In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
– John McCrae, "In Flanders Fields," 1915
How shall we remember them, those people who died? Mourn the dead. Remember the battle. Understand the tragedy. Honor the memory.
– Excerpt from the documentary film at the Pearl Harbor war memorial.
It takes great leadership and ability to settle differences through peaceful means. Any idiot can start a war.
– Charles Adams, For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization
The three quotes above are three of my favorite about the meaning of war. The first, written by my fellow Canadian John McCrae on the killing fields of Ypres during World War I, is one of the most famous poems about war. When I was growing up in Canada, we heard it every year in school on Remembrance Day, the term used in the British Commonwealth for what Americans call Veterans Day. Indeed, one of my biggest regrets in life is that when I was in second grade and my teacher, Mrs. Orriss, asked me if I would read the poem to the assembled students in first and second grade (in Canada, we called them "grade one" and "grade two"), I let my fear stop me from saying yes.
The second quote and third quotes need no explanation about their origin.
When you read them, you might think that there’s a contradiction: the first and second can be taken to be pro-war, while the third is clearly antiwar. Although there’s definitely a tension, there is no necessary contradiction. Indeed, a broader reading of "In Flanders Fields" that takes account of historical context and a careful reading of the Pearl Harbor quote can lead one reasonably to conclude that they are profoundly antiwar, not because their authors necessarily meant them to be so, but because if one takes the two challenges seriously, one will tend to be led to oppose almost all past wars and all current ones.
McCrae’s challenge, in the last stanza, is that we "take up" the "quarrel with the foe" and that we not "break faith" with those who die. But what does it mean to break faith? Shouldn’t we, if we are really to act in good faith, try our best to understand why the First World War occurred and why other wars occur? McCrae is surely not saying that he’s glad that soldiers died. His "Short days ago/We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,/Loved and were loved" reminds us of the vital lives lived by these men, almost all of whom were young. There’s such humanitarianism in that one short passage, such a recognition of the preciousness of each human life. Would McCrae really have objected if someone delved deeper into the issues to understand how to prevent war? That’s hard to believe. Consider the Pearl Harbor quote. Surely mourning the dead shouldn’t mean that we want more people to die, should it? And notice the sentence, "Understand the tragedy." Its author is saying that the deaths of over 2,000 people in Hawaii were tragic. He’s also saying that we should understand it. Understanding it requires delving into why it happened.
So let’s take up McCrae’s challenge and the challenge from the Pearl Harbor quote. Let’s not break faith with those who died. And let’s understand.
The vast majority of wars in history have been senseless. By that I don’t mean that various people who made decisions that led to war didn’t have their reasons. Rather, I mean that a look at the record shows that wars rarely achieve what either side wants, kill hundreds of thousands (and, in the case of World Wars I and II, millions) of people, and destroy a large amount of people’s wealth. I don’t have room to make that case here in detail, but let me make it briefly. World War I was fought, at least from President Wilson’s viewpoint, to "make the world safe for democracy." In an ironic sense, it did, but surely not in the way Wilson intended. It made Germany safe for a democratic election in which Hitler was elected. The Allies in Europe entered World War II to protect Poland. It didn’t work. Although Poland was freed from Nazi oppression, it was not freed from totalitarian oppression by the Soviet Union and by domestic Polish totalitarians until over 40 years later. And interestingly, when Poland was freed, it was by peaceful means, not war. Franklin D. Roosevelt took coercive measures against Japan, including cutting off its foreign oil supply, to get the Japanese government out of China because he didn’t want a brutal government running China. Although the Japanese government was kicked out, for the next 50 years, a brutal government ran China. Some would argue that it still does.
War displays the essence of government. Government is a legal monopoly on the use of force, and governments typically exploit that monopoly to the limit that citizens, or other governments, allow. In peacetime, the government uses force mainly against it own citizens. Consider governments in the United States, which, in their treatment of their own people, are actually better than most other governments. Our governments tax us heavily on almost everything we buy or sell, sometimes take our land, often prevent us from using our land for peaceful pursuits, and often throw our fellow citizens in prison, sometimes for the rest of their lives, for taking drugs that the government says they shouldn’t take. The government makes us take off our shoes and show all our three-ounce bottles before we get on commercial airplanes and has the gall to tell us that this is making us safe. The federal government threatens us with up to one year in prison if we give more than $2,300 to a federal candidate of our choice. This is a tiny list of restrictions, both big and small, on our freedom. I could multiply it at least one hundred times.
In wartime, governments use violence, even more indiscriminately than in peacetime, against their own citizens and especially against citizens of other countries. In World War II, for example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt imprisoned or forcibly moved inland over 100,000 Japanese-Americans who had been living on or near the West Coast. Adolf Hitler murdered millions of his own people. And of course, the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, Germany, and Japan killed millions of people.
If we are truly to learn what we need to about war, we also need to take seriously the third quote above and recognize that there is no glory in taking a country to war. As the quote says, any idiot can start a war, and most of those currently in federal office or running for president, with the notable exceptions of Ron Paul on the Republican side and Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich on the Democratic side, are quite willing to stay in the current war and even start one or two new ones against people in whatever country the U.S. government and various demagogues have demonized. Virtually all of the other major-party candidates for president have stated some version of the line "all options are on the table," the current euphemism for "I’m willing to push a button to launch a weapon that could kill thousands of people."
One of the Left’s best bumper stickers is, "If you want peace, work for justice." Justice is important, but it will be achieved only as a result and, indeed, necessarily as a result, of achieving freedom. You can’t have justice without freedom. So here’s my bumper sticker: "If you want peace, work for freedom." And who’s threatening our freedom? At the height of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan, in his Thanksgiving 1981 interview with Barbara Walters, fingered the culprit. Reagan said that the biggest threat to our freedom is not foreign governments but our own governments. He was right.
In his famous poem above, John McCrae asks us to "[t]ake up our quarrel with the foe." But who is the foe? If we really want to make sure our past soldiers did not die in vain, let’s get the answer to that question right.
Copyright © 2007 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.
Read more by David R. Henderson
- Robert Gates, Pro and Con – January 9th, 2017
- Questioning the Powerful – December 15th, 2014
- Richard Epstein’s Faulty Case for Intervention – September 17th, 2014
- An Economist’s Case for a Non-Interventionist Foreign Policy – April 27th, 2014
- Rand’s Stand – March 12th, 2013