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An analogy about World War One

It will be obvious that this post was prompted by Perry Metzger’s post “A Sad Anniversary”.

Regarding the undoubted fact that the net result of the First World War was almost wholly bad, consider this analogy: your home is invaded by a gang, who have given ample evidence of their lawless nature as they rampaged through your neighbourhood before reaching you. Maybe you have not always been a blameless citizen yourself, but, by God, you won’t take this lying down. So you resist, calling in your family and neighbours to help. They pay a high price for their solidarity. At the end of the fight you look round and see relatives and friends dead, crippled and embittered. The neighbourhood you sought to defend has been wrecked. You also know that many of those dead gang members were more deluded than evil. What was it all for? Nothing has been gained, much has been lost. Worse yet, this slaughter will begin a cycle of violence that will take many more lives in future. Surely it would have been better all round to just let them in and let them take what they want?

Or would it?

38 comments to An analogy about World War One

  • Bob Grahame

    Well, “Yes” would be the overt message from the Christian gospels. And, when you have a nasty game of thrones going on, there is some merit in having a group of pacifists in the mix creating s space in which the cycle of violence can be at least partly disrupted. The clever and Machiavellian use of this message by European powers in the previous few hundred years is probably what turned almost tribal principalities into modern nation states. And thus upped the ante for the big collapse of WW1. Just like finance, too much stability can be just as bad a thing as crawling chaos….

  • Ljh

    This is a choice we are facing once more, except the enemy is not nations but gifted with fellow citizenship, proclaiming jihad against all who would not submit and we, selfhandicapped by political correctness, are too polite to confront them.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Bob Grahame,

    Not that I am claiming to have read more than the tiniest fraction of it, but there is a fair bit of Christian thought on the theory of a just war that disagrees with the simple yes, much of it depending, as my analogy does by implication, on consideration of consequences.

    e.g. St Augustine, Summa Theologica, Question 40, “Of War”.

  • Ian Bennett

    As Tim Minear said (in the character of Angel), “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do”.

  • Ljh

    The men who volunteered, were not simply enthusiasts for war, they believed they were fighting to protect both nation, kin and values. WW1 destroyed such innocent idealism. We are now at the other extreme where we unable to rouse ourselves to protect anything against a rabble possessed by totalitarian religious nihilism.

  • Dave Bloke

    “… is probably what turned almost tribal principalities into modern nation states.”

    Not even nearly.

    Modern nation states were not formed from ‘tribal principalities’. Political power, territorial extent\contiguity and ethnic grouping had been disconnected for quite a few centuries before the the modern nation state formed.

  • Jacob

    This story smacks of moral relativism – and “blame the victim” syndrome.
    It says: the attackers were not all vicious – some were just deluded, the defenders were not all innocent or blameless… So “we” are all to blame, nobody’s guilty, nobody innocent…

    Not true.

    And you couldn’t tell in advance the extent of damage caused by the attackers – they might have killed you all… neither can you tell in advance the result of the defense – it might have succeeded more than it did.

    So, no. Acts of barbarous attack have to be opposed, in principle. The hope is that resolute and effective opposition will also reduce them and diminish them over time. Lack of opposition might only encourage more barbarity.

    The problem with WW1’s conclusion is that the barbarians haven’t been totally trashed and reduced to impotence – the beast was left wounded but intact. That is the root cause of WW2. It would have been much better (we now know) to occupy Germany and re-partition it into it’s ancient principalities.

  • Patrick Crozier

    My instinct is that it is usually better to fight so long as you have a good chance of winning. That’s an instinct and I can’t think of any rationale behind it other than that if you let the barbarians in you’re never quite sure what they are going to do.

    I once asked Antoine (who to me represents all of France) which war the French considered the worse: the First with 1.5m Frenchmen dead or the Second with the humiliation of the occupation. Much to my surprise he said the First.

    It is worth bearing in mind that there are plenty of photographs of cheering crowds on 11 November 1918, just like there are of VE-Day. They thought it was worth it and it is difficult to see how they could possibly have known what was going to happen next.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    FWIW, Jacob, my actual view is that it was right to fight – for the reasons Patrick Crozier said. In talking about the shades of grey between attackers and defenders I was trying to give a fair summary of the other side of the argument.

    Patrick, “if you let the barbarians in you’re never quite sure what they are going to do”.

    Yes, yes, yes. That is the key. If you have not already read it, I recommend David Friedman’s article on Schelling Points. Its title suggests a dry account of property rights, but it is equally about when violent resistance out of apparent proportion to what you fear to lose or hope to gain is justified. Actually, “justified” is not the right word since it is an explicitly amoral, alegal argument. Which is not to say that Professor Friedman himself is indifferent to law or justice.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    The analogy would be interesting if it held. It does not.

    The game being played by the “Great Powers” in the decades leading up to the war was not benign.

    There wasn’t just one “bad side”, either. Everyone involved was a territorial conqueror. (The blindness of the U.K. commenters in the other thread, even after a remove of a century, was dreadfully amusing. Loads of people wanted to explain to us how bloodthirsty and interested in conquest the Germans of the time were, and how innocent the British. Do you really think that when, say, the British machine gunned native populations into submission across Africa and Asia that this was all because of benevolence?)

    The events that happened were not unexpected but in fact were the results of years of planning on all sides about what they would do under particular circumstances. Everyone believed in war not merely as a last resort but as a major instrument of foreign policy. No serious attempts were made to avoid it.

    Let me also note that if your strategy for saving your home results in it being destroyed, perhaps it wasn’t the best of strategies.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Perry, apologies for a hasty response before I have to go out. The quote-and-reply method I am going to use can come across as curt or dismissive. That is not my intention.

    The game being played by the “Great Powers” in the decades leading up to the war was not benign.


    There wasn’t just one “bad side”, either.

    Also granted – but, as the inflammatory but logical recent remarks from Richard Dawkins indicated, the propositions that “all rape is bad” and “there are degrees of severity in rape” are both true and not incompatible. As for rape, so for territorial conquest. And note that “was” [amended later: that phrase was unclear. I should have said “And note the timescale”]; it is far from irrelevant that when war broke out Germany had near-exterminated the Herero only ten years ago, whereas Britain’s most nearly similar outrages were half a lifetime ago – and with quite a lot of pretty benevolent anti-slavery imperial incursions to even up the moral score since then, as well.

    The events that happened were not unexpected but in fact were the results of years of planning on all sides about what they would do under particular circumstances.

    That’s called military planning. It is the duty of all militaries of all countries however peaceful, now as then, to plan for all likely contingencies.

    Everyone believed in war not merely as a last resort but as a major instrument of foreign policy.

    The whole point about “the concert of powers” in the last hundred years had been avoiding war in Europe. It did it so well that men forgot how terrible war was. This is a vast subject, but, no, I claim Germany wanted war the most and Britain the least, with France and Russia in the middle.

    No serious attempts were made to avoid it.

    There was, what, a month between the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of war, a month of telegrams flying and furious diplomatic activity. “The lamps are going out all over Europe”. Whatever his misjudgements, Sir Edward Grey was one of many men at the very top who strove to avoid war.

  • Ljh

    Perry, what version of history has the British “machine gunning native populations in Africa and Asia into submission ? Barring the Zulu Wars against a very military and predatory(to all the other local populations as far north as Zambia)tribe, I am scratching my head for the growth of empire as explained by you.

  • Ljh

    An interesting compare and contrast exercise would be the first genocide of the twentieth century: of the Herero people in German South West Africa.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I think Perry’s “one bad side” is dealt with by Natalie’s “not always a blameless citizen.” The fact that you have done something wrong does not prevent you from doing something right. In the context of the First World War Britain’s actions were most certainly right. Morally speaking. That is not the same as saying they were sensible but I think they were that too.

  • JohnK

    The mistake is to allow the attacking gang to stay together after you have defeated them. After 1918, it should have been clear that the German state as established in 1871 was bad news for the rest of Europe, and it should have been split into its constituent parts. Result: No World War II. There, that was easy. Next job: strangle communism at birth. A statesman’s work is never done.

  • Quoting Perry from his first comment in the original thread:

    I predicted to myself that at least a few commenters would crawl about in the weeds of the details of World War I, and ignore the larger lessons. I was, sadly, more than correct.

    I am sure I am missing something, but to me that reads: ‘Please spare me the facts, let us instead talk about how bad war and governments are’. Granted, both are terrible. I think we all can safely return to discussing the weather – although I could still be wrong.

  • Mr Ed

    The blindness of the U.K. commenters in the other thread, even after a remove of a century, was dreadfully amusing. Loads of people wanted to explain to us how bloodthirsty and interested in conquest the Germans of the time were, and how innocent the British.

    Well were they not referring to the First World War, the whole point of the post? And does Perry disagree that the Germans were ‘bloodthirsty’ (well, the Army and government) and how innocent the British were in respect of that War?

    That quote reeks of ad hominem, if not chauvinism or national polylogism to me, or to put it plainly, garbage.

  • RRS

    There were many threads woven together that formed the fabric of Western civilization at the end of the 19th century.

    Among those threads where the several aristocracies, whose members functions in the overall fabric were wearing thin and losing strength, color and previous dominance in that fabric.

    A longitudinal view of the functions of those members of those aristocracies appears to be largely military and dependent upon military needs for adequate significance in the fabric as then constituted.

    In England, while prominent, those threads of military aristocracy were less predominant than on the continent, probably due to the open access of commercial and financial individuals into the mix of British aristocracy. In France, the military aristocracy might be seen as a coalition of the wounded survivors of two Napoleonic eras. As between Austria and Germany they might be viewed as seeking proof of which was the most “aristocratic” in terms of the historic understanding of the functions of those members. In Italy, somewhat more minimally, was an effort to exhibit the qualifications of “aristocracy.” In Belgium, there was the resentment of a very much smaller membership.

    In such a longitudinal view, the origins of most of the principal members of these aristocracies should be observed. Most were born in the mid to late -1840s. They apparently deemed it their function to “use” human masses, a residual of attitudes from the Napoleonic era, as they might use any other “materiel” of war. Those features are to be found in the writings of von Schliefen, von Moltke and others. The subordination of civilian concerns can be seen in the actions of von Golz.

    The failure of those fibers required the re-threading of the fabric from the operators, engineers and managers of the industrial societies. As re-woven, the cloth of Western civilization became predominantly North American. However, managers from the industrial and emerging financial societies made an attempt to replace the role of aristocracies in predominance which led to WW II. Having no other precedents, those attempts followed the patterns of “uses” of masses and disregard of civilian differentiation.

    The present trends in weaponry, and means of applying violence (randomly) continue the emphasis on “use” of masses. But then, there are so many of them.

  • Stuck-Record

    It’s the 3 o’clock in the morning problem.

    You wake from sleep. There is a man in your bedroom wearing a ski mask and holding a knife. He says, “Be quiet and you won’t get hurt”.

    Q. Can you believe him?
    A. No.

    The Liberals response is that you should wait and see what happens. If something goes wrong, there is always the police to help you.

    The non-Liberal response is that the man has already declared his intention. It is bad and he is threatening worse. Fight him. The police aren’t there to help you. They are there to catch your murderer.

  • Mr Ed

    There is a man in your bedroom wearing a ski mask and holding a knife. He says, “Be quiet and you won’t get hurt”.

    To which the non-Liberal riposte might be ‘This is my house and it is up to me if I use a silencer.‘.

  • The Liberals response…

    Liberals? Why oh why do people call folks who are profoundly illiberal… liberals? 😉

    Quoting Perry…

    And to avoid confusion… I am Perry in the parish, there is also a Perry M. dwelling in this neighbourhood 😀

  • The Sanity Inspector

    A victorious Imperial Germany would have been intoxicated with success, and pressed Britain harder around the globe & possibly across the Channel. It’s a rare empire that knows when to stand pat.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Natalie, your posting and your comments are excellent.

    Patrick and Alisa, too. :>)

    Actually, almost all the comments are good. :>)

  • Perry, please feel free to edit my comment with the appropriate clarification 🙂

  • Sceptical Antagonist

    Does anyone else cringe (as I do) at the language used by journalists and presenters when they talk about “celebrating the start of the first world war”?

    I can understand celebrating the END of the war, but the start? Really?

  • Sceptical Antagonist

    Oops – I’m catching up on Samiz from the top down and just realised this was probably more appropriate in an earlier comments section. Oh well.

  • CaptDMO

    I’m not seeing the part about “…and hang the heads of the offenders from the (downwind) walls.”
    (Or from the bridge across the mouth of the port?)

  • Rich Rostrom

    Sceptical Antagonist @ July 30, 2014 at 10:45 pm

    Does anyone else cringe (as I do) at the language used by journalists and presenters when they talk about “celebrating the start of the first world war”?

    Indeed. They mean “commemorating”, but are too ignorant and sloppy to use the right words.

    I can understand celebrating the END of the war…

    Earlier generations would not even do that. Armistice Day (Belgium/France), Veterans Day (US), Remembrance Day (Britain and Commonwealth) was never a celebration.

    To paraphrase the Duke of Wellington: there is nothing more melancholy than a war won, save a war lost.

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    LJH, Churchill was in a ‘war’ against the Mahdi, in the Sudan, where he noted that the Maxim gun was the mark of a civilized nation against the barbarian hordes. And the record in India (Asia) would have been similar, against the Mutiny. I hope that helps. If Custer had had a Maxim machine gun at Little Big Horn, perhaps no Amerindian would have survived.

  • Paul Marks

    You should fight Natalie – because the gang will kill you whether you will fight or not.

    Contrary to Imperial German lies there was little civilian resistance in Belgium.

    Yet many civilians were murdered by the Germans (who also deliberately destroyed ancient monuments and libraries), and the population forced to work for the Germans in forced labour projects.

    And documents show that this would have continued to be the case in peace time – if Germany had won the war.

    The population of other European nations (including this one – the United Kingdom) and outside Europe, would have been treated no better.

  • Ljh

    Nick Gray, I don’t recall any episode in the much larger British Empire which required the army to kill noncombatants, the elderly, women and children, or drive the survivors into the desert like the Germans did to the Herero in SWA. The British killed the armies raised by the Mahdi, not their families.

  • WW1 is one of those wars where the bien pensant in our society have decided is a bad war because of Siegried Sassoon poems and Blackadder. These people can rarely think for themselves, nor do their ideas of which wars are good, which are bad, where we should intervene and where we shouldn’t have any sort of logical consistency.

    It’s always seemed to me to certainly be as valid as WW2. Fighting a paranoid loon who thought everyone was out to get him, so best to get them. Invading a country we’d signed up to protect, burning down houses and killing civilians. Oh, and if they’d won, who would we have traded with?

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    True enough, LJH, though Perry might have been thinking about the Boer War, where civilians were incarcerated in the world’s first concentration camps, or he might have been thinking of India, where a Colonel did order the troops to fire on women and children (1920es, I think).
    It’s not as though the British were certified, halo-carrying saints. Nor are/were other nationalities.

  • Ljh

    Nick: The difference between German and British colonial damage is that the British army were never ordered to murder the general population of occupied territory. The deaths of Boer women and children in the concentration camps by disease was a consequence of poor organisation not deliberate policy which campaigners like Emily Hobhouse were able to reverse. That the German army were able to almost wipe out an entire people reveals a mindset more ruthless; protests and aid for the Herero survivors did not come from Germany.

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    True enough, though the Tasmanians were wiped out by British settlers. This was never official policy, of course, but it did happen. Perhaps Perry meant British settlers?

  • Ljh

    Nick, they were mostly wiped out by the diseases the settlers brought with them not by official imperial policy.

  • Paul Marks

    Nick – the civilians starved in the camps because the Boar commandos (their own people) blew up the railway lines that took food to the camps.

    And they were put in camps in the first place because of the raiding by Boar commandos (after the conventional war was OVER) and their support of those raiders.

    As for opening fire on “women and children”.

    Dyer (leading INDIAN troops) encountered a mob in city in which several people had already been murdered and raped.

    He ordered the mob to disperse – and only after they refused to disperse did his men (Indian troops) open fire.

    Had they not done so it would have been like Kipling’s poem (although in an Indian setting).

    “When you lie wounded on Afghan plains and the women come out to cut up what remains – just roll on your side and blow out your brains, and go to your God like a soldier!”

    Accept when a mob of hundreds of people is within a few yards of you – there may not be time to blow out your brains (before they are on you – and skin you alive).

    Perhaps Dyer made a mistake in going into those narrow streets in the first place (leaving himself with no way of retreat – having to leave the motorised transport behind, because they would not fit in the streets), but he was very ill (the sickness that was killing him) and in terrible pain.

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    The British Empire had periods when it was built up by violence and the threat of violence, even if it was unofficial violence. My own Australian history is too full of it to deny that it happened here, so why not elsewhere?
    It may not have been as systematic as the Germans, or sanctioned by officials (or just not as well-documented).
    Perry, what examples did you have in mind, or was it just mindless American anti-British prejudice?