Tyee Books

Europe's Shift from War Culture to Peace Culture

As Canada weighs its role in Afghanistan, author James Sheehan looks at Europe and asks, 'Where have all the soldiers gone?'

By Crawford Kilian 28 Apr 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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British World War Two recruiting poster.

On February 20, the Dutch government fell because its coalition could not agree on whether to extend its mission in Afghanistan by another two years.

Almost exactly seven years before, on February 15, 2003, all of Europe was marching in the streets of its major cities: A million people in London's Trafalgar Square, a million in Barcelona and another 600,000 in Madrid, a million in Rome, 500,000 in Berlin. All were protesting, in vain, the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

What a difference from the summer of 1914, when Europeans rallied in their millions to celebrate the start of the First World War (young Adolf Hitler can be found, cheering, in a photo of the crowds in Munich). It would all be over by Christmas, everyone would be morally and economically improved, and the good guys would certainly win.

James J. Sheehan's excellent book traces the education of European civilization over the past century and a half, from its domestically tranquil 19th century to a 20th century of staggering carnage and into a 21st century when the once-great powers go into combat grudgingly if at all. Sheehan poses some questions for today's Canada, with its new eagerness to send its young men and women into combat.

War as nation building

Much of the book is a concise history of Europe's wars; what provoked them, and what followed them. But his summary gives us some unexpected perspectives. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Europe enjoyed one of the longest peaceful eras in its millennia of carnage. Apart from a few squabbles that turned Prussia into the First Reich, and some suppressed revolts in 1830 and 1848, Europeans didn't kill each other very much.

Instead they dispatched small, highly trained and well-equipped armies and navies to slaughter people in the rest of the world, especially Africa and Asia. These colonial forays were supposed to be economically useful by ensuring foreign markets for British and French goods. They didn't cost much, and sometimes they made good propaganda.

Even so, Europeans weren't sold on imperial adventures, and even less tolerant of militarism at home. A drunken young German officer triggered a political crisis by abusing civilians. The Reich and the infant Italy might aspire to foreign colonies, but that was for glory, not an improved bottom line.

But the politicians of the day saw militarism as a form of nation building. In the new Germany, it helped to fuse the often-hostile principalities and petty kingdoms into a unified country. The military also helped Austria-Hungary to hold together its restless nationalities.

Pacifism, a century ago

By the 1890s, war in Europe was beginning to look more likely, and it inspired a new "pacifist" movement. This was backed up by the analysis of Polish banker Ivan Bloch, who dispassionately proved that modern warfare was too deadly to be won by heroes, and too expensive to be sustainable. He foresaw the unwinnable trench warfare, the social breakdown on the home front, and brutal reparations exacted on the losers to pay for the costs of the winners.

The Germans thought they saw a loophole in Bloch's otherwise overwhelming argument: A quick war might be won by mobility before a single trench was dug. And the Schlieffen Plan to take the Channel ports and envelop Paris nearly worked; after that, Bloch's prophecy was fulfilled.

In 1940, of course, Hitler carried Schlieffen's vision to the next stage: blitzkrieg followed by systematic looting of the conquered countries to sustain an economically ruinous prolonged war.

New masters

Europe might have gone to war a third time, but for one problem: the Americans and Soviets now ruled them, and would not allow European squabbles that could turn into nuclear war.

So Europeans turned to building peaceful societies that eventually merged into the European Union. They maintained armed forces (and France and Britain developed and kept their own nuclear weapons), but no one seriously thought that armies and navies would build stronger nations. Quite the contrary.

Meanwhile, the winners still found much to value in sustaining large armed forces and the militarism that went with them. The Soviets could ensure that no one was going to strike across the Polish border; the Americans could project power almost anywhere in the world.

Even they, however, had to obey Bloch's cold equations. No one could get political support for wars that cost too many of their own people. From Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan, the Americans and Soviets kept reaching points of diminishing returns. Civilians no longer cheered in the streets. No one wanted to hear about their glorious army's latest exploits in Khe Sanh or Kandahar, and in any case the army didn't want to tell them.

Canada’s war stories

Canada obeys Bloch's equations as well. We still kid ourselves that Vimy Ridge was our own nation-building moment, and we're proud of liberating Holland.

But who remembers the 516 Canadians who died in Korea? We had no interest in fighting in Vietnam, or Iraq, and we now hear almost nothing about Afghanistan except when some poor kid steps on an IED. In six days at Vimy Ridge we suffered over 10,000 casualties, including 3,598 dead. If we suffered even a tenth of such casualties in one week in Afghanistan, our forces would be on their way home the following week.

This is no slur on our troops, but a compliment to our social maturity. Even in World War I, Ottawa didn't dare publish casualty lists until 1916; when they did appear, they were so huge that they must have numbed the public. Now, the death of a single young man is front-page news and we wince to hear about it.

Just as the Europeans finally learned that war would get them nowhere, we are learning too. Even the Americans, for all their economic dependence on their "defence" industries, may eventually learn that Ivan Bloch was right.  [Tyee]

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