Friday 13 June 2008

Stop The (Second World) War!

As I've written before, although I had my doubts about the wisdom of the Iraq war, I found myself more in sympathy with those who argued for it on progressive, humanitarian grounds, than with those 'stoppers' who seemed to be opposed on principle to military interventions against murderous tyrants. The same people were often as vehemently opposed to the war in Afghanistan (which I supported) appearing to exhibit more sympathy for the reactionary Taliban than for the secular, democratic forces that stood up to them.

One of the strongest arguments against leftist opponents of liberal intervention has always been a historical one. If you followed their reasoning to its logical conclusion, and applied it retrospectively, then the western democracies would never had stood up to Hitler. And there's nothing more damning for a good leftist than to be ranked among the appeasers (even though there were many in the 1930s, on the left as well as the right, who argued that cutting a deal with Hitler would be less awful than going to war, and who suggested - pre-echoing many on the 'indecent left' today - that Nazism was not much worse than western capitalism). 

So it was probably only a matter of time before someone on the 'stopper' left attempted to undermine this historical argument. It seems that the experimental novelist Nicholson Baker, whose expertise as a historian was hitherto unknown, has gone there, with his book Human Smoke: The Beginning of World War II, the End of Civilisation. Baker suggests that the world would have been a better place if we'd just let Hitler get on with things: fewer lives would have been lost, the occupation of Europe wouldn't have been so bad, etc. Most contentiously, the book argues that if the Allies hadn't intervened, then the Holocaust might not have happened, thus neatly adding the worst genocide in history to the roll-call of things for which the west is 'really' to blame.

Anne Applebaum does a good job of demolishing Baker's arguments in her review in The New Republic, in which she accuses him of basing his analysis on second-hand sources and recycled myths taken from the internet. Christopher Hitchens is equally trenchant in his New Statesman review, criticising among other things the tastelessness of Baker's title. However, the general tenor of the comments in response to Hitchens' piece, on the NS website, which tend to favour Baker and repeat all the predictable non-arguments about Hitch's 'neocon' connections, confirm that the book is not an eccentric one-off but one more symptom of a wider malaise of the western left.

Other blogs that have already linked to this post include Bob - and Will at DSTW, who also links to a more detailed critique of Baker's argument by Snoopy at Simply Jews.


Gregg said...

(even though there were many in the 1930s, on the left as well as the right, who argued that cutting a deal with Hitler would be less awful than going to war, and who suggested - pre-echoing many on the 'indecent left' today - that Nazism was not much worse than western capitalism)

There were those who argued the first point, based on the horrors of WWI. I'd like you to name some of these leftists who made the second point, because I'm not aware of any. Are you perhaps thinking of those who saw Nazi imperial ambitions as not much worse than British imperialism (Orwell, for instance).

Anonymous said...


The line from the Old Man himself,
about how it didn't matter who won WW2, as Europe was fucked anyway (or words to that effect) is more the line of thinking you are on about.

(Roots around in folders and files ...)

Here it is, it was quoted in "With the Masses, Against the Stream: French Trotskyism in the Second World War" by Ian Birchall (Revolutionary History 1:4, Winter 1988-89) - Trotsky proving that he was well able to spout utter bollocks on occasion:

"The victory of the imperialists of Great Britain and France would not be less frightful for the ultimate fate of mankind than that of Hitler and Mussolini. Bourgeois democracy cannot be saved. By helping their bourgeoisie against foreign Fascism, the workers would only accelerate the victory of Fascism in their own country. The task posed by history is not to support one part of the imperialist system against another but to make an end of the system as a whole."

Thus, -- we see false historical perspective and incorrect abstract analysis lead inevitably to stupid concrete standpoints. Trotsky was human and not a soothsayer after all.

Anonymous said...

This topic reminds me of a guy named Tyler Allison from a forum I go to on Facebook (i.e. John McCain forum). This Tyler is an Obama supporter and is strongly against U.S. presence in Iraq. A few others got into an argument with him (including me) and he followed with this:

"It is amazing to me that the same people who called Kosovo a huge mistake because it needlessly placed American lives in danger (what we lose 1 person because he had a heart attack) yet think 4 thousand dead so Iraqis don't have to deal with their own government is okay.

It wasn't okay to go into Rawanda because we shouldn't get involved in other nations politics but it is okay to spent 5 years and a few trillion to give the people of Iraq something they cared so little about they never bothered to really try to be free...

Yeah that is right, I'm an America firster. I feel bad that we can't liberate the world... but we can't... especially in nations filled with people who don't know anything of freedom and don't want any.

We give them a vote and they elect terrorists... what we need is a basically secular strong man to keep the crazies in check... what we need to solve the problems in Iraq is Saddam Hussein."

Simply unbelievable.