84 Is there ever a ‘good war’?

Peter Hitchens dis­cusses the cul­tural im­pact of the two world wars

History of War - - CONTENTS -

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

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