The Return Of War

In the era of Putin and Islamic State, we shall have to  dust off Clausewitz and confront reality

Critique Islam Military NATO The West
The mightiest battleships ever built: Japan’s “Yamato” takes two hits from American aircraft in October 1944 during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, in which her sister ship “Musashi” had already been sunk (photo: Time Life Pictures/US Navy/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Last month, in the waters off the Philippines, they found the wreck of the Musashi. Together with her sister Yamato, the pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy, she was the mightiest battleship ever built. In 1944 Musashi sallied forth in the greatest and bloodiest sea battle of the Pacific War, Leyte Gulf. A last-ditch attempt to turn the tables on the Americans, the unequal contest went badly for the Japanese from the outset. Overwhelmed by wave after wave of warplanes from six US aircraft carriers, Musashi took 19 direct hits from torpedoes and 17 from armour-piercing bombs, before she finally succumbed with the loss of more than a thousand men.

The ghostly images of her wreck, found by the American Paul Allen, brought back teenage memories for me. I too had sunk the Musashi—only mine was a scale model 1/500th the size of the original, and she sank in Black Park lake, ablaze with magnesium, while we watched and photographed my battleship’s immolation. Why a youth with no obvious pyromaniac tendencies would enjoy doing such a thing now eludes me. But it was by no means unique for a boy growing up in the decades after ttclauhe Second World War to acquire encyclopaedic knowledge of the armies, navies and air forces of the belligerents of both wars, to make models and play war-games, all without so much as a whiff of cordite. I even painted large murals of the two world wars on the walls of my primary school, complete with portraits of Churchill and Lloyd George. Only once, when the rest of my class suddenly chanted “war, war, war” because I had made one too many references to it, was I made to suffer for my hobby.

Boys like me could afford to treat war as a hobby because we thought we had got off lightly. We children of the 1950s thought of ourselves as “post-war”: too young to fight the Nazis or the Communists, too old to fight the Islamists, we were the fortunate beneficiaries of the carnage that had scarred previous generations. For us, the fascination of past conflict lay in its remoteness from our experience. For half a century the face of battle, in the late John Keegan’s phrase, was averted from our gaze. Now it is we who must avoid the Gorgon’s evil eye. We never thought that the spectre of war would return to haunt our middle age. We had not prepared our own children to fight for what we had inherited. We did not expect to see the survival of Western civilisation at stake yet again in our lifetimes, or in theirs.

The First World War had not proved to be the “war to end all war”, but the Second had come pretty close. The horror of the Holocaust, the containment of Communism, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction: these and other events conspired to deter Nato and the Warsaw Pact from fighting to the death on the plains of central Europe. True, there were many other theatres of war across the continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America; and there was never a year from 1945 to 1989 when localised conflicts, coinciding with and encompassed by hostilities between East and West, did not kill people in their thousands. The Cold War was primarily ideological rather than military: its greatest confrontations were fought out on the chessboard of diplomacy rather than the battlefield. Notwithstanding Clausewitz, however: the politics of the period was a continuation of war by other means.

Oh yes, Clausewitz: we shall all have to dust him off and read him again, for there is nobody else to make sense of the infernal logic that is now grinding back into action. The Prussian soldier with a philosophical bent—a late flower of the tradition that produced Frederick the Great and Immanuel Kant—pursues us remorselessly with his definition of war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will . . . and there is no logical limit to the application of that force”. Clausewitz will have no truck with the notion that “civilised” nations must necessarily prosecute war less destructively than others. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars had changed everything: “Bonaparte’s audacity and luck have cast the old accepted practices to the winds. Major powers were shattered with virtually a single blow.” Not only the French, but the Spanish, Russians and Prussians had “shown what an enormous contribution the heart and temper of a nation can make to the sum total of its politics, war potential, and fighting strength. Now that governments have become conscious of these resources, we cannot expect them to remain unused in the future, whether the war is fought in self-defence or in order to satisfy intense ambition.”

The prophecy of On War in 1832 has proved all too accurate over the past two centuries. In 1915, a century ago, the introduction of poison gas by the Germans at the Second Battle of Ypres marked the advent of weapons of mass destruction— an early example of the alarming alliance of science and warfare. (The chemist responsible for developing the lethal use of gas on an industrial scale was Fritz Haber, who by a terrible irony was a German Jew.) In Syria and Iraq today, chemical weapons are still being deployed by the Assad regime and ISIS indiscriminately against soldiers and civilians. The Germans tried to persuade the world that Allied accusations of “atrocities” were mere propaganda, with considerable success; and indeed the Allies soon retaliated with chemical warfare too. Among the tens of thousands who were gassed was a corporal named Adolf Hitler. Within a generation he had demonstrated that mere atrocities were obsolete, now that the new concept of “genocide” was within the power of the modern state. The “total war” invoked by Goebbels in his notorious speech at the Sportpalast in 1943—“Do you want total war?” he screamed, and the crowds roared back their approval—exceeded anything that had been seen before, but this time the Germans themselves reaped the whirlwind. By 1945, for much of humanity war had become a way of life as well as death. Nothing and nobody was sacrosanct.

In a macabre re-enactment of this hellish past, the Communist world remained locked into perpetual belligerence. Memorials, parades, conscription, training preserved the Eastern bloc in a state of permanent mobilisation. If the West offered welfare from cradle to grave, Communism offered warfare from cradle to grave. It was all done in the name of peace, but the road to the Gulag was paved with pacific intentions. Today, that pattern is visible once again. The contrast between the remilitarisation of Russia and the demilitarisation of the West has become too obvious to ignore. For the free world, martial artlessness is a source of pride; not so for those who see us as the foe. Democracies may have no enemies among their own kind, but to make disarmament the touchstone of decency ignores the existence of others who do not play by our rules. Faced by the threat of international anarchy, with predators such as Putin’s Russia and the Islamic State preying on their neighbours, the West runs the risk of repeating the mistakes that made both world wars possible and came close to costing us the Cold War too. Foremost among these mistakes is the notion that Immanuel Kant’s dream of perpetual peace can be guaranteed by global institutions as such, rather than by the nation states that created those institutions.

Nobody is immune to the wishful thinking that has led us to this pass. One of the most intelligent men of all time, Albert Einstein, dedicated much of his life to campaigning against what he called “the military mentality”. In 1932, on the eve of the Nazi takeover in Germany, the great physicist warned the West to embrace disarmament in the Leftist American magazine The Nation: “The introduction of compulsory military service is therefore, to my mind, the prime cause of the moral decay of the white race, which threatens not merely the survival of our civilisation but our very existence. This curse, along with great social blessings, started with the French Revolution, and before long dragged all the other nations in its train.” Yet what the democracies needed in the 1930s, as in our day, was not disarmament but a defence strong enough to deter aggression from whatever quarter.

After the Second World War, Einstein immediately began campaigning against the nuclear weapons that he and other scientists had created in order, as he said, “to prevent the enemies of mankind from achieving it ahead of us, which, given the mentality of the Nazis, would have meant inconceivable destruction and the enslavement of the rest of the world”. Quite rightly, he denounced the Western Allies for failing the Jews who had survived the Holocaust, especially the British: “It is sheer irony when the British Foreign Minister [Ernest Bevin] tells the poor lot of European Jews that they should remain in Europe because their genius is needed there, and, on the other hand, advises them not to try to get to the head of the queue lest they might incur new hatred and persecution. Well, I am afraid they cannot help it: with their six million dead they have been pushed to the head of the queue, of the queue of Nazi victims, much against their will.” But Einstein was wrong, utterly wrong, when he attacked the United States for its Cold War stance in a famous article on “The Military Mentality” for The American Scholar in 1947: “I must frankly confess that the foreign policy of the United States since the termination of hostilities has reminded me, sometimes irresistibly, of the attitude of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II . . . It is characteristic of the military mentality that non-human factors (atom bombs, strategic bases, weapons of all sorts, the possession of raw materials, etc.) are held essential, while the human being, his desires and thoughts—in short, the psychological factors—are considered unimportant and secondary.”

The genius Einstein was misled here by his own experience of the Nazis. He feared that America might follow his native Germany’s path to perdition; he mistook the anti-Communism of Joseph McCarthy and his ilk for fascism; and he underestimated the determination of a free country to use its military might properly. The pride of Americans in their armed forces, the fascination for their technological prowess, the mystique that surrounded the Cold War “military-industrial complex”—none of it had anything in common with the daemonic Nazi cult of war. As an intellectual, Einstein could not hide his distaste for the cultural manifestations of America’s superpower status, but with hindsight we can see that they were the mood music needed to lighten the burden of policing the world. Without the wisdom of that “greatest generation” of veterans, the United States has struggled to preserve the unity of purpose necessary to defend and nurture freedom across the globe.

But if America’s destiny is no longer manifest, Europe’s civilising mission is all but extinct. And in both cases, this has everything to do with the loss among our cultural elites of the ability to distinguish between the bellicosity of predator states and the ability of democracies to resist it. We need once again to cultivate the martial virtues, without which no civilisation is safe from barbarians. Things may have moved on in the decade since the great Harvard scholar Harvey Mansfield published a book devoted to these virtues entitled Manliness, when he was subjected to ridicule rather than serious argument. But even now the prevailing intellectual orthodoxy would reject the very idea that courage, for example, has anything to do with manliness or that the latter is even relevant in the contemporary world. The recent award of the Victoria Cross to Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey, whose incredible exploits in Afghanistan not only saved an American officer’s life but inflicted a severe defeat on the Taliban, instantly prompted death threats and obliged the authorities to protect him and his family. We no longer know how to give such heroism its due.

Einstein was wrong about America’s “military mentality” and in his day his call for a return to more pacific, if not indeed pacifist, values did not prevail. Today, it is a different story. Indeed, the arbiters of Western public opinion are so inclined to stigmatise heroism of the traditional kind that even when a film such as American Sniper (about the US Navy Seal Chris Kyle’s role in Iraq) proved to be the most successful war film in history, the reaction in Hollywood was a deafening silence. Clint Eastwood has been an ostracised figure there at least since his notorious “empty chair” speech endorsing the Republican candidate Mitt Romney, but the hostility of the glitterati has deeper roots. Eastwood is a symbol of everything that Obama’s America wants to put behind it: guns and religion, manliness and militarism, westerns and war. On both sides of the Atlantic, the only good war film is an anti-war film.

Yet this is not how Muslims see the world. There are many passages in the Koran that order Muslims to practise jihad, which can be interpreted both in the spiritual sense and in the military one. For example: “Those who believe fight in the way of God; and those who do not fight only for the powers of evil; so you should fight the allies of Satan.” The Koran is explicit about the rewards of martyrdom: “And We shall bestow on him who fights in the way of God, whether he is killed or is victorious, a glorious reward.”

For the avoidance of doubt, however, there are numerous sayings of the Prophet that make clear that he did indeed understand jihad primarily as holy war. For example, one of Muhammad’s companions, Abu Huraya, reported that he heard the Prophet say: “I have been commanded to fight against people until they testify the fact that there is no god but the God [Allah], and believe that I am the Messenger, and in all that I have brought [i.e. the Koran].” In short, Islam is anything but a pacifist faith, even if many Muslims are as reluctant to fight as anybody else. As the Koran says: “Enjoined on you is fighting, and this you abhor. You may dislike a thing, yet it is good for you.”

Muslims are still supposed to follow the example of their Prophet. In his Life of the Messenger of God, the first and most important biography of Muhammad, Ibn Ishaq recounts what happened to the Jewish tribe known as the Banu Qurayza after a month-long siege: “Then the Banu Qurayza surrendered themselves and the Messenger confined them . . . Then the Messenger went out to the market of Medina—which is still the market today—and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches. . . There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900 . . . This went on until the Messenger made an end to them.” Does this scene remind one of anything? 

The contrast could not be clearer between the belligerent, even genocidal ethos of the Islamic State, and the repudiation by many in the West of the duty to fight even in defence of allies and victims of aggression. But there is a similar contrast with the Russians, who are much readier to take casualties than their Western counterparts. According to the Sunday Times, the estimated death toll in Ukraine is now at least 15,000, including more than 5,000 Russian conscripts, volunteers and mercenaries who have been killed in the last year, not counting casualties sustained by their Ukrainian separatist allies. By comparison, the total number of American, British and Coalition troops killed in both Iraq and Afghanistan over 15 years is just over 8,000. It is obviously wrong to sacrifice thousands of lives, civilians as well as soldiers, as Putin is doing, but so far there has been little sign of a backlash against the Russian president from his own people. On the contrary: they are apparently ready to die for him. As a Ukrainian woman told me recently in tones of disgust: “The Russians deserve Putin.” Perhaps life is held so cheap in Russia because life expectancy under Putin has declined to catastrophic levels, lower even than in Haiti. But do the Ukrainians and countless others (such as those on board the Malaysian airliner shot down by a Russian missile) deserve to be on the receiving end of a warlord who seemingly values human life so little?

So the West is up against at least two adversaries who are more warlike, more ruthless and more tenacious than we are. And there are plenty of others, from Iran to North Korea. What do we think will happen if it ever comes to a trial of strength?

We may not miss the military mentality; perhaps we would rather that boys memorised the vital statistics of actresses rather than warships. But at least the post-war generation knew what war was. Today, we are more likely to echo the internationalism of Einstein, who believed that if only the United Nations had a monopoly of nuclear weapons, then perpetual peace might be within our grasp, than Clausewitz, who taught us that, if an enemy is exerting force to compel us to do his will, then we are already at war.