Tuesday, May 29, 2012

David Henderson's Memorial Day Thoughts

David Henderson links to my last post and provides some great thoughts of his own on Memorial Day here. He quotes extensively from Richard Timberlake. I agree strongly with the last two passages he cites, and I have some minor quibbles with the first two passages. Let's start with the first two.

Timberlake writes:

"All of my fellow airmen and I knew that Hitler and his henchmen were atrocious and loathsome examples of the human race. Yet, any U.S. soldier or airman who thought even briefly about his job of trying to kill and destroy 'the enemy,' knew that he was not within range of damaging Hitler and other Nazi leaders. We could not reach their personal environments or influence their decisions; our activities were many magnitudes removed from hurting them. We could only chip away at the peripheries of their domain and hope that they would realize the futility and fallacy of their ways. To do so, we had to try and kill our enemy counterparts with whom we had no personal quarrel at all. We aimed our bombs at their strategic war-making industries and infrastructure, but in the process we knew that we could not avoid hitting churches, schools, and innocent people. Many of us thought that a better way must exist. Fifty-six years later, I still think so."

This reminds me of the opening passage of George Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn (1941): "As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life."

These are important realizations, but my concern is that Timberlake is defining down the "job" of soldiers in WWII. So long as German soldiers were destroying and violating peoples we felt a duty to protect, it seems to me it's not appropriate at all to say that the "job" was just to kill Hitler and the Nazi leaders. The "job" was to stop German soldiers from destroying Europe and bringing it under Hitler's control. The soldiers may have been pawns. I met two German soldiers (they were on the Eastern front) when I visited Hamburg and they seemed like good people to me. They probably were pawns. But the point is this nice old man I talked to in Hamburg invaded Poland and Russia before he was in turn driven back by the Russians. It's all well and good to recognize that a lot of these men are "good men", but so long as these "good men" are invading Poland it seems to me the job is considerably broader than assassinating Hitler, right? The same goes with the Orwell quote. Orwell is exactly right. Many of the German bombers were probably good men. But those good men are dropping bombs at your head that makes them men that you have reasonable cause for aiming a gun at. In fact for Londoners that job arguably takes priority over assassinating Hitler, at least for the duration of the raid.

It's for this reason that I have quibbles with the second Timberlake quote too: "War is the mutual destruction of capital, both human and non-human." Again, I think this reduces war to so little that it risks skewing sound analysis. This makes it sound completely irrational and reckless. But that's not usually how wars work. Wars don't come about when two leaders say "hey, you want to have our young men get together and beat the shit out of each other today?". They happen because belligerents act first and others respond with force - NOT in order to destroy capital - but precisely to prevent the destruction of capital. This is what frustrates me about pacificists who cite the costs of war as a reason for their pacificism. They need to consider the counterfactual. Is it right or moral to take a policy of indifference towards marauding and mass killing? No, that doesn't seem right at all to me. So we are in this tough place where there are high costs on both sides of the choice. It's an terrible choice, but the point is it's not an easy choice the way pacifists always try to make it.

Of course, both Timberlake and Orwell are still basically right, which is precisely why war is so awful. Henderson is not a pacifist and I'm not either so we both recognize that given the realities of human nature its appropriate to maintain and use a military, and honor those who serve in it. In WWII, defining the belligerents was easy - and I think as a result defining the German soldier as an "enemy" (not just the Nazi leaders) should have been fairly easy too. Other historical cases (and contemporary cases!) are not so clean cut.

This frames the last two quotes which I agree with 100%:

"Finally, in their external affairs governments must resist any temptation to intervene in the affairs of other peoples. It takes a government to wage a war. So governments must take the same oath of nonintervention - live-and-let-live - with other governments as each individual observes with other individuals. The model for this point-of-view is the political system the Founding Fathers put together when they wrote the Constitution of the United States."


"Surely, if societies owe anything to the veterans of former wars and the innocent soldiers and people destroyed in these catastrophes, it is a responsibility to avoid further warfare by every practicable means. So far as I can see from my vantage point, societies and governments are not following my simple prescription - or any other effective strategy - for preventing wars of all varieties. In not doing so, they are betraying the trust that my wartime colleagues, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and I reposed in them."


  1. I disagree with one part. I think that the idea of war as the destruction of capital makes it sound incredibly rational and bloodless.

    I also think you are misreading the quote by talking about it in political terms. In military terms I think it captures the essence of war quite nicely since it implies a kind of momentum necessary in war that framing war in terms of defending capital doesn't quite capture.

  2. I think that many in Europe, especially in the East, *learned* to see the German soldier as his enemy, and for the most part rightly.

  3. "They happen because belligerents act first and others respond with force"

    A blanket statement I assume many might agree with -- what people I suspect don't agree upon is the "belligerent" starting point

    "external belligerence" it may be argued -- created conditions ripe for Hitler emergence -- a response to belligerence?

    "NOT in order to destroy capital - but precisely to prevent the destruction of capital"

    "no" one is setting to destroy capital many are setting out to redistribute capital -- the destruction of capital is a consequence DK

  4. Finally, in their external affairs governments must resist any temptation to intervene in the affairs of other peoples.

    Your kidding, right.

    Memorial Day is the new April Fool's day, right.

    To the contrary, the purpose of government is to intervene in the affairs of other peoples. Go read a little Churchill.

    WWII, for example, who not have happened had the Allies intervened in the affairs of other peoples.

    1. I didn't necessarily read "resist" as saying "entirely abandon". As I pointed out, I'm no pacifist. But I do think we should try to resist war.


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