It’s been popular to give wars brand names for at least a century.
Graveyard at The Somme; memorial to some of the hapless dupes who fought in "The War to End All Wars"
The First World War was sold to Americans as the ‘War to End Wars’. Rather like the preacher who predicts an apocalypse, that’s a trick that can only really be pulled once, but since then we’ve had wars for all sorts of other excellent reasons including Democracy and Freedom (Humanitarian wars to ‘Protect Civilians’ are currently much in vogue). We’ve also had wars against lots of dreadful things: Oppression, Tyranny, Dictatorship and Extremism. There’s even been a trend towards using the war brand for endeavors that aren’t really wars at all, such as the 1970s+ War on Drugs, wars on malaria, poverty and so forth.
In turn, opponents of wars have assigned their own brand names, claiming for instance that a war said to be against ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ was really a ‘War for Oil’. Other wars have been named wars of conquest, imperialist wars or wars for a partisan cause such as Israel.
The essay that follows is therefore just part of a long tradition of branding wars with simple descriptors. It’s about war over the last century and attempts to argue two rather controversial propositions:
- World War One was a War Against Socialism
- World War Two was a War Against Peace
Combined together, these propositions may enrage people across the political spectrum, from far right to far left along with liberals in the middle.
If so, it would help make my point. The great mass of humanity has been duped.
Intelligent feedback and criticism welcome.
The rout of Socialism
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
– Leonard Cohen
Pyramid of the Capitalism System; a popular poster before the century of war
Just over a century ago, at the dawn of the 20th century, the level of economic inequality between and within nations was high.
It was possible to speak of an ‘elite’ although the boundaries of any such category are not exact. Marxists would use the term ‘ruling class’ but whatever expression is used, it refers to a social construct more than a distinct, clearly-definable subset of humanity.
This very wealthy elite was predominantly – although not exclusively – European and North American. By any objective standard they were an elite that enjoyed wealth and opportunity unprecedented in human history.
But they were haunted by a specter. The specter was socialism.
One hundred years ago, socialists were in a situation somewhat akin to the position of ‘green’ politics in our contemporary era. They could reasonably argue that ‘socialism’ in a modern form had never been really tried anywhere on earth. It meant they had no working examples to point to; there were no functioning, national-scale working models of socialist societies. On the other hand, there were no discouraging instances of failed socialism.
Attracting growing support from the intelligentsia as well as the working classes, socialism was a political tradition and ideological aspiration which seemed to many intellectuals to have a most promising future.
Of course, there were really many ‘socialisms’ co-existing at the time – different tendencies and ideological stands from anarchism to democratically-oriented reformist socialism, communalism to Lenin-style vanguardism. A century ago, there was no obvious prospect of a single, unifying ‘revolution’ was likely any time soon – and absent broad socialist unity, the privileged elite had plenty of cards to play. Even so, the growing popularity of a political ideology asserting that all humans have equal rights to economic security and prosperity was widely viewed as a significant threat to the established social and political order.
'Destroy this mad brute!" a US WWI anti-German propaganda poster that offers peace - as long as the monster is killed first
In retrospect, if there was one, single, ‘game-changing’ event that stalled the seemingly inexorable rise of socialism, it was the gigantic human-created cataclysm we now call the First World War. This is a somewhat contrarian statement, because the First World War is often portrayed as an event that benefited the advance of socialism. I think that’s an inversion of the truth.
As a consequence of The Great War, one huge nation covering a sixth of the earth’s land mass (Russia along with much of its pre-war Empire), became ‘socialist’ under a particularly repressive, authoritarian and dictatorial form of socialism. There’s no denying ‘Leninist’ tendencies had been present in the socialist movement prior to 1914. But in most if not all countries – including Russia – they were a minority within the socialist movement as a whole. Until war came…
The enormous prestige of gaining such vast terrain for ‘socialism’ indubitably biased the world socialist movement towards Russian-style Communism in the period following World War One. After the USSR’s expansionist victory in the Second World War and the subsequent success of Communists in China, the Leninist tendency within socialism seemed even more on the ascendant. Western Europe never embraced authoritarian Marxism to the same extent. The dominant form of socialism in the west remained democratic socialism, which in turn came in many flavors. Yet worldwide, the influence of the Communist USSR – and to a lesser extent Communist China – was hugely significant. Most observers of the socialist movement at the beginning of the 20th century would probably have been quite surprised that a relatively small tendency within the socialist movement as a whole would soon become so influential and remain so for more than 50 years.
It took several decades, but the general appeal of the USSR’s model of socialism gradually waned as the 20th century rolled by. In the second half of the 20th century, idealistic socialists outside the USSR found it increasingly hard to defend the internal and external policies of the Soviet regime. The USSR’s lack of free speech, abuses of judicial process, economic inefficiencies and the rigid authoritarianism and militarism of the Soviet leadership and its military interventions in rebellious satellites such as Hungary became too hard to rationalize and explain away – notwithstanding quite genuine achievements by Soviet society that were adduced by true believers as countervailing considerations.
Eventually, the USSR ‘fell’. Some three generations after the turmoil and revolutionary zeal of the October Revolution, the Russian nation decolonized and went through an economic catharsis no less tumultuous than the 1920s, leading after one chaotic decade to the bruised but recovering Russian society of today. Post-Leninist Russia is back within the capitalist fold – although for reasons explicable only by apologists for western militarism, it remains a notional military adversary of the USA and NATO.
One could go so far as to say that from the vantage point of a century later, the First War was a War Against Socialism. And although it wasn’t apparent at the time, it was successful. A consequence of the First World War was that prospects for consensual world socialism were set back by several generations.
Whether or not this result was achieved by deliberate prior planning is an interesting question, but I don’t propose to examine at this time. By plan or by accident, in the long-term socialist ideology was a victim of the war. The Western European and North American elite have enjoyed a century of continuous privilege ever since. Elites in both the USA and the UK have enjoyed robust continuity, without a single rupture caused by revolution or military defeat. The Anglo-Saxon elite – more successfully than any other – has kept socialism at bay.
Peace Pledge Union poster of the 1930s
The bloodbath of World War One had another rather obvious consequence. It gave rise to unprecedented revulsion with war – especially in the countries of western Europe and North America. Pacifism became popular to a quite novel extent, especially in Britain. For idealistic young men and women in the 1930s, the cry “Never Again!” was a self-evident reference to war. Nor was the popularity of anti-war sentiment confined to the political left or the right. For a while it had very broad appeal. In the USA it was especially strong on the political right.
Growing grass-roots determination to avoid another war that flowered in the generation following World War One represented a potent threat to some very powerful vested interests in the western world. It was, of course, of no real consequence to many capitalists, businesses and family fortunes. But it did jeopardize the plans of specific vested interests – based mainly in the USA and UK. These were the forces that collaborated to launch World War Two. They managed to do so by enlisting one brand of socialists (most of the left in the western world) to join them in going to war against another brand of socialists (National Socialists in Germany) who in turn became embroiled with a third, supposedly more extreme variant of socialism (the Marxist USSR). The latter ended up, somewhat remarkably, in war-time alliance with the major capitalist powers.
Having made the bold claim that World War One was the western plutocracy’s answer to socialism, I’ll go further and assert that World War Two was its deadly response to the peace movement. The Second World War was arguably even more effective in achieving its objective than the First. After promising peaks in the mid-1930s, the European and North American peace movement was eventually shattered by World War Two. I believe it has yet to fully recover.
Meanwhile, with no breaks in continuity and a succession of wars to boost its budgets, the military, ‘security’ and ‘intelligence’ functions of the British and American states have grown from strength to strength.
To illustrate this point, I use the more extreme example: the USA. Back in the 1930s, it was a nation with a general consensus supporting continental isolationism and an aversion to European wars. The USA didn’t even have a foreign intelligence agency. Public opinion was overwhelmingly anti-war. Yet within a few years America was transformed into a military colossus, eventually sporting hundreds of overseas military bases and the largest so-called ‘intelligence community’ in history. By the end of the 20th century, the USA’s military spend came to equal the combined military budgets of all other nations on earth. America had become the new Rome..
How peace got lost
I find it astonishing how so many ‘socialists’, once war broke out in the northern autumn of 1914, became almost immediate converts to rampant nationalism and militarism. Something similar was true of other progressive social movements. For instance, suffragette split on the issue of war, but the majority seemed to support militant nationalists such as Christabel Pankhurst.
Australian WW1 anti-conscription poster: not everyone was fooled by Great War propaganda. Australians were less fooled than most
Had the majority of socialists united with determination in solidarity against the war, the conflict’s outcome would likely have been very different. The war would probably not have lasted beyond a year or so – and might well have led to quite dramatic advances for democratic socialism and international co-operation between the most economically advanced nations on earth. On the other hand, the imperial elites, who’d presided over the outbreak of war would quite likely have been out on their ears – from St Petersburg to London. In class terms, the stakes in the First World War were extremely high. It wasn’t just a war between nations. The imperial contestants were recklessly gambling all – including the possibility that their own prosperity would vanish in chaos and revolution.
The First World War bled white the youth of a generation, but did leave most of Europe relatively unscathed. It was mainly a military conflict between military machines. Civilian casualties remained a small proportion of the total. Since then, technology and ideology have combined to bring war much more directly to civilian populations. Civilian casualties were a considerably higher proportion in World War Two and it’s been a continuing trend since (Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan for example).
"Save free speech, buy war bonds!"
Although technology helped drive the “civilianization” of war casualties, the role of ideology and government policy should not be understated. When new technologies with obvious military potential were invented, most notably the ‘conquest of air’, many people were aware of the danger and pressed for controls by international agreement. There were, for instance, proposals to ban aerial bombing floated in the 1930s by at least one major European nation. Unfortunately, they did not win common agreement.
When World War Two did break out there was a swift descent into hideous mutual terror. Yet some ‘rules of warfare’ were observed, whether or not they’d previously been formalized by treaty. That’s to say, there was some holding back from utterly unspeakable, worst-case cruelty. One clear example was that, despite holding huge reserves of lethal sarin gas, the German leadership eschewed its use on battlefields and against civilian populations. Unlike World War One, no broad-scale military usage was made of poison gas by any of the protagonists.
Even so, World War Two did entail mass terror of a ferocity the world had never seen before. Entire cities with large populations were incinerated from the air. The worst offenders, sad to say, were the USA and Britain, who used World War Two to turn destruction of cities into an art-form. By war’s end, the USA had even perfected a completely new technology that would enable its President to order obliteration of tens of thousands of people via a single ordinance drop. In the event, Truman chose to try out the USA’s nuclear bombs twice on Japanese cities, without warning and certainly with no subsequent apology. It was an unspeakably murderous act.
Not only were Britain and the USA the most notorious civilian mass murderers during World War Two. They were also, I believe, the instigators of the war. It was British and American diplomacy first and foremost that brought about a conflict the Axis powers were clearly most anxious to avoid. Once war broke out (that is, following their declarations of war), it was the western powers that refused proposals for a negotiated end to hostilities. Unconditional surrender was the consistent Allied demand until they achieved their goal.
WW2 propaganda poster which came in several versions to help Anglo-Saxons identify friends
After five bloody years of war, the ‘Allied powers’ did prevail. Crucial to their success was the wartime alliance they forged with the USSR – a partnership that saw a crusty imperial power link arms with a brash nouveau riche capitalist republic and a brutal and authoritarian communist dictatorship. The latter, despite devastating losses, was eventually a beneficiary of the war in geostrategic terms.
After their military victory, those within the elites of the two English-speaking allies who’d been instrumental in fomenting war had tidying up to do, in cahoots with their temporary Soviet allies.
They had to cover their tracks. The war had caused the most terrible suffering for hundreds of millions of people, so the perpetrators had the strongest of incentives to obscure their own responsibility for the war. They also wished to camouflage and rationalize their horrendous brutality during the war. Arguably both English-speaking nations had committed the greatest war-crimes of all time – atrocities without precedent. It was a reputation they were naturally keen to avoid.
Denying that Dresden, Hamburg and Berlin, Tokyo, Nagasaki and Hiroshima had been blown to smithereens by their bombs wasn’t really an option. The evidence could scarcely be denied. The solution was to ‘out-do’ those atrocities in the public mind – while falsely pinning the blame for starting the war on the defeated nations.
It was really just a matter of infusing new life into wartime propaganda that had already served US and UK national interests well during the war, when it had been used to whip up their own populations into a fury of righteous indignation. The post-war task was to emphasize suitable aspects of that propaganda and endow them with the status of ‘indisputable fact’. The landmark event used to ‘sell’ this false history to the world was the Nuremberg Trials. They are generally spoken of today as representing some kind of historical benchmark in international jurisprudence. In fact, the list of people who consider the Nuremberg trials were a disgraceful travesty of justice is impressive indeed, although their comments are rarely mentioned.
The enemy. Better off without him, even on the UN Security Council in 2011?
By the 1950s, the essential framework of our contemporary world was in place. It’s a world fashioned out of a combination of legal, political and economic arrangements between nations, world-transforming technologies and generally accepted ideological understandings. Of course, it’s a world that continues to evolve. Some major changes have occurred during the last 60 years, such as the remarkable collapse of the USSR. Yet overall, continuity has been greater than difference. We still live in a world of nation-states, operating under the rubric of the UN, World Bank, IMF and other key post-1945 institutions. Technology has evolved to be sure, but our societies are still largely reliant on fossil fuels. We remain under the threat of nuclear weapons – the most lethal devices for deliberate mass murder ever invented.
Crucially, we also still live under the “ideological understandings” that were in place six decades ago, based on historical beliefs that are largely distorted myths.
In the English-speaking countries (including Australia, whose view of world history is largely derived from Anglo-American sources) these myths still dominate our lives. They colour how we view the world. They define what we think is acceptable and what is not.
As I write, the two most populous English-speaking countries, this time in cahoots with France, are bombing Libya from the air. Since World War Two, this form of warfare has been preferred by the Anglo-American war machines for rather obvious reasons.
On what basis do these bomb-happy nations justify their action? Why – it’s all about human rights of course. We bomb… because we care.
Taken for granted, again & again & again...
But what gives us that right? How dare the USA and UK arrogate to themselves the right to kill by long-distance action in remote locations?
There are two answers – the ‘legal’ answer, and the more deeply entrenched ideological answer.
In terms of legality, the UK and USA managed to fix a vote in the UN Security Council at a crucial time that ceded them the authority to impose a ‘No Fly Zone’. They made no serious attempt to establish global consensus. The type of diplomacy they exercised had nothing to do with consensus. It was concerned only with achieving the goal which the war-promoting countries had already set: they wanted war. A UN Security Council resolution was a necessary fig leaf to give an appearance of legality to their direct involvement in the war. They got their fig leaf, even though UN Security Council Resolution 1973 provides a self-evidently incoherent policy framework that could perpetuate Libyan civil war indefinitely – the very worst imaginable outcome from a genuine humanitarian perspective!
These serial war-mongering rogue states – most notably the USA and UK - have made a travesty of the aspiration of finding genuine international agreement. They play the UN as a game – a game to get their way using fair means or foul.
It is disgusting – but it would never be accepted if it were not for the ideological arrogance of the Anglo-Saxon nations – a grandiose self-image which they’ve managed to market to the rest of the world to a quite remarkable extent.
A significant proportion of the British and American public seriously believe they – as a people – are better placed to make decisions about what’s appropriate for people living elsewhere (such as Libya) than the ‘other peoples’ concerned (eg the Libyans). And why not, given their history? They are, after all, the same people who saved the world from the greatest threat it had ever faced – the Great Evil One himself, Adolf Hitler. If some people have to make more decisions than others, who better than the Anglo-Saxon nations, bastions of democracy and human rights?
The rise and rise of militarism in the USA
Most westerners seriously imagine that world peace, since 1945, has been preserved by their own nations’ military dominance. Yet the truth is mainly the opposite. From 1939 onwards world peace has been foiled by collusion between the key allied powers of World War Two. It’s true Anglo-American military strength seemed to make sense during the ‘Cold War’ era, supported by the narrative that the west had defeated Nazi Germany only to witness the rise of another ‘Evil Empire’. But post-1990 that excuse for militarism had to be dropped. It should now be apparent to objective observers of international affairs that far from keeping the peace, the US/UK effectively serve as guarantors of continuing, controlled and highly contrived war.
From an Anglo-American perspective, what has changed most of all about warfare is its externalization. Notwithstanding occasional false-flag operations such as 9-11 or the 7/7 London bombings, war no longer happens at home. It’s entirely exported to regions of the world that the war planners deem ‘peripheral’. The cost of war in terms of human life is now quite small for the aggressor nations and their military are all professional employees (accompanied by increasing numbers of private contractors). But of course, the impact of war is devastating to the recipients of western military aggression.
Would the great-great grandfathers of this generation of Anglo-American warmongers have approved? Maybe they would.
Like magicians, the canny Anglo-American warmongers misdirect the attention of observers. They adorn themselves in the regalia of peace, human rights, justice and freedom. Beneath the splendid ideological garments, reality is not so flattering.
By flash-freezing long-discredited war propaganda back in the 1940s – and keeping it rigid and impenetrable ever since – the ‘Allies’ obscured their role in fomenting the bloodiest war of all time, obscured their role in making it the bloodiest war of all time – and re-sanctified the very notion of war itself.
They achieved this last task by creating the myth that World War Two ‘ was both ‘necessary’ and ‘just’ – the ultimate response to the peace movement.
To this day, World War Two is referred to as the quintessential ‘necessary’ war. Take, for example, this recent article by the veteran Israeli peacenik Uri Averny. It contains a perfect example of what I mean. Here’s the relevant extract:
THE VERY term “war crimes” is problematic. War itself is a crime, never to be justified unless it is the only way to prevent a bigger crime – as with the war against Adolf Hitler, and now – on an incomparably smaller scale – against Muammar Qaddafi.
So there we have it – from someone who defines himself as a supporter of the peace movement, no less.
World War Two propaganda, eerily relevant today although Klu Klux Klan symbolism is obsolete. (Poster used during German occupation of Holland)
Averny is correct to suggest that war itself is a crime. But his analysis is downhill from there. He explains that sometimes war is essential. The greatest of such instances was World War Two – the ultimate “justified war”. But other, lesser cases reflect in the glory of that iconic necessary war, so they can be considered a bit necessary too – even though war itself really is a crime when you think about it. Oh and by the way… if you’re wondering who gets to decide which wars are necessary… it’s the good guys do, of course! The victors of World War Two! US! The same heroic people who vanquished Adolf and the Nazis.
Confused? Yes, we are confused. Very confused, Our dominant historical narrative has been distorted by lies, absurdities and dis-proven myths. It’s not surprising we’re confused…
Uri Averny is a grand old man of the Israeli peace movement. I could instead have chosen examples of ‘World War Two worship’ by much more bombastic pro-war commentators. In the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, barely a day went by without one talking-head or other warning about ‘appeasement’. Hoary old myths and distortions from the Nazi era perform excellent pro-war service to this day.
The myths of World War Two are ubiquitous and by no means confined to open advocates for militarism, as the example of Uri Averny indicates. They are shared by right, left and center. They unite east and west. It is no exaggeration to say they form a crucial part of our commonly accepted intellectual landscape. And of course, they are incessantly re-iterated by the western media, refreshed by Hollywood and reaffirmed by the mainstream publishing industry.
Uri and his adopted nation have a somewhat different interest in the frozen history of World War Two. The State of Israel was also born out of that war. The Zionist State acquired ‘moral legitimacy’ and vast wealth as a consequence of general acceptance of the notion that Nazi mass murders of European Jews were carried out on such a gigantic scale that they represented the greatest war crime of all time.
Most of the heated debate about World War Two surrounds this Jewish/Zionist narrative of events. Although interwoven with what I’ll call the Anglo-Saxon myths – it’s essentially a separate topic. In this essay I shall merely pause to note the ongoing usage and efficacy of that related mythology, which makes the fate of Jews during the war the central and most significant event of the war. It is, of course, a historical perspective enforced by law in several jurisdictions, including Israel itself.
Did he have the guts to be a war resister?
As someone of Anglo-Saxon ethnic origins, I want nothing but the truth about history. Insofar as I was taught lies in the past about my culture and its history, I’d like those lies corrected so posterity is not equally misled. For me, the call to universal truth is fundamental. I’m fond of many aspects of the culture I acquired through an accident of birth, but I want it to become better by shedding dross. My primary loyalty is to humanity as a whole – not to a national, ethnic or religious sub-set.
I have no doubt the future belongs to people of similar conviction. Tribalism is a dead-end. War is species suicide.
As for Socialism, so badly derailed by a century of war and confusion, I believe in the broadest sense it’s a necessary – but far from sufficient – prerequisite for collective human well-being . Socialism need not and should not be at the expense of free speech, individual initiative and private enterprise. And it may be the word carries too much historical baggage to be useful in the future. But whether we call it socialism or something else, modern civilization needs a civilizing, equalizing integument around the raw energy of what may be called the realm of enterprise to prevent the latter usurping the common good. In the 21st century, Socialism itself also requires a ‘outer integument’ – the vital constraining influence of ecologically sustainable management of human activity.
Seen as complimentary, with blue constrained by red and red by green, these three great movements are best regarded not as competitors but as complimentary forces. Appropriately co-related, they can sustain life that’s worth living for us all.
War, on the other hand, is the absolute antithesis of sustainability, justice and freedom. War – and the malevolent ideologies that glorify and promote it – remains humanity’s greatest common enemy.