Just finished reading Nicholson Baker’s piece on pacifism in the latest Harper’s. It dovetails nicely with some other thinking I’ve been doing lately. Specifically, I’m remembering the ten years of the Vietnam War, and what it felt like at the time, and trying to figure out why Americans, even those most opposed to the current ten-year wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are so much less passionate in their opposition than we were to the Vietnam War. One of the major differences, of course, is that we have no military draft today.
I was very active in the struggle against the draft during the Vietnam War, and got the ultimate rush, 20 years later, when one of my students, in a discussion of relatively recent history, literally could not remember the words “draft” or “conscription.” By George, I thought. We really did it! Many of my more radical friends and colleagues, at the time, predicted that ending the draft would take a lot of the juice out of opposition to any future wars. I allowed that they were probably right, but that even so the unspeakably hard choice to kill or not kill ought not to be forced on any unwilling person. I still believe that. But it’s obvious that, without a draft, this war, or the next or the next after that, could conceivably go on forever. That’s how all those European wars—the Seven Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the Hundred Years’ War—got to be so interminable. They were not fought with conscript armies. Neither were the conquests that built and maintained the Roman Empire over 400 years, or the British Empire for 200+ years..
Baker takes up the issue based on what most of us have seen as the ultimate hard case against pacifism, the Second World War/the Holocaust. If you assume, as most of us have after the fact, that the war was necessary to save what was left of the Jews in Europe, then how could one argue against it? What originally disabused me of that notion was reading Arthur Morse’s While Six Million Died, published in 1967. Subsequent research only strengthens the premise of that book—the Second World War may or may not have put an end to the slaughter of the Jews of Europe, but it clearly was not fought for that purpose. We need to disentangle the war from the Holocaust to make sense of either of them.
In point of fact, to be sure, the Holocaust and World War II went on at more or less the same time, and were instigated by a lot of the same people. But they were very different phenomena. They gave rise to very different responses (even from the same people.) And, while they were causally inextricably related to each other, that relationship was almost unimaginably complex. The war provided a pretext for the Holocaust, as war almost always provides a pretext for oppression (up to and including murder) of noncombatant minorities, viz. the Armenians. And the Holocaust, ultimately, obstructed the Nazi conduct of the war, probably fatally. Hitler wasted resources on killing Jews and other “inferior” races that he could have devoted to beating the Allies. (Which may partially account for the reluctance of the Allies to do anything that might have impeded the Holocaust.) He expelled from Germany the Jewish and anti-Nazi scientists who might have given Germany the nuclear bomb. The Six Million, arguably, were martyrs to the Allied victory. Without their deaths, that victory might never have happened.
Those who opposed the Nazis at the time, both in Germany and elsewhere, opposed them, not because of their treatment of Jews and other minorities, but for pretty much the same reasons the Allies had opposed Germany in World War I and the democratic forces in Germany had opposed the Kaiser. Hitler was well on the way to conquering the world. In the course of doing so, he had eliminated most of the hard-won democratic rights enshrined into law in the Weimar Republic. Which is what happens to the civil liberties of citizens in almost any war. Good enough reasons, to be sure, and by no means to be sneered at. But even the staunchest anti-Nazis, at home and abroad, at best had little concern for the Jews, and at worst viewed the racist Nuremberg Laws as one of Hitler’s few good moves. This was as true of anti-Nazi resistance in occupied countries as in Germany itself. Indeed, there were anti-Nazi partisan units in Eastern Europe that killed Jews in their spare time, when Nazi-fighting got slow.
The British found it inconvenient to notice the plight of the Jews, because they were being called on to respond by opening up Mandate Palestine to Jewish refugees, at the expense of British relations with the Arabs. The Americans stayed out of the war until Pearl Harbor was bombed, fortuitously, by the Japanese–because American public opinion tended to side with the Germans against the Jews, but could easily enough be swayed against non-whites who had had the nerve to bomb American territory. The French had no choice but to respond to the invasion of their territory–but their struggle against the Nazis stopped short of any serious effort to protect French citizens of Jewish ancestry, much less alien Jewish refugees from further east. Indeed, rounding up Jews was one of the few activities in which many of the French cooperated willingly or even enthusiastically with the Germans.
The allied War Crimes Trials in Nuremberg made clear what the Allies considered to be the real offenses of the Nazis: violation of treaties, making of aggressive warfare, and torture and murder of Allied prisoners of war. The Nuremberg trials had virtually nothing to say about Nazi treatment of enemy civilians, and nothing whatever about Nazi mistreatment and murder of German and Austrian citizens. It was left to the Israelis and the successor governments of the formerly occupied countries to prosecute those crimes. Obviously none of them were in any shape to do so until at least the 1950s. By then many of the major war criminals were safely hidden away on other continents.
The switching of gears came in the 1960s. It was partly precipitated by the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann (and Hannah Arendt’s in-depth coverage of it) between 1961 and 1963, and partly by the intensification of the Vietnam War. At that point, hawks, especially liberal hawks like the Henry Jackson faction of the Democratic Party, were holding up World War II as a shining example of a just war fought to protect a helpless minority against a marauding dictator, and a model for U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. It was the American war machine which, in the words of Herman Wouk, “kept my grandmother from being turned into soap.” Draft boards and congressional hawks stated over and over again that opposition to the Vietnam War was equivalent to the America Firsters’ opposition to American participation in World War II, which in turn was tantamount to endorsing the Holocaust. The “war crimes” actually tried at Nuremberg were hardly ever mentioned–except occasionally by anti-war advocates. Pro-war forces gave up their use of the Holocaust analogy only after the My Lai massacre, when it became fairly obvious that the U.S. military was killing at least as many civilians as the Viet Cong.
In the Vietnam and post-Vietnam rationale, the reason the Nazis were Bad People was their murder of helpless civilians, especially Jews. American World War II movies made in the ’60s and after often portrayed German soldiers who weren’t in the SS as “good Germans”, tragically honorable men doing what any patriotic citizen would do (including, presumably, aiding and abetting all the crimes prosecuted at Nuremberg), as opposed to the “bad Germans” who ran concentration camps. It might be inhumane to put civilians into concentration camps and gas them, but strafing, shelling, or dropping bombs on them from overhead was just a normal exercise of warrior morality, i.e., the same sort of thing our warriors were doing.
Getting back to Baker, he goes into considerably more detail than Morse about pacifist opposition, and the reasoning behind it, to American participation in World War II. Many of the pacifists of that era, including important Jewish spokesmen, accepted well before our time the premise that the purpose of any such participation was to save the European Jews, and by extension the Jews in the rest of the world not yet directly threatened by Hitler. But why not find some way to save the Jews that did not involve widening the war? they asked. “The Jews needed immigration visas, not Flying Fortresses. And who was doing their best to get them visas, as well as food, money, and hiding places? Pacifists were,” Baker points out. Moreover, if the purpose of the war was to stop Hitler, war might be precisely contraindicated. “…what fighting Hitlerism meant in practice was…the five-year-long Churchillian experiment of undermining German ‘morale’ by dropping magnesium fire-bombs and 2,000-pound blockbusters on various city centers. The firebombing killed and displaced a great many innocent people—including Jews in hiding—and obliterated entire neighborhoods. It was supposed to cause an anti-Nazi revolution, but it didn’t….If you drop things on people’s heads, they get angry and unite behind their leader. This was, after all, just what happened during the Blitz in London.”
Baker takes a perspective on the Holocaust that I found startling: that it was “the biggest hostage crisis of all time.” Hitler’s threats against the Jews of Europe were largely unfulfilled before the US entered the war. Many anti-war activists proposed negotiating at that point, when the US still had something to offer in exchange for the lives of Europe’s Jews. Holocaust historians Saul Friedländer and Roderick Stackelberg suggest that, although Hitler had long planned the killing of all Jews under German control, “its full implementation may have been delayed until the US entered the war. Now the Jews under German control had lost their potential value as hostages.” The first extermination camp, Chelmno, began operations, coincidentally (?), on December 8, 1941. Pacifist and near-pacifist advocates continued to call for “peace without victory”, an end to military operations in Europe on condition that the Jews be allowed safe passage out of Europe. It was not a popular suggestion among Allied politicians. Among the excuses for not even considering this possibility were Churchill’s statement that “[e]ven were we to obtain permission to withdraw all Jews, transport alone presents a problem which will be difficult of solution.” Anthony Eden, his foreign secretary, told the American Secretary of State that “Hitler might well take us up on any such offer, and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the world to handle them.” This from the engineers of the Dunkirk evacuation two years earlier, who had gotten nearly 340,000 men from the French beaches to England in a mere nine days!
Baker is either a nicer person than I, or just more cautious. These lame obfuscations make it obvious to most modern readers that the Brits—and the US State Department—would not have wanted a massive influx of Jewish refugees even if all of them had somehow grown wings to fly themselves out of Europe. The real point was that both countries had a lingering substrate of anti-semitism to deal with, both in the general population and among their diplomatic apparatchiks in particular. Many of their citizens were likely to be lukewarm in their support of the war if they thought its purpose had anything to do with saving Jews. The diplomatic establishments were nice enough to consider acknowledging this in official communications to be a breach of etiquette, but not decent enough to overcome it with an offer to save Jewish lives. If the Jews were to be saved, the Anglo-Saxon alliance was declaring, it would have to be as an incidental—or perhaps even accidental–by-product of a war being fought for utterly different reasons.
If even World War II, for which the most noble and humanitarian purposes have since been adduced, was not in fact fought for those purposes, what does that say about the rest of the wars which have bloodied the world since humans first aglommerated into groups large enough to have wars? What are the real reasons for war?
The first and most obvious one is They hit Us first. Beginning with the first blood feud, this becomes problematic, because each “first blow” from Them always turns out to be a response to a pre-first blow from Us, and so on. So let’s abandon that game, or at least recognize it for the fraud it is.
The next most popular reason is They might hit Us first, if We don’t hit Them first,which is vulnerable to the same realities.
Then there’s if We don’t hit Them, Those Other Guys Over There might think We’re weenies and start hitting Us. In this age of universal publicity, it should be fairly easy to deal with this proposition without actually hitting anybody.
The fact that both sides, in any war, can come up with some reason for their behavior makes it pretty clear that those reasons are really nothing but excuses.
So if there are no bona fide purposes for war, why do we do it?
I suspect that this hypothesis isn’t even original, but war is not a means to achieve an end. If it were, many of those ends might be achievable by other means. Somehow, that never happens. Because war isn’t a means, it’s an end. Clausewitz to the contrary notwithstanding, war is not the continuation of politics by other means. It is the purpose of politics. It is the purpose of the nation-state (and the street gang, and the clan, and arguably the religion, and maybe even the family.) Domestic politics, and government, and the arts of peace are merely things to do in the interval between wars, to give the crew time and resources to break down the set, get the audience out, build up the new sets, find a new script and get all the lines learned, and then get the new audience in. In the American political context, the Republican party is more honest about this. The Democrats are willing to help us fool ourselves that we don’t choose war. Like Michael Corleone in his declining years, we just get pulled into it against our will because we’re such nice guys. The post-Vietnam series of wars and incursions—Panama, the Balkans, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan—aren’t an aberration. Vietnam was the blip. Vietnam was the play to which we reacted as if it involved real people dying real deaths. Abolishing the draft has revived the concept of the “theater of war.” Vesti la giubba.