War and Peace

A.J.P. Taylor

  • Humanity in Warfare: the Modern History of the International Law of Armed Conflicts by Geoffrey Best
    Weidenfeld, 400 pp, £15.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 297 77737 8
  • Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945: the Defining of a Faith by Martin Caedel
    Oxford, 342 pp, £12.50, August 1980, ISBN 0 19 821882 6

War has been throughout history the curse and inspiration of mankind. The sufferings and destruction that accompany it rival those caused by famine, plague and natural catastrophes. Yet in nearly every civilisation war has been the noblest of professions, and among the heroes of every age those distinguished in war have always ranked first, as a visit to St Paul’s Cathedral will bear witness. In many civilisations, war has been a once-for-all affair: the conquest of neighbouring territory or the repulse of an invader. In some, however, war between contending states has gone on for generations – the Times of Trouble, in Toynbee’s phrase. Ancient Greece experienced such a Time, and there followed one of the first attempts to limit the sufferings of war, as the Olympic Games indicate. But the Greek wars were not ended by moderation and wise agreement. They were ended by the Roman conquest, which provided one solution to the problem of war: the establishment of a single dominant power that subdued or eliminated all other contenders.

Europe, too, has known attempts at a single universal state from the early days of the Holy Roman Empire to the brief domination of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. But broadly speaking European history has been a continual Time of Troubles, interrupted by occasional periods of armed peace. The realisation that war was here to stay produced a unique development in European thought: attempts to eliminate war altogether, or, if these failed, to lessen its horrific consequences. The first type of attempt lay behind the medieval pursuit of ‘the just war’, a pursuit as elusive as that of the Holy Grail. For it is almost universally true that in war each side thinks itself in the right, and there is no arbiter except victory to decide between them. Until recently, most historians have endorsed this verdict by applauding the victory or blessing the cause of their own state. Thus English historians saw little to question in the plundering raids of Henry V or even of William the Conqueror. French historians saw little to question in the Empire of Napoleon. The jus ad bellum has proved a will o’ the wisp, though still actively pursued by some. The lesser attempt to moderate or even to civilise war has been more rewarding. This jus in bello is the topic of Geoffrey Best’s fascinating book, a volume replete with scholarship and brilliant presentation.

Moderate or civilised wars can only operate within certain limitations. They are almost impossible when there is a conflict of creeds as well as of state power. The wars of religion or the crusade against the Albigensians were as savage as the wars of ancient Rome. Even the most civilised powers observe the rules only when at war with another civilised power. The British did not observe the rules when they blew Indian mutineers from the mouths of cannon. The Americans did not observe the rules when at war with the Red Indians, and of course the Red Indians also did not observe them. In fact, the laws of war were until recently confined to Europe, though Best ends by chronicling the present-day attempts to extend them more widely.

In more precise terms, the laws of war began when the European states contended over their respective ambitions, not over their fundamental beliefs, religious or political. Vattel was their acknowledged father. He sought for laws that the antagonists could accept without forfeiting their chance of victory. Ideally, wars should be conducted between professional armies without injury or disturbance to the civil population. Rousseau carried this view to extremes when he wrote: ‘War, then, is not a relationship between man and man, but between State and State, in which private persons are only enemies accidentally.’ Most theorists were more moderate and recognised that the laws of war must sometimes bow to ‘necessity’. Indeed, far from necessity knowing no law, it became itself part of the law. Thus the soldier should not loot or plunder but he cannot be required to respect hen roosts when he is hungry. The bombardment of a town is deplorable but may be necessary in order to enforce its surrender, though only the necessary minimum should be used. Despite these exceptions, the Enlightened 18th century did pretty well with the laws of war. Armies carried their commissariat train with them instead of living off the countryside. Destruction was not operated for its own sake. There was little attempt to shake the morale of the civilian population. Combatants wore recognised uniforms and did not prolong a hopeless resistance.

There was one curious flaw which exasperated continental Europeans. This was the problem of how far the rules of war applied at sea. The continentals held that they should be applied unchanged. The British argued that the differing maritime circumstances fundamentally affected the laws of war. For instance, bombardments of towns were to be deplored but how else could the Royal Navy employ its strength against a land power?

Still graver was the problem of blockade. Continentals were clear as to the answer: neutral ships and neutral goods must be respected unless they were ‘absolute’ contraband. The British did not share this view. For them, blockade was a weapon with which to strangle an enemy and the rights of neutrals were of little account. This rigorous attitude weakened a little when Great Britain was faced with a powerful league of Armed Neutrality. But it was a hint of greater difficulties that were to arise in the future.

The French Revolution signalled the breakdown of Enlightenment in the laws of war as in other matters, though its original intention was the precise opposite. The early revolutionaries certainly aspired to spread their example abroad, but they imagined that the instruments of liberation would be Jacobin chants and floral wreathes rather than muskets and cannon. Even when forced to fight they insisted that their antagonists were few: ‘war to the castles, peace to the collages’. But who were to pay the liberators? Revolutionary France could not do so with its finances in chaos. The liberated peoples must pay. Soon the revolutionary armies were expected to work at a profit. Add to this the revolutionary strategy of speed, carried to its highest point by Napoleon. There was no time to waste on commissariat trains. The French armies lived off the country and often did very well out of it.

These revolutionary wars lessened and in time almost obliterated the distinction between soldiers and civilians. The Jacobins proclaimed ‘the nation in arms’. How then could the civilian claim immunity? Things grew still more troublesome when civilians in the shape of partisans or guerrillas took up arms themselves. In Spain, for instance, the French attempted to treat all partisans as criminals, an action they repeated in Russia. The British took the same attitude in 1798 when they accorded to the French invaders of Ireland the honours of war and massacred the Irish rebels whom the French had come to liberate. Even those such as the British in Spain who were in alliance with partisans agreed afterwards that this was an episode better forgotten.

Neutrals came off as badly as civilians. Nelson’s assault on Copenhagen in 1801 brought him almost as much honour as the battle of Trafalgar. Two years after his death the Danes had their fleet ruthlessly snatched away from them. During the French wars the British blockade gradually eroded the securities for neutral trade established during the 18th century. This culminated in the Anglo-American war of 1812-14, a war fought, ironically enough, after the British had conceded the main point at issue. Once more the British appealed to necessity: relying on maritime power, it was necessary for them to do things which land powers did not need to do – though Napoleon also disregarded neutral rights and imposed a fictitious blockade. By the end of the Napoleonic wars neutral rights had almost ceased to exist.

More fundamentally, the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars demonstrated that the laws of war demanded some basis of common principles if they were to operate successfully. The Jacobins despised their enemies as tyrants. The tyrants responded by treating the Jacobins as subverters of civilisation. Napoleon was given a half-hearted welcome as the restorer of law and order. But the victorious Powers showed their true opinion of Napoleon when they proclaimed him the enemy of mankind. Even so, it is surprising how much of the laws of war survived the impact of the French Revolution. Prisoners-of-war were still taken and were interned, usually under tolerable conditions. Flags of truce were generally respected and it was thought immoral to use them deceptively as a stratagem of war. The laws of blockade continued to provide matter for argument even if the British preferred maritime power to high principles. Enlightenment and Revolution produced conflicting impacts – a legacy that Geoffrey Best has analysed with admirable clarity and frankness.

For forty years after the Napoleonic wars the laws of war did not advance. Their renewal came with the Congress of Paris in 1856, perhaps because the Congress had nothing better to do. The Congress celebrated the end of a war predominantly on land by wrestling with the laws of war at sea, a topic where even the British representatives proved for once slightly conciliatory. From the Congress of Paris stemmed further international discussions culminating in the two Peace Conferences at The Hague. Despite this accumulation of pointless oratory and ingenious drafting, the greatest advance in the laws of war ever made was the achievement of one man, Henri Dunant, seconded by that impractical dreamer, Napoleon III. The Red Cross began with individual initiative and was continued by it. Great Powers did not sponsor the Red Cross: they succumbed to it until it became as acceptable an element of international society as war itself. Further, the Red Cross did not grow out of the existing laws of war: it imposed itself upon them.

What was the cause of this universal acceptance? Did each Power see advantage for itself in the Red Cross? Did the principles of humanity and civilisation for once triumph? There is no easy answer. Certainly the triumph was not repealed elsewhere. Geoffrey Best again shows his powers of exposition as he traces the advance in the laws of war during the 19th century. Certainly there was a more conscious and official application to the subject than there had been earlier. During the Enlightenment, aloof philosophers enunciated general principles which each state and each soldier, almost, was expected to work out in practice for himself. The 19th century saw the arrival of the international lawyer, of whom the Russian Martens was the chief. Martens would have liked to formulate laws of war which should be at once wise and acceptable. In practice, this meant discovering laws that should have at least some humanity in them and that would despite this be tolerated by the military. The intellectual agility required to produce this was confined almost to Martens alone. The various conferences laboured productively. But there was always the shadow of ‘necessity’, sharply raised whenever the military saw some encroachment on their powers.

Broadly, the laws of war improved most in their application to actual fighting on land, which took on almost the medieval character of armed combat under chivalrous conditions. There was less advance over the problems that had arisen during the Napoleonic wars: requisitions, reprisals, partisans and the treatment of civilians. The practices of the Royal Navy suffered further encroachments, even though Fisher dismissed them as ‘non-sense’ which would be ‘ditched’ if war came. The European legalists averted their eyes from bombardment as practised by the British at Alexandria, and still more from the Union operations in the American Civil War, particularly Sherman’s demonstration to the inhabitants of the South that War was Hell.

The laws of war improved more in appearance than in reality. For, as Geoffrey Best points out, there were two flourishing movements during the 19th century: the Peace Movement, which everyone noticed and commended, and the War Movement, which many people ignored and which yet proved more powerful. Best has found a wonderful quotation from Joseph Conrad, who described the Hague Tribunal as ‘a solemnly official recognition of the Earth as a House of Strife’. Conrad continued: ‘War has made peace altogether in its own image; a martial, overbearing, war-lord sort of peace ... eloquent with allusions to glorious feats of arms’.

The 19th century formulated the laws of war; the 20th century was expected to apply them. Geoffrey Best discusses in his powerful concluding chapter how far this has proved true. The answers, drawn from both world wars, are contradictory. The laws have been best observed in fighting between regular land forces, particularly on the Western Front and in such ‘professional’ areas as North Africa. It seems that soldiers have higher standards when they are not being criticised and provoked by civilians. On the Eastern Front Soviet Russia observed the laws of war more nearly than did Nazi Germany, despite allegations to the contrary. The laws of war came off less happily at sea and in the air. This sprang partly from the British reversion to the ruthless application of blockade which she had developed in earlier wars. The deeper cause was the development of weapons of war which could not be covered by the existing laws.

The first of these, already effective in the First World War, was the submarine, which, as the Germans showed, had to sink its victims without warning if it were to operate successfully. The Germans pleaded that they were retaliating to the British blockade. The true situation was that the submarine had been projected as an additional naval weapon and that its role as a commerce-destroyer had not been foreseen. This was even truer of the Zeppelin, which first set the practice, however ineffectually, of indiscriminate bombardment. This problem was exacerbated with the arrival of bombing aircraft. Best makes two striking remarks about air experiences in the First World War. The first is that Trenchard enunciated the doctrine of indiscriminate bombardment, quite without practical experience. The second is that the Royal Naval Air Service developed precision bombing during its short life. This achievement was subsequently ignored, partly as impractical and partly as being not aggressive or terrifying enough.

Best continues the problems of air warfare when he reaches the Second World War. Here the Trenchard legacy came to fruition. It is often not appreciated that indiscriminate or area bombing was a British speciality. The American Air Force disliked it; the German Luftwaffe operated it sceptically and reluctantly. British obsession with area bombing was an extension of British reliance on blockade – the weapon of a power reluctant to develop a great army. Best traces Sir Arthur Harris’s persistent and unjustified defence of area bombardment, which culminated in the unnecessary attack on Dresden in 1945 – not that this attack was any more reprehensible than earlier attacks except that it came towards the end of the war. Air warfare as practised during the Second World War, and particularly with its last achievements at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, left two profound holes in the restraining laws of war: the first that indiscriminate destruction, however horrible, was a legitimate means of war; the second that with ‘the nation at war’ there was no longer any distinction between the military and and civilians and that therefore civilians were legitimate targets. The same moral was drawn from the extension of partisan warfare, which led to the conclusion that every civilian who was not a collaborator of the invaders was a concealed or potential partisan, a moral the partisan forces applied the other way round. The logical consequence was that every inhabitant of a conquered country should be massacred or at the very least dispatched to slave labour, as the Germans demonstrated.

And so Best arrives at the present day. There have been even more conferences and regulations. The profession of international lawyer is more active than ever. There are two black clouds. The first is air warfare, which with the development of nuclear weapons transgresses all the laws of war ever known. The second is the attempt to extend the laws of war to cover colonial revolts or social revolutions, an attempt further confused by the Marxist insistence that Marxist acts of violence are always right and resistance to these acts always wrong. Despite these portents, Best remains mildly optimistic. He welcomes the persistent discussion of the laws of war as evidence that there is some desire to limit and restrain armed conflicts. He even hints a hone that this desire may be fulfilled. To my mind, the experiences of the past eighty years are not encouraging. Fortunately, the past is not always a guide to the future.

The experts in the laws of war claimed to be practical men, resigned to the fact that war, somewhat humanised, would go on for a long time, if not for ever. The search for an end to war has been of more recent origin, being almost confined to Great Britain during the last hundred years, with some echoes in the United States. Martin Caedel approaches this search with a sharp distinction between pacificism (a word which he claims to have borrowed from me and which I gladly lend him) and pacifism. Pacificists are those who favour peaceful foreign policies and who seek to develop international institutions for the promotion of peace. Pacifism in its pure form is a total rejection of war as an instrument of policy.

The distinction is clear to Caedel and will be clear to his readers. It has been less clear in the historical record. Pacifism is the older, in that there have always been a few men who refused to take part in war, but this was an individual gesture of abstention and not a contribution to solving the problem of war. The early Christians refused to serve in the Roman armies, but this sprang from their refusal to accord divine honours to the Emperor. Once they could serve under the sign of the Cross the Christians fought vigorously enough, not only against pagans and barbarians, but against each other.

Modern pacificism was part of the humanitarian outlook which characterised the philanthropists of the 19th century: peaceful aims went along with anti-slavery and prison reform. Quakers tended to take up a pacifist position, but this did not prevent their becoming advocates of a peaceful policy. A Quaker delegation visited Nicholas I at St Petersburg in an attempt to prevent the Crimean War. John Bright opposed that war in his greatest speeches, but he was clearly not a pacifist: he supported the armed suppression of the Indian Mutiny and applauded the Union victory in the American Civil War. With Great Britain not involved in a European war for nearly a century, the question for humanitarians was not, ‘What do we do in the event of war?’ but: ‘How do we discourage or prevent war elsewhere?’

There was a further obstacle to the development of a clear-cut pacifism in Great Britain: even when at war, as in the Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902, Great Britain fought with professional volunteer forces. The potential pacifist did not have to resolve what he would do if called upon to fight. On the contrary, his difficulty was to find outlets for his humanitarianism either by providing medical services or by conducting political agitation against the policy and operations of war. The pro-Boers were often stigmatised as pacifists, but it is clear that they were nothing of the kind, and Lloyd George, one of the most assertive pro-Boers, became later an outstanding war minister. Caedel is therefore right in taking the outbreak of war in August 1914 as the starting-point for his theme: pacifism in Britain. Even so, the emergence of pacifism remained obscure.

Caedel is pretty firm in dealing with those who opposed the First World War as being a mistaken policy or even as fought against the wrong enemy. The Union of Democratic Control was clearly not pacifist. But what about the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which Caedel specifies as ‘quietist’? Even the No-Conscription Fellowship began as a political movement to oppose the legislative introduction of conscription, and continued on a practical basis after conscription operated. Conscription certainly made some people ask themselves whether they were pacifists or merely high-minded. There were few clear responses. Only 16,500 of those called up pleaded conscientious objection; only 6,000 of these refused to accept the tribunal’s verdict, and only 1,298 of these resisted ‘absolutely’. Nor were even the absolutists all of a kind. Some were religious pacifists; some were humanitarian pacifists. But a number were solely against the Great War which was raging: some as socialists, some as critics of British foreign policy, some as defenders of individual liberty. The experiences of war strengthened the confusion: conscientious objectors did not inquire into the theoretical basis on which the conviction of their comrades rested. All could be numbered as opponents of war, from the pure pacifist to the Marxist champion of war on the barricades.

The confusion which had developed during the Great War increased when the war was over. Many who had been combatants now regarded the war as mistaken in either its aims or its conduct or perhaps both together. Caedel analyses this confusion with admirable clarity. Perhaps he is a little too rigorous. The man who defines his convictions with absolute accuracy is very rare and rarest of all in the world of politics. Caedel tends to imply that all such confusions are foolish, and that pacifists and near-pacifists are peculiarly prone to them. Indeed, there is even a hint that those who reject the methods and arguments of pacifism are eminently sane – a strange view. How are we to describe the rulers of great states and their technical advisers who propose to defend civilisation by blowing the peoples and cities of the world to pieces? ‘Sane’ is not a word that would occur to me.

The 1920s were the heyday of pacificism and pacifism in a tangle. The former absolutists did not reproach those who had served in the war, and these latter for the most part did not reproach the absolutists. Many who had preached and even practised individual rejection felt that this was too self-centred and co-operated with others in the search for means of preventing war. The former conscientious objector might join the No More War Movement, but he recognised no contradiction in joining the League of Nations Union as well. Yet the basis of the League of Nations was ‘collective security’, which implied in the last resort military sanctions, or, as the American historian Harry Elmer Barnes expressed it. ‘perpetual war for the sake of perpetual peace’. This was not a problem of any practical relevance when the prospect of another great war seemed remote.

The hard core of Caedel’s book concerns the great transformation which began in the early Thirties with the realisation that perpetual peace would not come of itself or perhaps was not on offer at all. Some of the one-time pacifists decided that with the rapid approach of social revolution they were not pacifists after all. Since social revolution failed to arrive, this conversion had little practical application except to remove a rather disruptive element from the pacifist movement. Fascism, or, to be more precise, the appearance of Hitler, was a different matter. Comparatively few recognised Hitler’s threat from the first. On the contrary, pacifists like nearly everyone else argued that the wisest as well as the most moral course was the redress of German grievances. It is curious to read of a time when former conscientious objectors applauded Neville Chamberlain.

The final years before the Second World War saw the rise of a pacifist movement that was political rather than ethical: the Peace Pledge Union. The Union was virtually the creation of one man. Canon Dick Sheppard, and a very erratic shepherd he proved. The origins of the Union went back, I think, to the spate of anti-war literature that characterised the end of the Twenties. Not surprisingly, the Union was an assembly of prima donnas, as Caedel entertainingly demonstrates. Perhaps there is nothing more absurd than gifted writers earnestly believing in some cause. Quite a number were members of the League of Nations as well as the Peace Pledge Union; many moved from one Union to the other and back again. Caedel does not fail to add that many were vegetarians while some had a high track record in plurality of wives. The Peace Pledge Union enlisted an impressive total of pledges against war. Comparatively few of these pledges were honoured when war actually arrived. Though there were many more conscientious objectors than in the First World War – 60,000 against 16,000 – their impact was much less. Instead of being persecuted, they were tolerated or even admired. Some Five thousand were sent to prison, more in sorrow than in anger: most of these took up some form of humanitarian work before the war was over. Only Christians – ‘Christadelphians, Plymouth Brethren, Elimites, Particular People’ – stuck to their belief. Caedel concludes that pacifism has been reduced to a religious belief, rather than a solution to the problems of war.

Though never a pacifist, I had more patience with the pacifists of that age than he has now. In my view, they were, though often foolish, a good deal more sensible than their opponents. Martin Caedel has a great future before him as an historian, particularly when he becomes more tolerant of human follies.