« NAFTA and Illegal Immigration | Main | Going with the Global Flow »

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Equality of Sacrifice

War is a public good since I share in the costs and benefits whether I fight or not. Without a draft, honor, patriotism, or some other means to compel those in the higher income classes to join, why not let others do the fighting? It wasn't always the way it is today. Even without a draft, there was time when those at the top of wealth distribution felt duty bound to contribute to the war effort, when equality of sacrifice was more than an idea. The battle of Somme in WWI provides a notable contrast to war today:

Honor and carnage, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Commentary, International Herald Tribune: Ninety years ago today, the Battle of the Somme began, the greatest British offensive in what we still think of as the Great War. After an artillery barrage, 13 infantry divisions went "over the top," each platoon climbing out of the trenches at the blast of an officer's whistle and advancing toward the enemy lines. ...

From dawn to dusk on July 1, 1916, almost 40,000 British soldiers were wounded and 20,000 were killed. There was a casualty for every half meter of the entire front line. It was far and away the heaviest loss the British (or possibly any) army ever suffered on one day...

Apart from the scale of suffering, the Somme was distinguished from the other great battles of the past century - Verdun, Stalingrad, Iwo Jima - by the fact that every British soldier who fought and died that day was a volunteer.

A draft was introduced in the course of that war, more for political than military reasons, but the millions who joined up in the first two years did so freely. They were inspired by patriotism, by anger at the ruthless German violation of Belgian neutrality, and, in the case of the men from the higher classes, by "a sense of private honor," in Evelyn Waugh's words, "of a debt on demand that had been incurred by privilege."

Those young idealists originally believed that the war would be over soon, but also that it was fine and noble thing. "Now God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour," wrote the poet Rupert Brooke shortly before his death. ...

[J]unior officers were three times more likely to be killed than private soldiers, not because they were braver but because they were expected to set an example and, in an only half-ironical phrase, to go ahead and get shot first. Not only subalterns: On that first day on the Somme, 30 British officers of the rank of lieutenant-colonel or above were killed.

"Equality of sacrifice" is sometimes a convenient phrase, but no one could deny it then. When the war began, the prime minister was the Liberal, H.H. Asquith, and the Tory leader of the opposition was Andrew Bonar Law. Both would lose sons in action. Lord Salisbury was an earlier prime minister; five of his grandsons were killed. And several younger Members of Parliament, including William Gladstone, grandson of one more prime minister, joined up and were killed.

All that is a sharp contrast with a Blair government, not one of whom has ever performed any kind of military service, and a Bush administration whose senior members have never been much burdened by any sense of private honor incurred by privilege. Like Dick Cheney, they "had other priorities" when they should have been drafted.

The presence of so many articulate and intelligent young men in the front line to witness this appalling slaughter had another important consequence. A new group of poets - Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and above all Wilfred Owen - wrote in a quite new vein, about "the Pity of War," as Owen called it: "What passing bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns."

He himself was killed in the last week of the war, but those other three survived and all wrote grimly realistic memoirs of the war. By the 1930s that may have encouraged a turn toward pacifism. When Winston Churchill led his country during the next war, he dragged his feet over the invasion of northern Europe. After one meeting when his allies had tried to prod him, one of the prime minister's aides explained to an American, "You are arguing with the Somme."

The Battle of the Somme was a failure from that first day onward - it petered out after several months with almost no territory gained and casualties running into hundreds of thousands.

To write about officer-poets might imply that the heroes of the Somme were all "public-school men" or undergraduates from Oxford and Cambridge. Of course most of the recruits who made up the New Army, as it was known, were working-class boys from industrial cities. They joined up together, they trained together, they marched together toward their first great battle on the Somme, and they died together. ... [T]he Accrington Pals, Belfast Young Citizens, Grimsby Chums, Glasgow Boys' Brigade, Hull T'Others - and the Bradford Pals, who had set off with such high hopes, and who lost well over half their number killed or wounded 90 years ago today.

A poet of a later generation remembered them. Philip Larkin's "MCMXIV" envisages crowds of those recruits in 1914, laughing and grinning as if they were at a cricket or soccer match: "Never such innocence again."

    Posted by on Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 12:48 PM in Economics, Iraq and Afghanistan, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (54)


    TrackBack URL for this entry:

    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Equality of Sacrifice:


    Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.