- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 22, 2011


By Adam Hochschild
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28, 448 pages

Every once in a while, a good book comes along that is like an inspired piece of primitive art. The colors are brilliant, the detail work is incredible, and the subject is fascinating, but the artist’s grasp of perspective and proportion leaves something to be desired. Adam Hochschild’s deeply moving impressionist sketch of World War I is such a book.

Those who enjoyed his “King Leopold’s Ghost,” the story of the merciless plundering of the Belgian Congo, will find the same considerable writing skills on display in “To End All Wars.” But the story of the Congo’s conquest and early exploitation was a simple, clear-cut case: European greed and inhumanity exposed by a handful of heroic crusaders. No great grasp of perspective and proportion was needed to paint that historical miniature. Depicting an infinitely larger, more complex subject such as World War I - even from the author’s mainly Anglo-centric angle - requires a lot of both.

Unfortunately, perspective and proportion are not Mr. Hochschild’s strong points. He understands and vividly depicts the hideous carnage of the war and its catastrophic consequences, but he goes on to engage in a stupendous generalization about the war’s opponents: “Tens of thousands of people were wise enough to foresee, in 1914, the likely bloodshed that a war among the world’s major industrial powers would cause - and, courageously, they refused to take part.”

Yes and no. While many if not most of Britain’s rank-and-file conscientious objectors were sincere pacifists, others were utopian revolutionaries who sought the overthrow of the democratically based, capitalist societies that were then firmly established in most of Europe west of the Rhine and had begun to take root in both Germany and Austria-Hungary.

For such revolutionaries, opposition to World War I was one more front in their own ongoing war against the existing social order. To them, there was nothing objectionable about bloodshed per se, as long as the blood was being shed to forward their goals rather than those of their political and institutional targets, as many would soon prove by their enthusiastic embrace of Lenin and Stalin’s blood-drenched “workers’ paradise.”

As for genuine pacifists such as the Quakers, there can be no questioning the purity of their motivations: They were opposed to all wars, period. But such a view, while seemingly consistent, contains a fatal flaw. In the real world, there always have been and always will be times when the only way a decent, law-abiding person or society can protect itself from violent predators is by using physical force.

In such cases, fighting is not just the practical response; it is the moral one - unless you think suicide or voluntary slavery is preferable to self-defense. Pacifism, like war, is not always an appropriate response to reality; too much depends upon conditions on the ground and at the moment.

The tragedy of World War I was not that it was fought but that it was waged in a terrible new way, both militarily and politically. For the first time, barbed wire, trenches, machine guns and incredibly heavy artillery were used by massive modern armies facing each other instead of primitive Asian or African levies or Boer War irregulars. Senior officers bred to believe in the superiority of dashing bayonet and cavalry charges were suddenly and reluctantly dropped into a new combat reality most of them took too long - if ever - to understand.

Politically, the need to rally public opinion in increasingly democratic societies meant that kings and their counselors could no longer turn wars off as easily as they turned them on. Instead, intensive, irresponsible daily doses of propaganda, now possible for the first time thanks to telegraph, film and the popular press, whipped public opinion on both sides into a “no compromise” frenzy.

Ironically, the very balance of power that had prevented a mass conflagration in Europe for a century contributed to what Constantine Brown, a reporter for the Washington Evening Star, succinctly characterized as “four terrible years [of deadlock] during which the moral edifice of European civilization crumbled and collapsed.”

America’s idealistic but misguided intervention finally tipped the scale in favor of the Allies, but, thanks largely to Woodrow Wilson’s messianic bungling, it also facilitated a vengeful Allied peace settlement that virtually guaranteed a second, in some ways even more horrifying, World War just 20 years later.

On the day peace came in 1918, one of the most celebrated English pacifists, philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell, walked down London’s Tottenham Court Road, Mr. Hochschild recounts, and the public jubilation reminded him of the similar mood he had witnessed when war was declared. In Russell’s own words, “The crowd was frivolous still, and had learned nothing during the period of horror…. .”

Sadly, Russell himself, who would spend his old age blindly railing against the American nuclear deterrent that kept the Cold War from turning hot, doesn’t seem to have learned much, either.

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan.

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