The Game of War

My latest at Eclectica:

(For an ongoing discussion of this topic and other ideas it has spun off, please go to the comments section at the bottom of this page.)

War is a game—a lethal game (or “match,” if you like), but a game nonetheless. In the modern era, for the last couple hundred years, we all participate, if only passively as victims of its atrocities, assuming we don’t do so as combatants. It’s a game that affects everyone, but it still comes down to a winner and a loser,war the contest decided by “sides” that perform and are directed in much the same way a more conventional sport like football or basketball is coached and managed.

This is a thought that has been growing on me for some time but only became obvious during my recent reading of Victor Klemperer’s diaries of the Third Reich (I Will Bear Witness, 1933-1941 & 1942-1945). If the Nazis had fielded a soccer team instead of an army, and their opponents had done the same, and the outcome of the conflict including the fates of the populations of all the nations involved depended on who won the match, then the way the war was conducted, I mean the mentality of it, would not have been much different…. Read more.

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About Thomas J. Hubschman

Thomas J. Hubschman is the author of Look at Me Now, My Bess, Song of the Mockingbird, Billy Boy, Father Walther’s Temptation, The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories and three science fiction novels. His work has appeared in New York Press, The Antigonish Review, Eclectica, The Blue Moon Review and many other publications. Two of his short stories were broadcast on the BBC World Service.

Posted on January 15, 2014, in Social Issues and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Great post. Yes, let us recognize that war is a form of mass murder. If we did, then the way we evaluate it would radically change. I am unconvinced that killing another person under any circumstances whatsoever is wrong. If the only way I could stop it, I would hope I would have to courage to kill someone rather than stand by while an innocent child was raped, or someone be subjected to intense torture.

    But that the keys are “if that were the only way…” AND if it were in order to stop some undeniable atrocity of even greater destructiveness. If we used similar standards to evaluate war, I suspect we would have very few wars. We would struggle a lot harder to find another way rather than just spending more money on developing bigger and more terrible weapons. And I doubt we could justify going to war for oil under any conditions.

  2. Boell says that every death in every war is murder because it’s organized and impersonal killing. He wouldn’t say, nor would I, that every killing is murder. I understand your reluctance to agree even with this much. But I also accept his statement at face value: even “necessary” killing can be murder. And the necessity only comes after the politicians have decided it is so. War as he knew it, organized killing on a large scale of a faceless enemy is pure butchery. The other killing of that war, the civilians, is less problematic. That truly was murder, whether the fire-bombing of Tokyo or the Blitz of London. It’s not a legal or moral definition he’s aiming at a la Augustine, but an assertion, an act of witness, to put it in religious terms.

    • Okay, Tom, where I always get stuck is in relation to WWII. I have come to realize that the dynamics of that war were not as simple as I was taught to believe, but one stark reality nonetheless remains: millions of innocent civilians, half only because they were Jews, were forced into concentration camps and gas chambers. Those killings were organized and impersonal. Many people tried to stop it, and many potential victims were helped to escape. But ultimately, could this great organized and impersonal government-mandated murder have been stopped without a counter organized and impersonal government-mandated opposition which also involved mass killings?

      Yes, I agree wholeheartedly that Allied powers could have done more to reduce the carnage. I agree that the dropping of atomic bombs in Japan, and the near annihilation of cities like Dresden were carried out with far too much righteous enthusiasm. Yes, war inflicts a terrible punishment not only on innocent civilians but on the combatants as well, who, if they survive physically, often return brutalized and broken. Yes, the resulting attitudes following the war, which glorify violence and even give the winner an undeserved sense of intrinsic moral superiority are still with us.

      But my question – and it is an urgent question – is if the Allied powers had decided from the very beginning that military action was itself murder and would itself magnify rather than stop the murders – whether the consequences would have been even worse than they actually were. Maybe they wouldn’t.

      What is so scary today are the weapons of war which we have now at our disposal. Is there a way to back out of this terrible face-off? Perhaps the only way is indeed to deny the legitimacy of war under any conditions. Perhaps Gandhi’s way is the only way: we must stand there and let them beat us to the ground. Or sometimes even worse, watch while they beat other innocent people to the ground.

      I know you have thought about this a great deal. And I would be very interested to hear your further thoughts.

  3. No nation went to war in 1939-41 for the sake of the Jews or any other oppressed group, Terry. Even when the scale of the slaughters was coming out, it didn’t merit much notice on the part of the US or any other government that I’m aware of. The death camps were a “side show,” as Robert Novick says (maybe not his exact words) in his book The Holocaust in American Life. Had Hitler not declared war on America, we would never have done anything to relieve the persecution of the Jews, Roma, communists, trade unionists or Christian clergy. They were all being targeted years before any shots were fired, when Roosevelt’s administration was labeling Hitler as a “moderate” we could work with (as opposed to the Bolsheviks). Hitler was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1933. Roosevelt also had great respect for Mussolini, “that [something] gentlemen,” he called him.

    My point being that that war, like any war, is not about doing the right thing but about other issues entirely.

    You write, “But my question – and it is an urgent question – is if the Allied powers had decided from the very beginning that military action was itself murder and would itself magnify rather than stop the murders – whether the consequences would have been even worse than they actually were. Maybe they wouldn’t.”

    None of the Allied powers or any other government has ever thought of the killing they do as murder. I think you would agree with that statement. What the enemy does is murder. Apparently it’s not at all clear, for one thing that the Germans started the bombing of civilians targets (if you leave out Guernica). That’s interesting, I think, considering it was tit-for-tat after it started. But, more importantly, the UK and France probably could have stopped the Nazi war machine before it was ready for war, only almost no one, especially in Britain, wanted to because the public was largely sympathetic to the Germans because of their guilt about Versailles.

    It reminds me of something I heard a Rwandan say about the genocide in his country in 1994 and all the talk about should the UN have intervened militarily (Kofe Anan was in charge of the African desk at the time and pulled out the 5,000 UN troops in the country). This man, the Rwandan, who was appearing on a PBS show with a bunch of Americans including Samantha Power who “wrote the book” on genocide in the 20th century, after listening to an hour of their palaver (I wrote about this interview in “The Color or Evil”), nonsense about the devil having possessed the Hutus, etc., smiled politely and said, all that was needed to stop the slaughter was a telephone call from Clinton or Mitterand. I’m sure he’s right. Just as an ultimatum from the UK and France would have meant the Nazis backing down (not occupying the Rhineland, e.g.) and very possible have also meant the fall of Hitler’s government (an army coup might well have caused it if he tried to hang onto power).

    Howard Zinn mused about the practicality of non-resistance versus taking up arms in response to violence. He covers all the major American wars from the Revolution to WWII. Even WWII, during which he dropped bombs on civilians in France, and recounts how, just to see how the new weapon Napalm worked, the US bombed a French village _after_ hostilities had stopped. Are these the people we should expect to have made decisions based on morality? We bombed Thailand because we had a lot of B52s in-country that were sitting idle. Sounds fanciful, but that’s the sort of mentality, or insanity, that war — violence — breeds.

    Zinn asks if maybe the world would have been better off if we didn’t take up arms against the British, or against the South, or against the Nazis. He has some interesting things to say about the notion of WWII as the “good war.” It sounds absurd, I know. But I find his question much more intriguing than any discussion about the “just war.”

    The question you raised seems to me to beg the question in some sense, or addresses something other than the issue at stake. I haven’t done it justice here, I know (if I had I would have been much more brief). But I don’t think it’s legitimate to argue a special case for WWII or the Nazi atrocities. We Americans have committed atrocities galore and never get held to account for them. You can’t argue from numbers. As Norman Finkelstein says, comparing atrocities is obscene.

    • Yes, I take your point on many of the above issues: We Americans have committed atrocities, but apart from a very small number, we see our war activities as heroic, while those of the enemy are terrorist. I also appreciate that the Nazi atrocities were not the reasons any of the Allied countries gave for going WWII in the first place. Though I didn’t know it was so bad that TIME had named Hitler as a Man of the Year.

      Should we ever go to war? I’m beginning to think perhaps not. There are so many innocent victims, and the suffering is so terrible. To bring the question closer to home, I asked myself this morning whether I could justify the deliberate torture of a single innocent child in order to stop a government engaging in the kind of things that triggered WWII. The answer is no, I could not.

      On the other hand, I am not convinced that a single phone call from Clinton or Mitterand could have stopped the Hutus slaughtering behavior in Rwanda. You say you are sure it could have. What would you have had either of them say that you think would have been so effective? Threaten military retaliation? economic sanctions? Obama tried to control Assad by threats, and it didn’t work. Should he have stayed out of it altogether? made a different kind of phone call?

      This is not to raise the flag for more military action. I am emphatically against it. I think we need to think far more about the alternatives to war. But the solutions are immensely complex and evasive and cannot be reduced to a telephone call. Look at the years of negotiation that it has taken to resolve the Northern Ireland situation, and they are still setting off bombs over which flags to fly when and what streets can be used for parades.

      I do hope I do not sound as if I do not want to hear any more on this subject. I do. I absolutely do not have all the answers. (Maybe I don’t have any, come to think of it.)

  4. I took that Rwandan at his word partly because of the context in which it was said: after that long hour of Westerners, most of whom had been there at the time, talking about the evil in the eyes of the killers, the “blackeness” there (did anyone see evil in blueness of the Serbians’ eyes?). They didn’t even realize what they were saying when they equated blackness with evil. In fact, despite the fact that they had all been there (except for Power) “on the ground,” they seemed embarrassingly clueless — though, not to themselves. The Rwandan, the only Rwandan on the panel, had, it seemed to me, a better objectivity than any of them did with their evil and devil (“I shook hands with the devil,” the officer in charge of the UN troops said, not here but elsewhere).

    What would a phone call have accomplished? The same thing a phone call would accomplish to Israel or to Puerto Rico today if we wanted them to change their behavior, or almost as much. We underestimate how much leverage the US has in almost every part of the world and how wary anyone is of going against us. I don’t know what the leverage was in the case of Rwanda, but I believe that Rwandan knew and that he was right. Despite our enormous leverage (capacity to bully, actually) we know squat about the world and how to manipulate it, expect when it comes to exploiting its economic resources, which seems to be mostly all we care about (not the people “we,” the powers-that-be “we).

    Assad was not, is not, a client state of ours in the sense Israel or Saudi Arabia is. They were the Soviets ally. We have no leverage there (the Russians still have a port in Syria). Hence the leverage the Russians were able to use to make Kerry do an about-face on the imminent strike we were threatening. No phone calls, or inept statements by Obama and Hillary early on saying Assad must go, could have any effect in Damascus. And time has proven the Russians to have backed the winner. Assad is gaining the upper hand. Al Qaeda and other Muslim right-wingers are a big part of the so-called resistance. We look like fools yet again.

    How did we do in Iraq? They have a civil war in play now. We killed hundreds of thousands with sanctions in the 1990s and God knows how many in the war. Would Saddam have killed even a small percentage of that many Iraqis during the same time frame? Never mind the brutal disruption of every aspect of life in the country. And, don’t forget, we went to war there because it was a just war, we were in imminent danger of being attacked by WMD. The Nazis were held accountable as war criminals for the same action; even the secretary general of the UN called it an illegal war at the time. What was the moral stance to take toward the US, then, in 2003? Was it to do nothing or give nominal support? Was it to not block the resolution in the Security Council? Would that have been enough to clear our collective consciences about what we did and didn’t do in the 1930s when we didn’t even allow Hollywood to make movies that might be offensive to the fascists and IBM was making machines for the Nazis to keep better records with?

    I don’t have any answers either, Terry. I have a lot of questions and have found no resolution to any of this except to reject the received wisdom and media propaganda that passes for history.

  5. That article I referred to about the “color of evil” can be found: http://www.eclectica.org/v12n3/hubschman_salon.html

  6. I see the actual figure for UN troops in Rwanda was 2,500. I seem to remember Dallaire saying if the UN had given him another 2,500 instead of telling him, under US pressure, to pull out, he could have stopped the slaughter.

    I also see from rereading my own article (better to do so before rather than after quoting it publicly) that the Rwanda on that panel, Bonaventure Niyibizi, gave a plausible explanation for Tutsi behavior that didn’t require any references to Beelzebub.

    Victor Klemperer is faced with the same challenge in his native Germany to explain the phenomenon of Nazism. He doesn’t invoke the supernatural; he puts the source in Romanticism, which I note Wikipedia also credits for the rise of rapid nationalism toward the end of the 19th century. It’s a connection I have found questionable until now. But, after all, I can remember in my own lifetime when people thought very differently about matters like “race” and women — thought and felt, in an axiomatic way that went unquestioned. Why not, after a century of a movement that rejected 18th-century rationality and conjured up all the subconscious powers of the human mind that the previous century had thought safely buried, why wouldn’t the generation that inherited that tradition fall prey to the bizarre, irrational emotions of fascism and nazism?

    We are the products (as Klemperer also points out) of the language we use, the language with which we think (even the victims on the Nazis thought in those same terms, K. says; and who can deny the Nazis did not win the war in the sense that virtually everyone accepts their racial designations, though here in America we already had a template in place for our own notions of race, which are no less bizarre than those of the Nuremberg Laws?).

    • I have read your eclectica article, and understand fully what you mean when you say that the very structure of our reality is formed by the culture in which we are socialized. I know this from the inside, and even in my old age, am surprised how often I still discover yet another assumption of my own background of which I had been completely unaware. The concept of Evil is a key example of a purely cultural concept that takes on an objective reality in people’s thoughts..

      But it doesn’t ultimately get us around this question of whether war is ever an appropriate response. Yes, we agree that we humans have glorified war and warriors, even sanctified it in ways that are truly horrible. Yes, we agree that too often we turn a blind eye to what is happening. Yes, there are many alternatives to war which again and again history shows us we have dismissed, preferring the gun and the bomb to enforce our will.

      But what if Clinton had made that phone call and the Hutus still attacked the Rwandans? Then what should he have done? Sent in 2,500 military personnel called “peace keepers”? And if that didn’t keep the peace, as it has not done in more than one conflict to which they have been sent?

      This very day, there are credible reports of horrendous torture and executions of thousands of Syrians by the Assad government. I ask myself first not “what should we do?” but “what can we do?” Assuming that we are acting in good faith (unlike our going into Iraq where our leaders must have known that they were not telling us the truth about weapons of mass destruction), what are the possibilities? Sometimes that list seems terrifyingly short. And the none of the options seem like good ones.

      War is a terrible terrible option. Is it always – must it always intrinsically – be an option that is so bad that nothing could be worse? in other words, should war never be used to halt what we humans sometimes do to each other?

      I am now old enough to be quite certain that I will never have to decide whether to pick up a gun or not. War looks worse and worse to me, the longer I live, and I move closer and closer to feeling that war is never a solution. But I’m not 100% there yet.

      You know that I will read whatever further thoughts you have to share on this now or in the future.

  7. I think the word “war” itself is a euphemism, one that we all use as if it
    were not. That was more or less what was behind my thoughts about its
    being a game. There is a great quantity of activity and organization that
    we can call “war.” But its reality is the young man with his insides lying
    on the road beside him, to use just one example. War is, or should be,
    unthinkable things which we should all of course have to think about the
    way Germans have had to think about when they are required to watch all
    that footage of Auschwitz et al. in the generations after the war
    (American school children do as well), the stuff we in the victor
    countries see to remind us how evil _they_ were (much more comforting than
    watching footage about our own pogroms against African Americans and
    Indians).

    But cataloging the atrocities that make up a war can eventually numb us to
    them, or traumatize us so that we end up half-insane. So, I won’t do that
    here. In any event, I don’t have any personal experience of humans killing
    other humans. I pity those who do, though doing just that, killing and
    destroying, is the stated objective of our armed forces. And a good
    soldier, like a good athlete, wants to get into the game, feels cheated if
    s/he doesn’t. You have to use the very young for this purpose whose brains
    are not fully formed and lack the kind of prudence and good judgment and
    maybe even humanity that comes into play with a bit more age. Use them and
    destroy them in the process.

    It’s too late to philosophize after the killing has started. Bonaventure
    Niyibizi laid out the reasons why it started in Rwanda: decades of legal
    discrimination, the million Rwandans not allowed to come back into the
    country, the increasing resentment of Hutu for Tutsi ever since the
    European power put one in charge of the other, the many smaller mass
    killings that had taken place over the years. No Evil required. Would
    2,500 more troops under Dallaire’s command have stopped it? Very possibly.
    We’ll never know, will we, thanks to Mr. Clinton and Mr. Anan. Would I be
    in favor of UN troops having shot to kill in order to stop the Hutu
    massacre? You bet. But by then it would already have been too late to act
    in any way that can be called “good.”

    There are horrendous killings by the other side in the Syrian war. How
    often does one side behave more “honorably” than the other in war?
    Goebbels insisted the Germans were doing so, while the Bolshevik hordes
    and “pawns of the Jews” on the Allied side were committing atrocities
    right and left. Had the Germans won the war (I don’t believe they could
    have), we would be reading about American and British war crimes instead
    of German and Japanese. Had the Germans behaved during the second as they
    did during the first world war, neither side could claim any moral high
    ground. Thanks to the Nazis’ asinine race theories and mass slaughters all
    across the continent, we have a clear case of very bad versus much worse.
    Hence, the “good war.”

    It’s our policies that lead to these wars, sometimes our stupidity, more
    often our greed and arrogance. When all else fails — bullying and “covert
    action” — we send in the boys and the bombers (which murder many more than
    the boys — and now girls — do) who kill and risk being killed by other
    boys and girls who also don’t have a clue why they are there…. Which is
    just the way we want it.

  8. Did I say thank you for your thoughtful comments, Terry? Thank you.

  9. Tom – After some days of thought, it seems to me that what you are saying about war is more pertinent than my attempt to decide whether there can be such a thing as a “good war.” Situations are always changing, and I think actually that question as a theoretical proposition is unanswerable.

    Much more valuable in the real world is to ask how we can reduce the terrible slaughters to which you allude. Let us step back and not ask, as I have, whether it is conceivably justified, but rather, what can do to find other ways of dealing with our differences short of killing and torture and creating millions of refugees again and again and again,while building bigger bombs and worse weapons of massive destruction.

    I don’t have many answers to that question either, but I think it is worth struggling with..

    Thank you for your comment above. But it is I who owe you the larger thank you.

  10. Reading Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes (1914-1990). He shows how the “short twentieth century” threw out all the progressive norms of the “long” century that preceded it — no major wars (except for the US civil war)and what wars there were respected civilian life and property, the abolition of torture, etc. — and plunged the West back into barbarism, starting with the slaughter in the trenches of the first world war and continuing ever since — all-out, total war and the huge organization of materiel and manpower that involves….until we take for granted that’s what war is, when the civilized nations of the West had worked for centuries since the Thirty Years War to tame it if not abolish that sort of thing.

    The stats for the twentieth century are too depressing to cite. It’s amazing we didn’t kill each other all off.

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