84 Is there ever a ‘good war’?
Peter Hitchens discusses the cultural impact of the two world wars
It is only possible to pretend that one war is good until the next war comes along. I still treasure my great uncle’s 1914-1918 medal (he was at Jutland) inscribed with the words, “The Great War for Civilisation”. In more elevated moments, those who survived it liked to dignify the Flanders slaughter as ‘The war to end war’. After all, if it really had ended war, then it might just have been worth it.
But how quickly all that came apart. As a child, I used to love the terse, graphic stories of ‘Gun Buster’ about the British Expeditionary Force’s retreat to Dunkirk. This shocking, disturbing event was seen through the eyes of artillery officers and was plainly autobiographical. The most poignant concerned a young captain trying to hold the line against the advancing Nazis somewhere near Ypres. Suddenly, in a brief lull, he realises exactly where he is – at the Menin Gate, that great monument to the dead of the Ypres Salient. And a memory comes pouring back into his mind of a chilly evening in the 1920s, watching in some bafflement as his father, with tears in his eyes, picked out the names of his comrades from the thousands inscribed there. His father, moved by an unusual passion, had asked his son urgently, “Do you know what this means?” and then answered his own question: “It means… never again!” And now, there he was, using the same Menin Gate as an observation post, as his battery shelled the advancing German army. So much for “never again!”
But for a few years people really had believed that there would never be another European war. This fantasy reached its high-water mark in 1928 with the absurd Kellogg-briand Pact, whose signatories, including most of the belligerents of the coming global conflict, renounced war, to resolve “disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them”.
A year later, France, plainly not wholly convinced of the pact’s worth, began to build the Maginot Line. By 1935, the forges and shipyards of Europe and Japan were hard at work turning out the fearsome weapons of a war they had officially promised they would never declare or join.
The following swift and terrible events have overlaid the foolish period of pseudo-religious optimism that had much of the world in its grip, and that quite possibly blinded much of the world to the danger it faced. If the great powers of 1928 had sought, for instance, to listen more sympathetically to a pre-hitler Germany’s grievances about Versailles, we might have avoided much horror. It is, in some ways, one of the great might-have-beens of modern history. But believing either that war was finished for good, or that it was simply too terrible to fight again, those involved did not think the issue was urgent enough.
It is astonishing, for those of us used to the gigantic military power of the USA, to find how militarily weak that country was throughout the inter-war period. The US Navy, it is true, was a mighty fleet, if a little elderly. But American air power was negligible, and the US Army, by 1939, was ranked only 17th in the armies of the world, between Portugal and Bulgaria, described by Life magazine as the “smallest, worst- equipped armed force of any major power”. France’s theoretical army was huge, but it was not trained or configured for a war of aggression. France, understandably, had no intention of undergoing a second Verdun, or taking any action – political, diplomatic or military – to bring such a thing about.
Nowadays there is much bloviating about how Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland was the moment at which the democratic powers could and should have acted. But the record of the time shows that this simply was not a practical possibility. They were not interested in action they had not trained or prepared for – they had no political will to act. The ‘war to end war’ and the ‘great war for civilisation’ were powerful forms of wishful thinking, which led free countries into policies that eventually led to war.
But history does not repeat itself exactly.
Our present-day fantasy that World War II was a ‘good war’, fought nobly for noble ends and a model for human behaviour, damages us in different ways. Repeatedly, modern would-be statesmen seek to identify themselves as Churchill, their proposed enemy as Hitler and their critics as Neville Chamberlain. The more they do this, the more illusions they peddle, to themselves and to the public, about the nature of war and diplomacy. They are also compelled to misrepresent the importance of, and the danger from, their proposed enemies. Interestingly, real modern instances of the unwise appeasement of aggressive violence – the endless pressure on Israel to give up real defensible territory in return for a paper peace, and the surrender of sovereignty by the UK, under pressure from the gangster violence of the IRA – are popular and respectable.
Now we are shuffling, half-asleep, into involvement in a Middle-eastern conflict between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, a process fuelled by claims that Syria’s President Assad and his Russian backer Vladimir Putin are the latest Hitlers. If our leaders manage to fan this into full-scale war (and they never cease to try), the only beneficiaries will be the Chinese despotism that watches us keenly and closely, with an intelligence greater than our own, staying out of our follies but preparing to take advantage of them. And when it is all over, as we scuttle about as ghosts of our former selves in diminished, impoverished post-war lives, we may at last learn that there is no such thing as a good war, only – very rarely – a just war, and that, just as our leaders are very rarely Churchills, our opponents are seldom Hitlers. But must we have another war to learn this?
“OUR PRESENT-DAY FANTASY THAT WWII WAS A ‘GOOD WAR’, FOUGHT NOBLY FOR NOBLE ENDS & A MODEL FOR HUMAN BEHAVIOUR, DAMAGES US”
Hitchens notes modern statesmen’s willingness to present opponents as “the latest Hitlers”
PETER HITCHENS is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday. His new book The Phoney Victory: The WorldWar II Illusion is publishedby I.B. Tauris
ABOVE: The British Victory Medal presented the horrors of WWI as a struggle for civilisation