The NS Essay - How generals help the pacifists

History shows that battlefield disasters rather than peace rallies or pamphlets give wars bad reputa

Several years after the end of the Crimean war, Richard Cobden said: "I was so convinced of the utter uselessness of raising one's voice in opposition to a war when it has once begun, that I made up my mind that, so long as I was in political life, should a war again break out between England and a great Power, I would never open my mouth upon the subject from the time the first gun was fired until the peace was made."

Although John Morley used to quote those words during the 1914-18 war, they haven't been heeded this year. Opposition to the Balkan war has been vociferous, and it has created some unlikely bedfellows, from Tony Benn to Alan Clark, from Harold Pinter to Auberon Waugh. But if they have ignored Cobden's advice, these dissidents have illustrated again the difficulties of conducting a coherent and honest criticism of a war once it has begun.

The pacificists or peaceniks of the past 200 years had many things in common. They were often right about the war, but wrong about the enemy. They were execrated at the time, but they often later won the peace, in the sense that their version of events came to be accepted. And what won the argument for them tended to be less their eloquence than the military conduct (or misconduct) of the war.

Many English radicals were naturally enthusiastic about the French revolution, even after the Terror. In their hearts, some of them admired Robespierre not despite but because of his brutality (not the only echo from 1790s to 1930s), and Hazlitt then persuaded himself that Napoleon was a liberator rather than a tyrant. Hostility to war with revolutionary France was strengthened by a belief which isn't ignoble but is certainly dubious. It was Tom Paine who said that "Man is not the enemy of Man but through the medium of a false system of government", and he was later in effect echoed by Marx. Alas, Marx was never more wrong than when he said that the proletariat has no fatherland. That's too often all that the poor do have.

This misconception has often led opponents of war into political misjudgement. If man isn't an enemy to man, and if our own system of government is false, then there must be something to be said for the other side. Thus, the radical Cobden not only opposed the Crimean war but favoured Russia - under the arch-autocrat Nicholas I, butcher of the Decembrists - against Turkey.

An equivalent error was made in the Boer war of 1899-1902. The pro-Boers were a mixed bunch (odd to think that the Pilger and Pinter of that time were Chesterton and Belloc) and, again, while it was one thing to ask why the war was being fought, it was another to glorify the Boers or Afrikaners. To the pro-Boers they were a brave, small people fighting for national survival, which was partly true. But the Boers were also fighting to get their hands on the gold of the Rand, and to keep their feet on the black South Africans.

Their hatred of the war led the pro-Boers down darker paths. In 1899, many liberals, radicals and socialists had no doubt who the real villains of the piece were: the Jews. Before I wrote a book about South Africa in that period, I thought I knew about "the socialism of fools", but I was still taken aback to find how venomous this hatred was, and who expressed it. The great anti-imperialist writer J A Hobson said that the war was being fought to make the Transvaal safe for the Johannesburg mining companies - he wasn't far wrong there - and added that "Johannesburg is essentially a Jewish town", even if you might not realise that, since many of its Jews "have anglicised their names in true parasitic fashion" (this was written for the Manchester Guardian).

He was seconded by Edward Carpenter, libertarian socialist and champion of homosexual love, who thought that Johannesburg was "a hell full of Jews", while the British government was "being led by the nose by the Jews". And John Burns, the London dockers' leader, still a sainted figure in (old) Labour lore, said that the British army "has become in Africa a janissary of the Jews".

The 1914-18 war was opposed by people as different as Ramsay MacDonald and the Tory Lord Lansdowne. Lansdowne came to believe that, even if we won, the fruits of victory would not be worth having, which was not an irrational conclusion from his perspective, since the war did indeed mean the end of civilisation as he knew it. But the radical critics, though right in thinking that the war was horrible and would become much more so, were wrong about Germany, to a quite startling degree. They were convinced that Germany was no more to blame than any other country for the war itself, and had no aggressive designs. In 1915 Bertrand Russell wrote that the Germans would be ready to evacuate Belgium and northern France.

This was nonsense. Even if the concept of "war guilt" later enshrined in the Versailles treaty is foolish, few serious historians today would deny that imperial Germany was measurably more to blame than any other country. And, as we now know, the German leadership would have insisted on enormous territorial gains in any peace settlement right up to their final defeat.

If the pacificists were so wrong, how could they be so right? Which is to say, how did they win the longer-term argument? Again and again this has happened. The Crimean war, soon after it ended, became a byword for folly, the Boer war scarcely less so, and within only a few years of the armistice, a generation of Englishmen had come to think of the Great War as a bloody, muddy, senseless slaughter.

Even more striking are the subsequent political careers of individual peaceniks. Lord Salisbury was critical of the Crimean war, and within 30 years he was prime minister. Lloyd George, vilified as a pro-Boer in 1900, became prime minister in 1916 (when he led the country in a more ferocious war), while MacDonald, who resigned the Labour leadership in opposition to the war in 1914, formed the first Labour government less than ten years later.

Again and again, the change of opinion came about in the same way: not because of the righteousness of the anti-war case but because "someone had blundered" on the battlefield. It wasn't the eloquence of Cobden and Bright which soured opinion against the Crimean war, it was the incompetence of Lord Raglan and Lord Cardigan, the charge of the Light Brigade, and the horrors of the army hospital at Scutari where Florence Nightingale tended the wounded.

Nor was it the pro-Boers who won over the public. That was done for them by the military disasters of "Black Week" in December 1899, though still more by the Boer commandos who held down the army for more than two years thereafter, and by "the methods of barbarism", in the Liberal leader Campbell-Bannerman's phrase, to which the British resorted as they suppressed that guerrilla campaign (notably the rounding up of women and children in what we called concentration camps).

Fifteen years later, it wasn't men like MacDonald or Russell who turned the tide of opinion. That was done by Haig ("the greatest of Scottish generals, because he killed the most Englishmen," as the sour army joke had it), with his appallingly bloody battles on the Somme and Passchendaele. No pamphlet or rally was ever so persuasive as 20,000 British soldiers killed in one day on 1 July 1916.

And today? The reputations that wars enjoy still depend on their outcome, even though posterity can be arbitrary in its judgements. As A J P Taylor once pointed out, for all the aura of folly that clings to the Crimean war, it actually "achieved its purpose rather better than most wars. Russia's control of the Danube mouth, which was the largest issue in the war, was recovered only in 1945, and Turkey, whose demise has so often been foretold, possesses Constantinople and the Straits to this day."

Military triumph and disaster remain the most eloquent comments on a war. If the Falklands war had gone disastrously wrong - as it so nearly did, needing only a few more Argentine hits and working fuses - our judgement on it would be very different. Radical critics of that war could scarcely idolise the Buenos Aires junta, and likewise opponents of the present war have mostly avoided the pro-Boers' mistake - was it also the mistake made by opponents of the Vietnam war? - of seeing virtue only in the enemy. Even if the Serbs are "a brave and Christian people", as Alan Clark says (an arguable proposition), it is difficult for the most mutton-headed liberal to make a hero out of Slobodan Milosevic. Hostility to the war has been fed less by Serbophilia than by anti-Americanism.

All the same, it's not too early to see that history might yet repeat itself. It's doubtful that there will be another Balaclava or Tugela, let alone another Somme; but the campaign in the Balkans is plainly not going the way ministers hoped. This may turn out to be another British government that learns that wars are more easily begun than won - and that the public mood can turn nasty if victory is elusive or costly.

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