A day to commemorate, not celebrate, war

If today you are tempted to celebrate war, scan Alan Marriott’s little book, Mud Beneath My Boots.

This matter-of-fact account of life and death at the front in the first world war by an rank-and-file participant reminds that for at least the past 150 years war has been a rotten experience for all but a few (notably Adolf Hitler) of those condemned to do the fighting.

Marriott’s account is told from his uncle Len Coley’s wartime notes and diary of a 1930 revisit to battlefield haunts.

Coley is no movie script hero. He lied about his age to join but was relieved to find a medical way out in 1918. But he is a hero of a sort vital to democratic societies: the citizen-soldier doing his duty, knowing he could die, living with death.

Of the senseless slaughter at Messines he wrote: “That became some of the worst and the best of the war. The tears are still with me and my breathing is tight again.”

The wider war refracted through Coley’s tiny prism is a theatre of muddle and occasional sadism at the hands of mostly inglorious officers. His supreme commander, the butcher Sir Douglas Haig, was “not … awe-inspiring” (though he admired the now legendary Bernard Freyberg, who as New Zealand commander in the second world war mucked up the defence of Crete).

Coley’s fresh, informative tale is a reminder that war is a problem, not a solution.

It is natural enough, a deep human impulse. For every believer in the golden rule there is at least one believer in an eye for an eye. Resort to force is common in everyday life, to get one’s way or to lash out at a slight — or to protect one’s kin.

It is close to unnatural for a father to stand by when a boy bullies his daughter. It is contrary to natural justice for a judge to criminalise that father.

So war is endemic. (If you disagree read Michael Howard’s excellent The Invention of Peace.)

The modern problem that war has become is that since it was industrialised in the nineteenth century and weapons were invented capable of killing dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands at a time, it is no longer containable on “statesmen’s” chessboards.

War now kills huge numbers of non-combatants — “collateral” in the antiseptic language of the strategist. The rules of war allow “collateral” as a direct outcome of pursuing military objectives. But even the good guys often break the rules.

Of course, some reactive wars cannot be avoided — against an aggressor, for kith and kin, for liberty, for a way of life. Maori had no real choice but to fight the British in the 1860s. The free world had no real choice but to fight Hitler and Japan in the 1940s. But those wars did not make the world better, only defended it from being made worse.

The issue for democratic societies is how and where to draw the line.

The Clark government’s line is clear. It will fight an aggressor and in United Nations-approved humanitarian interventions and to make and keep the peace. It will put troops at the service of self-determination and democracy.

If there is self-interest in those choices it is that a small country benefits by being seen to be a good international citizen. So New Zealand is in Afghanistan and the Gulf and East Timor and the Solomons.

The Bush government’s line is also clear. It will fight chosen enemies on their home territory, even if not directly attacked or in imminent danger of being attacked. It will talk of self-determination and democracy for others but mean American self-interest. It holds that its pursuit of its self-interest needs no approval from others, though fellow-travellers are welcome.

But this line has its own collateral: damage to politicians who don’t win such wars.

George Bush’s own supporters are now peeling off as the prospect recedes that a pacified Iraq might infect the Middle East with democracy — if anything, the infection is working in reverse, with Iran ascendant and terrorists roaming Iraq. The real issue for the United States now is how to get out.

In a new book Francis Fukuyama, the high-profile analyst who in 2001 urged military intervention, argues that unilateralism and coercion cannot be the basis for an effective foreign policy and that multilateral efforts work better to ensure global stability (though multilateralism can take many forms).

Certainly, the Bush presidency is now part of its own Iraq war’s collateral damage. Approval ratings are disastrously low and falling. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is under attack from generals. The Republicans seriously risk losing seats to Democrats in November’s Congress elections.

Inconclusive war in Vietnam destroyed Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. Inconclusive war in Iraq may well be destroying Bush’s. War is not a safe weapon, even for the all-powerful.

Len Coley could have told Bush that. But big guys seldom really listen to little guys. Think about that as today, on Anzac Day, we commemorate Coley’s citizen-soldier heroism and rue the occasional need for it.