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1914 – 2014: celebrating a loss of appetite

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I’ve read at least enough about WW1 to be aware that its causes, and the steps made towards war, were very complex and contestable. There are plenty of historians, professional and amateur, who’ve suggested that, if not for x, or y, war may have been avoided. However, I don’t think there’s any doubt that a ‘force’, one which barely exists today, a force felt by all sides in the potential conflict of the time, made war very difficult to avoid. I’ll call this force the appetite for war, but it needs to be understood more deeply, to divest it of its vagueness. We know that, in 1914, lads as young as 14 sneaked their way into the militaries of their respective countries to experience the irresistible thrill of warfare. A great many of them paid the ultimate price. Few of these lambs to the slaughter were discouraged from their actions – on the contrary. Yet 100 years on, this attitude seems bizarre, disgusting and obscene. And we don’t even seem to realise how extraordinarily fulsome this transformation has been.

Let’s attempt to go back to those days. They were the days when the size of your empire was the measure of your manliness. The Brits had a nice big fat one, and the Germans were sorely annoyed, having come late to nationhood and united military might, but with few foreign territories left to conquer and dominate. They continued to build up their arsenal while fuming with frustration. Expansionism was the goal of all the powerful nations, as it always had been, and in earlier centuries, as I’ve already outlined, it was at the heart of scores of bloody European conflicts. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that the years of uneasy peace before 1914 contributed to the inevitability of the conflict. Peace was considered an almost ‘unnatural’ state, leading to lily-livered namby-pambiness in the youth of Europe. Another character-building, manly war was long overdue.

Of course, all these expansionist wars of the past led mostly to stalemates and backwards and forwards exchanges of territory, not to mention mountains of dead bodies and lakes of blood, but they made numerous heroic reputations – Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Peter the Great of Russia, Louis XIV of France and of course Napoleon Bonaparte. These ‘greats’ of the past have always evoked mixed reactions in me, and the feelings are well summed up by Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature:

The historic figures who earned the honorific ‘So-and-So the Great’ were not great artists, scholars, doctors or inventors, people who enhanced human happiness or wisdom. They were dictators who conquered large swaths of territory and the people in them. If Hitler’s luck had held out a bit longer, he probably would have gone down in history as Adolf the Great.

While I’m not entirely sure about that last sentence, these reflections are themselves an indication of how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve been affected by the wholesale slaughter of two world wars and the madness of the ‘mutually assured destruction’ era that followed them. The fact that we’ve now achieved a military might far beyond the average person’s ability to comprehend, rendering obsolete the old world of battlefields and physical heroics, has definitely removed much of the thrill of combat, now more safely satisfied in computer games. But let’s return again to that other country, the past.

In the same month that the war began, August 1914, the Order of the White Feather was founded, with the support of a number of prominent women of the time, including the author and anti-suffragette Mrs Humphrey Ward (whom we might now call Mary) and the suffragette leaders Emmeline and Cristobel Pankhurst. It was extremely popular, so much so that it interfered with government objectives – white feathers were sent even to those convalescing from the horrors of the front lines, and to those dedicated to arms manufacturing in their home countries. Any male of a certain age who wasn’t in uniform or ‘over there’ was fair game. Not that the white feather idea was new with WWI – it had been made popular by the novel The Four Feathers (1902), set in the First War of Sudan in 1882, and the idea had been used in the British Empire since the eighteenth century – but it reached a crescendo of popularity, a last explosive gasp – or not quite, for it was revived briefly during WWII, but since then, and partly as a result of the greater awareness of the carnage of WWI, the white feather has been used more as a symbol of peace and pacifism. The Quakers in particular took it to heart as a badge of honour, and it became a symbol for the British Peace Pledge Union (PPU) in the thirties, a pacifist organisation with a number of distinguished writers and intellectuals, such as Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell and Storm Jameson.

There was no PPU or anything like it, however, in the years before WWI. Yet the enthusiasm for war of 1914 soon met with harsh reality in the form of Ypres and the Somme. By the end of 1915 the British Army was ‘depleted’ to the tune of over half a million men, and conscription was introduced, for the first time ever in Britain, in 1916. It had been mooted for some time, for of course the war had been catastrophic for ordinary soldiers from the start, and it quickly became clear that more bodies were needed. Not surprisingly, though, resistance to the carnage had begun to grow. An organisation called the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), consisting mainly of socialists and Quakers, was established, and it campaigned successfully to have a ‘conscience clause’ inserted in the 1916 Military Service (conscription) Act. The clause allowed people to refuse military service if it conflicted with their beliefs, but they had to argue their case before a tribunal. Of course ‘conshies’ were treated with some disdain, and were less tolerated by the British government as the war proceeded, during which time the Military Service Act was expanded, first to include married men up to 41 years of age (the original Act had become known as the Batchelor’s Bill) and later to include men up to 51 years of age. But the British government’s attitude didn’t necessarily represent that of the British people, and the NCF and related organisations grew in numbers as the war progressed, in spite of government and jingoist media campaigns to suppress them.

In Australia, two conscription bills, in 1916 and 1917, failed by a slim majority. In New Zealand, the government simply imposed the Military Service Act on its people without bothering to ask them. Those who resisted were often treated brutally, but their numbers increased as the war progressed. However, at no time, in any of the warring nations, did the anti-warriors have the numbers to be a threat to their governments’ ‘sunken assets’ policies.

So why was there such an appetite then and why is the return of such an appetite unthinkable today? Can we just put it down to progress? Many skeptics are rightly suspicious of ‘progress’ as a term that breeds complacency and even an undeserved sense of superiority over the primitives of the past, but Pinker and others have argued cogently for a civilising process that has operated, albeit partially and at varying rates in various states, since well before WWI, indeed since the emergence of governments of all stripes. The cost, in human suffering, of WWI and WWII, and the increasingly sophisticated killing technology that has recently made warfare as unimaginable and remote as quantum mechanics, have led to a ‘long peace’ in the heart of Europe at least – a region which, as my previous posts have shown, experienced almost perpetual warfare for centuries. We shouldn’t, of course, assume that the present stability will be the future norm, but there are reasons for optimism (as far as warfare and violence is concerned – the dangers for humanity lie elsewhere).

Firstly, the human rights movement, in the form of an international movement dedicated to peace and stability between nations for the sake of their citizens, was born out of WWI in the form of the League of Nations, which, while not strong enough to resist the Nazi impetus toward war in the thirties, formed the structural foundation for the later United Nations. The UN is, IMHO, a deeply flawed organisation, based as it is on the false premise of national sovereignty and the inward thinking thus entailed, but as an interim institution for settling disputes and at least trying to keep the peace, it’s far better than nothing. For example, towards the end of the 20th century, the concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide were given more legal bite, and heads of state began, for the first time in history, to be held accountable for their actions in international criminal courts run by the UN. Obviously, considering the invasion of Iraq and other atrocities, we have a long way to go, but hopefully one day even the the most powerful and, ipso facto, most bullying nations will be forced to submit to international law.

Secondly, a more universal and comprehensive education system in the west, which over the past century and particularly in recent decades, has emphasised critical thinking and individual autonomy, has been a major factor in the questioning of warfare and conscription, and in recognising the value of children and youth, and loosening the grip of authority figures. People are far less easily conned into going into war than ever before, and are generally more sceptical of their governments.

Thirdly, globalism and the internationalism of our economy, our science. our communications systems, and the problems we face, such as energy, food production and climate change, have meant that international co-operation is far more  important to us than empire-building. Science, for those literate enough to understand it, has all but destroyed the notion of race and all the baggage attend upon it. There are fewer barriers to empathy – to attack other nations is tantamount to attacking ourselves. The United Nations, ironic though that title often appears to be, has spawned or inspired many other organisations of international co-operation, from the ICC to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There are many other related developments which have moved us towards co-operation and away from belligerence, among them being the greater democratisation of nations – the enlargement of the franchise in existing democracies or pro to-democracies, and the democratisation of former Warsaw Pact and ‘Soviet Socialist’ nations – and the growing similarity of national interests, leading to more information and trade exchanges.

So there’s no sense that the ‘long peace’ in Europe, so often discussed and analysed, is going to be broken in the foreseeable future. To be sure, it hasn’t been perfect, with the invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the not-so-minor Balkans War of the 90s, and I’m not sure if the Ukraine is a European country (and neither are many Ukrainians it seems), but the broad movements are definitely towards co-operation in Europe, movements that we can only hope will continue to spread worldwide.


Written by stewart henderson

August 22, 2014 at 9:05 am

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