The Gift of Reading

December 25th, 2006

This is a syndicated post, originally from Rad Geek People's Daily » Dulce Et Decorum Est.

Happy Christmas, everyone. Here’s some holiday reading, as a gift from me to you. World War I may not seem like the best topic for the season, but, well, that’s what I’ve been working on lately.

  • At Dulce Et Decorum Est today, you can read a powerful review essay by Phil Shannon, on the Soldier’s Truce of Christmas, 1914 (which I first encountered a year ago, through Kevin Carson’s blog.)

    It was the war that was supposed to be over by Christmas. It very nearly was. A spontaneous soldiers’ truce broke out along the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914, four months after the start of hostilities.

    Peace on Earth, goodwill to all men — British, French and German soldiers took these usually hypocritical Christmas sentiments for real and refused to fire on the enemy, exchanging instead song, food, drink and gifts with each other in the battle-churned wastes of no-man’s land between the trenches.

    Lasting until Boxing Day in some cases, the truce alarmed the military authorities who worked overtime to end the fraternisation and restart the killing.

    Stanley Weintraub’s haunting book on the Christmas Truce recounts through the letters of the soldiers the extraordinary event, routinely denigrated in orthodox military histories as an aberration of no consequence, but which was, argues Weintraub, not only a temporary respite from slaughter but an event which had the potential to topple death-dealing governments.

  • Some time ago, I put up a copy of Randolph Bourne’s most famous essay, The State, online at the Fair Use Repository. Lots of people had already posted extracts from The State online in all kinds of different forums (usually under the title War is the Health of the State). But as far as I know the Fair Use edition is the only complete online transcription. (The others usually omit Part II, Bourne’s analysis of American politics and the party system.)

    In any case, the more topical news is that I’ve just added two more of Bourne’s essays on the war — essays which, unlike The State, were published within Bourne’s own lifetime. These both come from his time writing for Seven Arts: The War and the Intellectuals is from June, 1917, and A War Diary is from September, 1917. Unfortunately what was true of the Sensible Liberals and New Republic columnists of 1917 could just as easily have been written last week.

    The results of war on the intellectual class are already apparent. Their thought becomes little more than a description and justification of what is already going on. They turn upon any rash one who continues idly to speculate. Once the war is on, the conviction spreads that individual thought is helpless, that the only way one can count is as a cog in the great wheel. There is no good holding back. We are told to dry our unnoticed and ineffective tears and plunge into the great work. Not only is everyone forced into line, but the new certitude becomes idealized. It is a noble realism which opposes itself to futile obstruction and the cowardly refusal to face facts. This realistic boast is so loud and sonorous that one wonders whether realism is always a stern and intelligent grappling with realities. May it not be sometimes a mere surrender to the actual, an abdication of the ideal through a sheer fatigue from intellectual suspense? The pacifist is roundly scolded for refusing to face the facts, and for retiring into his own world of sentimental desire. But is the realist, who refuses to challenge or to criticise facts, entitled to any more credit than that which comes from following the line of least resistance? The realist thinks he at least can control events by linking himself to the forces that are moving. Perhaps he can. But if it is a question of controlling war, it is difficult to see how the child on the back of a mad elephant is to be any more effective in stopping the beast than is the child who tries to stop him from the ground. The ex-humanitarian, turned realist, sneers at the snobbish neutrality, colossal conceit, crooked thinking, dazed sensibilities, of those who are still unable to find any balm of consolation for this war. We manufacture consolations here in America while there are probably not a dozen men fighting in Europe who did not long ago give up every reason for their being there except that nobody knew how to get them away.

    Randolph Bourne, The War and the Intellectuals ¶ 12

    And:

    The penalty the realist pays for accepting war is to see disappear one by one the justifications for accepting it. He must either become a genuine Realpolitiker and brazen it through, or else he must feel sorry for his intuition and be regretful that he willed the war. But so easy is forgetting and so slow the change of events that he is more likely to ignore the collapse of his case. If he finds that his government is relinquishing the crucial moves of that strategy for which he was willing to use the technique of war, he is likely to move easily to the ground that it will all come out in the end the same anyway. He soon becomes satisfied with tacitly ratifying whatever happens, or at least straining to find the grain of unplausible hope that may be latent in the situation.

    But what then is there really to choose between the realist who accepts evil in order to manipulate it to a great end, but who somehow unaccountably finds events turn sour on him, and the Utopian pacifist who cannot stomach the evil and will have none of it? Both are helpless, both are coerced. The Utopian, however, knows that he is ineffective and that he is coerced, while the realist, evading disillusionment, moves in a twilight zone of half-hearted criticism and hoping for the best, where he does not become a tacit fatalist. The latter would be the manlier position, but then where would be his realistic philosophy of intelligence and choice? Professor Dewey has become impatient at the merely good and merely conscientious objectors to war who do not attach their conscience and intelligence to forces moving in another direction. But in wartime there are literally no valid forces moving in another direction. War determines its own end—victory, and government crushes out automatically all forces that deflect, or threaten to deflect, energy from the path of organization to that end. All governments will act in this way, the most democratic as well as the most autocratic. It is only liberal naïveté that is shocked at arbitrary coercion and suppression. Willing war means willing all the evils that are organically bound up with it. A good many people still seem to believe in a peculiar kind of democratic and antiseptic war. The pacifists opposed the war because they knew this was an illusion, and because of the myriad hurts they knew war would do the promise of democracy at home. For once the babes and sucklings seem to have been wiser than the children of light.

    Randolph Bourne, A War Diary § 4

  • Third, I’ve also added a series of essays from 1915, which I discovered thanks to Carl Watner’s essay on nonviolent resistance in the most recent Journal of Libertarian Studies. The exchange began with Bertrand Russell’s The Ethics of War, which appeared in the January 1915 number of the International Journal of Ethics. Russell condemned the war and argued If the facts were understood, wars amongst civilized nations would case, owing to their inherent absurdity. (Meanwhile, in one of the more baffling parts of the essay, he did some utilitarian hand-waving to try to offer some rather despicable excuses for wars of colonization and the attendant ethnic cleansing. As usual, good anti-war instincts are betrayed by prejudice when utilitarian pseudo-calculations are allowed to intrude.) Ralph Barton Perry objected to Russell’s criticism, at least as applied to the ongoing war, in Non-Resistance and the Present War. Russell wrote two more articles. One of them a direct rejoinder to Perry, published as The War and Non-Resistance—A Rejoinder to Professor Perry in the IJE. The other, probably the best essay in the exchange, appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, under the title War and Non-Resistance. Of particular note is Section II, in which Russell considers how Britain might be defended from a foreign invasion with no army and no navy, using only the methods of non-violent passive resistance. Although Russell doesn’t quite realize it, the answer he offers amounts, in the end, to doing away with the central State and its organized machinery. With no levers of centralized power to take hold of, the invaders would find themselves in possession of little if anything. Anyway, it’s well worth a read.

Read, and enjoy.

May your holidays be full of light and warmth, joy in fellowship, comfort, and peace.

[Read the original at Rad Geek People's Daily » Dulce Et Decorum Est (2006-12-25)...]

In Heavenly Peace: The Christmas Truce, 1914

December 25th, 2006

I first read this review essay a year ago, when Kevin Carson posted it at Mutualist Blog.

The Soldiers’ Truce

Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce
By Stanley Weintraub
The Free Press, 2001
206 pages, $39.95 (hb)

It was the war that was supposed to be over by Christmas. It very nearly was. A spontaneous soldiers’ truce broke out along the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914, four months after the start of hostilities.

Peace on Earth, goodwill to all men — British, French and German soldiers took these usually hypocritical Christmas sentiments for real and refused to fire on the enemy, exchanging instead song, food, drink and gifts with each other in the battle-churned wastes of no-man’s land between the trenches.

Lasting until Boxing Day in some cases, the truce alarmed the military authorities who worked overtime to end the fraternisation and restart the killing.

Stanley Weintraub’s haunting book on the Christmas Truce recounts through the letters of the soldiers the extraordinary event, routinely denigrated in orthodox military histories as an aberration of no consequence, but which was, argues Weintraub, not only a temporary respite from slaughter but an event which had the potential to topple death-dealing governments.

With hundreds of thousands of casualties since August from a war bogged down in the trenches and mud of France, soldiers of all countries were tired of fighting. There had already been some pre-Christmas truces to bury the dead rotting in no-man’s land but these truces had needed the approval of higher authority.

Soon, however, few would care about higher authority as an unauthorised and illegal truce bubbled up from the ranks.

The peace overtures generally began with song. From German trenches illuminated by brightly lit Christmas trees would come a rich baritone voice or an impromptu choir singing Silent Night (Stille Nacht). Other carols and songs floated back and forth over the barbed wire. A German boot tossed into the British trenches exploded with nothing more harmful than sausages and chocolates. Signs bearing Merry Christmas were hung over the trench parapets, followed by signs and shouts of you no shoot, we no shoot.

The shared Christmas rituals of carols and gifts eased the fear, suspicion and anxiety of initial contact as first a few unarmed soldiers, arms held above their heads, warily ventured out into the middle to be followed soon by dozens of others, armed only with schnapps, pudding, cigarettes and newspapers.

The extraordinary outbreak of peace swept along the entire front from the English Channel to the Switzerland border. Corporal John Ferguson, from the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders shared the pleasant disbelief — Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill.

Uniform accessories (buttons, insignias, belts) were swapped as souvenirs. Christmas dinner was shared amongst the bomb craters. A Londoner in the 3rd Rifles had his hair cut by a Saxon who had been his barber in High Holborn. Helmets were swapped as mixed groups of soldiers posed for group photographs.

Some British soldiers were taken well behind German lines to a bombed farmhouse to share the champagne from its still intact cellar. Soccer matches were played in no-man’s land with stretchers as goalposts. Bicycle races were held on bikes with no tyres found in the ruins of houses. A German soldier captivated hundreds with a display of juggling and magic. You would have thought you were dreaming, wrote captain F. D. Harris to his family in Liverpool.

The high command ordered the line command to stop the fraternisation. Few line officers did or could. The truce momentum could not be arrested. Deliberate or accidental breaches of the tacit truce failed to undermine it. Stray shots were resolved by an apology. If ordered to shoot at unarmed soldiers, soldiers aimed deliberately high.

Sergeant Lange of the XIX Saxon Corps recounted how, when ordered on Boxing Day to fire on the 1st Hampshires, they did so, spending that day and the next wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky. By firing in the air, as the sergeant noted with approval, they had struck, like the class-conscious workers they were in civilian life. They had had enough of killing.

Military authorities feared fraternisation — a court-martial offence, punishable by death, it weakens the will to kill, destroys the offensive spirit, saps ideological fervour and undermines the sacrificial spirit necessary to wage war. It was politically subversive — A bas la guerre! (Down with the war!) from a French soldier was returned with Nie wieder Kreig! Das walte Gott! (No more war! It’s what God wants!) from his Bavarian counterpart.

After mucking-in with British soldiers, a German private wrote that never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war.

Soldiers reasserted their shared humanity — Private Rupert Frey of the Bavarian 16th Regiment wrote after fraternising with the English that normally we only knew of their presence when they sent us their iron greetings. Now, we gathered, as if we were friends, as if we were brothers. Well, were we not, after all!.

If ordinary soldiers acted on these sentiments, a big danger loomed for governments and the ruling class. If left to themselves, the soldiers would have been home from the shooting war by Christmas all fired up for the class war at home. As Weintraub says, many troops had discovered through the truce that the enemy, despite the best efforts of propagandists, were not monsters. Each side had encountered men much like themselves, drawn from the same walks of life — and led, alas by professionals who saw the world through different lenses.

Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes creator, who had turned from jingoistic imperialism to spiritualism after the death of his son in the war, shot an angry glance to military and civil authority — those high-born conspirators against the peace of the world, who in their mad ambition had hounded men on to take each other by the throat rather than by the hand.

The high command on both sides were desperate to restart the war that had strangely vanished. Replacement troops with no emotional commitment to the truce were rushed in. The 2nd Welsh Fusiliers who had not fired a shot from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day were relieved without notice, an exceptional practice. Sometimes threats were necessary — when German officers ordered a regiment in the XIX Saxon Corps to start firing and were met with replies of we can’t — they are good fellows, the officers replied Fire, or we do — and not at the enemy!.

To prevent further spontaneous truces after 1914, the British high command ordered slow, continuous artillery barrages, trench raids and mortar bombardments — immensely costly of lives but effectively limiting the opportunities for fraternisation for the rest of the war. To discourage others, conspicuous disciplinary examples were made of individuals. For organising a cease-fire to bury the dead, which was followed by half an hour of fraternisation in no-man’s land with no shooting for the rest of Christmas Day 1915, Captain Iain Colquhoun of the 1st Scots Guard was court-martialled. Merely reprimanded, the message was nevertheless clear for career-minded British officers.

Tougher medicine was needed when French soldiers refused to return to the trenches at Aisne in May 1917 — 3427 courts-martial and 554 death sentences with 53 executed by firing squad were necessary to crank-start the war on this sector of the French front.

Repression from above won the day against the Christmas Truce of 1914 but it was the lack of soldiers’ organisation from below that stifled the potential for turning the truce into a movement to stop the war.

On the eastern front, on the other hand, fraternisation and peace were Bolshevik policy and in Germany, it was mutinies by organised sailors and home-based soldiers, which finally put paid to Germany’s war effort.

Weintraub has resurrected a beautiful moment in history, made all the more beautiful in the darkness of the carnage that was to follow when four more years of war took the lives of 6000 men a day. Far from a two-day wonder, the Christmas truce evokes a stubborn humanity within us. As folksinger John McCutcheon put it in his 1980s ballad Christmas in the Trenches, the war monster is a vulnerable beast when the common soldier realises that on each end of the rifle we’re the same.

reviewed by Phil Shannon (2002)
for Green Left Weekly, February 13, 2002