Bryan Caplan  

Social Science in the Trenches

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I have to think that this passage from All Quiet on the Western Front exaggerates the intellectuality of the average soldier, but it's such a great read that I'm going to break my personal rule against blockquoting:
"But what I would like to know," says Albert, "is whether there would not have been a war if the Kaiser had said No."

"I'm sure there would," I interject, "he was against it from the first."

"Well, if not him alone, then perhaps if twenty or thirty people in the world had said No."

"That's probable," I agree, "but they damned well said Yes."

"It's queer, when one thinks about it," goes on Kropp, "we are here to protect our fatherland. And the French are over there to protect their fatherland. Now who's in the right?"

"Perhaps both," say I without believing it.

"Yes, well now," pursues Albert, and I see that he means to drive me into a corner, "but our professors and parsons and newspapers say that we are the only ones that are right, and let's hope so;--but the French professors and parsons and newspapers say that the right is on their side, now what about that?"

"That I don't know," I say, "but whichever way it is there's war all the same and every month more countries coming in."

Tjaden reappears. He is still quite excited and again joins the conversation, wondering just how a war gets started.

"Mostly by one country badly offending another," answers Albert with a slight air of superiority.

Then Tjaden pretends to be obtuse. "A country? I don't follow. A mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France. Or a river, or a wood, or a field of wheat."

"Are you really as stupid as that, or are you just pulling my leg?" growls Kropp, "I don't mean that at all. One people offends the other--"

"Then I haven't any business here at all," replies Tjaden, "I don't feel myself offended."

"Well, let me tell you," says Albert sourly, "it doesn't apply to tramps like you."

"Then I can be going home right away," retorts Tjaden, and we all laugh, "Ach, man! he means the people as a whole, the State--" exclaims Müller.

"State, State"--Tjaden snaps his fingers contemptuously, "Gendarmes, police, taxes, that's your State;--if that's what you are talking about, no, thank you."

"That's right," says Kat, "you've said something for once, Tjaden. State and home-country, there's a big difference."

"But they go together," insists Kropp, "without the State there wouldn't be any home-country."

"True, but just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchmen as regards us. They weren't asked about it any more than we were."

"Then what exactly is the war for?" asks Tjaden.

Kat shrugs his shoulders. "There must be some people to whom the war is useful."

"Well, I'm not one of them," grins Tjaden.

"Not you, nor anybody else here."

"Who are they then?" persists Tjaden. "It isn't any use to the Kaiser either. He has everything he can want already."

"I'm not so sure about that," contradicts Kat, "he has not had a war up till now. And every full-grown emperor requires at least one war, otherwise he would not become famous. You look in your school books."

"And generals too," adds Detering, "they become famous through war."

"Even more famous than emperors," adds Kat.

"There are other people back behind there who profit by the war, that's certain," growls Detering.

"I think it is more of a kind of fever," says Albert. "No one in particular wants it, and then all at once there it is. We didn't want the war, the others say the same thing--and yet half the world is in it all the same."

"But there are more lies told by the other side than by us," say I; "just think of those pamphlets the prisoners have on them, where it says that we eat Belgian children. The fellows who write those lies ought to go and hang themselves. They are the real culprits."

Müller gets up. "Anyway, it is better that the war is here instead of in Germany. Just you look at the shell-holes."

"True," assents Tjaden, "but no war at all would be better still."

He is quite proud of himself because he has scored for once over us volunteers. And his opinion is quite typical, here one meets it time and again, and there is nothing with which one can properly counter it, because that is the limit of their comprehension of the factors involved. The national feeling of the tommy resolves itself into this--here he is. But that is the end of it; everything else he criticises from his own practical point of view.

Albert lies down on the grass and growls angrily: "The best thing is not to talk about the rotten business."

"It won't make any difference, that's sure," agrees Kat.
I feel like an energetic Ph.D. student could get a whole dissertation out of this dialog.  Your thoughts?

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Essen writes:

At least these soldiers knew who their enemy was. In today's scenario such a concession is unthinkable. Today's trenches are the ones made by the improvised explosive devices (IEDs). We don't know who our professors and parsons are.

Who, according to you, is an average soldier?

mike shupp writes:

Ah well ... you do realize, at the drop of a hat, you could probably whip up an army of 5 million American soldiers to invade Mexico, cheerfully raping and killing from the Rio Grande to Chapas, just because there's a batch of people in this fair country who simply don't like Mexicans, and because reasonable provocations could be found (killings of USA DEA agents, for example, or what seem too many illegal immigrants).

Shouldn't this be in your philosophy as well?

Kurbla writes:

Both sides are not equally guilty. During war preparation ritual, the sides mimic each other. Offensive side tries to show it is victim, defensive side tries to show it believes in victory. The purpose of the ritual is homogenization of the nation. However, one side sends subtle and deniable signals it want peace, and other side consistently ignores it. But, outsider is unable to recognize that if he doesn't look carefully.

"Ordinary people" on offensive side are not innocent victims "screwed up" by their leaders. Many, frequently majority of people push the war agenda more than political leaders do. Why? Because people enjoy wars, just like they enjoy sex, hunt, gladiator games etc. Of course, only if they are capable to abstract away horrifying consequences ... and most people can easily do that. People are optimists and they believe troubles happen to others. Such optimism is everywhere around us; overeating, drinking, narcotics, steroids, fast driving ... cigarettes killed more Americans than Tripartite Pact during WWII, right?!

War is much older than the class division of a society. It started with small tribes; there was little difference in war outcome for "generals" and "ordinary people" in that time. Even chimps have wars. Evolutionary purpose is obvious - conquest meant territory, food, freedom, wealth, females ... today, there is less motives for conquests than before; war doesn't have same effect on all classes - but it is not the essence of the problem.

Randy writes:

War is the continuation of politics by other means... and therefore, politics is the continuation of war by other means. None of it is of any use to the productive class whose function is, as always, to be exploited.

William Barghest writes:

Outside of war, young men also engage disproportionately in potentially lethal activities. I believe accidental death rates peak at 19 for men, and are way higher than any other demographic. Are young men programmed to engage in such activities in order to kill of the weak before mating? Is this what war is about?

This explains why military service tends to be compulsory, and why the official story is always so at odds with the facts. Who would go willingly to their mandatory culling if that was how it was advertised? And it explains why the professors, the press and society in general are telling you it is a good thing, and your duty. It is a good thing for the genetic strength of your tribe, just not for you.

Alex J. writes:

I don't think there was this soul searching on the French or Russian sides. They knew why they were fighting the war, Germany invaded.

endorendil writes:

It's hard to talk about WWI without talking about the war of 1870. The French wanted revenge for that humiliation - and return of their lands.

Also tough to talk about this without talking about the political situation of the time, as Russia and French had an entente that bound them together in war. Germany had no quarry with the French - they took what they wanted in 1870 - but they had plenty to gain from Russia.

Because a war with Russia was going to take a long time in the best of cases, Germany had to first defeat France, to avoid a war on two fronts. They might have managed to do it too if it hadn't been for the ferocious fight put up by the French and Belgian armies - at the cost of millions of lives and the destruction of large swaths of the two countries.

But the sentiments expressed in this particular discussion would have been very common after the first few weeks of the war. No one expected a long war. None of the armies were prepared for it. The soldiers realized far sooner that this war was more gruesome and more costly than any previous one. In the iron cross memorial of Flanders Fields, one of the walls just reads "stommen oorlog, stommen oorlog, stommen oorlog" (stupid war) supposedly evoking the general sentiment of the soldiers in the trenches.

I'm convinced that a lot of idle talk about the futility of war went on in the trenches, but as far as I can tell, there was no big problem with defections on either side.

avogadro writes:

One of my favorite books, i had kind of forgotten about it though. WWI was kind of interesting bc at first a lot of the nations actually wanted to go to war. but it wasnt the same war as the past.

P.S.H. writes:

I have always been struck by this passage from Edward Gibbon:

"Trajan was ambitious of fame; and as long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters. The praises of Alexander, transmitted by a succession of poets and historians, had kindled a dangerous emulation in the mind of Trajan. Like him the Roman emperor undertook an expedition against the nations of the east, but he lamented with a sigh that his advanced age scarcely left him any hopes of equalling the renown of the son of Philip."

Patrick writes:

War is caused by hero worship. That's what Gibbon was describing.

Other primates engage in hero worship, too. And war. We evolved this way. Philosophy has nothing to do with it. Mother Nature isn't just cruel to other animals. We're not special. She's cruel to us, too.

If you like making philosophical arguments for pacifism, I suggest you hold back glaciers by tying them down with wet spaghetti. It would be a more productive use of your time.

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