Was the 1914 world war a good thing after all?

On Monday 4 August 2014 there was a state celebration of the outbreak of the 1914 war, that had broken out a hundred years earlier, attended by the Prime Mister, David Cameron, and Prince William who both joined about 500 other state functionaries, from the various European states, at a war cemetery near Mons in Belgium.

The UK government has also announced, this centenary week, a £50m 1914 war commemorative to be spent, despite the supposed and declared age of austerity, over the next four years.

All this year, many historians, led apparently by Hew Strachan, who denies that there ever was a lost generation [The First World War (2006) p.xvi] seem to have been attempting to overthrow the 1960s fashion that is still reflected in such recent comedy shows, like Blackadder, that the 1914-’18 war as a complete folly. The recent historians, for the most part, want to say that it was actually a very worthwhile war after all. It looks like this is a clear majority in the profession of historians, for it clearly is a majority in television audiences on the many programmes that have so far been put out on the media on this year, for only the odd bod, like Niall Ferguson, or Dominic Sandbrook who wrote in The Daily Mail that the UK should have kept out of the 1914 war, seems to protest against this almost uniform tide of experts, and there are currently 8 000 books on the war in print in the UK today, in addition to lots of broadcasting on the topic this year so far, that sets out to put the public right on the non-wasteful nature of what was once thought to be the war to end all future war, for the fashion amongst most of the historians this year is that the 1914 war was a very good thing.

Those celebrations tend to have been a factor in the recent revival jingoism in the press, and at Westminster too, against Russia, the target of pristine jingoism some century and a half ago, all seemingly overlooking that the prolonging of NATO, as well as other unilateral actions against Russia, that seem to be way more warmongering or gratuitously aggressive than has come in reaction from members of the former WARSAW PACT motherland of Russia, who seem to be doing what the jingoists are moaning about only in reaction to the aggression of “the west”.

One might have expected NATO to follow the WARSAW PACT example of going into oblivion once that the USSR became defunct. But few state-run institutions tend to accept that their time is up, though the likes of Max Hastings, in yet another of his frequent warmongering articles in The Daily Mail, this time on 9 August 2014 (p7), says he has the historian Michael Howard, now 92, who has write books against the liberal solution to war but not well argued books. Anyway, Howard is with Hastings, as ever, on the naivety of ever cutting back on the UK’s armed forces, or in its support of a strong USA, NATO or the UN, especially as things is now in the Ukraine and in the Middle East, though, mercifully, Hastings does not want UK or USA troops back in Iraq; despite the dire events going on there of late, caused mainly by the earlier warmongering of the west, of course.

Richard Cobden and Norman Angell, of whom Howard showed no clear understanding of, are not often, explicitly, cited but the liberal idea that free trade, or globalisation, crowds out war is very often ridiculed, if not often understood, and it has been openly ridiculed on the media again recently, both before, on and since Monday 4 August 2014. We have been told on the BBC media, both on radio and on television, that many in 1913 believed that war was an impossibility in a world of global trade and international progress by trade, but that is a celebrated misunderstanding; both of Cobden in the 1840s and of Angell from his publication of The Great Illusion (1910) onwards, despite both authors being very clear in what they wrote. The pristine liberal thesis, that is also in The Wealth of Nations (1776) Adam Smith, was only that it would make the price of war way clearer to the public, but, as we can see over the last few months, that clear price or cost of war, or of the recent sanctions imposed on Russia lately, and the willingness of facing a similar additional cost of the reaction by the Russians to them of their own sanctions, is a cost that normal politicians are all too willing to pay, for it is a high price only to the taxpayers for what the politicians, very oddly, tend to suppose their warmongering be their moral position or duty. It is not being paid with their own money after all. And politicians do not often lose their own lives in war.

Many in the media imagine that there is something of value to be learnt from the 1914 conflict of a hundred years back, but is the examination of the horrors that those who went through those four years of war truly ever informative? Are we ever surprised by the horrors we read about in the books on the war? I tend to think not. We can adequately imagine the horrors beforehand.

It seems that current common sense could draw more lessons from the pre-1914 fears of Angell, or the pre-Crimean War fears of Cobden other than that both liberal propagandists feared the said wars rather than is still current misunderstanding that they both thought that the wars they feared were quite impossible. A high cost only tends to deter, it need never render what it tends to deter impossible. Cobden first, then later Angell, saw as clearly as we can today that a high cost was not bound to deter the warmongering politicians. The lesson the politicians seem to need to know is that war is always wasteful, indeed, so is the negative sum cold war of normal politics that gives rise to war, for Hobbes got it exactly wrong in thinking that politics imposes peace on society, for it does instead institutionally imposes politics, which is a war of all against all, it is cold war seeking forever to get hot in what we can all see as actual war. Hobbes was right that war is not only naked violence but the continual threat of it viz. naked coercion only. The state is perennially exactly that, as it is the negative sum game where we oppose people who we have never even met. For even any vote, that current common sense sees as being peaceful, is, in fact, a vote against other people. It always coerces the other people in a proactive manner. So the normal outlook of the politicians is cold war. The common idea that their current push for unmistakable war is a sort of investment, one to stave off some yet more expensive or worse later war is a political delusion. War is not a means, as most people seem to think today but rather the acme of politics. So we can expect war to emerge later on only owing to state institutions with their traditional authority to tax the public, for taxation is about the only means of paying this grand cost that war imposes.

There is no war that is going to get more dire should the dutiful politicians neglect this supposed duty of standing up to this or to that latest supposed Hitler, or latest little-Hitler, sooner rather than later. Voltaire said that if God did not exist then we would need to invent him. I am not entirely clear what he meant there, but it does seem clear that Hitler certainly did seem to supply a vital need for the warmongers to use in their warmongering today.