Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Vote for 1933 Pacifism from a Neo-con

Make no mistake, I am a huge fan of both Hugh Hewitt and Mark Steyn. That having been said, I must suggest that they both stop using the Oxford Union's 1933 vote not to fight for King and Country as an example of pacifism and appeasement gone mad. I firmly believe that our decision to go to Iraq was the right one and that our strategy of bringing democracy to the Middle East gives us our best hope for survival in an existential battle with Islamofascism. Had I been a member of that debating society at Oxford in 1933, I would have voted for pacifism with the majority.

What's missing from the discussion is the context of that vote. That same context which influenced their ideological ancestors is also missing from the current anti-war crowd. There has never been a war like World War I. It changed Europe forever.

I just finished Robert Graves' Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography and am in the middle of Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory. Another great book on the subject is Richard Watt's Dare Call it Treason about the French army mutiny of 1917. There are simply no parallels to the Great War. Kings and Countries all across Europe slaughtered an entire generation of young men to feed the imperial ambitions of the aristocracy.

King and Country

Over the top, boys!


Wars in support of royal ambitions had been fought before. Thousands had died on the battlefields of Europe before. Never before had a war been fought over the same ground for four years.

Here's what the British public was told of the Battle of the Somme by The Daily Chronicle on the July 3, 1916.

Ist July, 1916: At about 7.30 o'clock this morning a vigorous attack was launched by the British Army. The front extends over some 20 miles north of the Somme. The assault was preceded by a terrific bombardment, lasting about an hour and a half. It is too early to as yet give anything but the barest particulars, as the fighting is developing in intensity, but the British troops have already occupied the German front line. Many prisoners have already fallen into our hands, and as far as can be ascertained our casualties have not been heavy.
Here's what it was really like, as told by George Coppard who was a machine-gunner at the Battle of the Somme. In his book With A Machine Gun to Cambrai, he described what he saw on the 2nd July, 1916.

The next morning we gunners surveyed the dreadful scene in front of our trench. There was a pair of binoculars in the kit, and, under the brazen light of a hot mid-summer's day, everything revealed itself stark and clear. The terrain was rather like the Sussex downland, with gentle swelling hills, folds and valleys, making it difficult at first to pinpoint all the enemy trenches as they curled and twisted on the slopes.

It eventually became clear that the German line followed points of eminence, always giving a commanding view of No Man's Land. Immediately in front, and spreading left and right until hidden from view, was clear evidence that the attack had been brutally repulsed. Hundreds of dead, many of the 37th Brigade, were strung out like wreckage washed up to a high-water mark. Quite as many died on the enemy wire as on the ground, like fish caught in the net. They hung there in grotesque postures. Some looked as though they were praying; they had died on their knees and the wire had prevented their fall. From the way the dead were equally spread out, whether on the wire or lying in front of it, it was clear that there were no gaps in the wire at the time of the attack.
Most of the dead were never buried. The stench of rotting corpses permeated the air. Rotting bodies and body parts littered the trenches and parapets. The front never moved and so as each attack occured, the dead piled upon the dead. Robert Graves wrote of being able to determine the date of the corpses one came across in no-man's land by the equipment lying next to them or the uniform piece rotting off of them.

Constantly under the threat of machine guns, no-man's land became filled with dead bodies that were never removed.

Robert Graves tells of returning to England on leave and hating the pseudo-military atmosphere there and the ignorant, jingoistic nationalism that gripped the country, spurred on by the lies and propaganda from the newspapers and government. Like many others who came home from the front, they actually wanted to return to the trenches to get away from the war madness that gripped their nations.

The Battle of the Somme in the media


The French Army mutiny of 1917 was precipitated by the re-insertion of exhausted French divisions into the trenches after a particularly catastrophic attack. Normally, divisions who had just taken part in an assault were given a certain amount of time to recuperate. After the disastrous 2nd Battle of the Aisne where French troops were massacred by the tens of thousands, the French Army was forced to cut short the rest time of those devastated units and throw them back into the trenches because France had run out of men.

Quite simply, everyone who was capable of fighting was either dead or already in the army. The same was true in Germany and England.

Whipped into a national fervor by government lies, children play acted trench warfare...

...while their fathers died by the thousands in the same muddy trenches year after year.

When the war finally ended, the truth became known as the surviving soldiers returned. There is no modern parallel to this. Comparisons of the modern day Democrats wanting to cut and run and the Oxford Union of 1933 do not do justice to the survivors of The Great War and the pacifists of 1933.

Modern day pacifists can draw a direct lineage back to that union in philosophy only. With milbloggers, embedded journalists, an oppositional press and an all-volunteer army, it's hard to excuse a similar vote being held today. The atrocities attributed to the Germans turned out to have been propaganda while the atrocities of Saddam have been photographed and cataloged.

While the appeasers of 2006 can be roundly castigated for having no sense of the global war against Islamofascism, the traumatized people of 1933 should be left out of it.

Photos from Quotes from this site describing the Battle of the Somme.

Update: Mark Steyn was very kind to reply to this on his site. Here's what he had to say.

I think you’re missing the point I was making. I wasn’t commenting on the merits or otherwise of that vote, but on the symbolism. Now consider the symbolism of Khatami’s Harvard address: it’s not pre-war, but during a war; it’s not students debating, but a keynote address by an invited former head of state whose proxies are second only to al-Qaeda in the number of Americans they’ve killed.


Anonymous said...

Utter Rubbish!

World War I was a war of German aggression, just like World War II. The cost of defeating it was huge, indescribably huge - and certainly the media colluded in concealing how terrible the slaughter was; but nobody has seriously suggested there was any alternative for the Allied countries, except submitting to defeat and conquest.

Freedom was at stake then too - perhaps not yours or mine, but Frenchmen's and Belgians'. I suppose with the benefit of hindsight, given how easily they were overrun 25 years later, they might as well have just let the Germans in.

Let us never forget at what great price our freedom was bought; nor be unwilling to pay it again.

Anonymous said...

The Allies may have disproportionately publicised German atrocities in 1914 however they were very real (it is only in the shadow of a century in which we have become inured to worse, that they perhaps do not shock us).

This book review is worth a read: "The German Atrocities of 1914: A History of
Denial". It was an object of the counter-cultural project of the 1960s to portray the antagonists in the Great War (many of whose soldiers were still alive, and holding office in western legislatures) as moral equivalents. They were not; and saying so won't make them.

K T Cat said...

What's at issue here is not the original cause of the war, but the effect on society of the war madness at home, whipped up by government propaganda and the willingness of all of them to spill the blood of their men without regard for the cost.

The theme from the German ppoint of view is the same in All Quiet on the Western Front as well.

As for wartime atrocities, they pale in comparison to the utter incompetence of the general staffs on both sides.

None of the great authors that survived the war that I have read are concerned with atrocities by the "Huns" at all. Siegfried Sasoon, Robert Graves and the rest focus on the madness and folly of the whole affair.

K T Cat said...


I went and read your suggested link. Thanks for taking the time to give it. Here's the money quote for me:

They seek to give an authoritative answer as to why 6,500 civilians were killed by the German Army during the invasion

For some reason, the literary survivors didn't focus on this aspect of the war. I would suggest that 6500 dead was just not a significant number for the war. At Verdun alone, the casualties ran about 1,000,000 in dead and wounded.

At Passchendaele in 1917, General Haig repeated the disastrous techniques that led to the slaughter at the Somme a year earlier, with similarly pitiful results. has this to say about General Haig's campaign:

Unwilling to concede the failure of the breakthrough, Haig pressed on with a further three assaults on the ridge in late October. The eventual capture of Passchendaele village by British and Canadian forces on 6 November finally gave Haig an excuse to call off the offensive claiming success.

The Third Battle of Ypres was, like its predecessors, a costly exercise. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) incurred some 310,000 casualties, with a similar, lower, number of German casualties: 260,000.

Accounts of Passchendaele are illuminating when looking at the vote of 1933.