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When Bad History Meets Warmongering

19 June 2009

8:35 PM

19 June 2009

8:35 PM

I should probably be inured to articles arguing that even though europe endured "two twentieth-century apocalypses that left it depopulated and permanently traumatized" it is wrong for europeans to have drawn any conclusions, or learnt any lessons, from the First and Second World Wars. And yet, I’m afraid, I continue to be irritated by such pieces, not least because they invariably demand that europeans prove their moral seriousness by going to war more frequently, regardless of the cost or even the cause involved. Equally, it’s startling quite how many people never met a war they couldn’t embrace and champion.

Michael Oren, historian and prospective Israeli ambassador to Washington, seems to be one such chap. His latest rant  – dressed up in learned clothes of course – in the New Republic is pegged to the unveiling (some time ago) of a couple of memorials to those soldiers executed for desertion or cowardice during the First World War. Apparently:

What should we make of this practice of immortalizing deserters? Morally speaking, it is a complicated matter. World War I was in many respects a dubious enterprise, and those who desert from unjust wars might correctly be regarded with sympathy. The issue grows murkier, however, when an admiration for deserters from particular wars bleeds into an admiration for desertion as a general practice. There is reason to worry that this is precisely what is happening–to fear that the monuments in Belgium and Britain are symptoms of European attitudes toward not just World War I soldiers but toward all soldiers, even those who fight in just causes. And, if that is true, one might well ask: Can a society that valorizes its deserters long survive?

Oren writes of the "de-glorifying" of the First World War as though that was a bad thing. But while war can inspire heroic and humbling feats, only moral simpletons can persist in thinking that there’s something ennobling about it. That applies to even the "Good Wars." Soldiers merit our admiration and our pity and it is precisely because of the burdens we place upon them that we should be wary of deploying them without good cause.

None of this troubles Oren or, one supposes, the other members of the War Party. And so we’re treated to lazy arguments that:

The revulsion to any war, irrespective of its merits, is especially evident today among the European left… But some conservative European politicians are also reluctant to employ military means – even in the service of obviously just efforts, such as keeping peace in the Middle East or standing up to the Taliban… In Afghanistan, European NATO members have consistently resisted U.S. requests for additional troops while restricting the scope of their soldiers’ operations…The connection between courage and survival has been acknowledged since earliest antiquity, along with the dangers posed by desertion.

Nevermind the fact that your definition of a just cause is not necessarily my definition of one, this is simply ignorant nonsense. In the first place, in my lifetime British armed forces have been deployed the Falklands, Iraq (twice, three times if you include Operation Desert Fox), Bosnia and Kosovo, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. there have been decent arguments in favour of each of these interventions, but in precisely none of them was British national survival an issue. Each was a war of choice. And of course other european countries contributed to several of them too.

As for Afghanistan, while it is true that some european forces are operating under limited terms of engagement, non-US NATO troops have endured their fair share – some might say more than their fair share – of casualties. At the time of writing 446 Americans have been killed in combat in Afghanistan, while 136 British soldiers have been killed in combat as have 100 Canadians, 22 Frenchmen 20 Danes, 19 Germans, 11 Romanians and 8 Poles. By the standards of past conflicts these are, of course, mercifully trivial numbers but as a percentage of their countries’ respective populations (an admittedly crudely-hewn yardstick) it’s obvious that the British, Canadians (a "european" nation in defence terms) and, most especially, the Danes have "sacrificed" more than the Americans in a cause that is less immediately or pressingly theirs. That should merit something better than sneering.

As for those First World War memorials to the executed? There are a number of things that may be said: the first is that they mark, in some sense, the passing of the Frist World War into history. The last survivors won’t be with us for very much longer. Equally, though we still live with the consequences of1914, the memorials to those executed might be considered an attempt to draw a line under the conflict. More importantly, they do not reflect, as Oren seems to think they do, any kind of moral approval of the deserters’ actions, rather they should be seen as a sympathetic response to the particuar horrors of the war – horrors that had little to do with its aims or justification and everything to do with the ghastly experience of actually fighting it. (Some of the executions were almost certainly miscarriages of justice, even by the standards of the time; others were not.) One might also observe that attitudes to desertion are different in times of concsription than they are with regard to an all-volunteer force. None of this troubles Oren who writes, dismissively, that the deserters were "shirking the burdens of national defence". Perhaps many of them were, but it takes a stony heart to revel in their execution 90 years on.

The French actually pardoned those executed as far back as the 1930s and, no matter what ignoramuses will argue, the French army has continued to fight in numerous conflicts since. (Being beaten is not the same thing, it should not need to be said, as not fighting even if I suspect Oren, like so many others of his ilk, pays no attention to the 100,000 Frenchmen killed in the Battle of France in 1940.)

So, in summation, Oren is wrong in both the general premise of his article and in its detail. In its way that’s quite impressive. Ultimately, however, there’s something grotesque in demanding that europe ignore the lessons of military carnage and seek fresh wars to fight, regardless of the reason for them. Happy is the land that has no need for heroes and I’m damned if I see what threats there are that should persuade the Spanish or the Greeks or the Czechs to willingly send their young men off to be killed. Nor do I consider it a sign of weakness that these countries haven’t been searching for them. Equally, those countires tht are fighting in afghanistan deserve better than the unjustified and ignorant scorn Oren – and those like him – drip upon them.

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