Adam Hochschild: Antiwar critics forgotten on Oscar night

Here’s how, in his classic Vietnam War history, The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam summed up Washington life via the career of Dean Rusk, the hawkish Secretary of State under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson: “If you are wrong on the hawkish side of an event you are all right; if you are accurate on the dovish side you are in trouble.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, so many decades later, to be able to say that such a statement is thoroughly out of date in Washington and elsewhere in this country?  Unfortunately, on the evidence of the Iraq War years, it would be a lovely lie.

Where, after all, are those who went out into the streets in their millions globally to say: don’t do it, it’s madness!  And the far smaller crew who said the same about the Afghan War?  Logically, they should be celebrated today.  They were on target.  To the extent anyone could, they saw it coming.  Logically, some of the more prescient among them should be our experts of the moment.  They should be the media’s go-to guys and gals as a war atmosphere builds vis-a-vis Iran that has eerie similarities to the pre-Iraq invasion period (despite the intervening decade-plus of disaster in the Greater Middle East).

The antiwar figures who protested then, who said the war hawks of the Bush administration and the many pundits beating the war drums for them were fools, and an invasion a fool’s task, should be in the Rolodexes of every journalist reporting on American foreign policy, the Iran crisis, or our wars.  But when was the last time you heard from one of them or saw one spotlighted?

For years, to give a single example, on anniversaries of the Iraq invasion, my hometown paper, the New York Times, called on the very figures who had gotten it wrong or actively helped make it wrong to assess the war, to tell us just where we were.  Now, the urge to surge once again seems to have parts of the polity in its grips, as 58% of Americans in a recent Pew poll favor someone using military force to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.  (Of course, in a recent CNN/Gallup poll, 71% were already convinced that Iran has a nuclear weapon!)  At this very moment, the experts being called on are regularly those who were “wrong on the hawkish side.”  Meanwhile, the Republican candidates (Ron Paul excepted) are all but swearing they will launch a war on Iran if elected.  In the midst of this, remind me: Is anyone in that mainstream world checking in with those who were “accurate on the dovish side”?  If so, I haven’t noticed, and I’m not holding my breath waiting for them to do so either.

Perhaps because they managed to snag the more impressive bird, the hawks remain eternally wrong and triumphant when it comes to war, and the doves remarkably right and yet eternally erased from the scene.  It’s a story that Adam Hochschild, author of the bestseller To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (just out in paperback), reminds us is anything but new. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Hochschild discusses the largely untold stories of those in England who opposed involvement in World War I and the message they offer for our own time, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)  Tom Engelhardt

The untold war story — then and now
Going beyond the tale of a boy and his horse
By Adam Hochschild

Well in advance of the 2014 centennial of the beginning of “the war to end all wars,” the First World War is suddenly everywhere in our lives. Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse opened on 2,376 movie screens and has collected six Oscar nominations, while the hugely successful play it’s based on is still packing in the crowds in New York and a second production is being readied to tour the country.

In addition, the must-watch TV soap opera of the last two months, Downton Abbey, has just concluded its season on an unexpected kiss.  In seven episodes, its upstairs-downstairs world of forbidden love and dynastic troubles took American viewers from mid-war, 1916, beyond the Armistice, with the venerable Abbey itself turned into a convalescent hospital for wounded troops. Other dramas about the 1914-1918 war are on the way, among them an HBO-BBC miniseries based on Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End quartet of novels, and a TV adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong from an NBC-backed production company.

In truth, there’s nothing new in this.  Filmmakers and novelists have long been fascinated by the way the optimistic, sunlit, pre-1914 Europe of emperors in plumed helmets and hussars on parade so quickly turned into a mass slaughterhouse on an unprecedented scale. And there are good reasons to look at the First World War carefully and closely.

After all, it was responsible for the deaths of some nine million soldiers and an even larger number of civilians.  It helped ignite the Armenian genocide and the Russian Revolution, left large swaths of Europe in smoldering ruins, and remade the world for the worse in almost every conceivable way — above all, by laying the groundwork for a second and even more deadly, even more global war.

There are good reasons as well for us to be particularly haunted by what happened in those war years to the country that figures in all four of these film and TV productions: Britain. In 1914, that nation was at the apex of glory, the unquestioned global superpower, ruling over the largest empire the world had ever seen. Four and a half years later its national debt had increased tenfold, more than 720,000 British soldiers were dead, and hundreds of thousands more seriously wounded, many of them missing arms, legs, eyes, genitals.

The toll fell particularly heavily on the educated classes that supplied the young lieutenants and captains who led their troops out of the trenches and into murderous machine-gun fire. To give but a single stunning example, of the men who graduated from Oxford in 1913, 31% were killed.

“Swept Away in a Red Blast of Hate”

Yet curiously, for all the spectacle of boy and horse, thundering cavalry charges, muddy trenches, and wartime love and loss, the makers of War Horse, Downton Abbey and — I have no doubt — the similar productions we’ll soon be watching largely skip over the greatest moral drama of those years of conflict, one that continues to echo in our own time of costly and needless wars. They do so by leaving out part of the cast of characters of that moment.  The First World War was not just a battle between rival armies, but also a powerful, if one-sided, battle between those who assumed the war was a noble crusade and those who thought it absolute madness.

The war’s opponents went to jail in many countries.  There were more than 500 conscientious objectors imprisoned in the United States in those years, for example, plus others jailed for speaking out against joining the conflict. Eugene V. Debs had known prison from his time as a railway union leader, but he spent far longer behind bars — more than two years — for urging American men to resist the draft. Convicted of sedition, he was still in his cell at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta in November 1920 when, long after the war ended, he received nearly a million votes as the Socialist candidate for President.

One American protest against the war turned to tragedy when, in 1917, Oklahoma police arrested nearly 500 draft resisters — white, black, and Native American — taking part in what they called the Green Corn Rebellion against “a rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” Three were killed and many injured.

War resisters were also thrown in jail in Germany and Russia. But the country with the largest and best organized antiwar movement — and here’s where the creators of those film and TV costume dramas so beloved by Anglophile American audiences miss a crucial opportunity — was Britain.

The main reason opposition to the war proved relatively strong there was simple enough: in 1914, the island nation had not been attacked. German invaders marched into France and Belgium, but Germany hoped Britain would stay out of the war. And so did some Britons. When their country joined the fighting on the grounds that Germany had violated Belgian neutrality, a vocal minority continued to insist that jumping into a quarrel among other countries was a disastrous mistake.

Keir Hardie was a prominent early war opponent.  A trade union leader and Member of Parliament, he had, by the age of 21, already spent half his life as a coal miner and he never went to school.  Nonetheless, he became one of the great orators of the age, mesmerizing crowds with his eloquence, his piercing, heavy-browed eyes, and a striking red beard. Crushed with despair that millions of Europe’s working men were slaughtering one another rather than making common cause in fighting for their rights, his beard white, he died in 1915, still in his 50s.

Among those who bravely challenged the war fever, whose rallies were often violently broken up by the police or patriotic mobs, was well-known radical feminist Charlotte Despard. Her younger brother, amazingly, was Field Marshal Sir John French, commander-in-chief of the Western Front for the first year and a half of the war. A similarly riven family was the famous Pankhurst clan of suffragettes: Sylvia Pankhurst became an outspoken opponent of the conflict, while her sister Christabel was from the beginning a fervent drum-beater for the war effort.  They not only stopped speaking to each other, but published rival newspapers that regularly attacked the other’s work.

Britain’s leading investigative journalist, Edmund Dene Morel, and its most famous philosopher, Bertrand Russell, were both passionate war critics. “This war is trivial, for all its vastness,” Russell wrote. “No great principle is at stake, no great human purpose is involved on either side.” He was appalled to see his fellow citizens “swept away in a red blast of hate.”

He wrote with remarkable candor about how difficult it was to go against the current of the national war fever “when the whole nation is in a state of violent collective excitement. As much effort was required to avoid sharing this excitement as would have been needed to stand out against the extreme of hunger or sexual passion, and there was the same feeling of going against instinct.”

Both Russell and Morel spent six months in prison for their beliefs. Morel served his term at hard labor, carrying 100-pound slabs of jute to the prison workshop while subsisting on a bare-bones diet during a frigid winter when prison furnaces were last in line for the nation’s scarce supply of coal.

Women like Violet Tillard went to jail as well.  She worked for an antiwar newspaper banned in 1918 and was imprisoned for refusing to reveal the location of its clandestine printing press. And among the unsung heroines of that antiwar moment was Emily Hobhouse, who secretly traveled through neutral Switzerland to Berlin, met the German foreign minister, talked over possible peace terms, and then returned to England to try to do the same with the British government. Its officials dismissed her as a lone-wolf eccentric, but in a conflict that killed some 20 million people, she was the sole human being who journeyed from one side to the other and back again in search of peace.

Why We Know More About War Than Peace

By the war’s end, more than 20,000 British men had defied the draft and, as a matter of principle, many also refused the alternative service prescribed for conscientious objectors, like ambulance driving at the front or working in a war industry. More than 6,000 of them were put behind bars — up to that moment the largest number of people ever imprisoned for political reasons in a western democracy.

There was nothing easy about any of this.  Draft refusers were mocked and jeered (mobs threw rotten eggs at them when given the chance), jailed under harsh conditions, and lost the right to vote for five years. But with war’s end, in a devastated country mourning its losses and wondering what could possibly justify that four-year slaughter, many people came to feel differently about the resisters. More than half a dozen were eventually elected to the House of Commons and the journalist Morel became the Labour Party’s chief Parliamentary spokesperson on foreign affairs. Thirty years after the Armistice, a trade unionist named Arthur Creech Jones, who had spent two and a half years in prison as a war resister, was appointed to the British cabinet.

The bravery of such men and women in speaking their minds on one of the great questions of the age cost them dearly: in public scorn, prison terms, divided families, lost friends and jobs. And yet they are largely forgotten today at a moment when resistance to pointless wars should be celebrated.  Instead we almost always tend to celebrate those who fight wars — win or lose — rather than those who oppose them.

It’s not just the films and TV shows we watch, but the monuments and museums we build. No wonder, as General Omar Bradley once said, that we “know more about war than we know about peace.” We tend to think of wars as occasions for heroism, and in a narrow, simple sense they can be. But a larger heroism, sorely lacking in Washington this last decade, lies in daring to think through whether a war is worth fighting at all. In looking for lessons in wars past, there’s a much deeper story to be told than that of a boy and his horse.

Adam Hochschild is the author of King Leopold’s Ghost and Bury the Chains, among other works. His latest bestselling book, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), focuses on the antiwar critics of World War I.  Now available in paperback, it is a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Hochschild discusses the largely untold stories of those in England who opposed involvement in World War I and the message they offer for our own time, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

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Copyright 2012 Adam Hochschild

Reprinted with permission of TomDispatch.com

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Comments

  1. delia ruhe says:

    The very best WWI documentary I ever saw was the PBS/BBC/Imperial War Museum production entitled *The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century*. PBS ran it over two evenings around 11 November 1996. The theme that ran through it was that war simply cannot be made useful again, and that WWI was the cause of WWII. If you read Virginia Woolf’s *Three Guineas*, written on the eve of WWII, you’ll find the same themes. She killed herself shortly after the war began.

    PBS offered the whole production on VHS tape — which I finally had to buy, since the series continued to haunt me long after I’d seen it on PBS — and they put up an elaborate website on it. The site is still there, although there’s no longer an obvious link to it. That link and the VHS tape offer disappeared from view on 9/11. War was fashionable again.

    However, it’s worth remembering that a minimum of 10 million people across the globe hit the streets on 15 February 2003 to protest the upcoming war against Iraq. Some say the participants totalled many more millions, but the official number is 10. At that moment a majority of Americans were against going to war. By the time the “smoking gun” appeared as a “mushroom cloud” in the American imagination, 60 or 70 percent of Americans were thirsting for Saddam’s blood.

    It will be no different this time. Either Israel’s or Washington’s Department of Propaganda will come up with a terrifying slogan, and a majority of Americans will suddenly be thirsting again for Muslim blood. Bibi hopes he can come up with one before the November election, since he has the power to influence the outcome. After the election, he may not be able to persuade Obama, who will no longer need to be fearing AIPAC and the other Israel lobbyists.