Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"Remembering the Great Catastrophe," November 13, 2007.

Some people ask why Canada should accept war resisters from a volunteer army. I'd like to begin by answering that one.

Soldiers are not slaves. Soldiers are not robots even though that is often how they are treated after the state is finished with them. As human beings, we exercise choice spontaneously. Over time we learn to take responsibility for our choices. That usually takes a deliberate effort.

Soldiers, like the rest of us, choose and learn and take responsibility. The notion that we can sign a contract or take an oath that lifts the burden of choosing and learning and taking responsibility from us and thereafter allows mindless killing of whomever we are told to kill is worse than a delusion. It requires that foot soldier suspend the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Mastering this skill would render a person almost useless for civil life. The ability to discern right from wrong also underlies a widespread criterion for sanity which presumably we expect the unthinking the soldier to forego.

In reality, soldiers make choices, no matter what they tell you in the movies. That means they will sometimes make choices you approve of, sometimes not. So instead of trying to muzzle this new generation of war resistors by claiming that as volunteer soldiers they have agreed to spend a few years as the killing arm of the party in power with no thought but admiration for their elders, let's deal instead with the substance of their claims--that the war is a war of aggression and that the precedents of the Nuremberg trials place upon them a responsibility to disobey criminal orders. They are not betraying their country; their country's government has betrayed them.

"dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" It is sweet and honourable to die for one's country. The Roman poet Horace says in his third book of Odes (ii, l. 13).

This is an idea most commemorated when we remember the war that was supposed to end all wars, that was to make the world safe for democracy and that did make Wilson's concept of self-determination a household word though not exactly a common reality.

As an attempt to "end all wars," a more grotesque and obvious failure--a circumstance less dulce et decorum--was simply not technologically possible in 1914. That was to come later.

In Paris, 1919 (Random House 2002), the landmark narrative history of the Paris peace talks, Margaret MacMillan writes of "flawed decisions with terrible consequences, many of which haunt us to this day."

Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who brokered a peace agreement among the warring factions in Bosnia that led to the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, in 1995, gives substance to the view that "Some of the most intractable problems of the modern world have roots in decisions made right after the end of the Great War."

Was it called "Great" because it was so big? In Europe only Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the Scandanavian countries kept out of it. Although it started in Europe, it spread like a plague to Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands and the Middle East, mostly because of Europe's imperial interests in those regions.

The largest number of dead, 1 point 8 million of them, were Germans. Another number of Russians nearly as high were also counted among the deat. Another million and a quarter came from each of France and Austria-Hungary, three-quarters of a million from Britain, and another 192,000 from the empire. About 8 and a half million military deaths in all.

Although MacMillan says that significant numbers of civilian deaths did not occur until World War Two, that is perhaps an indicator of the extent to which we have become accustomed to a style of warfare that is as lethal to civilians as it is to soldiers. Estimates of civilian deaths during World War One range from 6.6 to 13 million.

The numbers alone are staggering. How long would it take just to read the names? The sheer uncertainty in estimating civilian deaths is a measure of the blind impersonal character of the carnage. And it wasn't over. After a decade of prohibition and another of the Great Depression, World War II demonstrated finally that lasting peace had not come from force of arms. Estimates of wartime related deaths in the Second War generally run to about 50 million. This time leaders on both sides took the war to the civilian populations fromthe battlefields to the cities, fromthe trenches to the holocaust, Dresden and the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

MacMillan notes that "The tally of deaths does not include those who were left with one leg, one arm or one eye, or those whose lungs had been scarred by poison gas or whose nerves never recovered." (xxvi).

The democracy that WWI made the world safe for was a democracy for white males.

Women still did not have the vote. Canada's First Nations were still non-persons who's religious practises were severely curtailed and who were not allowed to raise money for the presentation of their own case in court.

In the early days, only a select group of privileged men could vote in Canada's elections. Women, Asians, native people and prisoners gained the right to vote each amid unique controversies during the past century.

Women, for example, got the vote one province at a time through their tireless insistence, expressed through bold and imaginative campaigns. In 1916, Manitoba became the first province to pass legislation that allowed women the vote in provincial elections. Within the nine years between 1916 and 1925), the federal and most provincial governments passed laws granting women the vote. Quebec followed suit in 1940.

Nellie McClung, Rick Sauve, Deskaheh, Thomas Berger are names that played heroic roles in those defining struggles.

The period whose carnage we remember at this time of year did leave an artistic legacy that signalled a view of war that was not dictated by the political elite.

Wilfred Owen is probably the best known of the War Poets. His much-anthologized "Dulce et decorum est," in which he describes the suffering of a fallen comrade, has been called the best known poem of the First World War.

The Sun Also Rises, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Johnny Got His Gun examined the warfighting reality far from the halls of power.

Several important institutions date from this period. The International Labour Organization was established in 1919 by the Versailles Peace Treaty. The ILO survived the demise of the League of Nations, and 1946 became the first specialized agency associated with the United Nations.

The so-called World Court, established in 1922 as the Permanent Court of International Justice, lasted until 1940 and was replaced in 1945 by the the International Court of Justice.

On a grassroots level, the international peace movement gained momentum.

No rights were won and no one was safer because of this war. The slaughter of civilians which we now take to be a routine characteristic of modern warfare, had just begun.

Though the road from Versailles to Nazi Germany was not straight, nevertheless, the path to the holocaust and the threat of nuclear annihilation was being carved out of desperate economic and social conditions.

Among the intractable problems of the modern world purchased by all this, Holbrooke includes the four Balkan Wars between 1991 and 1999, the crisis over Iraq whose present borders resulted from Franco-British rivalries and casual map making, the continued quest of the Kurds for self-determination (a term which Wilson was credited with inventing), disputes between Greece and Turkey, and the struggle between Arabs and Jews over land each believed had been promised to them.

By the 70's, psychologists would report that 6-year-old children had nightmares about nuclear war. The invasion of innocent civilians was pretty well complete.

The great catastrophe began in Europe--twice.

Colonial armies were not fighting for freedom from the enemy, but from their imperial overlords. Indians from Canada fought, not as imperial conscripts, but as independent sovereign allies of the crown, hoping to strengthen the case for their own sovereign right to self-determination.

Canadians have used their valour at Vimy Ridge to claim a degree of independence from the British Crown.

Other colonials fought not for their own independence, but for the imperial power's economic interests.

It is fitting, as we remember the Great Catastrophe, to cite Smedley Butler, an American Marine Corps General. At the time of his death, he was the most decorated Marine in US history. A two-time Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Butler has come to be better known for his anti-interventionist views and his book, War Is a Racket.

We're just about out of time, but I can read some from the beginning. Let the kids gather around the radio and listen to the General tell his war story. It begins like this:

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 international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small "inside" group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

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.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

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.

And what is this bill?

This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.

For a great many years, as a soldier, I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not until I retired to civil life did I fully realize it. Now that I see the international war clouds gathering, as they are today, I must face it and speak out.

The Paris peace conference at the ambiguous end of the war led to a brief manic period during prohibition (The Twenties) followed by the Great Depression--and that wasn't really great either.

One of the first things I learned when I went away to College didn't happen in class, and I don't know how we had failed to notice it earlier. But in conversation with one after another of my peers, I came to realize that we were all children of parents who had been battered by two world wars and a depression. We had been raised in an environment of relentless trauma.

After a period of feeling sorry for ourselves, we came to realize that we were the lucky ones. The wars had not been fought on our soil, we had never missed a meal, and it would be many decades before elections were stolen from us.

The real challenge was to let go of any presumption to Manifest Destiny which is only the American Puritans' version of the civilizing mission which several European empires embraced until it turned to blood on their hands.

MacMillan claims optimistically that "after the Western Front, Europeans could no longer talk of a civilizing mission to the world" (xxvi).

Today, only the metaphor has changed from religion to commerce. Instead of a civilizing mission, we talk about exporting democracy.

This article is published by James Terral under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. Commercial media must contact me for permission and fees. Some postings on this site are published under different terms.

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