A report floated across my social media feed over the past weekend titled Jews in the German Army. Startling, it was, though the actual story is less alarming, the report is more nuanced, and deserves a thorough read. Incredible. Saddening.
I have been catching up on reading about the war in Ukraine, about likely war in West Africa, and about right and wrong in war… my mind raced off, as the mind does, unconstrained, unfiltered, guided only by things learned, seen or heard, and breaking into directions unscripted, unplanned and opportunistically like the roots of a tree in search of water and nutrients.
Read more in Daily Maverick: War in Ukraine
When I first read the story about “Jews in the German Army” I recalled reading a story, several years ago, of Bruno Italiener a (Jewish) chaplain in the German army, who explained his years taking care of German-Jewish soldiers in the Imperial Army in the following way: “If this war [First World War] were to bring us Jews nothing else but greater understanding from, and greater inner closeness with, our Christian fellow-citizens, then that would already be a prize that we German Jews would receive with special joy.”
Anyway, I ended up, last weekend, with a raft of questions of my own. Would I fight for “a homeland”, “a fatherland”, or a “motherland” that is not my own? Where is home? What is home? Where do I belong? Would I die and kill for the “homeland”, the “fatherland” or the “motherland”? What does drive people to kill other people they have never met, and never will? The answers are not readily reached…
Back to the questions above. Having looked at the history, theories and philosophies of war and especially at the impact of 20th-century war on social consciousness, I have read claims and statements, observations and aphorisms ranging from “fighting itself can be a source of joy, perhaps the greatest joy of all,” to defence of country or “our people” — which puts a humanist gloss on war and war over ideas.
In terms of the latter, some of its earliest modern expression was Britain’s Opium Wars against China (1839 – 1860), to take to the Chinese the idea of free trade. The Opium Wars of the mid-19th century were carried out “in the name of free trade and without regard to the consequences for the Chinese government and Chinese people”. This defeat(s) ushered in a “century of humiliation” that remains prominent in Chinese historical memory.
Dying and killing for ideas
There was a time when war was waged (mainly by the aristocracy) for land and the “incorporation” of more people, which meant more taxes… This is a vast area of study. I am glossing over most of it for the sake of time and space.
Nonetheless, over the past two centuries, perhaps longer by another 100 years, the idea of “freedom” framed Western (Europe and North America) expansion and warfare. Thomas Jefferson, US president between 1801 and 1809, considered white expansion across the lands of indigenous people as “an empire of liberty”.
Napoleon would have everyone believe that French conquests were driven by the desire for “freedom”. Just incidentally, there’s an insightful discussion underway about Ridley Scott’s upcoming biopic of Napoleon.
When US president George W Bush went to war against the Afghan people between 7 Oct 2001 and 28 Dec 2014, he named that war “Operation Enduring Freedom”. Just this past weekend I saw a man in Kleinmond proudly wearing a hoodie celebrating “Operation Enduring Freedom” – “freedom” being a nod to American exceptionalism as “home of the free”.
It made me think, again, what motivated someone to join someone else’s war against another. What rose to the top of my mind, at least with respect to wars in the modern era, were senses of superiority, and the need, expressed so frequently by the West — mainly Western Europeans and North Americans — to civilise “others” and shore up “civilisation”.
In 1999 Tony Blair would justify the bombing of the former Yugoslavia because it (war) was “necessary to uphold civilisation”. So, if you believe that “the West” or “the Europeans” had a divine right to invade and occupy countries in order to “civilise” them, I guess you would gladly join their military adventurism.
The 21st Century and enduring appeal of ‘civilising missions’
We can set aside the roles of mercenaries, who usually go to war for the money and, no doubt, sometimes for the thrill. An inciteful side note is necessary.
During the Norman dynasty in England, military households were expanded when the royals employed “freelancers” from the continent. The point, I guess, is that mercenaries and “freelancers” have always been around to assist with civilising missions.
The Romanovs undertook “Russification” efforts in Poland and Ukraine around 1830 and later in Central Asia. In the east, the Qing a Manchu-led imperial dynasty of China (1636–1912) had long led “civilising” efforts on some frontiers, replacing local chiefs with appointed magistrates, imposing Han Chinese marriage customs, and promoting Chinese education, mainly for elites…. The Chinese story is complex and has been retold over and again.
The point is made here only to make the argument that “civilising missions” are not unique to the West, which became increasingly globally dominant, initially through imperial expansion over the past four or five centuries. I don’t believe the Chinese started an “opium war” anywhere on the shores of Western Europe and North America…
The people who join or celebrate Western civilisational missions and who are not mercenaries, come from around the world and are often welcomed into the fold.
I was close to a Filipino family in the US a couple of decades ago, of which the head of the household was proud of the assistance he gave Washington’s intelligence community in Manila. He would later, before he became a citizen, enlist in the US military and currently (still) proudly displays military signs, symbols and insignia on his clothing and vehicles.
This is probably not new. Foreigners or new immigrants have always been part of American wars. During the First World War an estimated 40% of all military personnel were immigrants or children of immigrants.
Others, who willingly join official “operations” and adventures, go to war or support war efforts on the basis of their beliefs. They are willing to kill or die, or support dying and killing, on the basis of their own ideas, beliefs and values.
While we should not ignore British and US motives to secure oil (and their economic interests) when they entered Iraq and Afghanistan, the history of the West’s wars against “others” were almost always against allegedly cruel, barbaric, fanatical or inhuman (oriental) despots who, at least since 2001, had weapons of mass destruction which threatened the complacent hegemony of the West.
Carey Watt of St Thomas University in Canada explains that “self-proclaimed civilised peoples in states such as Britain and America declared that they needed to be protected while the people of Iraq and neighbouring states needed to be liberated from a dictatorial and dangerously uncivilised regime. Americans and Britons were to be welcomed with open arms as liberators, according to the former US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and America and Britain (and the Coalition of the Willing) would bring peace, good governance, democracy and capitalist modernity to Iraqis” as part of a larger effort to “remake the Middle East”.
In Afghanistan, the Westerners were a lot more brazen. They needed to civilise a “backward” and “inferior” people by a more “civilised” power who would “uplift” the Afghan people to “a universal standard of civilisation that is based on European or Western standards (the “silent referent”), Watt explained.
While I spent little time thinking about Jewish people who joined the German army after the Second World War (it’s just too difficult for me, as a non-Jew and a pacifist to wrap my head around it) I stayed with the subject of joining foreign wars when all you have are shared ideas. The most prominent example I can think of is the international units that fought in the Spanish Civil War. These units, too, fought for ideas.
In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell wrote of the Spanish Civil War that it was “probable that every anti-fascist in Europe felt the thrill of hope”. The poet Christopher Caudwell wrote in a letter to a friend, “you know how I feel about the whole mad business of war, but you also know how I feel about the importance of democratic freedom”. (As detailed in The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s by Samuel Hynes).
These were all feelings of hope, the preciousness of ideas, and realising dreams that seemed out of reach. In 1937, Cyril Connolly wrote in the New Statesman that he had seen, on the Front in Spain, “an absolutely new and all-pervading sense of moral elevation [and] a flowering of humanity, something which it would be an unimaginable piece of human malignancy to destroy”. (See Chapter Four of The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends by Humphrey Carpenter).
War drums are beating in West Africa, Russia’s war against the Ukrainians continues, war is never far away from our minds. It is probably the most divisive of human activities; just thinking about war, about who fights for whom, and whose ideas (and fights) are more noble, is a tough enough task. DM