Wednesday, November 12, 2014

November 12th Musings

In 1914 Canada's population stood at around 8 million. Our economy was productive enough that we were able to mobilize over half-a-million citizens (mostly men) for the war. This was, technically, a remarkable achievement. It was an achievement met by more or less all of the combatants. Never before had it been possible to mobilize so many inhabitants for the wasteful business of war without producing immediate mass starvation and economic collapse. (Although, eventually, the absence of men in the farmer's fields did produce starvation in Germany. And there was collapse in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires.)

The art of war hadn't come to grips with industry and technology. It was a horrible convergence of things. You could put hundreds of thousands, millions of men in uniform, you could move them swiftly to the front and then provide them with steady streams of food and munitions, but you couldn't solve the problem that once they got there, they would be reduced to marching into the withering fire of that technological marvel known as the "machine gun." You've been inculcating habits of obedience and deference to authority, as well as nationalism and patriotism, martial valour, into your populations. And this gives you the ability to order them into one shooting gallery after another.

This is a pretty good read. I take some issue with their characterization of the attitude about the British ruling elite's eagerness for actually going to war with Germany. A lot of them did, but a lot of them were genuinely reluctant to abandon the peace established at Vienna in 1814. Whatever else one thinks of him, David Lloyd George's decision to side with the war party over Belgium's neutrality was a hard-thought one. The reference at the link to Germany's promise to respect Belgium's integrity in return for allowing them free passage to attack the French is a little foolish. What is a small country, situated between two powerful rivals, supposed to imagine the future holds for it, if it allows one country free transit through it to attack the other? This source shows that the issue of Belgium's neutrality was an important one that England had told all parties it would honour. Here's the wording of the German ultimatum and the Belgian response.

In writing the above, I'm not praising the British and Belgian leadership. I'm just talking about serious things that involved the world as it was in 1914. Just as I'm sure that the "Stop War" writers were not trying to justify Germany's ultimatum.

Their article also disputes the historical consensus that the war was popular at first. They say that in fact there were significant demonstrations against the war that both the anti-war Liberals and Labour party members could have sided with, and that the same held true for socialist politicians in France and Germany. That might be true and, therefore, it's significant that it's been essentially forgotten by the mainstream. But it's also the case that tens of thousands of men voluntarily signed-up in the first months of the conflict and that hundreds of thousands more volunteered as the years progressed. If the war wasn't universally popular at first, it did have enormous and enthusiastic support.

The capitalist class did not want that war. Some of them grew rich on munitions work and war loans, but at first they were worried about the disruptions to international trade and some of them honestly believed that disruptions in the flow of credit and raw materials would end any war within a matter of months.

I agree with the "Stop War" writers that attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Field Marshall Alexander Haig are seriously misplaced. You'd think that after the first 100,000 men getting slaughtered as they trudged through barbed-wire towards machine-gun nests, that you'd stop to reconsider your tactics. Haig would order battles at random places on the map, and order mass charges for the insane reason that:
The plan now was to kill more German troops than the British lost. Since there was no way of reliably measuring the casualties on the other side, Haig relied on estimating it through the losses of his own side. On this basis he began to be angered when the army suffered too few losses, as when he complained that one division in September had lost under a thousand men.
In World War I, the politicians had been wary about challenging their Generals. Eventually, the murderous folly and waste would compel them to intervene. But by that point, hundreds of thousands had been killed or wounded. Ask yourself how many politicians, then or now, would be able to say: "This has all been a dreadful waste. We're simply going to stop. Sorry about your sons, fathers, husbands." It's a tragedy that the famous "Christmas Truce" of 1914 was squelched by bloody-minded officers. But that's the nature of insane societies. (Which Europe very much was, and is. As is Canada, and all the other imperialist, elitist, capitalist, racist patriarchal states.)

Because this brings me to the crux of my post for today. Remembrance Day and all the war memorials to it in all the communities across Canada, were built by people who honestly didn't want to think that their losses had been for nothing. Deluded, yes. But honest. We can do nothing about their delusion now. They're almost all of them dead. Canada has Remembrance Day because after 1918, people needed to think that their sacrifices meant something.

If anyone is to blame for World War I, my money is on the diplomats of Austria-Hungary. One of them actually said that if the Empire is to go down, it might as well go down in a blaze of glory. But every other power stumbled into the war. Which means that it was all a waste. Slaughter for nothing.

I don't know what it was like in Germany or Austria. I haven't read enough. They must have their war memorials I imagine. I do know that Germany was plunged into economic disaster following the war and that the militarists and the right-wing in general invented the "stab in the back" conspiracy that drove Adolph Hitler to distraction. Revolutions, uprisings, economic crises, poverty, unemployment, ... all of these probably kept many Germans from spending too much time pondering the meaning of it all. But I'm sure they did think about it from time-to-time. Some probably ached for a re-match, as Hitler did. I think the vast majority were disgusted with it. Much more than the British and the French. Again, they "won." Their systems stayed intact. Especially Britain's. And Canada's. We, especially could lie to ourselves that it had been terrible, but "worth it."

I have mixed feelings about the day. However much our mainstream culture denies it, there is an element of glorification for what was basically a sordid, horrible, meaningless waste. But it is, also, a moment to reflect on the ordinary men and women who suffered and died in that conflict and in every other hateful conflict in our species' insane history.

Finally, it's also (sadly) a chance to focus our contempt upon vile pieces-of-shit, like the cowardly stephen harper, who thinks nothing of desecrating the ceremonies with his presence, arrogantly posing for the cameras, and looking like the pathetic wreak of a human that he is.


greg said...

Would it be so bad if Russia got Ukraine back? How could it be any worse than what's happening now.

War Is Noble.

thwap said...

The Ukrainians suffered greatly under Russian domination. They're not going back.

But the place called "Eastern Ukraine" is mainly ethnic Russia, as the country's borders were designed by the USSR who didn't care about mixing the Russians into the various "republics" because they were all dominated by Moscow anyway.

The Ukrainian part of the Ukraine should stay independent. But right now, their government is comprised of corrupt fascists and chauvinists who are implementing horrible policies of austerity and mass murder.

The whole thing is a nightmare.

greg said...

Thanks for your reply.

Just wondering how long Harper's bump in numbers is going to last.

I hope to god Trudeau won't be sucked into the "talking tough on terrorism." thing. Surely he can ride out the "root causes" comments.

They hate us for our freedom. That and the ice cream with the three separate flavours. Everyone just dug out the chocolate and nobody wanted to eat the other two. Then it got that freezer mold on it. Jesus, I can't imagine anything worse. NOthing else. What is that freezer shit anyway? Where does it come from. I'm really milking this bit. Muuust Stop. Shatner.