Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
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Impearls: 2004-07-11 Archive

Earthdate 2004-07-12

Attitudes toward another War

There's a fond recollection today enhanced by the passage of time of a uniformly enthusiastic and patriotic response to the threats of Fascism and Naziism during World War II, and a belief that everyone rushed to volunteer and there was little dissent, compared to today, during that war.

Actually, there's a lot of resemblance between attitudes among the left towards that war and this.  It's worth reviewing authors from back then for insights into the controversy raging today.  Following are excerpts from writings by visionary physicist Freeman Dyson and anti-utopian author George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) (1984) in this regard.

Freeman Dyson on another War

Physicist Freeman Dyson, in his tremendously thought-provoking book Weapons and Hope, had this to say with regard to popular anticipations in Britain in advance of the Second World War: 1

By that time we had made our break with the establishment and we were fierce pacifists.  We saw no hope that any acceptable future would emerge from the coming war.  We had made up our minds that we would at least not be led like sheep to the slaughter as the class of 1915 had been.  Our mood was no longer tragic resignation, but anger and contempt for the older generation which had brought us into this mess.  We raged against the hypocrisy and stupidity of our elders, just as the young rebels raged in the 1960s in America, and for similar reasons.  […]

We looked around us and saw nothing but idiocy.  The great British Empire visibly crumbling, and the sooner it fell apart the better so far as we were concerned.  Millions of men unemployed, and millions of children growing up undernourished in dilapidated slums.  A king mouthing patriotic platitudes which none of us believed.  A government which had no answer to any of its problems except to rearm as rapidly as possible.  A military establishment which believed in bombing the German civilian economy as the only feasible strategy.  A clique of old men in positions of power, blindly repeating the mistakes of 1914, having learned nothing and forgotten nothing in the intervening twenty-four years.  A population of middle-aged nonentities, caring only for money and status, to stupid even to flee from the wrath to come.

We looked for one honest man among the political leaders of the world.  Chamberlain, our prime minister, we despised as a hypocrite.  Hitler was no hypocrite, but he was insane.  Nobody had any use for Stalin or Mussolini.  Winston Churchill was our archenemy, the man personally responsible for the Gallipoli campaign, in which so many of our six hundred died.  He was the incorrigible warmonger, already planning the campaigns in which we were to die.  We hated Churchill as our American successors in the 1960s hated Johnson and Nixon.  But we were lucky in 1938 to find one man whom we could follow and admire, Mahatma Gandhi.  […]

We had grand visions of the redemption of Europe by nonviolence.  The goose-stepping soldiers, marching from country to country, meeting no resistance, finding only sullen noncooperation and six-hour lectures.  The leaders of the nonviolence being shot, and others coming forward fearlessly to take their places.  The goose-stepping soldiers, sickened by the cold-blooded slaughter, one day refusing to carry out the order to shoot.  The massive disobedience of the soldiers disrupting the machinery of military occupation.  The soldiers, converted to nonviolence, returning to their own country to use on their government the tactics that we had taught them.  The final impotence of Hitler confronted with the refusal of his own soldiers to hate their enemies.  The collapse of military institutions everywhere, leading to an era of worldwide peace and sanity.  […]

[The lack of revolt by Hitler's troops from the cold-blooded slaughter of his concentration camps shows just how likely that dream was of coming true.  When the war actually began, reality turned out to be quite different from expectations…. –Imp.]

So this was the war against which we had raged with the fury of righteous adolescence.  It was all very different from what we had expected.  Our gas masks, issued to the civilian population before the war began, were gathering dust in closets.  Nobody spoke of anthrax bombs anymore.  London was being bombed, but our streets were not choked with maimed and fear-crazed refugees.  All our talk about the collapse of civilization began to seem a little irrelevant.

Mr. Churchill had now been in power for five months, and he had carried through the socialist reforms which the Labour party had failed to achieve in twenty years.  War profiteers were unmercifully taxed, unemployment disappeared, and the children of the slums were for the first time adequately fed.  It began to be difficult to despise Mr. Churchill as much as our principles demanded.

Our little band of pacifists was dwindling.  […]  Those of us who were still faithful continued to grow cabbages and boycott the OTC, but we felt less and less sure of our moral superiority.  For me the final stumbling block was the establishment of the Petain-Laval government in France.  This was in some sense a pacifist government.  It had abandoned violent resistance to Hitler and chosen the path of reconciliation.  Many of the Frenchmen who supported Petain were sincere pacifists, sharing my faith in nonviolent resistance to evil.  Unfortunately, many were not.  The worst of it was that there was no way to distinguish the sincere pacifists from the opportunists and collaborators.  Pacifism was destroyed as a moral force as soon as Laval touched it.  […]

Those of us who abandoned Gandhi and reenlisted in the OTC did not do so with any enthusiasm.  We still did not imagine that a country could fight and win a world war without destroying its soul in the process.  If anybody had told us in 1940 that England would survive six years of war against Hitler, achieve most of the political objectives for which the war had been fought, suffer only one third of the casualties we had in World War I, and finally emerge into a world in which our moral and human values were largely intact, we would have said, “No, we do not believe in fairy tales.”


1 Freeman Dyson, Weapons and Hope, 1984, Harper & Row, New York; pp. 111-113, 115-116.

George Orwell on another War

Writer George Orwell wrote this poem in a letter to the Tribune during the war in response to popular pacifist attitudes in Britain in the midst of the Second World War: 1

O poet strutting from the sandbagged portal
Of that small world where barkers ply their art,
And each new “school” believes itself immortal,
Just like the horse that draws the knacker's cart:
O captain of a clique of self-advancers,
Trained in the tactics of the pamphleteer,
Where slogans serve for thoughts and sneers for answers —
You've chosen well your moment to appear
And hold your nose amid a world of horror
Like Dr Bowdler walking through Gomorrah.

In the Left Book Club days you wisely lay low,
But when “Stop Hitler!” lost its old attraction
You bounded forward in a Woolworth's halo
To cash in on anti-war reaction;
You waited till the Nazis ceased from frightening,
Then, picking a safe audience, shouted “Shame!”
Like a Prometheus you defied the lightning,
But didn't have the nerve to sign your name.
You're a true poet, but as saint and martyr
You're a mere fraud, like the Atlantic Charter.

Your hands are clean, and so were Pontius Pilate's,
But as for “bloody heads,” that's just a metaphor;
The bloody heads are on Pacific islets
Or Russian steppes or Libyan sands — it's better for
The health to be a C.O. than a fighter,
To chalk a pavement doesn't need much guts,
It pays to stay at home and be a writer
While other talents wilt in Nissen huts;
“We live like lions” — yes, just like a lion,
Pensioned on scraps in a safe cage of iron.

For while you write the warships ring you round
And flights of bombers drown the nightingales,
And every bomb that drops is worth a pound
To you or someone like you, for your sales
Are swollen with those of rivals dead or silent,
Whether in Tunis or the B.B.C.,
And in the drowsy freedom of this island
You're free to shout that England isn't free;
They even chuck you cash, as bears get buns,
For crying “Peace!” behind a screen of guns.

In 'seventeen to snub the nosing bitch
Who slipped you a white feather needed cheek,
But now, when every writer finds his niche
Within some mutual-admiration clique,
Who cares what epithets by Blimps are hurled?
Who'd give a damn if handed a white feather?
Each little mob of pansies is a world,
Cosy and warm in any kind of weather;
In such a world it's easy to “object,”
Since that's what both your friends and foes expect.

At times it's almost a more dangerous deed
Not to object; I know, for I've been bitten.
I wrote in nineteen-forty that at need
I'd fight to keep the Nazis out of Britain;
And Christ! How shocked the pinks were! Two years later
I hadn't lived it down; one had the effrontery
To write three pages calling me a “traitor,”
So black a crime it is to love one's country.
Yet where's the pink that would have thought it odd of me
To write a shelf of books in praise of sodomy?

Your game is easy, and its rules are plain:
Pretend the war began in 'thirty-nine,
Don't mention China, Ethiopia, Spain,
Don't mention Poles except to say they're swine;
Cry havoc when we bomb a German city,
When Czechs get killed don't worry in the least,
Give India a perfunctory squirt of pity
But don't inquire what happens further East;
Don't mention Jews — in short, pretend the war is
Simply a racket “got up” by the tories.

Throw in a word of “anti-Fascist” patter
From time to time, by way of reinsurance.
And then go on to prove it makes no matter
If Blimps or Nazis hold the world in durance;
And that we others who “support” the war
Are either crooks or sadists or flag-wavers
In love with drums and bugles, but still more
Concerned with cadging Brendan Bracken's favours;
Or fools who think that bombs bring back the dead.
A thing not even Harris ever said.

If you'd your way we'd leave the Russians to it
And sell our steel to Hitler as before;
Meanwhile you save your soul, and while you do it,
Take out a long-term mortgage on the war.
For after war there comes an ebb of passion,
The dead are sniggered at — and there you'll shine,
You'll be the very bull's-eye of the fashion,
You almost might get back to 'thirty-nine,
Back to the dear old game of scratch-my-neighbour
In sleek reviews financed by coolie labour.

But you don't hoot at Stalin — that's “not done” —
Only at Churchill; I've no wish to praise him,
I'd gladly shoot him when the war is won,
Or now, if there was someone to replace him.
But unlike some, I'll pay him what I owe him;
There was a time when empires crashed like houses,
And many a pink who'd titter at your poem
Was glad enough to cling to Churchill's trousers.
Christ! How they huddled up to one another
Like day-old chicks about their foster-mother!

I'm not a fan for “fighting on the beaches,”
And still less for the “breezy uplands” stuff,
I seldom listen-in to Churchill's speeches,
But I'd far sooner hear that kind of guff
Than your remark, a year or so ago,
That if the Nazis came you'd knuckle under
And peaceably “accept the status quo.”
Maybe you would! But I've a right to wonder
Which will sound better in the days to come,
“Blood, toil and sweat” or “Kiss the Nazi's bum.”

But your chief target is the radio hack,
The hire pep-talker — he's a safe objective,
Since he's unpopular and can't hit back.
It doesn't need the eye of a detective
To look down Portland Place and spot the whores,
But there are men (I grant, not the most heeded)
With twice your gifts and courage three times yours
Who do that dirty work because it's needed;
Not blindly, but for reasons they can balance,
They wear their seats out and lay waste their talents.

All propaganda's lying, yours or mine;
It's lying even when its facts are true;
That goes for Goebbels or the “party line,”
Or for the Primrose League or P.PU.
But there are truths that smaller lies can serve,
And dirtier lies that scruples can gild over;
To waste your brains on war may need more nerve
Than to dodge facts and live in mental clover;
It's mean enough when other men are dying.
But when you lie, it's much to know you're lying.

That's thirteen stanzas, and perhaps you're puzzled
To know why I've attacked you — well, here's why:
Because your enemies all are dead or muzzled.
You've never picked on one who might reply.
You've hogged the limelight and you've aired your virtue,
While chucking sops to every dangerous faction,
The Left will cheer you and the Right won't hurt you;
What did you risk? Not even a libel action.
If you would show what saintly stuff you're made of,
Why not attack the cliques you are afraid of?

Denounce Joe Stalin, jeer at the Red Army,
Insult the Pope — you'll get some come-back there;
It's honourable, even if it's barmy,
To stamp on corns all round and never care.
But for the half-way saint and cautious hero,
Whose head's unbloody even if unbowed,
My admiration's somewhere near to zero;
So my last words would be: Come off that cloud,
Unship those wings that hardly dared to flitter,
And spout your halo for a pint of bitter.


1 George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair), “As One Non-Combatant to Another (A Letter to ‘Obadiah Hornbooke’),” Tribune, 1943-06-18.

Impearls: 2004-07-11 Archive

Earthdate 2004-07-11


James Joyner in Outside the Beltway critiques a recent piece by Victor Davis Hanson on what the proper response should be to another massive terrorist attack in the U.S. on the scale or worse than 9-11.  Donald Sensing in One Hand Clapping then picks up this story, commenting “James Joyner takes VDH mildly to task for what I agree is a rare lousy column on VDH's part.”

While the indicated article by Victor Davis Hanson isn't a favorite of mine (I prefer this recent piece by him frankly), still I think he's making an important point here, and much as I respect both Joyner and Sensing, I believe both are getting Hanson wrong, as well as misinterpreting history.

In the indicated piece Hanson uses the term “Shermanesque” — referring to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's invasion of Georgia and the Carolinas during the American Civil War — as inflicting “collective punishment,” as indeed it did, on these southern regions for their role in furthering the bloody War Between the States while sitting back, far behind the former battle lines, more or less fat and happy.  Joyner in his reply then picks up on Hanson's phrase as somehow implying “unmeasured attack,” as he put it, perhaps even “nuking the entire Muslim world” along with “annihilat[ing] the entire populations of the Middle East.”

Now people who have read my work know I'm hardly one to argue for “unmeasured attack,” or “annihilating the entire populations of the Middle East” — quite the reverse.  From what I can see, however, Hanson's article does not argue for any of that.

In fact, Hanson says nothing in his piece about killing on a vast scale in response to a large-scale terrorist attack, and moreover it's really a slur on William Tecumseh Sherman and what he accomplished during the American Civil War to imply that his invasion of the South massacred whole populations or even small portions thereof.  Yes, Gen. Sherman's army did destroy troop concentrations which tried to oppose it, and went on to deliberately demolish much civilian and public property, engendering (as Joyner pointed out) long-lasting “regional enmity.”

Nevertheless, murder was left out of the equation.  Here's what Winston Churchill (yes, that Churchill) had to say about it in his superb History of the English-Speaking Peoples (which has an excellent section on the U.S. Civil War by the way): 1

Georgia was full of food in this dark winter.  Sherman set himself to march through it on a wide front, living on the country, devouring and destroying all farms, villages, towns, railroads, and public works which lay within his wide-ranging reach.  He left behind him a blackened trail, and hatreds which pursue his memory to this day.  “War is hell,” he said, and certainly he made it so.  But no one must suppose that his depredations and pillage were comparable to the atrocities which were committed during the World Wars of the twentieth century or the barbarities of the Middle Ages.  Searching investigation has discovered hardly a case of murder or rape.

Thus, though Sherman destroyed much property (and earned lasting hatred from southerners as a result), the nearly total lack of civilian casualties is a remarkable humanitarian record and achievement — one must note amidst the carnage of the bloodiest war (out of one-tenth the present population) in U.S. history — not an example of “unmeasured attack,” certainly not the equivalent of “nuking the entire Muslim world.”

Victor Davis Hanson is a historian, and surely is aware of this detail about Sherman's campaign — even if much of the public (especially the South of the U.S.) has built up this myth of Sherman's “atrocities.”  In my view, that's what Hanson is advocating here: communicating to the supporters of terrorism that “War is Hell” without invoking wanton massacre.  As he writes in the subject piece, “Perhaps it would be best to inform hostile countries right now of a (big) list of their assets — military bases, power plants, communications, and assorted infrastructure — that will be taken out in the aftermath of another attack, a detailed sequence of targets that will be activated when the culpable terrorists' bases and support networks are identified and confirmed.”  Culprit regimes should “anticipate the consequences should another 3,000 Americans be incinerated at work.”  That doesn't sound like massacre to me, and as Hanson points out, could well help prevent another massacre — of Americans.


1 Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Volume Four: The Great Democracies, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1958, pp. 258-259.


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