How did World War I come to an end? Nobody I ask knows the answer to this question. This isn’t surprising—people aren’t taught much history, and anyway it happened long ago. Still, it’s an interesting story, and it happens to be in my mind at the moment because I have just read a great novel, Theodor Plivier’s The Kaiser Departs, the Generals Remain (1933), written by a participant in the events.
Basically, what happened was that the German fleet was ordered to attack the English navy in October 1918, when it was clear the war was already lost; ship by ship the sailors mutinied, arrested their officers, and went ashore to stir up the townspeople, who responded so enthusiastically that within weeks the country was in the hands of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils formed on the spot, all political prisoners (most in jail for opposing the war) had been released, the Emperor was forced to abdicate, and the war was over. Alas, the populace believed that the Social Democratic Party, which had supported the war for four years but now maneuvered to set itself at the head of the social movement, would represent its interests as the new government. In fact, Socialist power opened the way to the violent destruction of the more militant activists fighting for direct popular control of social institutions, and eventually to the Nazi Machtergreifung and a new world war.
It’s a story both inspiring and sad, like much history of social movements, but above all it’s a useful one to keep in mind when pondering the situation of today’s peace movement. I write this a few weeks after having joined 35,000 good-hearted people in demonstrating in the streets of New York against the now four-year-old war in Iraq. The march was great—I loved the enthusiasm, intelligence, and anger of my fellow marchers. But as one young fellow’s homemade placard read, “I can’t believe I’m still fucking protesting this war!” Leaving the demo, its energy ground down by the end of the road and the non-reception we received from the empty city and bored cops at Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, I glanced at a basement gym in the neighborhood to see hundreds of exercisers running on their treadmills, climbing their stairs to nowhere.
A few days later, an email from United for Peace and Justice, the march organizers, urged me to write my congressperson to ask him or her to vote against the bill appropriating another $100 billion or so for the war. It’s hard to imagine anything more pathetic than this appeal. Not only were almost no members of Congress willing to refuse to fund the war, they wouldn’t even include an amendment ruling out an attack on Iran. In this, indeed, they stood shoulder to shoulder with the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for president: Clinton, Edwards, and Obama have all used Vice President Cheney’s own words to assert that the “military option” cannot be “taken off the table” in dealing with Iran. All eagerly assure Israel that its interests are paramount in the Middle East, whatever this requires in the way of military intervention in Lebanon, Syria, or Iran. Hillary, the frontrunner, goes so far as to stress the “vital national security interests in Iraq” that require the continuing presence there of American troops. Bush will leave in two years, but the generals will remain.
In fact, no politician of any meaningful standing is for peace. No one objects to the gradually escalating war in Afghanistan. The emerging liberal consensus seems indeed to be that Bush has slighted the war that needs to be fought—the war on terror—for the “unnecessary” war on Iraq. No one has questioned the American intervention in Somalia, a country whose relative calm under Islamist rule was broken by the U.S.-sponsored Ethiopian invasion and Special Forces attacks, and which has now returned to its earlier state of chaotic civil conflict. The U.S.-financed carnage in Colombia goes unmentioned.
The “war on terror,” of course, cannot be won and will never end. There will be no solution either to the economic misery of the world’s Muslim—or other—masses or to the discontents of the frustrated intelligentsia and professional classes who wish to rule over them. The U.S. will struggle to the last moment to support the dictators and ruling families of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf emirates, while the need for Israel’s existence as a military partner rules out any resolution of the “Palestinian problem.” It’s even hard to imagine a NATO victory in Afghanistan; the destabilization of Pakistan, where the madrassa meets the Bomb, seems more likely.
Could the disintegration of the army put an end to this madness? The chief problem here is that the armed forces are not constituted of conscripts but of mercenaries, in a private-public mix like the rest of the economy. Low pay and ill treatment in the public sector, in the context of frightening rates of death and injury, have made recruitment and retention difficult, but armies for hire are not as likely to revolt as draftees. Still, the 3,000-plus who have already gone AWOL since 2003 are to be celebrated, and supporting the troops in resistance to their brutal and degrading job should certainly be a prime focus of antiwar activists. Meanwhile, the greatest hope for America—and the world—lies in the difficulty of paying for protracted war, especially with the current degree of associated corporate enrichment. The sums required dwarf the handfuls of billions chiseled here and there from children’s health insurance, care for veterans, education, and so-called entitlements like Medicare and Social Security. No one knows how long the Chinese government and other investors in U.S. government bonds will continue to make up for the funds siphoned off through the tax system and a multitude of other official scams to corporate interests and wealthy individuals, in the context of a weakening economy.
The state of the economy, like the endemic warfare that is one of its manifestations, is another thing that politicians can do little about. Most Americans can probably expect continued degradation of their living and working conditions, while dodging the efforts of enterprising jihadists and exploring the accelerating consequences of global warming. How long will people put up with it all? In any case, as with the first universal conflict, the permanent war of today will end only when we stop pestering our hapless congresspeople and senators and, like those German sailors a century ago, take social affairs into our own hands.
PAUL MATTICK'S book, Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (Reaktion, 2011) is based on articles written for the Rail.