Remembering War

by Geoff Olson

On December 24, 1914, strange things were happening in the battlefield trenches. In the region of Ypres, Belgium, German troops propped Christmas trees on their parapets and decorated them with candles. That evening, they sang out Christmas carols in German to their enemies across the muddy no-man’s land. The British troops responded by singing Christmas carols in English. The camaraderie escalated and soldiers on both sides began to leave the trenches, mingling and exchanging gifts of whisky, jam, cigars, chocolate and the like. The Christmas truce spread down both trenches, according to military historian Gwynne Dyer, “at the speed of candlelight.”

While accounts of this often-told tale vary, all would agree that the Germans initiated the truce. In his book, The Small Peace in the Great War, Michael Jurgs notes that events were kicked off a few days before Christmas when a German regiment lobbed a carefully wrapped package across the no-mans land to the British side. Inside was a chocolate cake, with a note requesting the soldiers to join in an hour-long ceasefire that evening, to celebrate their captain’s birthday.

This mass outbreak of peace on the front alarmed the high command on both sides. They issued orders against fraternization, but it was days before all the men were back in the trenches, returning to the all-important business of killing each other. (In 1915, a similar Christmas truce occurred between German and French troops, and during Easter of 1916, a truce also opened up on the Eastern Front.)

We have Remembrance Day, but where on the calendar do we mark such epochal moments in wartime, when the sacrificial lambs laid down their arms and greeted one another as kindred spirits?

Boomers and their offspring have been lucky enough to live through an extended period of relative peace, following the two great wars. According to the conventional wisdom, our Canadian bacon was saved by the Cold War doctrine of MAD – “mutual assured destruction.” An atomic Sword of Damocles hung over our heads, making conventional warfare a thing of the past. Of course, this is only a partial truth. While it’s certainly likely that nuclear stalement put a crimp into conscription, that didn’t stop the superpowers from playing out their proxy wars across the world, from Angola to El Salvador. The Cold War put diplomatic relations between East and West into deep freeze, but a hot war in the global south sent millions to their graves and created misery for millions more survivors. The fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of communism, momentarily halted superpower brinksmanship, but not much else. The march of war continued through Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur, Lebanon, The Congo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Back in the seventies, I was just a naïve kid on the outskirts of Empire, whose closest acquaintance with battle was the TV series MASH and the BBC series The World at War. The sitcom was bloodless and the documentary footage grainy and discreet. The past was buried and the future looked good. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had been unseated and put to work shuffling papers in the Pentagon and Kremlin.

It seemed my parents’ generation hadn’t just defeated poverty, but conventional warfare as well. The price was paid in body counts. Factoring war-related famine and disease, there were an estimated 10 million civilian casualties in World War 1 and 47 million in World War 2. Every year on Remembrance Day, the Commonwealth nations officially commemorate the sacrifices of members of both the armed forces and of civilians in times of war. But the remembering is definitely weighted toward the warriors.

Yet in the final analysis, war isn’t about remembering, but dismembering – separating people from their families and homes, and even their life and limb. For most of history, it has smashed civilian life, paralyzed relief efforts and dehumanized its blunt instrument: the warrior class whose youthful idealism is channelled into the state narrative of heroism.

The Cold War may be over, but we’re still in a hair-trigger situation, especially with the US policy of preemptive nuclear strikes against “rogue states.” In his book War, Dyer observes, “All the major states are still organized for war and all that is needed for the world to slide back into a nuclear confrontation is a twist of the kaleidoscope that shifts international relations into a new pattern of rival alliances.”

Does war come naturally to human beings? Let’s go back thousands of years, before the emergence of civilization. Imagine a group of tribes living together peacefully, in balance with their environment and with one another. Suddenly, there is a dry spell or a collapse of the local food supply. One tribe decides to make some weapons and conquer the next tribe, turning them into slaves. The other tribe has three choices:

1) If they flee, the paradigm of violent tribe expands into their territory.

2) If they submit to slavery, the paradigm of violent tribe expands into their territory.

3) If they build weapons to fight back, the paradigm of the violent tribe expands into their territory.

This is the crux of Andrew Bard Schmookler’s 1984 work, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution. In Schmookler’s thought experiment, diplomacy is not an option with the violent tribe, which subverts the surrounding tribes to their paradigm. He believes this is how the heavily barricaded, heavily armed city-states of the ancient Near East emerged. There is little in the archaeological record to contradict him.

Similarly, historian and eco-activist Derrick Jensen holds that civilization is not only inseparable from war; it is war. Expanding city-states required a growing influx of energy and resources from outlying areas, which put them in continual conflict with their neighbours. To defensively arm was interpreted as an aggressive posture, requiring a preventative response. Preemptive strikes predate the Bush administration by thousands of years and arms races are older than Hadrian’s Wall.

The late British scientist Jacob Bronowski described war as “organized theft.” Wars don’t always begin with plunder, but they have nearly always ended with it, whether it was Carthaginian slaves, Incan gold, Nazi rocket scientists, coastal African diamonds or Iraqi oil.

War appears to be an emergent property of complex systems. Ironically, it may come naturally to societies, but not to individuals. It takes a fair amount of programming to counteract our true natures. Dyer notes that even World War 2 commanders discovered their men were often reluctant to kill in combat situations, lifting their weapons up and away from the target when they fired: “When US Army Colonel SLA Marshall finally took the trouble to inquire into what American infantrymen were actually doing on the battlefield in 1943-45, he found that, on average, only 15 percent of the trained combat riflemen fired their weapons at all in battle. The rest did not flee, but they would not kill – even when their own position was under attack and their lives were in immediate danger.”

Military psychology has spent decades determining what it takes to build the perfect warrior. The shaved heads, the drills, the sleep deprivation and the verbal abuse of basic training are meant to break down the pre-existing character and create a blank slate for military programming. Getting civilians onboard requires even more work. With the human costs of the two Great Wars recorded by scholars, recreated by Hollywood and rotated on The History Channel, it’s become more difficult for First World leaders to sell foreign campaigns to civilians. To convince them that war is either laudable or unavoidable takes all the machinery of social engineering: public relations outlets, advertising firms, media, psychological operations departments and faith-based organizations. For the aggressor nations, it’s always the same gig: the respectable convince the gullible that they’re in danger from the unspeakable.

War – what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, according to pop culture. But we have to ask, if something so deadly really works against everyone’s interests in the long term, why does it persist into modern times? Authors often use fiction to reveal unpleasant truths and no one excelled at this better than British writer George Orwell. In his novel 1984, he freely speculated on modern warfare’s ultimate purpose:

“The primary aim of modern warfare is to use up the products of the machine without raising the general standard of living. Ever since the end of the nineteenth century, the problem of what to do with the surplus of consumption goods has been latent in industrial society. From the moment when the machine first made its appearance, it was clear to all thinking people that the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent for human inequality, had disappeared. If the machine were used deliberately for that end, hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy and disease could be eliminated within a few generations.”

This approach is a no-win situation for the elites, Orwell claims: “For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance… The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. Goods must be produced, but they must not be distributed. And in practice, the only way of achieving this was by continuous warfare.”

And here is Orwell’s slam-dunk conclusion: “The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”

1984 featured three warring states: Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. The ever-shifting alliances and wars had one principal aim: to align the people unquestioningly under their respective leaders. The line-up of foreign villains might change, but the propaganda was essentially the same for all three states. Orwell’s nightmare vision looks scarily prescient, given the three blocs we see emerging: the “North American perimeter,” the European Union and an alliance comprised of Russia, Iran and other nations. (Even 1984’s daily “ten minutes of hate,” directed against an ever changing line-up of villains has its modern equivalent in Fox News.)

The so-called “war on terror” is just a new riff on an age-old theme. Our leaders have declared war on an abstract noun – a vaporous enemy can never officially surrender. Perhaps this is why John McCain said last year that US forces might be in Iraq for “a hundred years.” It would also explain why Canada’s defence minister in 2006, Gordon O’Connor, observed, “It is impossible to defeat the Taliban militarily,” a line recently echoed by British Brig.-Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith, who told the Daily Mail that an “absolute military victory in Afghanistan is impossible.” Canada’s former Chief of the Defence Staff General Rick Hillier was even more explicit in a statement reported in the Toronto Star in 2006: “That’s never been the strategy – to defeat them [the Taliban] militarily.”

Orwell again: “In accordance with the principles of double-think, it does not matter if the war is not real. For when it is, victory is not possible. The war is not meant to be won, but it is meant to be continuous.”

But war isn’t solely a political problem; it’s as an existential one. Avoiding it requires more than Kissinger-like realpolitik, and resisting it requires more than a Remembrance Day poppy. War was not buried in the ashes of Hiroshima, Dresden or Coventry, as my parents’ generation had hoped. It’s all around us. Modern consumer society feeds off ongoing, internalized battles: drug and gambling addictions, body image disorders, clinical depression, advertising-driven self-loathing and all the bad craziness of our hyper-caffeinated, overworked, overextended lifestyles.

Orwell’s “continuous warfare” has been softened and projected into our day-to-day lives, with a North American political economy engineered to break the middle class. But it doesn’t stop there. The emerging culture of constant surveillance and expanded domestic policing is starting to resemble the jackboot dystopia of Orwell’s 1984 as much as the doped-up utopia of Huxley’s Brave New World.

The great irony is that, in comparison to people in other parts of the world, we still lead lives of great opulence. For the diaspora of the Third World, war is no metaphor; it’s an ever-present threat. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, there are currently 43 million people across the globe displaced by war. Sixteen million of them are refugees and more than half are from only six nations/regions: 4.6 million from Palestine, 2.3 million from Iraq, 3.1 million from Afghanistan, 552,000 from Columbia, 523,000 from Sudan and 457,000 from Somalia.

In the face of capitalism’s continual crises of overproduction and the mechanical lurch toward war, there appears to be little reason for optimism – except for the fact that never before in history have so many people been linked together, with so much potential for collective awareness. And in spite of any efforts of politicians, policy wonks or police, our information technologies may have reached the stage where they cannot be fully controlled from the top down. With increasing cynicism over traditional sources of media, much more hope is being pinned on cyberspace. For pessimists, the Internet remains little more than an infotainment “Tower of Babble,” a mad profusion of narrow interests. For optimists, it’s becoming something like a Manhattan Project of the human spirit.

As a German prisoner of war, the late author Kurt Vonnegut survived the largest massacre in European history: the firebombing of Dresden. “It was pure nonsense, pointless destruction,” he wrote in his last book, A Man Without a Country. “The whole city was burned down and it was a British atrocity, not ours.” At the end of his days, Vonnegut cast about for meaning for the signature event in his life and all the mass insanity he had witnessed since. “What is life all about?” he asked his sons and daughters. One son, a pediatrician, had a short, precise response. “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

That’s what the soldiers of the First World War were doing in the few days before Christmas of 1914, helping one another through this thing. Perhaps it was the long stretches of boredom, punctuated by moments of abject terror, which led the German side to try something unheard of. But somehow, for both sides, the tribal circles of compassion expanded out across the enemy lines. In effect, both sides committed an act of spiritual defiance and went off-script from the parable of the tribes. British soldiers exchanged Christmas pudding and cigarettes for German cigars and cake. Both sides sang in their own languages and even improvised games of soccer in the muddy no-man’s land.

Dyer noted, “These were not professional soldiers, after all; six months before they had been farmers or bank clerks or students, and for all the naïve enthusiasms with which they had greeted the war, they had never really wanted to kill anybody, let alone to die. In its inarticulate way, it was the first peace demonstration of modern times.”

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