To End War

This is the thirty-ninth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXIX: Prefaces and Prologues

This Sunday marks the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War One. Even during the war, it was known as “the war to end war.” (An expression that may have been coined by H. G. Wells.) So high were the human and economic costs that it was almost inconceivable that humans could ever again resort to war.

It was not mere naïveté that led people to hope World War One would be the end of all war; such hopes have existed throughout human history. In the late fifteenth century, William Caxton wrote that even the ancient Trojan War “may be example to all men during the world how dreadful and jeopardous it is to begin a war and what harms, losses, and death followeth.” And occasionally, people have invented new weapons, such as the Gatling gun or the atomic bomb, that are so devastating that further wars appear unthinkably terrible.

But with a century of hindsight, we know well the World War One did not end all war. It was barely twenty years before a Second World War was underway. In fact, it was less than twenty years, if one takes into account the Japanese invasion of China.

Nearly every year since then, the United States, far and away the greatest military power of all time, has been at war. The most recent American war in Afghanistan is approaching the end of its second decade. (There are some who argue that the United States has not been at war since the Korean War because Congress has not made a declaration of war since then. This argument elevates form over substance. The actions of the United States in Vietnam, Iraq, Panama, etc. were unquestionably acts of war.) As far as I can tell, the most recent year that the United States was not at war was 2000. That means that by next year, there will be eligible voters who have lived their entire lives during wartime. Maybe they’ll somehow have the sense to vote for candidates who want peace. (If such a thing exists.)

Even with centuries and millennia of examples of how dreadful war is, it persists. But it is not unreasonable to hope, pray, and, most importantly, strive for peace. So this weekend, raise a glass and drink to peace in our time.

Beer of the week: Balashi Pilsner- Even the tiny island of Aruba has not been totally isolated from war. During World War Two, German and Italian submarines torpedoed oil tankers anchored there. Over 50 sailors lost their lives as the submarines sunk six tankers and damaged two others. There we’re a couple of German casualties as well, the result of a deck gun exploding due to user error. But for the most part, Aruba has been a peaceful place to have a beer. Balashi Pilsner has a faint but pleasantly malty aroma. Although it is a fairly light beer, it is well-balanced. Frankly, Balashi is better than one might expect from the tropics.

Reading of the week: William Caxton’s Prologue to Book I and Epilogues to Books II and III of The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy – Caxton, the first commercial printer in England, translated many of the books that he published. His own writings are primarily prefaces.

Question for the week: For all its myriad evils, some maintain that war has social value. (Including, perhaps, population control, technological advancement, or economic stimulus.) What is war’s most redeeming value?

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Alcibiades and Churchill

This weekend is ANZAC weekend. That means that it has been 101 years since some nine-hundred thousand young men from around the globe engaged in bloody battle in rocky terrain of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. The Turks successfully defended their homeland against the foreign invaders, but only after 9 months of brutal trench warfare. Winston Churchill, the mastermind of the Campaign, resigned in disgrace even before the final retreat. (Of course, he found his way back into power later on in life.)

The Battle of Gallipoli is particularly interesting because of the way that it encapsulated the notion of a “World War”. From the point of view of Western Europeans and Americans, this campaign was fought in an obscure theater, between obscure nations. Little enough attention is paid to WWI in schools as it is, but American students certainly learn next to nothing about the Turkish defense of the Dardanelles against Australians and New Zealanders. (To say nothing of the English colonials from Canada and India.) Only the fighting in Africa or Asia seems more remote to the traditional narrative of World War I.

Of course, the Gallipoli Campaign also inspired one of the great anti-war folk songs of all time, And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda by Eric Bogle. One of the scenes presented in the lyrics is the trooper ships departing Circular Quay in Sydney. “And amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears, we sailed off for Gallipoli.” This is echoed in a later verse when “the crippled, the wounded, [and] the maimed” soldiers are shipped home, only to find that “nobody cheered, they just stood and stared, then they turned all their faces away.” The imagery calls to mind the beginning and the end of the Sicilian Expedition as described by Thucydides:

“Early in the morning of the day appointed for their departure, the Athenian forces and such of their allies as had already joined them went down to the Piraeus and began to man the ships. Almost the entire population of Athens accompanied them, citizens and strangers alike. The citizens came to take farewell, one of an acquaintance, another of a kinsman, another of a son, and as they passed along were full of hope and full of tears; hope of conquering Sicily, tears because they doubted whether they would ever see their friends again, when they thought of the long voyage on which they were going away. At the last moment of parting the danger was nearer; and terrors which had never occurred to them when they were voting the expedition now entered into their souls. Nevertheless their spirits revived at the sight of the armament in all its strength and of the abundant provision which they had made. The strangers and the rest of the multitude came out of curiosity, desiring to witness an enterprise of which the greatness exceeded belief.”

Like the ANZACs some 2,330 years later, the Athenians met with disaster when they decided to wage war across the sea. In the end, nearly the entire Athenian force was captured. The vast majority died in the wretched conditions of a make-shift prison camp in a rock quarry.  It is cliche to say that history repeats itself, but somebody has to say it if we are ever to break the cycle.

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Beer of the week: Ledenika Special – Bulgaria did not enter World War I until after the Gallipoli Campaign was well underway. As it turns out, Bulgaria ended up joining the wrong side. The Turks won the Battle of Gallipoli, but they and their allies lost the war. Ledenika is my first ever Bulgarian beer. The brew is very clear, very pale, and smells of crackers. The flavor is also reminiscent of crackers. Ledenika is very average, but it is always nice to try a brew from another country.

Reading of the week: History of the Peloponnesian War by  Thucydides, Book VI, Chapters 8-15 – Not everybody was waving flags and cheering at the Piraeus as the Athenians boarded their ships. Nicias, one of the generals, had tried in vain to convince the people that the Sicilian Expedition was a bad idea. This reading is one of his speeches, which, prophetic as it was, failed to dissuade the population once the war drums had been beat.

Question of the week: What is different about the Sicilian Expedition and the Gallipoli Campaign?


Dr. Wilson’s War

I am no fan of Woodrow Wilson.

He pushed for and then signed the Espionage Act and it’s extension known as the Sedition Act. Through these laws, countless individuals have been harassed, convicted, and sentenced to prison for political (primarily anti-war) speech.

Wilson also successfully campaigned for the presidency on a policy of neutrality in what became World War I. After attaining office, however, embarked on policy that was so unneutral that his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, resigned. He then pushed for the United States to join the otherwise deadlocked European war on the flimsy pretext that some Americans died when the Germans sunk the Lusitania, a ship carrying munitions for the British military. (To say nothing of the fact that the German government gave ample warning that they considered the Lusitania a warship and that Americans should not take passage on it.) It has been argued that had Wilson not joined the war, the United States would not have become the military-industrial nation that it is today, and the First World War would not have ended in the conditions that made Germany ripe for the rise of Adolph Hitler.

Sigmund Freud, in his psychological analysis of Wilson, concluded that the President was a dangerous fanatic whose belief in his own pre-ordained glory made him act with reckless abandon. Freud ultimately decided that the disastrous evil which inevitably resulted from Wilson’s actions made him impossible to sympathize with.

In the interest of keeping this blog post short, I will only mention further that Wilson is currently in the public eye due to calls from Princeton students to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs because of his well-known racism.

For all of the above reasons, it may seem reasonable to attempt to wipe Wilson’s legacy from the school and the country. But I side with Diodorus Siculus on the subject of erasing legacies. Rather than eliminating the memory of evil men, it is better to “publish [the] truth to the stain of their memory.” Let the school continue by the name of Wilson, so that for generations to come people will reflect on how his actions resulted in the death and oppression of countless souls.

Kalnapilis Bock

Beer of the week: Kalnapils Bock – One of the many unintended consequences of the First World War was the declaration of Lithuania as a sovereign nation. This is the first Lithuanian beer that I have had and, unfortunately, it is not very good. Initially, I was surprised to see how pale this beer is for a “bock”. It pours with a fluffy head that fades quickly. The aroma is reminiscent of cheap malt liquor: cheap grain, some alcohol. The aftertaste is decidedly metallic. Step up your game, Lithuania.

Reading for the week: Bibliotheca Historica, by Diodorus Siculus – In the preface to Book XIV of his “universal history”, Diodorus points out that men of high standing are subject to greater censure for their faults. “Let this therefore startle wicked men to consider, that they leave behind them an ugly representation of themselves, to the view of posterity for ever.”

Question for the week: Is it better to totally annihilate the memory of a bad man or to preserve his infamy as a warning to future generations?

*This post was accidentally published prematurely last week. So if you saw it then and couldn’t find it later, that’s why.