Saturday, November 11, 2017

Peace with Honour

I guess since it's Armistice Day it's a good time to talk about this. Researching on A.A. Milne for my fisking of a recent movie, I came across, as I had before, references to his having considered himself a pacifist for much of his life, even though he'd served in WW1 after reaching that conclusion, and even though he eventually decided to support participation in WW2 as well. In 1934 he published his only serious non-fiction book, Peace with Honour, expounding his pacifist case, and I decided to read it.

I'd really like to put the Milne who wrote this book in a room with the Milne who supported WW2 and let them argue it out, because Milne-'34 is very prescient about what would happen and is entirely opposed to exactly and specifically the war that Milne-'40 would support, and in the meantime is also opposed to rearmament to prepare for that war, the meagerness of which is now considered Britain's greatest failing of the time.

Milne-'34 starts well, arguing against the glorification of war and pointing out that all the slaughter of WW1 hadn't wiped that attitude out. He scoffs at the idea of fighting for national honor, saying that this really means just national prestige, and that that prestige amounts to the ability to beat up other countries. His pocket summary of WW1 ("In the summer of 1914 an Austrian archduke was killed ... [This] led directly to the killing of ten million men who were not archdukes ...") is justly famed, but I liked even better his definition of a patriot ("a man who believes that other people are not patriots"). And insofar as he shows that stating that war is terrible is not arguing against a straw man he's on solid ground.

But he also dismisses the idea of a legitimate casus belli, assuming that every country will lie about its grievances and since it's impossible to get at the truth in a dispute, not bothering to try. (Imagine applying that attitude to today's "he said/she said" disputes.) And he uses this scoffery to evade his way out of addressing Christian "just war" doctrine.

But, the reader will ask - and Milne invents an imaginary reader who, at several points, does ask this question - if a country abjures war, what is it to do if it's attacked? In parts, Milne starts to respond to this, contrasting war with an individual being attacked by a criminal. There, there are police and courts, while war, because it's so destructive, is the equivalent of defending yourself by pulling out a bomb that would blow up yourself as well as the criminal, and the surrounding neighborhood: you wouldn't do that. A pacifist as prescient about the subsequent peace as Milne is about WW2 would discuss the creation of an effective international equivalent of a system of police and courts, but Milne doesn't: he doesn't even more than passingly mention the League of Nations, let alone analyze how it could be made to work better.

Like every other diagnostician of a world problem, from Marx on down, when it comes to proposing a solution Milne has only inanities to offer. His idea is to force (he doesn't say how) every world leader to swear a solemn oath by whatever God they hold dear to renounce war entirely, defensive as well as offensive, and then by golly they'll be forced to seek mediation of their differences by neutral parties (he doesn't say how they'll be chosen, and evades the question of how the countries will be forced to abide by the decision).

One odd part to this is that it doesn't comport with his ideas of disputes being unresolvable and not worth trying to resolve.

The other odd part is that he treats neutral mediation as a radical new idea he'll have to talk the countries into accepting; in fact it was a standard way for countries to settle differences they didn't want to get into wars over. The boundary dispute between the US and Canada over the San Juan Islands was settled in 1872 by asking Kaiser Wilhelm I to decide. Even wars could be ended that way: The Russo-Japanese war of 1905 was mediated by Theodore Roosevelt. But Milne makes no reference to this tradition.

But what, the reader insists on asking, if a country attacks you anyway? To this Milne goes to his most inane. Well, he says, assuming that other countries act in bad faith and thus preparing for war has always led to war, so why not assume they act in good faith instead? Couldn't be worse, could it? I shudder at that level of trust. Given your money to any Nigerian princes lately?

Oh come on, the exasperated reader says. What if it's THE NAZIS? And to his credit, Milne addresses that straightforwardly. He has a whole chapter, chapter 13, on exactly that question. He says that fascist dictators like Hitler or Mussolini keep control by keeping their people constantly on the pitch of threatening war. But, he says, 1) if they actually do declare war, they will begin to lose that control they hold most dear. And 2) if they should lose a war, that would be the end of them.

Here again Milne is prescient. Those gleaming fascist empires did indeed begin to crack when war was declared. And both Hitler and Mussolini met ends as degrading and humiliating as any anti-fascist could have wished for.

But Milne falls down with his conclusions from points 1 and 2. He says, 3) the dictators know this. I'm not sure if they did. Nothing I've read about Hitler suggests that he was aware of #1. He did know #2, but neither he nor Mussolini thought that could happen. They'd look out on their gleaming armies and think, "How can I possibly lose a war?" And then Milne says, 4) their talk of war is just bluster. They can't risk actually doing it.

This, I trust, is where Milne-'40 sadly shook his head and departed from his earlier self, because Milne-'34 was just flatly wrong about that. For one thing, he'd acknowledged that the dictators had to keep their populaces on the pitch of war, but he didn't realize that you can't do that indefinitely without eventually producing one.

Oh, but it gets worse. In chapter 8, the one in which Milne evades Christian responses to pacifism, he has his imaginary reader bluntly ask, What if Germany invaded anyway? Would you acquiesce, then, in their conquest of Britain? Milne's response defines "acquiesce" as liking it. He says, and here I quote: "In fact, I should hate them. It would be easy to feel intensely humiliated by them. But then ..." Oh, I can hardly bear to type this: "But then it is easy for an author to feel intensely humiliated whenever his play is rejected or his novel is a failure." And he provides several other examples of the same sort, and says, you don't kill people over that.

Oh, Milne-'34, you silly old bear. Do you really think those two forms of humiliation - an author's book not selling and the Nazis conquering a country - are even remotely comparable? All he can say to defend this position is to point out that, if we fought Germany, women and children would be killed, and (the reader he's addressing at this point is a Christian) we might have to ally ourselves with godless Russia. Well, those things were both true, but they didn't seem to bother Milne-'40: ask him. You don't even need to conjure up the ghosts of six million Jews and as many other Romani, homosexuals, et al, to argue this point: that mostly hadn't happened yet in 1940. But even then, Milne-'40 had figured out that there are things worse than war.

The problem is that Milne-'34 is so terrified by the memory of WW1 that he considers another war worse than literally anything else. The one other thing he's as certain of as the points I numbered 1 and 2 above is that another general war will be the end of European civilization, and he quotes that noted expert on world affairs, Stanley Baldwin, in support of this. (I'm being sarcastic: Baldwin was probably the least internationally-oriented politician in British history.) Milne-'34 is in the position of Chamberlain-'38, who was moved by the same terror to do anything to prevent another war. Remember that, technically, Munich was Chamberlain mediating - just as Milne would want - a dispute between Germany and Czechoslovakia. But it wasn't a real dispute, it had been gingered up out of nothing by Hitler. And the reason appeasement didn't work is not because appeasement is inherently bad, but because Hitler would not negotiate in good faith. In chapter 17 in describing his utopian plan for forced mediation, Milne says this assumes "(i) a Germany which recognizes that another European war will be disastrous, and (ii) a contented Germany." But such a Germany did not exist, and under the dispensations then existing in Europe, which only WW2 changed, such a Germany could not exist. So the entire argument is nugatory.

Nice try, Alan, but I prefer your children's books.

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