Saturday, 5 April 2014

In Defence of War

I mentioned before that I was reading this book (Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War (2013) Oxford: OUP), but that was in the context of thinking about callous generals, and how, in actually planning and managing the battle, generals have to be callous, even if the rest of the time they can look after their men rather well.

I have now finished the volume, and I am not going to review it, particularly, here. It is a good book, focussing on the just war tradition in the west and whether recent conflicts measure up. These include Kosovo, Iraq and World War One. Biggar considers whether international law requires a UN Security Council resolution, for example, and discusses what happens if the Security Council is politically divided but some states still want to take action.

So, this is a very interesting book, but not, on the face of it, one for wargamers. However, Biggar does observe that the default position in political and social circles today is that of effective, if not actual, pacifism. The initial response of governments, particularly in the west, is that of finding the path of peace, of negotiation, of sanctions and certainly criticising governments that do, in the end, go to war.

As I have mentioned before, this has also been seen in the arguments over the teaching of the First World War. Was it heroic British Empire forces saving Europe from the dark hordes, or was it a simply error on the part of the political classes which led to the pointless waste of blood in the carnage of the Flanders trenches?

Biggar, in fact, spends a little time in the book discussing the causes of the First World War, and comes down on the side of modern German historiography that, in fact, the whole war was, in significant degree, orchestrated from Berlin and that the British Empire did have legitimate reasons for declaring war, both practically (having the southern Channel coast held by a weak nation like Belgium was in the national interest) and legally (the 1839 treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality was still in force).

Still, the interesting bit of the book for me as a wargamer is the idea that pacifism is the norm in modern cultural and political circles. Biggar spends some time discussing both faith based pacifism (John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas) and secular pacifism (David Rodin). In fact, he spends much of the time tackling the latter. However, it is the bigger question which interests me here, and that is the fact that if Biggar is right, it might go some way to explaining some of the immediate hostility and incomprehension that we can experience in response to the statement ‘I am a wargamer’.

Here I have to depart a bit from what Biggar is interested in, so what follows is not critique of the book, but my own views. Firstly, we have to note that the Christian just war tradition requires just authority to declare a war and use violent coercion.

Up until the mid-nineteenth century, this was, in general, not a problem. The authority was the sovereign, and wars were declared by them were, by that very fact, just. The actual justice of the cause was, thereby, fairly irrelevant. There was a mystique about government; those who governed were those who were born to do so, trained through a lifetime to make governmental decisions and, hence, had a right to declare war, negotiate peace and intervene in nations far away.

The coming of democracy did, in the end, make a difference to this idea. Government was, no longer a mysterious process worked out in (in the UK anyway) Whitehall corridors and gentlemen’s clubs. In part, of course, this was a result of the wars made under the old regime. Monarchs had to get money to fund the wars from somewhere, and that meant their people and, as the people realised this, representative government became more widespread and started to look more dimly on monarchs and their creatures going to war for dynastic purposes.

I generalise, but only a bit.

Anyway, with the coming of democracy it became rather harder to declare war on other countries, and, as it turned out, with increasing technology and communications, it became a lot more expensive in men and money to go to war. Furthermore, wars went on for longer, requiring new taxes (income tax in the UK was a temporary measure brought in, I believe, during the Napoleonic Wars. It is still going. Napoleon has a lot to answer for).

The experience of the carnage of the First World War, along with a lot of dubious propaganda about it in the late 1920’s, led political life to turn away from the idea of war as a good bit of international relations, and it took the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich to persuade people otherwise.

Of course, after the Second World War and the arrival of nuclear weapons, lots of people started to (quite rightly) get worried that a conventional shooting war could quickly turn into a nuclear war if one of the powers involved was losing and had access to nuclear weapons. No-one, after all, really wants to conquer a nuclear wasteland, but if the excuse is to stop a brutal regime conquering my own innocent country and this was the only way to do it, there is some justification for the response.

So it is against this sort of background that, I think, pacifism has become the public norm, and hence, against which wargamers live. War is regarded as being a failure of politics (even when the other side refuses to negotiate meaningfully) and, while it may still be an acceptable last resort, it is not the sort of thing that nice, middle class people like to think about.

Wargamers are, therefore, suspect, because we do think about it rather a lot, even if, as is sometimes the case, our thinking about it pushes us towards the pacifist end of the spectrum. But, in the eyes of society as a whole, it does seem to make us look rather odd.


  1. Again, an excellent and stimulating post. Agree that war gamers are likely to think about war more than yer average punter, but there are people - even as we speak - baying about bombing the Russians out of Crimea and similar, and I doubt if any of them are war gamers, so there are more peculiar fringe groups than us.

    I'm still struggling with the idea of a just war - not with the existence of such a concept, but with the subjectivity which dominates our thoughts about it. A lot depends, obviously, on which side you are/were on, but there is also the important element of who won - last time, the time before etc. The world we inhabit is the accumulation of all history to this point, which means it directly reflects the complete roll-up of who won and whose philosophy prevailed n successive ages. If Germany had won WW2 (not impossible) then obviously i have no idea what would have happened thereafter, but one possible outcome is that our education, our upbringing, loyalties and views on life in general would not be what they are now. The history we would have been taught would have been written and edited by the winners - my idea of a just war, however much of a clever and humane chap I might like to think I am, is a product of the current state of things. This is true even if i am directly opposed to the status quo.

    I have been in trouble for making such suggestions before, so I will tread carefully here. It is not a huge step from living in a world where the history of (e.g) the British Empire is taught as just and correct and worthy to an alternate world where the history of a dominant Nazi (or Communist) regime is accepted in the same way. I am not - I emphasise - offering a vindication of any of these.

    The normality on which we base our judgements is the direct descendant of the things which went before, many of which must have been neither just nor (to coin a word) good.

    Sorry - that was a waffle - I agree with your post.

    1. I guess there are always people who think that the easiest way to solve a problem is to bomb someone. Usually it turns out that the original problem does not go away, merely gets covered over by lots of other problems.

      I think that the just war theory (or theories - everyone has a slightly different formulation) is attempting to get away from 'my country right or wrong' reasoning of going to war, and to provide some objective criteria to evaluate the justice or otherwise of the course of action.

      Of course, this tends to shift the argument down a level or so, to the debate, perhaps, about what constitutes an appropriate authority to declare war.

      One of the interesting things about the just war is that international law is based upon it (at least so far as conflict goes) and mostly powers try to at least pay lip-service to it, even though it is a tradition firmly rooted in the Judaeo-Christian west.

      Obviously, a lot does depend on you context in terms of history and the present. But by providing abstract measures of justness, the just war tradition does attempt to provide a brake on some of the sillier reasons for going to war.

      Not that this stops wars, you understand, but it does make politicians work a bit harder to justify their decisions.