piece with what I’ve said about The Lord of the Rings and Stalingrad. One of the many morals from both those stories is:

Sometimes you must keep fighting even when it’s hopeless.

With my anti-war hat on, it’s easy to take pot-shots at the decision-makers of the First World War, but my biggest complaint about the Second World War is why we took so long to get into the fight. I would have been extremely uncomfortable as an American throughout the long months of 1939, 1940 and 1941, comfortable, safe, untouched by the horror around us.

I am bowled over with admiration for the courage of the British to stand toe-to-toe with Hitler ALONE for so long. I am embarrassed that we let them stand there alone so long.

And so I read the books and watch the movies on TV about that war through a very different lens.

Though Tolkien denies it was intentional, the Lord of the Rings story is a great parallel for WWII. The movie communicated that sense of hopelessness very well, the overwhelming odds against Frodo and Sam, the un-winnable war they had to lead against enemies too strong in evil to comprehend. They had to have faith that allies would present themselves. They had to go GET the allies, when there was no real hope. They had to face it down and put their best heart into it anyway. And they won.

It makes me think of Stalingrad. It was so bad, the Soviets suppressed the truth of it, feeling it would be detrimental to morale. In the post-Soviet era, we now learn just how dark those days were. Nobody can explain how the people in that city hung on for so long. They lived in the sewers and ate rats. They kept fighting even when there was no hope, no rescue, no cavalry coming over the hill. And they won.

We should all thank God they did.

How Do You Know When You’re Done?

Is it fair to say about a war – don’t get into it unless you have a way of getting out of it?

Could you say that about WWII? What was the objective? When did we know we were done? When we’d defeated Hitler, defeated Japan, end of war.

We were very lucky that it was that simple, but certainly we had clear-cut objectives in the Great War too. They wanted to shove Germany back within her own borders. What were the possible outcomes?

  1. Germany would give up and go back to their own borders.

  2. The Allies would give up and let Germany occupy the land they’d taken. Belgium and a good-sized chunk of northern France would become part of Germany.

I suppose there may have been variants involving a German or an Allied advance beyond those borders, but this was the third option that haunted everyone.

The Third Option

The war would go on and on. It would become a way of life. The War Machine had achieved a perfect harmony, scraping up the young men as they come of age and wiping them out while a new batch matures. The population would become a breeding stock to feed the war. The nations had converted their peace-time industries to full-throttle war production. The economy had adjusted, the populance had adjusted.

If Germany had been able to maintain that perfect harmony, the war could have gone on and on. But they had exhausted their economy and were out of bodies to throw into their trenches. We can again all that God for that too.

But what if…? It’s a nightmarish thought. The action would regularly quiet down for the winter, when the men would simply hold their positions and wait out the cold. Why not settle into that as a routine? The offensives are scaled back to accommodate the reduced ranks, but the same positions are attacked and defended in the same stalemate that had persisted for four years. Why not four more? Or forty more?

Conceptual Barriers:
You Can’t Account For What You’ve Never Imagined

The problem is nobody every envisioned an absolute stalemate. Only after that war was this concept introduced and thus available for consideration in managing future wars.

Nobody ever envisioned being able to hang in the air above an enemy and make maps of his position, or using poison gas to kill your enemy until the Great War.

Nobody ever envisioned a non-combatant commercial passenger ship being torpedoed and sunk without warning until the Lusitania.

The same way nobody envisioned using gas ovens to kill millions until the Final Solution.

The same way nobody ever thought a huge group of people would voluntarily commit mass suicide together until til Jim Jones and Guyana.

The same way nobody thought a person would drive a truck up in front of a building and blow it up until Oklahoma City.

The same way nobody thought an entire nation, a civilized nation, a nation with telephones and Mastercards would take big knives and start hacking one another's heads off until Rwanda.

The same way nobody envisioned using a commercial airliner as a bomb until 2001. Now the concept exists, someone thought of it, and so now we have that to consider.

The list goes on.

So as mankind evolves, societies change, new technology becomes available, and we devise new ways of killing one another. We integrate those upgrades into our planning as we go along. Nobody envisioned being able to kill on such a massive scale, to the tune of 60,000 British casualties in just one day, until the Somme. That concept made it possible for other men to envision giant ovens, mass extermination, numbers never dreamed of before.

How Far is Too Far?

The one that gives me pause is the poison gas. How many times has man walked up to the brink and voluntarily turned back? Not often. During this war, we discovered a way to kill a lot of people, and we abandoned it as too costly, too risky, too hard to control. That’s some admirable self-restraint.

We’ve done it again with nuclear weapons. We’re trying to back down from the brink.

If we’ve walked up to the brink of nuclear war and have backed down, what does that mean about how we will make war in the future?

Rules of War

It used to be there were some rules. We all kind of agreed that we would not kill civilians needlessly. If a guy delivers bread to a munitions factory and we bomb that factory and the guy is killed, well, too bad. But we won’t necessarily go bomb the delivery guy’s house too.

All that went out the window during WWII. We only pretend now to avoid non-combatants, but that’s mostly just PR for the squeamish. It became expedient to bomb civilian targets, and we accepted that. “If they do it, we have a right to do it too!” You don’t have to look far. The Rules of War are bendable.

Good Wars and Bad Wars

Which brings us back to this, cuz if it’s a Good War, it’s worth it to bend the rules.

The classic Good War is of course WWII. We had no moral ambiguities about any of it. Japanese prefidy was only surpassed by Hitler’s horrorshow genocide machines.

Let’s make a list:

Good Wars: WWII, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, the Gulf War

Bad Wars: Vietnam, Korea, the Crimean.

I can’t even remember all our wars. There was something about Spain that involved William Randolph Hearst, but that wasn’t quite a war… but whatever it was, it was really bad since we don’t even know what it was. We have a few of those wars, the ones we don’t really understand: the War of 1812, the French and Indian War, the Hearst War, Korea, the Gulf War Part I, and of course Vietnam all fall between the cracks, definition-wise. Wars that were not real wars.

We feel better when there’s no ambiguity. We like it when a good unambiguously bad man or bad nation step over the line. Invade your neighbor, attack. Instigate conflict.

It’s War Unless It’s Not War

Aggression against others is bad. Aggression against self is allowed. That is called Civil War. Officially we all agree to stay out of someone’s civil war most of the time, unless there are extenuating circumstances (“national interests”). If you have nothing of vital national interest to us, you can kill as many of your own people as you like. That seems to be a rule.

This is an article about how war has come to include the mass murder of civilians.

http://www.bostonreview.net/BR20.4/Forbes.html --

Here are some excerpts from this article:


Rhodes claims that Bomber Command killed at least 45,000 men, women, and children at Hamburg. By contrast, the bombing of Coventry killed 554 civilians and the heaviest raid on London 1,436. Civilian deaths in London during the nine months of the Blitz amounted to 20,083.

The "estimated" 135,000 who died in Dresden amounted to "more than double the number of civilians killed in Britain by German air action in all six years of the war."

Germany broke the civilian bombing barrier at Folkestone and at London in 1917, at Guernica and Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, and at Warsaw and Rotterdam at the start of World War II. There was no turning back then, and there is no turning back now--consider Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Somalia, Bosnia. Civilians are now treated as combatants--which is yet another reason for preventing wars from breaking out in the first place.

Why did we bomb a defeated Japan? Not for military reasons. Some justify the use of nuclear weapons by reference to the likely costs of a land invasion. The United States certainly should not have invaded a crippled, militarily emaciated Japan. But there was no need to use nuclear weapons either. We could have bombed Japan at will; they had neither flak nor fighters left. We could have blockaded them for a decade, or for however long it took to bring them to their senses. We would not lose one man. Farrell was right; Groves was wrong: for all practical purposes, the war was over on 16 July 1945 with Trinity. If President Truman had sent one million young Americans to their death in a mindless invasion, he would have committed a major war crime. The invasion canard was a brilliant public relations ploy; it "laundered" the dropping of two atom bombs.

The reasons for killing so many civilians were political. The United States had emerged victorious from wars in Europe and in the Pacific, and we wanted the world to understand that we were the dominant power on land, on sea, and in the air. Stimson put the bombs in succinct perspective: they were a "badly needed equalizer" to Soviet power. We dropped the bomb on Japan to demonstrate our new power to the Soviet Union. According to Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-born physicist who as much as any man, deserves the honorific, Godfather of the Bomb, the result was "one of the greatest blunders of history." In the sixth volume of his autobiography, Triumph and Tragedy, Churchill apostrophized the atomic bombings as a "miracle of deliverance." The bombs may have "delivered" us miraculously from one war, but they delivered us unmiraculously into a Cold War and arms race. To forestall defeat in this thermonuclear competition, the Soviet Union and the United States seeded the world's oceans with missile-firing submarines, mounted daily thermonuclear "Fail-Safe" raids with B-52 bombers, and planted ICBM's like winter wheat in their arid zones. The Soviet Union and the United States also decided that if deterrence failed, 100 million deaths each--95 percent of them civilians--would be an acceptable price to pay.

<end quote>

Men Like Wars

I think men are genetically inclined to like busy destructive activity and so when there’s a war, they’re secretly glad cuz now they get to blow stuff up, but they hope hope hope it’s a good war so they don’t have to pretend to hate what they’re doing so much.

I don’t think that’s an unfair thing to say or sexist. I think like anything, there are exceptions, but in general, I think guys tend to enjoy a lot of the stuff that goes into making war.

So if they’re lucky, they’ll get a Good War.

What is a Good War?

  1. We have to win.

  2. There is a clearly defined villian, preferably one who has invaded another country, committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, moral outrages, etc.

  3. We have a clear idea of what victory means. There is no ambiguity about what we’re fighting for. We know how we want it to end.

  4. The public supports the war.

  5. Our allies support our decisions.

  6. The war provides opportunity for heroic displays and showcases the impressive military might that helps justify the expense to the public.

  7. The war supports a strong economy, causing trickle-down prosperity.

Let’s review: US criteria for the use of military force

In 1984, Caspar Weinberger, defense secretary for Reagan, created this list of criteria. Armed intervention is warranted when it is:

  1. to be used only to protect the vital interests of the US or its allies

  2. to be carried out wholeheartedly, with the clear intention of winning (decisive force)

  3. to be in pursuit of clearly defined political and military objectives

  4. to be accompanied by widespread public and congressional support

  5. to be waged only as a last resort

  6. to include a clear exit strategy

In consideration of the situation in Bosnia in the 1990s, Colin Powell resurrected this list and added the last item.

Nota bene: I’m talking about the US here, not the UN. I’m going to talk about the US’ role in the UN as regards armed conflict in my genocide pieces.

This Is The Thing That Worries Me

How do you know if you’re a Stalingrad where you keep fighting beyond hope – or the mindless of the meatgrinder killing machine of the Great War? What do you do when you find yourself in thrall to a killing machine?

What do you do when you find yourself in a stalemate where nothing works like WWI?

Conceptual Barriers Again

In “The Fog of War” Robert McNamara talked about how LBJ insisted on viewing Vietnam through a Cold War lens.

You gotta be willing to let go of some fixed idea, some idée fixe that you’re attached to. You gotta be willing to step back and see it from a different angle. You gotta have people around you who’ll give you that reflection. You gotta be willing to consider it.

We Need A New Ethical Paradigm For War

Is it now a free-for-all? Killing civilians is part of the deal? In “The Fog of War” Robert MacNamara admits one could say we’d committed war crimes. You gotta know where your moral and ethical boundaries are. Do we? Do we really?

So is it really OK with us to kill as many as you want as long as it’s inside your own nation’s borders? In “Shake Hands With The Devil,” Romeo Dallaire talks specifically about how we need a new paradigm for handling crisis areas like Rwanda. He claims the wrong thinking that propelled the UN to abandon the people of Rwanda comes from an old Cold War-style mindset that don’t work anymore. You gotta have a current, relevant approach to your Yugoslavias, your Rwandas, your Cambodias, not some old outdated autopilot plan.

Rules do change. Before the Lusitania was sunk in 1916, you left non-military ships alone. Nobody would consider shooting a non-military ship, even if it was in a war zone. They’d signal, take off the passengers, and then sink it. Germany’s outrage was to break that unwritten rule. Now nobody was safe.

And so now, step by step, we move down a path where we have technology to kill more and more, more efficiently. The practical barriers of the past have been removed. We now have the means to destroy whole masses of people very tidily.

Efficient Methods Of Mass Murder

There’s been a lot of ambitious killing over the years of human history. The Nazis were not the first to seek to wipe a people from the face of the earth, but it was 20th century technology that finally made it a realistic goal.

There would have been no Auschwitz without the mustard gas and phosgene of the Great War. One atrocity leads to another.

Though we had airplanes during WWI, we didn’t have their best use figured out until WWII. Bombing was clearly part of modern military strategy.

We were less clear on the ethics. At the start of the war, we wanted to bomb only military targets, trying wherever possible to avoid civilian targets. Bombing civilian targets started by accident but soon became a regular item of the menu. Here are a smattering of numbers:

  • The Battle of Britain – aka the Blitzkrieg, killed 27,000–40,000 civilians

  • Coventry: The British had to pretend not to know the Germans planned to bomb the city of Coventry and so they let all those people die. Betraying their knowledge would have tipped their hand and told the Germans they know how to break their code. 1,200 civilians killed.

  • The Firestorm in Hamburg: Here is a link to an excerpt from a book about the Allied bombing of Hamburg in 1943. It’s called “The End: Hamburg 1943,” and was written a few months later by a witness. The 1,800 bombers that darkened the sky above that city must have looked like the locusts descending on Egypt when Moses called down God’s curse. This was one of the first instances of a firestorm as a result of bombing.

  • The Firestorm in Dresden: Many people believe we bombed Dresden only to make a point to the Russians about how tough we were. Estimates as low as 35,000 to many as 135,000 civlians dead.

  • The Firestorm in Tokyo: MacNamara talks about how we bombed the hell out of Japan, long after there was any possible military advantage. You can see he is troubled by this. To the tune of 100,000 civilians dead.

  • Nanking -- Chinese murdered by Japanese: 200,000-300,000

  • The A-bombs we dropped on Japan: 140,000 for Hiroshima, 70,000 for Nagasaki.

Why Bother With Ethics Anyway?

We feel the need to impose a cookie-cutter of ethics on our warfare so that we can tell ourselves we have the Moral High Ground, right? We’re the good guys, we wear the white hats.

Why? What gives us the moral high ground? What IS the moral high ground?

During WWII, the Nazis routinely starved Russian prisoners-of-war as a matter of standard procedure. They simply had no line item on their monthly budget for food for their prisoners. Geneva what?

We like to tell ourselves we’re not barbarians. We are civilized people. Civilized people conduct wars according to some basic moral guidelines.

Those guidelines have never been hard and fast. This is the tricky part.

Moral justification has to follow the technology, so we’re always playing catch-up.

That means we may decide something is unethical after we’ve done it, cuz it was a war and we were in a hurry and so we had to use this new weapon first and ask ethical questions later, sorry.

I can buy that. As McNamara says, you may have to tip your toe into some evil shit to win a war, but just make damn sure you minimize it. That’s what he said.

And When That White Hat Gets In The Way Of Your War Effort?

How do you minimize the evil shit? SPECIFICALLY? We need specific guidelines and I have a feeling we have none.

What Does The Geneva Convention Say Anyhow?

Here’s some random stuff I found, but it all looks pretty much like what you’d expect.

Customary Laws

The following are rules applicable in all conflicts, regardless of whether the countries in question are signatories of the Geneva Conventions – and regardless of whether the warring party in question is recognized as an independent state.

Prisoners of war and wounded combatants must be protected from murder; discrimination based on race, religion, sex, and similar criteria; mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; humiliating and degrading treatment; and sentencing or execution without a fair trial.

In addition, the following are forbidden towards any persons in an area of armed conflict:

  • Torture, mutilation, rape, slavery and arbitrary killing

  • Genocide

  • Crimes against humanity – which include forced disappearance and deprivation of humanitarian aid

  • War crimes – which include apartheid, biological experiments, hostage taking, attacks on cultural objects, and depriving people of the right to a fair trial.

International Rules About Civilians During War Time

  • Civilians are not to be subject to attack. This includes direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks against areas in which civilians are present.

  • There is to be no destruction of property unless justified by military necessity.

  • Individuals or groups must not be deported, regardless of motive.

  • Civilians must not be used as hostages.

  • Civilians must not be subject to outrages upon personal dignity.

  • Civilians must not be tortured, raped or enslaved.

  • Civilians must not be subject to collective punishment and reprisals.

  • Civilians must not receive differential treatment based on race, religion, nationality, or political allegiance.

  • Warring parties must not use or develop biological or chemical weapons and must not allow children under 15 to participate in hostilities or to be recruited into the armed forces.

What an interesting list!

I’m glad someone made an effort to codify an ethical paradigm of war – some fundamental parameters, some ground rules that would apply to anybody in a war, no matter what or where or how. But how unrealistic this list seems to me. Does anybody ever really stop torturing someone cuz of the Geneva Convention?

And So In Summation

I can’t remember why I started writing this, or why I went on and on as I have, but now months later, I think it’s time to wrap it up.

I do know McNamara’s face and voice stay in my mind, even now, months after I saw that movie. I’m nowhere near well enough informed to condemn him or defend him. But it seems to me that he’s spent a lot of years going over this stuff in his mind. I like that he’s willing to rake over the smouldering coals of the past, to be willing to see things differently.

McNamara seems to me to at least tries to live according to an ethical yardstick I can recognize, and that’s sure more than you can say for a lot of people these days.

And all this reading about the Great War, the War To End All Wars, the war that put the pieces in position for the war that followed… It isn’t so different from today, nearly 100 years later. There are very recognizable lessons right at hand.




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