On War

I was talking to my friend David last night about the First World War… as you do. David is not a stupid person: he teaches computing; but history is probably not his strong suit.

Our conversation had been prompted by an article of mine where I referred to the soldiers of that obscene slaughter as fools. I had also suggested in that article that the most of today’s young soldiers are also fools. Now I know the word “fool” is a little strong. A fool is someone who, given good information, nevertheless proceeds to make a stupid decision. That does not apply to most soldiers, who are rarely given good information. However, I had used the word quite deliberately, as a sort of antidote to another widely used word often applied to soldiers: “heroes”. I use the word “fools” instead to try to stimulate thought, to try to encourage people to think about things.

Anyway, it had obviously made David think a little bit because he had asked me what would have happened if our soldiers had not gone off to fight. I was a little perplexed and answered that there wouldn’t have been a war. He replied that would have led to Britain being invaded. Well, that might eventually have been the case – no one can say for sure – but on 4th August 1914, when Britain decided to join in the chain-reaction that had started a few days earlier, there was no immediate danger of Britain being invaded. But even if we pursue that possibility – of a subsequent German invasion – which is far from certain as Germany had its vulnerable eastern front to defend against Russia, it has to be said that Britain, with her dominant navy, should have stood a much better chance of defending an island fortress – at a time that preceded air power – than fighting a war on foreign land hundreds of miles away from home. And in any case, given that Britain was already being ruled by a German family – the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas (the royal family only changed their name to Windsor in 1917 when their German identity became a bit of an embarrassment), it can be argued that the British people were not only tricked into fighting a completely unnecessary war, they were tricked into fighting a completely unnecessary civil war.

Even to this day not many people understand what the First World War was all about – especially those whose knowledge doesn’t go any further than basic schoolroom history lessons. They might say it was all about mutual defence treaties that had to be honoured, but not many know the true reasons for why it was fought: power and profit. It’s quite possible that were it not for another quite unwanted and unplanned event that happened at the same time – the Russian Revolution – even fewer people would know the truth.

When the Bolsheviks defeated czarist Russia they discovered the top secret agreements made between Russia and the European powers for how the world was to be carved up once Germany was crushed. The treaties were dynamite, detailing, for example, how France would have a free hand in Western Europe providing Russia was gifted Poland; and showing how England had betrayed its Arab allies in the Middle East with the Sykes-Picot agreement with France. The Bolsheviks made the documents public, and Morgan Phillips Price, a Russian-speaking journalist working for the Manchester Guardian in Russia saw them and, recognising the explosive implications, wrote a report about them for his paper which was published in November 1917 – a year before the war ended. But the story was pretty much spiked by the rest of the British press, ensuring that the British people would remain, then as now, in gloomy ignorance. The Times, recognised then as now as a leading opinion-former in the country decided

not to inconvenience the British, French and Italian governments, and to maintain silence about the Secret Treaties… As the governments themselves were bound by the Treaties to be silent, The Times decided it could only follow their example.1

Deliberately keeping people in ignorance of the truth is not now, nor ever has been, confined only to the general public. Indeed the existence of Permanent War depends very much on also deliberately misinforming those in positions of power, sometimes very considerable power. One of the best examples of this, from the same time period as the Secret Treaties, is provided by the little-known story of Brigadier-General George William St George Grogan VC, CB, CMG, DSO & Bar.

Now General Grogan was military aristocracy. He was the eldest son of Brigadier General Grogan senior, of the Black Watch; and being a holder of the Victoria Cross suggests he was no shrinking violet either. Yet this man, a half colonel at the time, was temporarily stripped of his command — essentially because he disobeyed an order. Ordinary soldiers were routinely being murdered by firing squads of their own colleagues at this time for disobeying orders, at the rate of three a fortnight — but Grogan would, later on, be promoted.

Grogan got himself involved in the deeply cynical and little-understood allied invasion of Russia that immediately followed the Bolshevik revolution. After an incident whose details are vague, Grogan was, according to historian John Swettenham, “relieved of his command and sent back to England.” Relieving a senior officer of a battle-front command – a VC to boot – is not something to be undertaken lightly, and one would love to know what really transpired. Grogan himself wrote the following account which was published shortly afterwards in the Daily Express:

I volunteered for service with the North Russian Relief Force in the sincere belief that relief was urgently needed in order to make possible the withdrawal of low category troops, in the last stages of exhaustion, due to the fierce fighting amid the rigours of an Arctic winter…

Immediately on arrival… I received the impression that the policy of the authorities was not what it was stated to be…troops… which we were told had been sent out purely for defensive purposes were being used for offensive purposes on a large scale and far into the interior…2

How might such an eminent and senior officer be so confused about his mission? Bear in mind this is taking place in 1919, after the armistice, when to say that Britain was “war weary” might be rather understating the case. However, there was an almost secret war still being waged in Russia, a war for which the public had no appetite. So a story was manufactured that British troops were trapped there and desperately needed to be saved. Swettenham, who was definitely no pinko-liberal, casts a little light on the subject.

Churchill [then Minister of War], fully cognizant of the threat posed by Communism for the future, left the [Paris] Peace Conference determined to do alone whatever could be done to crush the Soviets while a little time still remained. On March 3, 1919, he deliberately painted the picture in North Russia blacker than it really was, sounding a warning that it might be necessary to send reinforcements to that theatre to ensure the safe withdrawal of the tired troops. Newspapers took up the call, silencing for the present public agitation to ‘bring the boys back home’. A call then went out from the War Office for volunteers, and the response was tremendous. Eight thousand men were accepted to be formed into two brigades equipped with the latest equipment.3

Grogan must have been one of the 8,000. So even the high and mighty are susceptible to the lies of our trusted leaders, and the fact that this was indeed one of Churchill’s many lies is born out by the words of the wonderfully-named General Ironside, commanding officer of the North Russian theatre at the time who wrote that far from feeling trapped…

“With [our] superior flotilla on the [Dvina] river I did not believe that anything could stop us from getting out.”3

But Churchill, the arch-warmonger, simply didn’t want him to get out. He wanted more war, terrified as he and the rest of his class were, and still are, about any possibility of global economic justice breaking out.

War has only ever been about plunder and profits for the super-rich. Although the evidence of this is quite considerable, it is never how the case is presented to the general public who are simply expected to do the dying and, which is even worse, the killing. Wars of invasion are always dressed-up as some great religious or patriotic cause; and they are also written-up that way in the history books afterwards (by the winners needless to say). And so the great lie perpetuates itself. If the truth is ever found at all, it is usually too late, as the tragic young poet Wilfred Owen observed in arguably his finest work:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.4

Poets are always careful with the language they use. So Owen’s use of the word “lie” was no mistake. He’d learnt the truth the hard way.

Lloyd George, who was prime minister during the First World War, also knew the truth perfectly well, for he said, in a private conversation to the editor of the Guardian, CP Scott:

“If people really knew [the truth about the war it] would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship would not pass the truth.”5

The way that history records wars is vitally important, because this is how children learn about war. Take for example the Second World War, about which most people are quite familiar. If most people were asked what started the war, they would probably answer Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Thus everyone learns that the war started on 3rd September 1939. But that isn’t true. It was indeed declared a war by Britain on that day, and Britain did indeed declare because of Hitler’s invasion of Poland. But that wasn’t what started the war. The war was actually started 20 years earlier when the so-called Paris Peace Conference drafted the infamous document known as the Treaty of Versailles, a villainous piece of work that made World War Two an inevitability – it was merely a question of when it would begin.

John Maynard Keynes was arguably the greatest economist who ever lived – and certainly the greatest since Adam Smith. Keynes was at the Paris conference and, because of the vicious reparations demanded of Germany in the full knowledge of her inability to pay, often referred to the treaty as “evil”. He had a foreboding of its consequences even before the ink was dry on the paper, and wrote:

“If the European Civil War is to end with France and Italy abusing their momentary victorious power to destroy Germany and Austria-Hungary now prostrate, they invite their own destruction also.”6

Then as now, the plunderers cared not a jot for the long-term consequences of their actions. All that matters to them, then as now, is fast profits — let tomorrow take care of itself. Not many children learn in their history classes that if the treaty that ended World War One had been a sensible and humane agreement, World War Two almost certainly would not have transpired, and no one would have heard of Adolf Hitler. Not many children learn in their schoolrooms that fighting wars in other people’s countries is now, and always has been, about profit and plunder. Children could be taught this, for the evidence is abundant and easy to find, but they aren’t. They’re taught instead of the supposed glory of war, the supposed “great” kings and queens who start them, the supposed “great” generals who manage the battles, and the spectacular rewards of their successes.

Everyone in Britain is familiar with the so-called “stately homes” that appear in most parts of the country. We are all encouraged to admire them and fawn at the feet of their aristocratic owners, but few people are ever taught about how these places were originally paid for. Take for just one example, the daddy of them all, Blenheim Palace, family home of the Churchills.

Blenheim Palace was built from John Churchill’s cut from victory at the Battle of Blenheim, which took place in Southern Germany. Churchill was the first Duke of Marlborough. The battle was fought over the succession to the Spanish throne. In other words, by rights it was something that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with England. But what was effectively a mercenary army was assembled with Churchill at its head. Over 2,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded there. The good duke himself got Blenheim Palace. Much of the early tradition of lying war propaganda can be seen in old paintings. A perfectly ludicrous example exists depicting the Duke of Marlborough supposedly leading a cavalry charge at the battle. There is little verifiable evidence of generals ever leading attacks from the front. They are invariably to be found safe and sound far away from the action. A far more likely scenario would be to see the good general on a distant hilltop sipping wine and munching on a joint of venison with his closest friends whilst his troops fought for their lives a good mile or so away.

Until quite recently it was widely known and accepted that wars were fought for profit and plunder. Many of the actions of the royal navy were quite indistinguishable from the actions of common pirates, and the vessels of other countries were always weighed-up for their “prize” potential. Some of the proceeds of the so-called “prizes” were distributed to the whole crew, although the distribution was far from equal, obviously. Sizeable cuts of prizes would always be paid to admirals, some of whom were shore-based and had nothing more dangerous to do than survive London social life. The captains of ships often did quite well from the prizes, their junior officers less-so. The ordinary crewmen, many of whom were pressed into service of course, did get some crumbs from the table, but nothing like their officers.

The tradition of prizes probably started in the army. The crusades, of course, were all about looting the Holy Land, so John Churchill was simply continuing a well-established custom. Just after Blenheim Palace was built the emerging British Empire was poised on the brink of its most significant period of plunder – in India. Robert Clive, a plunderer of extraordinary ability, was just cutting his teeth as an artillery officer. One of his earliest successes was at the Battle of Gheria, on the west coast of India. If British school children learn about this incident at all they probably learn of it as an attack on a pirate stronghold. The fact that the inhabitants of Gheria were trying to defend their own homes from attack by foreign invaders is entirely overlooked. But as far as British history is concerned, it’s the natives of Gheria who were the pirates.

Historian John Keay relates the following little snippet about the battle:

Before setting out from Bombay, Admiral Watson [who was overall commander for the battle] summoned a meeting of the English commanders to thrash out the question of prize money. A scale was agreed on by which Watson himself would receive a twelfth of the proceeds, his rear-admiral half of that, Clive and the captains of the Royal ships rather less…[after the battle the] English got down to the serious business – plunder [which was] less than expected but sufficient for several small fortunes, Watson’s share being about £10,000 [at least half a million in today’s money] and Clive’s about £5,000.7

By the time of the First World War the tradition of soldiers blatantly carving up the spoils for themselves had all but disappeared, and looting by soldiers was no longer openly encouraged. However, the most insidious profiteers of war – the bankers and merchants – were still doing as well as ever. Major General Smedley Butler, one of the very few high-establishment people to write about it, had quite a bit to say on the subject in his explosive condemnation of war titled War is a Racket. For example, he says:

In the World War a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War.

Take our friend the du Ponts…the average earnings of the du Ponts for the period 1910 to 1914 was $6,000,000 a year. Now let’s look at their average yearly profits during the war years, 1914 to 1918. Fifty eight million dollars a year profit, we find! Nearly ten times that of normal times.

And he gives a good explanation of the central role of bankers in war:

Who provides the profits…? We all pay them – in taxation. We paid the bankers their profits when we bought Liberty Bonds at $100 and sold them back at $84 or $86 to the banker…[The ordinary soldier] was made to buy Liberty Bonds at $100 and then we bought them back – when they came back from the war and couldn’t find work – at $84 and $86. And the soldiers bought about $2,000,000,000 worth of those bonds!8

And remember that was in 1918 when a billion dollars was quite a lot of money.

It would be tempting for those who don’t understand the real nature of war, and the trusted leaders who continually perpetuate them, to dismiss these things as anomalies of the past. We couldn’t possibly behave that way today, they might think. They would of course be wrong. The primary purpose of war never changes. Once again the evidence is not difficult to find. The Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein, in her superb book Shock Doctrine, wrote the following about Bush’s illegal war in Iraq:

“It’s the best 18 months we ever had,” said Carlyle’s chief investment officer, Bill Conway, referring to the first eighteen months of the war in Iraq. “We made money and we made it fast.” The war in Iraq, already clearly a disaster, translated into a record-breaking $6.6 BILLION payout to Carlyle’s select investors.9

She continues:

Some $8.8billion… is often referred to as “Iraq’s missing billions” because it disappeared into US-controlled Iraqi ministries in 2004, virtually without trace… In Iraq there was not a single governmental function that was considered so “core” that it could not be handed to a contractor, preferably one who provided the Republican Party with financial contributions or Christian foot soldiers during election campaigns.10

If anything war has become even more cynical today than it was yesteryear when soldiers would meet before a battle to calmly discuss how they would split-up the spoils. Take for example the common practice of our heroic armies and air forces when they deliberately destroy civilian infrastructure – things like water treatment plants, power stations, bridges and so on. Why might they do that? We are of course told that these things are of strategic importance to the enemy – or some such rubbish. The fact that these “enemies” are always completely incapable of defending themselves by the time our heroes get around to pulverising infrastructure is conveniently overlooked. So why do our heroes do it? The wonderful Indian writer Arundhati Roy suggests one possible explanation: “Bechtel has been awarded a 680 million dollar reconstruction contract in Iraq. According to the Centre for Responsive Politics, Bechtel contributed 1.3 million dollars towards the 1990-2000 Republican Campaign.”11

When people wonder why big business donates huge sums of money to political parties this might offer a clue. A 1.3 million dollar cost that produces a $680m payday is pretty good business in anyone’s book. Investigative journalist Dahr Jamail might agree, for he wrote: “Halliburton’s overall contracts for LOGCAP and oil infrastructure rebuilding have totalled about $20 billion in Iraq…LOGCAP is a Logistics Civil Augmentation Program with the US Army…which is Halliburton’s largest government contract.”12

Halliburton’s chairman and CEO was of course the infamous Dick Cheney, who was also Bush’s vice president at the time of the Iraq war.

And where does all the money come from to pay $680m to the likes of Bechtel or Halliburton’s twenty billion? In a word: taxpayers. The taxpayer picks up the first part of the bill by paying for the so-called “heroes” of our so-called “defence forces” as well as the monstrously expensive weaponry and munitions they use to devastate other people’s countries. And after all the death and destruction is over the taxpayers of the ruined countries are saddled with ruinous debts to rebuild their homelands. But instead of those victims having the freedom to make their own arrangements for reconstruction they’re compelled to use the banks and construction companies of the same countries that destroyed them, companies such as Bechtel and Halliburton who routinely bribe the politicians who start the wars in the first place. That’s what happened to Germany after both world wars, and to Korea, and to Vietnam, both of whom had to pay the Americans for the privilege of obliterating their once beautiful countries. North Korea, incidentally, who declined to pay the shakedown money, were punished with ruinous economic sanctions which exist to this day sixty years later as an example of what happens to anyone who refuses to play the game.

Most people trust leaders, albeit to varying degrees. Even if they sometimes criticise or moan about them most people don’t think their own leaders are capable of deliberately lying to them, or deceiving them in some other way. It’s true that junior leaders, or leaders with minimal responsibility are more likely to be good and decent people – although that isn’t a given as many are highly ambitious and will do absolutely anything for personal advancement. The further removed a leader is from the decisions she makes somehow corrupts them, so that a direct relationship develops between the amount of power wielded and the untrustworthiness of the person: the more power a person acquires, the more untrustworthy they become. Of course these powerful people always justify the things they do by saying they act in the public interest, but the evidence seldom supports them. Whole books are written on the subject, and the evidence is quite abundant.

The fine American journalist Izzy Stone wrote: “Every government is run by liars, and nothing they say should be believed.”13

And the biography of his life by Myra MacPherson is accurately titled All Governments Lie.

It was a sentiment shared by Martha Gelhorn, an equally fine American journalist with about six decades of experience to call upon. She said, “Never believe governments, not any of them, not a word they say; keep an untrusting eye on all they do.”14

It’s a widely recognised truth by those of us who understand the real nature of war. Herman Göring, who knew a thing or two about the subject, observed that,

“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. All you have to do is tell them they’re being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism. It works the same way in any country.”15

Even someone who’s frequently voted as the greatest Briton of all time, Winston Churchill, concurred, for he said: “In wartime truth is so precious that she must always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”16

Given that our country has been more or less permanently engaged in some war somewhere or another for hundreds of years, Churchill’s words explain how our trusted leaders routinely try to justify their reasons for permanently lying to us.

Seymour Hersch, the legendary investigative journalist who broke the story about the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War interviewed one of the marines involved in the slaughter. He was a young man named Paul Medlow, who was not much different to any other US marine. Medlow came from a poor family in the backwoods of Indiana. Just before he interviewed Medlow Seymour Hersch spoke with the boy’s mother, who would have to spend the rest of her life living with what her son had done. She said to Hersch: “I gave them a good boy. They sent me back a murderer.”

That statement pretty well sums up the depth of the cynicism of war, the obscene breach of trust routinely practised by our trusted leaders. It could have been echoed by Annie Souls fifty years earlier who gave five of her sons to the “Great” war, the “war to end all war”, and never saw any of them alive again. Annie Souls learnt the lesson too late, but learn it she certainly did, for she refused for the rest of her life to stand whenever the national anthem was played.

It is indeed a little harsh for me to say that soldiers are fools. As General Grogan showed even the mightiest of them are capable of being tricked by their own trusted leaders. I don’t blame soldiers for not understanding the real nature of war — because no one ever tells them; and none of them could believe the incredible depth of cynicism of which their own trusted leaders are capable. Soldiers are merely lied to, brainwashed and ordered to obey, to do what they’re told no matter what. So if my use of one provocative little word serves to encourage people to think about the sheer bloody evil of war, if it helps to dissuade just one young person from being tricked into being turned into a murderer by those he and his family trust to look after him, if it encourages just one soldier to think about what they’re really doing, and to stop doing it, then it will have served its purpose — and I make no apology for that.

  1. The First Casualty by Phillip Knightly p.150. []
  2. Allied Intervention in Russia 1918-1919 by John Swettenham p.224. []
  3. Allied Intervention in Russia 1918-1919 by John Swettenham p.223. [] []
  4. “Dulce et decorum est” by Wilfred Owen. []
  5. The First Casualty by Phillip Knightly p.109. []
  6. Essays in Persuasion by J M Keynes p.5. []
  7. The Honourable Company by John Keay p.268-270. []
  8. War is a Racket by Smedley Butler p.23-36. []
  9. Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein p.317. []
  10. Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein p.345. []
  11. Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire by Arundhati Roy p.125. []
  12. Beyond the Green Zone by Dahr Jamail p.37. []
  13. The First Casualty by Phillip Knightly p.373. []
  14. Tell me no Lies by John Pilger p.1. []
  15. Nuremberg Diary by Gustave Gilbert p.278. []
  16. Bodyguard of Lies by Anthony Cave Brown – prologue. []

John is a writer and political activist based in England. He can be contacted through his website. His main contribution comprises three free-to-use works-in-progress: The People’s Constitution, The School of Kindness, and EnMo Economics . Read other articles by John.