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COMMENTARY: WAR

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Mistakes, War and Reason

People discovering they had gone to war with mistaken ideas have covered their mistakes with a rationale for continuing their war. It happened in Germany in 1914. Germans in late July and early August 1914 believed they were going to war to defend their country, and they did so, against the Russians. The Russians were invading from the east, and in late August, at Tannenburg and the Masurian Lakes, just a few miles inside the border, the Germans easily defeated the Russians, securing their eastern border for the remainder of the war. It was on the Western Front that Germany ran into trouble with mistaken Ideas.

Germany went to war against France because France had joined the war on the side of the Russians. But the Germans believed – as military strategists did in those days – that the best defense was a good offense. German strategists believed that it would take only few months at most to defeat the French – as their fathers or grandfathers had done in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. Instead, the Germans found stalemate, and they failed adjust to it. Rather than a willingness to negotiate a settlement the Germans chose to pursue military victory. Germany's military leadership and much of the German public believed that victory was the only proper way for Germans to end war. Victory, some argued, would give meaning to the lives already lost, and anything less than victory would make Germany appear weak.

The Germans could have withdrawn to their own border, more easily defended that where they were in France, which they had already proven that they could defend. They had driven the French out of Germany shortly after the war had begun. This would have impressed the world of their seriousness in seeking a peaceful settlement and would have put them on higher moral ground. Instead they came to be thought by too many people as aggressors, and they fought four more years of war, against Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders, and finally the Americans. Instead of the 300,000 thousand or so Germans killed in the war by the end of December, 1914, by the end of 1918 they lost 1,773,000.

In any war the issue should remain whether one's goal is achievable and worth the loss of more lives. One should be on guard against continuing a war just to give meaning to lives already lost. Such a continuance does not add meaning for those already lost. Such an argument might be made by someone in power trying to save face. A nation should not pursue war just to help incumbents look better.  

Some argue that the appearance of weakness encourages an enemy. This is true, but the purpose of withdrawal is to avoid futility and waste, which is better than letting the opinions of "enemies" keep one from controlling what one does. When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 some Palestinian combatants claimed falsely that they had driven the Israelis out. But the Israelis did it right. They withdrew, let the braggarts brag and continued defending themselves.

Copyright © 2006-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.