Headquarter Nights: The Great War and the trend toward peace

by John MacBeath Watkins

On of the great historians of all time, in my  opinion, was Barbara Tuchman, and perhaps her most famous book was The Guns of August. It tackled one of the great puzzles of history, why World War I happened.

Tuchman went into great detail to make the case the war planning, especially Germany's Schlieffen Plan, which involved winning a war with France by sweeping through Belgium, thereby violating Belgium's neutrality, protected by treaty with England, was a major factor.

A.J.P. Taylor, another great historian, also made the case that mobilization plans played a major role in starting the war.

But both books raise the question, why were these plans made in a way that would inevitably lead to war?

Watching our own war fever while the Bush Administration manipulated the public into backing a war against Iraq brought this question home to me. I now think that WW I started because the participants wanted, or at least were not opposed, to what they thought would be a short and decisive dust-up.

Some confirmation for this theses comes from a little-known book written during WW I, Vernon Kellogg's Headquarters nights; a record of conversations and experiences at the headquarters of the german army in France and Belgium.

Kellogg was a pacifist who was in Belgium before America entered the war, working with Herbert Hoover on the Commission for the Relief of Belgium, and Belgium was, of course, occupied by the Germans, so he lived in a household with a German officer who often entertained members of the German High Command.

He had trained as a biologist, and was on leave from teaching that subject when he began conversing with these high-ranking Germans, one of whom was also a biology professor, in his case on leave to prosecute the war.

What shocked Kellogg and convinced him that America should do all it could to defeat Germany was the theory the top tier of German officers of the biological superiority of Germans expressed.

While in America Social Darwinism had taken an individualistic form, in Europe it was more commonly expressed in racial terms.

Race, of course, is a ticklish subject -- in World War II, a number of Jews passed as Germans to stay out of the death camps, and were able to do so because they were physically indistinguishable from other Germans, though allegedly a different "race." But the German officers Kellogg found himself talking to believed there was such a thing as the German race, as opposed to the French race, or the Dutch race, or the English race.

From Headquarter Nights, the argument Kellogg found himself subjected to:

But as with the different ant species, struggle — bitter, ruthless struggle — is the rule among the different human groups. This struggle not only must go on, for that is the natural law, but it should go on. so that this natural law may work out in its cruel, inevitable way the salvation of the human species. By its salvation is meant its desirable natural evolution. That human group which is in the most advanced evolutionary stage as regards internal organization and form of social relationship is best, and should, for the sake of the species, be preserved at the expense of the less advanced, the less effective. It should win in the struggle for existence, and this struggle should occur precisely that the various types may be tested, and the best not only preserved, but put in position to impose its kind of social organization — its Kultur — on the others, or, alternatively, to destroy and replace them.
This is the disheartening kind of argument that I faced at Headquarters; argument logically constructed on premises chosen by the other fellow. Add to these assumed premises of the Allmacht of struggle and selection based on it, and the contemplation of mankind as a congeries of different, mutually irreconcilable kinds, like the different ant species, the additional assumption that the Germans are the chosen race, and German social and political organization the chosen type of human community life, and you have a wall of logic and conviction that you can break your head against but can never shatter — by head work. You long for the muscles of Samson.
Few people desire to do evil in the world, but the things they justify to themselves as good can be quite astonishingly evil. The arguments Kellogg heard in Belgium while doing his relief work did not die out when the Germans lost the war -- instead, they mutated into the arguments that justified the Holocaust.

Kellogg said that these views were held by most German biologists, as well as non-biologists.

Nor should we assume that they were restricted to high-status Germans. Here's the English view, as expressed by Rudyard Kipling in 1899:

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

 The notion that the better "breed" could benefit people by subjugating them was current. In addition, the English had established a large and powerful empire by subjugating foreigners and foreign land. At the time, the understanding of economics was that you needed to control more territory and resources to gain greater wealth. England subjugated India, bringing to them the dubious benefits of British bureaucracy and extracting from them raw materials for England's industry.

But as a trained biologist, Kellogg was well aware of alternate theories about evolution. He did not agree that mankind was "a congeries of different, mutually irreconcilable kinds, like the different ant species" or that mutual conflict was the only key to evolution -- he considered mutual aid to be at least as important.

Mutual Aid will perhaps be familiar to the reader as the title of Petr Krapotkin's book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Krapotkin argued against the Social Darwinists, pointing out that what he called mutual aid, a term that encompassed symbiosis and altruism, played an important role. In accepting Krapotkin's ideas and thinking human beings are pretty much alike, rather than being like different ant species, Kellogg was a more modern thinker than the German officers he argued with.

And perhaps the horror of the Holocaust helped eliminate that kind of thinking. Certainly, wars have been declining in number and in the deaths they cause since World War II.

Of course, in a modern industrial society, war is no longer a path to wealth -- in fact, it seems to be a dead loss. That's got to reduce the incentives for war. And empires no longer show a return on investment. Global capital is no longer willing to repatriate profits and pay taxes to the home country that finances the wars.

And of course, World War I didn't turn out the way people thought it would. Germans remembered the Franco-Prussian War, which was quick, decisive, and led to the unification of the German states. Germany had been the underdog, but had beaten the French in less than a year in a conflict fought mostly on French soil, some of which became German at the peace settlement.

It had been mostly a war of maneuver, in which the Germans mobilized more quickly, and the German General Staff showed better organization and competence than the more traditionally organized French General Staff.

So it's easy enough to see why the German war plans were organized so that they would inevitably lead to war, with no way to put on the brakes. They wanted war. And since 1870, the French had been thinking, Next Time.... 

The last big war the Russians had fought was against Napoleon, and they had acquitted themselves rather well. They had, however, been recently humiliated by the Japanese.

All the participants expected a glorious campaign in which losses would be tolerable and the people at the top of society would have increased status and power.

What they got instead was a war waged like pest control, even including the poison gas. Military planners seemed to have forgotten what war was for. Clausewitz said "War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will." Yet the military goal of WW I seemed to be to kill as many people as possible.

The pointlessness of the war was soon apparent to those delegated to kill and die in it, and to the horror of those responsible for starting it, total peace began to break out up and down the line at Christmas, 1914. The unwillingness of those on the front line on both sides to kill each other might be called a desertion in place. But the reputations of the generals depended on the enlisted men killing each other, and the generals soon had the war going again.

And again, after the failed peace that followed WW I. 

I think the death of what Kellogg called "neo-Darwinian" views may have had something to do with the fact that war is in decline, but the economic factors are probably more important. For the most part, war is now viewed as a deadweight loss.

We still hear echoes of the views of the Germans Kellogg debated with in the jingoistic claims for American exceptionalism. And  China is beginning to awaken to new dreams of empire and irredentalist claims for lost territory -- even Okinawa, which was conquered by Japan in 1609 and became a prefecture of Japan in 1879, is on the list, with every piece of property the Chinese ever  dominated 

 The nightmare of Headquarter Nights can happen again.