Philosophy Weekend: Adam Hochschild and the Serious Study of War

Existential History Politics Reviews

Adam Hochschild, a popular historian whose King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa spelled out the full story of the Belgian debacle that inspired Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, has written a powerful new book about the loose coalition of pacifists and activists that fought bitterly against England's participation in the Boer Wars and World War One a century ago. The book is called To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.

Hochschild is a rare popular historian who writes not about subjects designed to make male readers feel good about their masculinity (a visit to a bookstore's history section, after all, gives the impression that the Civil War and World War II were the only two wars ever fought) but rather about stunning or vexing episodes from our past that we know nothing about. I was not aware that there was a vigorous pacifist movement in England a hundred years ago. The invisibility of this past movement reminds me of the invisibility of the pacifist cause today, and Adam Hochschild is certainly interested in making the same connection. Here he is in the book's introductory chapter:

Where today we might see mindless killing, many of those who presided over the war's battles saw only nobility and heroism. "They advanced in line after line," recorded one British general of his men in action on that fateful July 1, 1916, at the Somme, writing in the stilted third-person usage of official reports, " ... and not a man shirked going through the extremely heavy barrage, or facing the machine-gun and rifle fire that finally wiped them out ... He saw the lines which advanced in such admirable order melting away under the fire. Yet not a man wavered, broke the ranks or attempted to come back. He has never seen, indeed could never have imagined, such a magnificent display of gallantry, discipline and determination. The reports that he had had from the very few survivors of this marvellous advance bear out what he saw with his own eyes, viz, that hardly a man of ours got to the German front line."

What was in the minds of such generals? How could they feel such a slaughter to be admirable or magnificent, worth more than the lives of their own sons? We can ask the same question of those who are quick to advocate military confrontation today, when, as in 1914, wars so often have unintended consequences.

The book begins in South Africa with the Boer Wars, which set up the expansionist tensions between England and Germany that erupted in the First World War. The pacifist movement that made England's path to war more difficult included many leading suffragettes (Charlotte Despard, Emily Hobhouse, the Pankhurst family) and socialists (Keir Hardie, Bertrand Russell). Hochschild's method in To End All Wars is to recover the human stories behind this movement, and especially to highlight the many interpersonal coincidences and contradictions -- family relationships, love affairs -- that complicated this public debate. Hochschild's portraits are vivid and his stories are gripping, but my favorite thing about his book is simply that it exists.

A year ago, kicking off this Philosophy Weekend series, I asked whether pacifism was in a coma, or whether it just seemed that way. I never doubt that the ethical question of war is the premium philosophical question of our time, and I'm sure that the human race will eventually manage to rid itself of the plague of militarism (and the all-powerful military profit motive) that pervades our world today. What we need from our writers, academics and historians today is a serious study of war. Not a record of battles, not a celebration of glory and sacrifice, but an examination of the nature of war itself, and of the intellectual and cultural threads in society that suppress common sense and enable this disease.

Any committed pacifist must feel lonely and isolated, but To End All Wars is the latest example of a major publication by a notable, award-winning author that tackles the question of pacifism directly, and with serious intent. Other recent examples include Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Kurlansky and the groundbreaking, still controversial Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker.

Is something good brewing here? Perhaps a certain awareness is spreading? I hope so. If you'd like to learn more about To End All Wars, here's a probing 40-minute Bat Segundo interview with the author, and here's an appreciative article by Christopher Hitchens that recently appeared on the cover of the New York Times Book Review.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Ayn Rand in the News (Paul Ryan, Adam Curtis). The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: In Transit.
12 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Adam Hochschild and the Serious Study of War"

by Amy on

Oh I am so excited to hear about this. I just picked up King Leopold's Ghosts to read on the Kindle FINALLY after it being on my wish list for what seems like ever. I really want to pick this one up now as well. Sounds like a great book. Thanks!

I think it was Winston Churchill who said, "History is written by the victors." I'm amazed by the ever-growing revelations about people who opposed WWI and WW2. We were brought up in this country to believe so strongly in "the good war" but there are no good wars.

On that same note, it was years after the 1979 hostage crisis before I finally learned that in 1953, the secret services of the United States and England orchestrated the overthrow of a democratically elected Prime Minister in Iran, because he didn't want to give us cheap oil and because we were afraid he would take sides with Russia. As it turns out, gas prices went up anyway and we are more-or-less friends with Russia.

by TKG on

I don't understand why you keep saying pacifists must feel lonely.

by Levi Asher on

Well, TKG, they tend to get laughed at a lot.

by mnaz on

War and poverty are like religion to us. Sacred to the species, after all these thousands of years. It would be immoral weakness and heresy for us to give them up, especially war. Most dishonorable. Pacifism is foolish blasphemy.

by TKG on

"Well, TKG, they tend to get laughed at a lot."

It depends on how pacifism is defined.

One of the interesting things about this ongoing long term discussion has been defining just what pacifism is. From this discussion I have learned that pacifism is not never ever using violence under any circumstances. I think that the extremes who say never ever is violence justified do get ridiculed "a lot" by certain groups. But, at the same time, even the extremes have a huge contingent and say. In fact I'd ostensibly lump the pre-elected Obama as being in or close to this group and say that he had the support of this group.

I'd go as far as to say that the extreme or near extreme view is so prevalent that they were able to turn the 2008 election in their support and enthusiasm for Obama.

So there's no need to feel lonely.

But on the broader level, I learned that pacifism is not that violence is never justified, but that it is that violence is not justified to settle disputes or gain .

This latter -- original intent -- pacifism is shared by virtually every American regardless of party or ideology. It is the common western belief.

In this discussion of this post, this reflects the futility of WWI. This was a war simply over disputes. So many wars were of this nature. One example of the many I can think of was the 1895 war between China and Japan. Japan wanted territory that China had claim to, so when China did not agree, Japan started a war. The war ended with the Treaty of Shimenoseki where what Japan wanted was agreed to.

Today, everyone from the biggest peace and love hippy to strongest hawk believes that war for such reasons is unjust.

We are all pacifists in that we all agree on the principle that disputes are not to be settled by violence nor is gain to be achieved by violence.

When the use of violence comes in with regard to defense, survival or protection of innocents, what justifies the use of violence is the biggest disagreement. For example Obama as Senator spoke out against and never supported the post-911 Iraq invasion to oust the Hussein regime and provide a stable Iraq. But he does support and is carrying out violence in Libya to depose another dictator.

So that is the question of what rises to the level of justified violence or force.

Most political arguments revolve around that question and differences in opinion over what is justified. For example, Bosnia was OK and Libya is OK but Iraq was not OK for many people.

Now, as for the pacifists you think are laughed at and lonely who fall in to more extreme views where violence or force is almost never or never justified, I think that they do get ridicule at times, but surely not universally.

Not fighting the Nazis would be seen as extreme in my view and by most, I think. I don't think you fall in to that category, by your own admission, Levi.

But I do think it is laughable to think that European Jews simply needed immigration papers is laughable. Due to the folly of it.

But rest assured, most everyone does hold the pacifist view. It has won out over the course of the last century.

by Levi Asher on

That makes sense, TKG -- I see where you're coming from and I'm glad you think the topic is at least worth serious discussion.

Personally, I'm not interested in what you describe as extreme pacifism. If somebody comes into my house and points a gun at me, and I've got a baseball bat in my hand, I will be swinging that bat. I don't even think there's much use debating these types of hypothetical or symbolic situations, because we've got enough real and serious situations in the world to deal with.

When I call myself a pacifist, I simply mean that I believe the practice of war between nations to be fraudulent, disastrous, self-perpetuating and unnecessary. I believe that it is not only possible but highly likely that future generations will manage to cure this societal disease, and I look forward to that day coming soon. This is the belief that gets me laughed at a lot. Regardless, I'm quite sure I'm right.

by mtmynd on

When mankind wearies of war after centuries of battling, it only makes sense to put down the arms and try a more peaceful path of understanding and compassion. Perhaps we may be fortunate enough in this millennium to see at least our world's leaders make the effort. We simply can no longer afford to kill people and blow things up without repercussions... after all, it is we the people who pay the price.

by TKG on

"I believe that it is not only possible but highly likely that future generations will manage to cure this societal disease, and I look forward to that day coming soon. This is the belief that gets me laughed at a lot."

Hi Levi, this clarifies your loneliness remark.

I'd say you are not lonely in your pacifism, you are lonely in your optimism.

I agree that many people are pessimistic about human nature and probably do scoff.

But I agree with you that it is inevitable. But the time frame is centuries.

TKG, you said WWI was "a war simply over disputes."

The thing is, most of us tend to draw an imaginary line, somewhere between antiquity and the present day, when we think about war. Few people get excited over the Huns invading Europe in 370 AD, or Julius Ceasar and the Gallic Wars, or the War of the Roses, as if those were somehow different than modern wars. Here's the difference: the Media is more prevalent, so various nations have to pretend they are doing things for the "right" reasons.

by TKG on

"...various nations have to pretend they are doing things for the "right" reasons.".

Hi, Bill,

Yes, that is the debate. Is a good reason to use force really just a subterfuge to use force for gain?

If only we could get clean hands again and then keep them clean.

If the United States had clean hands, then at least when someone attacked us, we could honestly say it was unprovoked. I'm not saying that the people in the Twin Towers deserved to die - my, God, far from it - but I'm saying that if we had bargained with all the Middle Eastern countries for oil, just as if they were Great Britain or France, in other words, treated them like we would want to be treated, we might never have had the hostage crisis in the 1970s or any of the other tragedies right up through 9-11.

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