Never an Act of Aggression in War
If you cast aside the simplistic sort of “he said, she said” of high school history textbooks in their descriptions of the means and motives of war throughout the history of our great civilization, instead turning for information to the serious academic record and first- or second-hand accounts from contemporaries, you’ll quickly find that, with surprisingly few exceptions, the declaration of war has quite seldom entailed acts of aggression.
So when William the Bastard (or Conqueror, as you prefer), Duke of Normandy, invaded England upon the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066, he wasn’t simply taking advantage of political turmoil and a distracted English army to grip some new acreage for himself. No, no; that would be getting him all wrong. You see, he had been promised that throne by Harold Godwinson, Ed’s brother-in-law, while Harold was in Norman captivity after a nasty shipwreck. So William wasn’t involved in aggression. He was just claiming what was rightfully his based on an unofficial oath from someone he’d held captive. You know how it is, right?
When Mehmed II finally sacked Constantinople in 1453, it was merely an unpleasant necessity that the centuries-long inhabitants of that town had to be murdered and cast away. This wasn’t aggression, either, you see. It was just the rightful fulfilment of Osman’s Dream, the Ottoman version of Manifest Destiny. Mehmed was morally obligated to take that city. According to him, he was simply defending his rights and the destiny of the Ottoman peoples.
During the European conquest of the Americas, the massive ethnic cleansing that was the murder and displacement of countless millions of indigenous peoples was never considered aggressive behavior by the thrones of Europe. These people needed a little bit of European sensibility in their lives—they were clearly heathens! They drank chocolate and didn’t know about Jesus!
And when Adolf Hitler decided to take over the Sudetenland in 1938, he wasn’t simply expanding the Reich for expansion’s sake. How could we be so naive? The goodly German-rooted Sudetenlanders, we were informed, had been suffering unimaginable discrimination and humiliation at the hands of their mean old Czech overlords. Hitler was simply the prophecied liberator. He freed the Sudetenland, don’t you see? Because he was such a good guy and all.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the government and businesses of the US weren’t interested in acquiring and perpetuating direct control of the world’s single largest remaining source of clean liquid fossil fuel energy. Of course not! Heretic! The evil Iraqi dictator (whom, by the way, had never been supported with arms or money by the US government in the past) was hatching a plan to destroy the world with his weapons of mass distraction. He had to be stopped. And the Iraqi people needed liberating! Hundreds of thousands of them might have to die in order that their country should be free like ours, but isn’t democracy worth it? To us? Nevermind them.
Many will cringe at this analogy, but I challenge you to explain why it’s inappropriate. I’d like to hear it, sincerely. Because, in the end, I believe I know what the answer will be: we simply cannot hold ourselves to the same standards of judgment to which we so readily hold others, and the record of history, or at least the one that is most accessible to the masses, holds this unspoken rule between the lines of its texts.
Even in the case of the United States’ involvement in the Second World War, which I would say is one of the more truly altruistic wartime efforts on the record, there were ulterior motives. Namely, that the flexing USSR could not be allowed to carve up what was left of Europe and China for itself, unchecked. Not with all those markets to be made, all of that Marshall Plan investment to be had! That also happens to be why the atomic bomb was used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It may have saved American lives, but it was not necessary to end the war in the Pacific and neither was an invasion of Japan, which is often claimed as the only alternative. The end of the Japanese Empire was already in sight. Little Boy and Fat Man were only necessary to display to the Soviets who would be boss from now on. Because, according to Sidney Lens, one of the greatest writers on the arms race, the Pentagon was thoroughly convinced in 1942 that the Soviets were decades away from developing an atomic weapon of their own. But by 1945 the picture was clearer. Oops! The Soviets would have “it” by 1948, and the rest is history.
Never an act of aggression in war, ladies and gentlemen. Especially not when the winners get to write down the story. The saddest part, to me, is that we now live in an age where it is not so much the governments, even, that drive the machine of war; it is the economic faculty of the armaments industry itself which now powers the engine like so many cascading water-wheels. Or blood-wheels? Ew, that’s gross. But Halloween is coming.