On Veteran’s Day, Remember: War is the Second Worst Thing in the World
This week I will do what I’ve done every year since I moved to Dallas. I’ll stand on Main Street and watch the bittersweet march of veterans young and old. I’ll bring along some tissues, since I know that I’ll end up blubbering — probably when the survivors of World War II start to pass me by. That’s the war my father served in, toward its end. My uncle got wounded at Normandy, and in the hospital caught the TB that would kill him.
I’ll never forget when my dad dropped me off for the first time at Yale. I hadn’t even visited the place, and now I was thoroughly nervous about living there in those Gothic dorms. For petty, silly reasons. I imagined that I’d look foolish to the “rich kids” whom I’d room with. I only had $50 a month in spending money. My clothes were garish and shabby by “preppy” standards. As I nattered on about all this, Dad wiped the sweat from his brow. (A burly letter carrier, he’d been schlepping all my stuff.) Here’s what he said: “When I was your age, I was sitting on a troop ship, puking through North Atlantic storms, on the way to serve in Germany.”
That put things in perspective. I recalled old stories of how he’d served under General Patton. Guarded coal dumps from freezing Germans with a rifle that had no bullets. (It was only meant to scare them.) Stood outside a concentration camp, while Patton marched the folk of the town to face what their Fuhrer’d been up to.
The First World War About Nothing
So as I watch the survivors of his war, our Gulf Wars, the Korean War, and our war without end in Afghanistan, I will remember my father, and pray for his soul’s repose. There won’t be any survivors around to march, but I’ll also recall the men who died in the First World War. It was to mark the end of that cursed war that we started Veteran’s Day — originally as Armistice Day, since that war stopped on November (11) 11th, at 11 o’clock in the morning.
In that war, both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien watched their friends get butchered around them. The devout poet Charles Peguy was mowed down in his prime, and his future poems died with him. Millions more men died miserably, in rat-infested trenches, of bullet and bomb and human insecticide (poison gas).
Countless others lost their faith in God, in country, or even in moral codes. Too many had seen these noble things perverted and prostituted, for the sake of rousing more men to march off and pointlessly die. And all of it was for … nothing. In a war about nothing, a snuff version of Seinfeld.
There were no great moral principles at stake in the First World War. France was not meaningfully “freer” than Germany. Russia was less free than either Germany or its allies. Britain was still a harsh colonial master not just of India but of Ireland. “Little Belgium,” which suffered invasion, still brutally plundered Congo, where 10 million Africans died to satisfy the Belgian hunger for rubber. No, there were no “good guys” or “bad guys” in that war. It was a bar fight done in the dark, pointless and savage, fought to the last man standing, which suddenly … ended.
Nor were vital national interests really at stake. If you read about the bureaucrats and diplomats who blundered into that war, the one thing you’ll take away is this: Most of them were serving their own personal ambitions. They advanced themselves by serving the pro-war parties in their countries, and their countrymen paid the price.
Not just in combat deaths that claimed more than 10 million, or the war-sparked influenza plague that claimed even more in 1919. But in the destruction of centuries-old, non-ideological regimes in Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany — all of them soon ruled by one kind of crazed extremist or another. War is a great radicalizer, the destroyer of traditions.
War’s Poisons in Peacetime
Even in America, which didn’t see combat on its soil, the war spread its poison. Woodrow Wilson, who lied his way into office promising peace, then plunged us into combat partly by fraud, used the fight as a pretext to massively grow the government. He imprisoned peaceful war protesters, and regimented the economy. The Social Gospel puritans who’d led the march to war used the peace to impose Prohibition on millions of unwilling Americans. That gave us, of course, the gift which keeps on giving: the beginning of organized crime.
The war turned Britain’s elites (those it didn’t leaves as corpses) into cynical hedonists, or utopian Marxist dupes. Fierce combat and sudden, “mysterious” defeat left thousands of Germans vindictive militarists, addicted to violence. A grinding war led by bumbling fools transformed millions of Orthodox Russian soldiers into Bolshevik sympathizers. They couldn’t image anything worse than the regime which had squandered their lives. So they let into power a pack of extremists who would butcher or starve tens of millions more.
World War I should remind conservatives and Christians of our right attitude toward war. It’s the second worst thing in the world. It ought to be our very last resort in resolving conflicts. While we spurn the servile stance of absolute pacifism we must also flee the temptations of eager militarism.
War’s most obvious cost? Shattered lives, bombed-out cathedrals, and incinerated civilians. But its moral cost can be just as high. The devil can corrupt our love of country into savage, mindless hatred. As Adam Hochschild reports of World War I:
Ferocity about the war could be heard everywhere. ‘Kill Germans! Kill them!’ raged one clergyman in a 1915 sermon. ‘… Not for the sake of killing, but to save the world. … Kill the good as well as the bad. … Kill the young men as well as the old. … Kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends who crucified the Canadian sergeant [a story then circulating]. … I look upon it as a war for purity. I look upon everybody who dies in it as a martyr.’ The speaker was Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the Anglican bishop of London.
How many atheists got created, eventually, by sermons like that? How many souls lost forever?
Operation Iraqi Chaos
Think back, if you can stand it, to the build up to our invasion of Iraq in 2003. Remember all the promises we made of “liberation.” Of building a democracy, whose oil reserves would pay us back for the war itself. Of ending “tyranny” and “extremism” all throughout the region.
The best way to honor our veterans? Keep the peace they fought for.
Our brave men and women’s sacrifices couldn’t accomplish any of that. Nor did the trillion or so taxpayer dollars we spent on the conflict. We did succeed in unleashing ancient hatreds, however. We left a million Christians unprotected, and now three-fourths of them are living as refugees. These people were Christian when our ancestors were mostly still worshiping trees. Now most of their churches are ruins. Thousands of their wives and daughters suffered rape or enslavement by ISIS. (That movement emerged from the war.) And thousands of our soldiers still suffer from PTSD or lifelong injuries. And why?
Because we let ourselves get whipped up heedlessly to war. The best way to honor our veterans? Keep the peace they fought for, as carefully and prudently as we guard our own homes and families. Saying that won’t lead to pacifism. You know what does? Reckless or selfish leaders who tempt their nations into brutal and pointless wars.
Read more on the Christian tradition of just war in The Race to Save Our Century, by Jason Jones and John Zmirak.