The meme of honourable death

The Anglo Boer War (in what is now South Africa from October 11th, 1899 to May 31st, 1902) was a turning point in European style military history. In previous centuries, infantry would operate in large blocks that would move forward, turn and open or close ranks, and winning an infantry engagement would involve getting your columns around the side or back of the enemy's columns, or simply overrunning them head on. This worked in part because although everybody had a firearm of some kind, the firearms of the 18th century and in some areas well into the 19th century held one bullet, took time to reload, and were inaccurate, and since they tended to be inaccurate, the soldiers were generally not trained to shoot as well as they might. So, a rifle was really a spear (with a bayonet attached, of course) that also made a lot of noise and fired a few relatively useless bullets. Previously, a highly mobile well trained cavalry was effective under the right conditions because it consisted of swordsmen up on big and/or fast horses who could move quickly across the landscape and would wade into the enemy's infantry slicing up the foot soldiers. The cavalry could not be stopped easily by the infantry because the infantry would shoot a relatively small number of relatively bogus bullets at the cavalry, knock a few guys off a few horses, then get ripped to shreds with the swords. The fact that the cavalry often consisted of members of the elite classes and the infantry consisted mainly of working class men made it all the more ... Victorian.

~ A repost because history is still history ~

By the time of the Anglo-Boer War, the rifles that soldiers carried were more accurate, held more bullets, and overall were more deadly especially in the hands of the sharp-shooting Boer farmers who had been shooting game or involved in bellicose activities of one sort or another for years. This was a major period of transition in the use of horses vs. foot soldiers. The British Cavalry could not easily fight against entrenched Boer soldiers, yet the Boer used cavalry effectively as a means of rapid movement and flanking followed by fighting on foot. The Birish were making the same transition; "Mounted Infantry" or versions of cavalry that fought on the ground, or the use of cavalry to reconnoiter rather than in major battles became incrasingly common.

The role of artillery changed as well. In the old days, you could bring cannon close to the lines, have your infantry cover the cannons, and have your cavalry cover the infantry. In the new days, if you were within shooting range of the enemy's infantry, they would cover you with a hail of bullets. During the two plus year long Anglo-Boer war, the number of times cavalry actually charged into a sea of infantry and used their swords can be counted on one hand.

Why am I telling you all of his? Well, I recently finished reading a contemporary history of the Anglo Boer War. There were several things about this history that I found (most of which I was looking for) regarding English, Afrikaner, and other Euro-ethnic interactions, white vs. non-white interactions, and so on. I was also looking for examples of attitudes towards non-white native Africans at the time, and for information on the role of, or at least reaction of, 'bushmen' groups in the Cape at the time. I found about five examples of the former and no examples of the latter in this enormous tome, The Great Boer War written by Arthur Conan Doyle.

But along the way, I found something else that I knew would be there but did not know would be as striking and as interesting as it is. Doyle's writing includes numerous references to the roles of valour, bravery, and ultimately, reputation, in the execution of warfare. I hesitate to use the word "meme" but I will use it here with my tongue in, or at least near, my cheek; In bunny-like fashion Doyle copiously reproduces the meme that to live dishonourably is a life not worth living, and to die honourably is second most desirable outcome in war. (The most desirable outcome in war would be to manage to live through your honourable death.) Doyle's history is so heavily draped in the thick velveteen of honour and valour (and notice I feel obliged to use the British spelling) that it becomes apparent that the propagation of this meme is the main purpose of the book itself. Perhaps of Doyle himself. Arthur Conan Doyle, it turns out, is an over-active ovary pumping out a veritable caviare destine to grow into widespread patriotic feelings of "I want to die for the Empire!" among young subjects of the crown in the homelands and all the colonies. They were probably handing it out to school children.

This theme of honourable death in warfare builds and sustains throughout the long monograph, but there are three or four points where it is so overblown that one wonders (at least from an early 21st century perspective) what really goes on in the human brain. A few years ago, Richard Wrangham wrote a paper or two suggesting that self deception in times of warfare explained the seemingly inexplicable fact that military leaders would enter into battles that any half-witted cadet at military academy could plainly see were simply not winnable. That may well explain the phenomenon of war as we have known it for centuries at one level, but there may be more to learn of the proximate mechanisms involved, and I think Doyle's meme may be one of the mechanisms. To illustrate this, I'll give as example the very scene that made me both sick to my stomach and inspired to write this post.

We are at the Battle of Colenso. This is fairly early in the war, and the British are just beginning to learn (the hard way) about a) the military prowess of the Boers and b) the ineffectiveness of their own 19th century tactics. So far there has not been a major battle that was actually won by the British, or if there was one here or there, it was overshadowed by some strategic defeat. This was the case mostly because the political policy of the British was to let the Boers get way ahead in the material preparations for the war so that once the inevitable conflict started the British could take the moral high ground. Which they would need later, as it would turn out, as buffer when things went badly in the concentration camps and other bad things happened.

Anyway, here's the setup, very briefly: The Boer army is entrenched, and the British are moving against them. Since the Boers are literally in trenches they can't be effectively shot at, and the artillery bombardments are not really working either. The British have to expose themselves to move in, and they've been discovering the hard way that they tend to get all shot up when this happens, and again and again some unit of British sholdiers find themslevs lying on the ground hiding behind ant hills waiting for night fall to come when they can sneak away if they are still alive.

At one point, the British infantry are held back from attcking a particular unit of Boers when a British artillery officer decides to wade in really close to the Boer line and blast them with his cannons. In the old days, this may well have worked, because the rifle fire against the artillery would have been manageable, and once the cannons started letting rip, that rifle fire would be attenuated as the frightened enemy soldiers ran away. But that is not what happened.

Now remember, this is the old days. The cannons are being brought in by teams of horses, and then unlimbered (disconnected) from the horses and set up by gunners, who then fire the cannons at the enemy. I'm giving you the long version of the account because I want you to appreciate the references to the earlier formed expectations when the British were busy fighting "barbarians" in comparison to the situation at Colenso. This is important because by this time in the war, something like what you are about to read about has happened a few times, and the British should have learned something already. So, in Arthur Conan Doyle's words:

This consisted of the important body of artillery [supporting] the main attack ... under the command of Colonel Long ... Long has the record of being a most zealous and dashing officer, whose handling of the Egyptian artillery at the battle of the Atbara had much to do with the success of the action. Unfortunately, these barbarian campaigns, in which liberties may be taken with impunity, leave an evil tradition, as the French have found with their Algerians. Our own close formations, our adherence to volley firing, and in this instance the use of our artillery all seem to be legacies of our savage wars. ...

... at an early stage of the action Long's guns whirled forwards, [passed] the infantry ..., left the slow-moving naval guns with their ox-teams behind them, and unlimbered within a thousand yards of the enemy's trenches. From this position he opened fire ...

But his two unhappy batteries were destined not to turn the tide of battle, as he had hoped, but rather to furnish the classic example of the helplessness of artillery against modern rifle fire. [Nothing] ... could do justice to the blizzard of lead which broke over the two doomed batteries. The teams [of horses] fell in heaps, some dead, some mutilated, and mutilating others in their frantic struggles. One driver, crazed with horror, sprang on a leader [horse], cut the [ropes] and tore madly off the field. But a perfect discipline reigned among the vast majority of the gunners, and the words of command and the laying and working of the guns were ... methodical.... Not only was there a most deadly rifle fire, partly from the lines in front and partly from the village of Colenso upon their left flank, but the Boer automatic quick-firers found the range to a nicety, and the little shells were crackling and banging continually over the batteries. Already every gun had its litter of dead around it, but each was still fringed by its own group of furious officers and sweating desperate gunners. Poor Long was down, with a bullet through his arm and another through his liver. 'Abandon be damned! We don't abandon guns!' was his last cry as they dragged him into the shelter of a [nearby hut]. Captain Goldie dropped dead. So did Lieutenant Schreiber. Colonel Hunt fell, shot in two places. Officers and men were falling fast. The guns could not be worked, and yet they could not be removed, for every effort to bring up teams from the shelter where the limbers lay ended in the death of the horses. The survivors took refuge from the murderous fire in that small hollow to which Long had been carried, a hundred yards or so from the line of bullet-splashed cannon.

Now, I want to pause for a moment for you to catch your breath. The following bit is the icing on the cake. And the cake, too, really ...

One gun on the right was still served by four men who refused to leave it. They seemed to bear charmed lives, these four, as they strained and wrestled with their beloved 15-pounder, amid the spurting sand and the blue wreaths of the bursting shells. Then one gasped and fell against the trail, and his comrade sank beside the wheel with his chin upon his breast. The third threw up his hands and pitched forward upon his face; while the survivor, a grim powder-stained figure, stood at attention looking death in the eyes until he too was struck down. A useless sacrifice, you may say; but while the men who saw them die can tell such a story round the camp fire the example of such deaths as these does more than clang of bugle or roll of drum to stir the warrior spirit of our race. [emphasis added]

At no point during this particular engagement could anyone with a modicum of rationality have believed that this was a good idea. Even if the officers in charge, who were taken out of action right away, honestly thought that bringing the artillery, with its horses and its gunners, to within killing range of several hundred sharp shooters would be an effective strategy, it would not have taken long to figure out that they were wrong. Yet once the operation started up, the "right" thing to do was not to back off, not to question authority, not to run and hide because death was a near certainty and success impossible. No. The "right" thing to do was do die, and the reason to die was because ... well, because it was the right thing to do. Those soldiers that were hiding in the hollow or the hut were forgiven by Doyle, because there was not much they could do. But the soldiers that stayed with the artillery were honoured by him, and by the British Government and the people back home and their comrades.

The meme of honourable death served the British Empire well.

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"The cavalry could not be stopped easily by the infantry because the infantry would shoot a relatively small number of relatively bogus bullets at the cavalry"

That might have been the plan, but it didn't quite work out that way for Ney at Waterloo.

"The meme of honourable death served the British Empire well."

I guess that depends on how useful it was for the Empire to have half a generation run into the German machine-guns. Learning the hard way and all that...

By Ketil Tveiten (not verified) on 07 Oct 2010 #permalink


Well the infantry's solution to the cavalry problem was to form dense packs of soldiers with nasty pointy things sticking out at all angles. Horses, being somewhat more intelligent than humans, wouldn't run into the pointy things.

So the square provides defense for the infantry but it doesn't stop the cavalry. Ney's error at Waterloo was failing to coordinate his charge with either the French infantry or the artillery. Or, in fact, do anything other than ride around a bit.

back to the Boer War...

It's curious to me how slow organizations can be to learn from their own, and others, experience. By 1899 the British had their own experience in the Crimean War plus the Franco-Prussian war and the American Civil War as clear examples of how much the firepower equation had changed. Yet no real attempt was made to even consider changing tactics. Not that the scenario above could seriously be considered 'tactics'.


By NoAstronomer (not verified) on 07 Oct 2010 #permalink

The idea of an honourable death is fairly common in any empire, I'd have thought. Indeed: without it establishing an empire is a much harder task.

In the particular example of the Boer war, and probably most of the British Empire's military exploits I suspect that you're not giving sufficient regard to the class divisions and military discipline.

I suspect that the romantic ideas of honour of Conan Doyle would be rather different to that of an ordinary soldier. The actions of the gun crew and others in dire circumstances owed more to professionalism and brutal discipline than any thought of heroism.

Heroes and honour were useful politcally. They help keep the hoi polloi back home content, without whom waging a war and maintaining an empire is impossible.

Paul Browne is right. Infantry in square (or circle in the case of Zulu infantry) and equipped with serviceable spears such as long barreled muskets with bayonets are very hard for cavalry to dislodge if the preceding artillery bombardment hasn't weakened them sufficiently. The cavalry can't get close enough for the swords to be effective without running their horses onto the points. This was essentially established in Europe at least by the Thirty Years War and thus matters rested until the technological innovations of the 19th century.

The British in South Africa could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by studying the American Civil War, but although the Royal Navy had a culture of innovation going back to the time of Napoleon, the army was shockingly conservative for reasons too complex to go into.

Hasn't the notion of "nobile death in battle" been around since, well, as long as we've had battles and people who survived to tell stories?

Greg, there was one other line that jumped out at me:

Unfortunately, these barbarian campaigns, in which liberties may be taken with impunity, leave an evil tradition,...

No doubt true then when fighting barbarians, true now (renditions? torture?) when fighting "the evil muslims".

This is a fascinating post. Thanks for posting it.
I think this post and the points you raise are interesting, and it brings to mind the culture of the Japanese military during World War II: Utter devotion (and not just by the military) to the Empire, the view that surrender was gravely (no pun intended) dishonorable and brought profound shame onto the soldier and his family, and an attendant commitment to continue fighting (and dying) even when it was clear that the tactical and strategic futility seemed plainly evident.
Even at the time this was all seen as incomprehensibly fanatical - particularly by Americans fighting in the Pacific - a perception very much cultivated by both the military as a training device and popularly at home as effective propaganda (which I don't necessarily mean in the pejorative sense). This fanaticism remains a major theme in historical treatments of the Pacific war, and still, I think, seems inscrutable.
Make no mistake, the Japanese military of that era was exceedingly vicious and barbaric, but after reading your post it strikes me that our view of their fanaticism might be more a product of a relatively new (at the time) and perhaps uniquely American sensibility. Coming on the heels of the Great Depression, American soldiers (particularly combat soldiers) typically saw their duty as more of a "job" that had to be done as opposed to devotion to abstractions such as "honour" or "valour."
Apart from the Japanese' brutality, Conan-Doyle's account isn't all that different from accounts of the Japanese military.

the example of such deaths as these does more than clang of bugle or roll of drum to stir the warrior spirit of our race.

This reminds me of the following line in Stanley Kubrick's "Path of Glory", where a French WWI general says:

... There the question of the troups moral, don't forget that.
- The troops' morale?
- Certainly. These executions will be a perfect tonic for the entire division. There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating... than seeing someone else die.

By Jean-Denis (not verified) on 07 Oct 2010 #permalink

@Stephanie Z: That's certainly a good point; I don't know that they were and I certainly didn't intend to imply that. They were pretty nasty, though, which I think is borne out by the savagery of their pre-war conquest of Asia or pretty much any account of the Pacific war.
Your point is well-taken, though. I guess what I was getting at was in many ways they weren't that different from any other imperial power. Certainly the U.S. isn't off the hook in this regard, either; we've been complicit (at the very least) in a fair amount of nastiness ourselves*.

*I wonder how long it will take for someone to stick me with an "America-Hater" tag.

I have nothing to say about the military tactics, because unlike the other posters here, I am not an expert in warfare.

However, I have been noticing another meme that has emerged in the past decade in the US, oh, since about the time of the invasion of Iraq. And that is that people seem to be falling over themselves to comment on X, Y and Z ridiculous thing the British military did fifty or a hundred years ago.

There would be no element of whistling past the graveyard here, would there?

By jon livesey (not verified) on 07 Oct 2010 #permalink

Jon: Maybe, but African Colonial history, South Africa, and Doyle are all three interests of mine so I claim total innocence. This is a purely academic thing.

Tuco and Stephanie: You are both obviously Nazis!

But seriously, if we want to compare the British colonial military in 1899-1901 in South Africa with the Japanese Imperial military forces in the pacific in 1939 through the early 1940s, I'd say that they were pretty different. In that particular comparison, the Japanese win the asshole award. Despite the fact that the British brought the "concentration camp" to a higher level and all that, there was nothing like the Bataan Death March or the overall horrid POW policies of the Japanese, or their treatment of the Korean and Chinese civilians, etc. The Japanese brought modern warfare and occupation tactics to a new low.

Comparing European colonial enterprise more generally and across the centuries to the Japanese Imperial mid 1940s approach is a different comparison. In this comparison, the Japanese were run of the mill psycho-genocidal-evil.

And the reason that these differences are different may well be pure and simple racism. The Japanese looked at their prisoners and enemies as inferior beings (and visa versa) and the European colonials looked at the Africans in the Congo, the South Asians, the Native Americans, the Bushman, the Australian Aborigines and Tasmanians, etc. etc as inferior forms of life.

The Anglo-Boer war was a white on white war (which does not mean that blacks were left out .... they had their own concentration camps .... but they were not armed and did not engage in combat mostly). The English looked at the Afrikaners as fellow travelers. Indeed, and this is one of the things that drove me to actually read ACD's very lengthy book, Doyle keeps referring to the high qualities of the Boer "race" throughout. I think there were lots of times when a British unit would have dispatched of an African unit by just killing all of them had they been black and the circumstances otherwise identical. the Boers did some very bad things early in the war .... they kept breaking the rules, committing "war crimes" and the British got really mad at them. And, this was used as an excuse for some killings (other than the normal war killings). But, Breaker Morant was executed for his crimes in the end.

I've got to watch that movie again.

Fascinating post, especially to a Brit with a keen interest in history. I live near a Victorian park that contains a splendid memorial to the South African War (as it was officially known), complete with Winged Victory atop a column. One point that needs making though is that Britain was always primarily a seafaring nation with a deep tinge of anti-militarism. (As Orwell remarked, there's never been a naval dictatorship.) Even at the height of the Boer War there was deep anti-military and anti-imperial feeling. For every Conan Doyle there was at least one HG Wells, denouncing the generals and politicians for their idiocy. And check out Kipling - imperial poet-in-chief, but scathing about the incompetence of the British officer class.

As a great example of the racism of the era, and Australia's great shame - There was a group of some twenty Australian Aboriginal volunteers in the Boer War. They were sent to South Africa for their horsemanship and their tracking ability. At the end of the war, because of the White Australia policy, these ment were not permitted to return home, but simply abandoned in Africa, where their descendants still live.

By Bob Joyce (not verified) on 08 Oct 2010 #permalink


But, Breaker Morant was executed for his crimes in the end.
I've got to watch that movie again.

The Four Feathers is another film (OK, from the other end of the continent) that whistles up those honorable memes in a way that makes modern eyes spin and mouths curl. Service rather than death, but not fearing death is an important part of it. Add that to your weekend's pile of DVDs!

The meme of "honourable death" is derived from Horace's ode (in Latin);

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.

"How sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths."

It has not been very powerful in Europe since the production line slaughter of World War One.

Re infantry versus cavalry in the Napoleonic Period; there is only one documented instance of cavalry breaking an infantry square. This occurred during the action at Garcia Hernandez, the day after the Battle of Salamanca, and was achieved by the King's German Legion(KGL) heavy dragoons. They did it twice that day.

However, the basic rule still was that cavalry unsupported by artillery cannot break an infantry square. Do the maths here; One horse is about 1.2 metres wide, and carries one rider. Facing him, in 1.2m is minimum four, and maximum six, loaded muskets with bayonets. Well trained soldiers, and the British were the only army that trained at that time with live ammunition, could maintain a sustained rate of 2.3/3 shots per minute. So between eight and 18 shots per minute. No horse could survive that wall of bullets. And a charge soon starts to fall over the rising pile of dead horses.

In the case of Garcia Hernandez, the French 6me Legere held their fire too long, and a dead horse smashed its way into the square. Once the square is broken, infantry in the presence of disciplined cavalry(and the English cavalry were famously UNdisciplined) are simply targets.

stephanie z, Rape of Nanking, biological warfare(BW) and chemical warfare(CW) experiments using live human subjects carried out by Unit 731, treatment of Allied prisoners of war(though in fairness, as pointed out by some survivors, they treated their own wounded appallingly badly also).

As for British tactics in the various Boer Wars, their generals were of an amazingly incompetent calibre(until the arrival of Roberts), and refused to learn anything from the American Civil War. Their uniforms were brightly coloured - with snow white hats - and every badge and button had to be polished. They were highly conspicuous on the African veldt.

The Boers played to their strengths, which were a high level of marksmanship, trusted commanders and family ties in the Commandos. They dressed in earth tone clothes, and fired from cover or while prone.

Sam C: My thinking on the honorable death thing actually started in reading the accounts of the Gordon Relief Expedition years ago. I've not seen that movie, but now I absolutely will.

The development of tactics was a bit more complex than you portray it, but that is OK. I believe that when S.ACD mentioned "...liberties may be taken with impunity..." he meant that the officers had reverted to outmoded tactics that were well-known to no longer be effective against a modern military such as the Boers. In general, the troops and especially officers of the Boer War were largely from units accustomed to dealing with irregulars using outmoded weapons and effectively no modern tactics which led the British forces to do foolish things, as here.

As for concepts such as honor, valor, etc. not all of your contemporaries have their 'eyes spin and mouth curl'. Such things are still just as important as they ever were and certainly always will be. Remember, the British forces often prevailed over larger, better-supplied foes simply because of their unshakable courage - throughout many Indian campaigns of the mid- to late- 18th Century British forces faced large, well-equipped high-morale forces with modern weapons and training from Western militaries [Such as the forces of the Tipu Sultan] and prevailed by bluntly cowing their foes with their fortitude. In a pitched battle the sight of a foe that seems unafraid of death implacably facing the worst you can bring to bear can truly demoralize a superior force.

My grandfather was a survivor of the Bataan death march and a POW of the Japanese for a couple of years.

Nothing else of import to say, just a minor connection to a point in history (WWII) that, for my generation at least) has been greatly romanticized. Personally, I would rather go into hiding than fight in a war of any generation. Coward or pacifist? I just can't comprehend the idea of fighting and dying for the concept of "country", even less for a king (or any leader).

@Aquinas Dad: I have. I'm not naive enough to think that there are always non-violent means to end conflicts between humans. I can only make decisions about my own participation. And, for me, the concept of an honourable death at war seems alien to me.

Don't be disingenuous. The fact is someone who isn't willing to fight against such things as the Nazis, or the Japanese forces that perpetrated the rape of Nanking, is not exercising a virtue.

Aquinas Dad,
There are other ways to fight besides physical violence. Someone who chooses to not engage in combat is not, necessarily, willing to fight.

"The cavalry could not be stopped easily by the infantry because the infantry would shoot a relatively small number of relatively bogus bullets at the cavalry, knock a few guys off a few horses, then get ripped to shreds with the swords."

Well, that's your credibility ripped to shreds. Infantry could easily stop cavalry by forming into squares, and had done for centuries. I'm sure there's lots more ill informed rubbish in your blog that could be challenged, but I don't think I'll waste any more time on it.

I'm not being disingenuous. Fighting is, at best, a temporary solution. Sometimes we let things get bad enough that we end up fighting, but that mostly means we've screwed up everything to that point.

Take the Nazis. There were plenty of ways to avoid that before we started fighting. We could have given aid to Germany that would have helped build a solid non-military economy. Hitler would not have found the dissatisfaction he needed to take power. We could have, at any point in the many, many centuries preceding, stopped vilifying the Jews as part of our religious practices. The Germans could have stood up in the face of fear and been just slightly better people than many of them were and rejected divisive politics. Those outside Germany could have stopped pretending much earlier that the Germans weren't being led by a lunatic--provided they'd maintained any kind of political clout inside Germany.

The fact that war is what finally stopped the Nazis is an indicator of our failures, not an endorsement of war.

A little charity - his grasp of tactics is non-existent, but not his central point. His central point seems to be, although I need to confirm, an inability to grasp the concept of honor.

Paul @27, assuming you're as sincere about drying up and blowing away as are most of the commenters who say that, you might want to check out comment #3. Your objection was addressed some time ago.

Let me get this straight i if we could tell the future and act perfectly freely, then war would be unnecessary. OK, I'll grant that as a possibility.
In the meantime I would like to point out that the reason Germany didn't get this rather nebulous 'aid' is because everyone else was in the midst of social and economic upheaval, too, leaving no financial or political capital to spread to prevent an unforeseen situation that would one day be threatening (not to mention the strong support many gave to Fascism, Nazism, etc. at the time).
Also, I am not sure the impact that would have had with the British and French who were heavily invested politically in keeping Germany weakened. And we haven't even discussed japan or Italy. And the USSR!
Bad news, Stephanie - the number of people who will only be stopped with violence is greater than 0.

Aquinas Dad, I'm not sure whether you did it deliberately, but you seem to have lost the thread between my two comments. The kinds of things your joke claims are solved by war are ongoing problems. There are strategies to mitigate them, to keep them from erupting on the kind of scale that requires war. If we don't do so--whether that's because we've allowed wealth to become so concentrated in private hands that we don't have the resources necessary or for some other reason--we have failed to deal with the problem.

War is not some glorious, honorable solution. It's an expensive, ugly, messy price we pay for our failures.

And if you're looking for honor, you find it in the lives of the people who do the tough, non-flashy, poorly compensated work to make sure those problems don't get out of hand badly enough that we need to fight another war.

You find it in the soldiers, too, but once again, in how they live. Their deaths don't contain honor, although their last few moments of life often do.

Sorry, but I am pretty sure the Japanese General Staff no longer rules a Pan-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and the Nazi Party is outlawed in Germany, not running things. Those do, indeed, seem like things ended by war.
And how *would* you have 'prevented' a warlike Japan in the post-Meiji period - wholescale social engineering? Pre-emptive embargoes? Massive economic assaults before they did anything? I am sure that you feel it would have been possible, but that is hindsight. Many people there on the ground at the time tried very, very hard to avoid war with Japan and Germany and made hard choices to do it; sacrificed their careers in the attempt.
It failed. Just like the long-term attempts to prevent a Muslim invasion of the Byzantine Empire failed, on back. Why? because Germany wanted a war. Because Japan wanted a war.
And, again I am sorry, but there is glory and honor in war.

How many of the people in Germany wanted war? How many in Japan? How many people in the U.S. wanted war with Iraq (hint, not as many as you think you remember)? We simply failed to stop it, in large part because we didn't elect someone who could make good leadership decisions, we didn't shut off our televisions in time, and not enough of us screamed loudly enough in protest.

I am not saying any one country or person is in a position to prevent all wars. That would be silly. Although so far, you do seem to think anyone arguing that war is failure is that silly, try to actually deal with the ideas seriously. War is what happens when everything else breaks down. The failures don't necessarily happen the day before the war starts, but they are failures nonetheless.

By the way, I've already said there is honor among soldiers. I've simply said it's in their lives, not in their deaths.

Sometimes war is silly, sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is because of failures, sometimes it is. Not. I haqve avoided one size fits all reasons, only that your simplistic platitudes are inadequate.
And how would you know my recollections about the Iraq war?

Aquinas Dad, please provide a war that wasn't the result of a breakdown of social systems or good governance. Bonus points if you can come up with two.

As for your recollections, I could well be wrong. I think I am not, based on your attitude toward war and how attitudes are generally known to shape memory.

#18: "a modern military such as the Boers."

That is the first time I have heard the Boer army called modern. They had smokeless powder for their cannons and were strong fighters, but modern is a bit overdone.

By Henk Paladin (not verified) on 08 Oct 2010 #permalink

Paul [27], my credibility is fine, thank you. That sentence was in reference to prior vs later in historical time. Cavalry was more effective, and infantry did not always have the ability to form squares.

But yes, I probably overstated the comparison. I'm not sure how a difference of opinion on a particular issue speaks to "credibility" though. Maybe you're just a dick.

Stephanie [28]: Take the Nazis. There were plenty of ways to avoid that before we started fighting. We could have given aid to Germany that would have helped build a solid non-military economy.

I would go beyond that, even. The roots of German militarism, Nazism, all that, intertwined with similar traits seen in other European countries, go back farther and are even more basic.

It is true that war is failed diplomacy, but it is also failed culture.

Aquinas Dad [29]: I'm not a military historian. And, military historians are pedants, mostly. So, there will always be conflict between people like me and people like Paul, and in the end, they'll win the battles and I'll win the war, where war = understanding the big picture.

Regarding honor, I very much do understand it, and I also understand what we loosely call "memes" and I understand what it looks like when someone is swallowed up by the meme and becomes an unthinking zombie serving it. If you get my drift.

Stephanie [32] War is not some glorious, honorable solution. It's an expensive, ugly, messy price we pay for our failures.

But it reeks with honor!

In war, there are two kinds of honor (that I can think of at the moment): the empty, useless sort they hand you for not complaining too loudly about dying or being maimed and the sort that could be put to much better use on the kinds of challenges that keep war from happening.

Henk, I think what Aquinas Dad meant was in comparison to local insurgents with muzzle loaders and worse (like none-firearm type weapons) such as native groups in South Africa, South Asians, etc. "Modern" in that the Boers had rifles and ammo.

It seems to me Aquinas' Dad needs to read "Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen (as Chris Y @36 points out), understanding that the poem refers to the original Horace ode and yet is anti-war. It is, one would think, obvious that it is sweeter and more fitting to LIVE for your country.

Ah, I think I just realized where Aquinas Dad is not getting it. This is the disconnect:

I am pretty sure the Japanese General Staff no longer rules a Pan-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and the Nazi Party is outlawed in Germany, not running things.

Indeed. My argument, different only in time scale from Stephanie's, is that the roots of these evils could have been addressed prior to the rise of those entities, without war (or with less war). But yes, once they were there, because we (as a species) let this go so far, we need to fight.


And, again I am sorry, but there is glory and honor in war.

No. Japan and Germany of the 1930s were a cancer, and WW II was an event that cost tens of millions of lives. Tens of millions. It was some very, very bad chemo that could have gone the other way in the end. Only post hoc is the victory assured.

That is not honor and glory, it is the worst thing that can happen.

By the way, I've already said there is honor among soldiers. I've simply said it's in their lives, not in their deaths.

Let me underscore that this is the original point of the post. The meme of the honorable DEATH. I think TA is imagining something else was said.

@31 AqDad
Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany preceded the Great Depression. The policies of France and th UK were to keep Germany weak and push for rreparations. therefore there was a lot that could have been done to change the economic conditions.

One has also to look at the education of the warrior class in Victorian Great Britain: they were classically educated with emphasis on Rome and its drive for empire and Greece. The Classical Greeks gave us several examples of the heroic efforts of smaller forces with great esprit de corps against much larger opponents: Spartans at Thermopoylae, the Sacred Band of Thebes, Marathon.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 08 Oct 2010 #permalink

It occurred to me after reading some tweets from Tom Levenson and some of the comments above that due to my muddled writing in the beginning some people may have thought that I was stating that the Cavalry was riding around slicing up infantry who for their part were using crappy single shot rifles. That was a contrast: The role of the cavalry as a direct means of attacking infantry units from horseback was obviated for the Anglo-Boer War (and yes, earlier in some areas as well,but this post is really NOT a comprehensive history of European warfare). Instead, Cavalry units were used for recon, flanking, and other functions, and mounted infantry (or cavalry that would get off their horses and fight) were more commonly used in direct battle. Both the British and the Boers used mounted soldiers this way, but in somewhat different fashion.

I've edited the text to make it more clear.

Of possible interest: ACD's partial analysis of the role of the Cavalry in the AB War:

"The war was a cruel one for the cavalry, who were handicapped throughout by the nature of the country and by the tactics of the enemy. They are certainly the branch of the service which had least opportunity for distinction. The work of scouting and patrolling is the most dangerous which a soldier can undertake, and yet from its very nature it can find no chronicler. The war correspondent, like Providence, is always with the big battalions, and there never was a campaign in which there was more unrecorded heroism, the heroism of the picket and of the vedette which finds its way into no newspaper paragraph. But in the larger operations of the war it is difficult to say that cavalry, as cavalry, have justified their existence. In the opinion of many the tendency of the future will be to convert the whole force into mounted infantry. How little is required to turn our troopers into excellent foot soldiers was shown at Magersfontein, where the 12th Lancers, dismounted by the command of their colonel, Lord Airlie, held back the threatened flank attack all the morning. A little training in taking cover, leggings instead of boots, and a rifle instead of a carbine would give us a formidable force of twenty thousand men who could do all that our cavalry does, and a great deal more besides. It is undoubtedly possible on many occasions in this war, at Colesberg, at Diamond Hill, to say 'Here our cavalry did well.' They are brave men on good horses, and they may be expected to do well. But the champion of the cavalry cause must point out the occasions where the cavalry did something which could not have been done by the same number of equally brave and equally well-mounted infantry. Only then will the existence of the cavalry be justified. The lesson both of the South African and of the American civil war is that the light horseman who is trained to fight on foot is the type of the future."

By the way, if anyone was looking for evidence that Wikipedia is essentially an American thing, have a look at the Anglo Boer War page and compare it to the entry for any other equivilant conflict in which the US was involved.

And while doing so remind yourself that up to the AB War, there had not been a commitment of British military force equalling that to date; The Anglo Boer War was the largest and most intense ware the British had fought, ever.

And, the significance of this war across a large area of the African continent (mainly in South Africa) and its impact on people living in all of the British Colonies was huge.

Here is the ENTIRE entry:

"The Second War (1899â1902), by contrast, was a lengthy warâinvolving large numbers of troops from many British possessionsâwhich ended with the conversion of the Boer republics into British colonies (with a promise of limited self-government). These colonies later formed part of the Union of South Africa. The British fought directly against the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The bloodshed that was seen during the war was alarming. There were two main factors that contributed to this. First, many of the British soldiers were physically unprepared for the environment and poorly trained for the tactical conditions they faced. As a result, British losses were high due to both disease and combat. Second, the policies of "scorched earth" and civilian internment (adopted by the British in response to the Boer guerrilla campaign) ravaged the civilian populations in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
[edit] Controversy and significance

During the Second Boer War, the UK pursued the policy of rounding up and isolating the Boer civilian population into concentration camps. The wives and children of Boer guerrillas were sent to these camps with poor hygiene and little food, although this was remedied to some extent as time went on. The death and suffering of the civilians, according to many scholars, is what broke the guerrillas' will. The "pacification" theory has been repeated many times in warfare since.[citation needed]

The Second Boer War was a major turning point in British history, due to world reaction over the anti-insurgency tactics the British army used in the region. This led to a change in approach to foreign policy from the UK who now set about looking for more allies. To this end, the 1902 treaty with Japan in particular was a sign that the UK feared attack on its Far Eastern empire and saw this alliance as an opportunity to strengthen its stance in the Far East. This war led to a change from "splendid isolation" policy to a policy that involved looking for allies and improving world relations. Later treaties with France ("Entente cordiale") and Russia, caused partially by the controversy surrounding the Boer War, were major factors in dictating how the battle lines were drawn during World War One.[

The Boer War also had another significance. The Army Medical Corps discovered that 40% of men called up for duty were physically unfit to fight. This was the first time in which the government was forced to take notice of how unfit the British Army was and this severe lack of physically-trained armed forces strengthened the call for the Liberal Reforms of the first decade of the twentieth century. Thus this was one of the prime reasons for the subsequent introduction of compulsory games and at least one hot meal in British schools."

Well, that could be a high bar since you can easily say 'nuh-uh', but let us take the invasion of Spain by Umayyad forces in the early 8th Century and the Hunnic Invasion of Eastern Europe by Attila and his forces. There was little, if any, true intercourse between the invading and defending culturesbefore pitched warfare began. In the case of the Umayyads they were propelled by religious and cultural forces that I doubt any level of non-violent action would have deterred. Both groups had no true economic or political reasons for warfare as you would understand it, they simply wished to conquer their neighbors.
And can I conclude that you believe you know what I think about the Iraq War simply because I disagree with you about war in general. How insightful of you! If I tell you that I dislike Hip Hop can you also tell me which music I prefer most?

Yes, I was referring to modern weapons and, in a few cases, training in then-current tactics.
But this belief that if 'someone' had just done 'something 'early enough' war can be avoided is dangerous. How would you have 'fixed' Imperial Japan? forcing it to change it very culture would be required, I believe. How would you have done that? Who would have done it? When? By what justification?And with the outcry against colonialism in this very thread how would you self-justify forcing a people to abandon its own culture for a "better" one?

If you wish to take a rather draconian view I believe it is possible to argue that cultures that fight wars and win are not failed cultures - the ones that won't fight and vanish are the failures. I do not necessarily advocate this view myself, but it is probably more supportable than the idea that war is initiated by failed cultures.

If you wish to take a view of culture and memes as concepts which wish [in broad strokes] to propagate themselves so as to survive over generations it is obvious that the ideas of honor and valor are quite good at this, even the concepts of an honorable death. These ideas have been common from Korea to Pre-Columbian America since the neolithic. We must consider the idea that these ideas survive and the cultures that embrace them thrive for reasons.

How would you have 'fixed' Imperial Japan? forcing it to change it very culture would be required, I believe.

That is more or less what I'm saying. There was no fixing anything by 1930 or so.

If you wish to take a rather draconian view I believe it is possible to argue that cultures that fight wars and win are not failed cultures - the ones that won't fight and vanish are the failures.

By definition, but of course, that's totally circular. We can easily change the criterion and suddenly the cultures successful in war are the failures .

"We can easily change the criterion and suddenly the cultures successful in war are the failures ."
Except, of course, that the losers that vanish cease to exist and the winners continue, right?

Again, when and how would you "fix" Japan? before the Sino-Japanese War of 1894? Certainly too late then, since militarism was already a central tenet of the culture. OK, back to before the Edo Era? That starts in about 1600 - who would have done what, exactly, to end militaristic and expansionistic tendencies in Japan in 600?

The concept that if someone somewhere somehow could have accurately predicted the economic, political, and social impacts of events that seem rather trivial at the time and then also accurate perform the actions required to circumvent all the possibilities that might lead to armed conflict without resorting to immoral action is almost the definition of naivete; it would reuire men of near-godlike intelligence with access to almost all knowledge and the ability to act globally without restrictions.

Since we live in the Real World this means that war is, indeed, sometimes not only necessary but also positively moral. People involved in positively moral acts that require great personal sacrifice are virtuous by definition. In such circumstances men who go above and beyond, especially in action that save the lives of their comrades are. yes, acting honorably in a manner that reflects glory upon them. If these actions result in their death, their death was honorable.

Aquinas Dad, do you know what happened to the Umayyads just before they invaded? How is fighting a war over a "religion of peace" not a breakdown of the social order? How is an insurrection caused by failing to integrate your converts not a breakdown of good governance? And Attila, really? Would you like to claim any sort of good governance in the practices of the Huns?

Of course, now you're trying to claim again that I'm saying the invaded have the power necessary to avert war. Time to improve your reading skills.

Not only will no example suffice, but you throw in an ad hominem for free! Greatly appreciated. The Umayyad example was chosen because there were few interactions between Muslim cultures and non-Muslims other than conflict during this era, meaning that there were few external causes for the aggression and because the Umayyad Caliphate is sometimes shown as an example of a stable society during the post- Western Roman period.

And the Umayyads would not have called Islam the religion of peace!

By Aquinas Dad (not verified) on 09 Oct 2010 #permalink

No, I got that right. See, you only claim that I was saying 'only the invaded...' etc. If you wished to claim I made a mistakee it could have been made i a positive way. In the end, I still want to know simple things that you can't/won't answer, such as - in the caseoftheUmayyadinvasion of Spain, who could have changed Umayyad culture and religion enough to avoid war? How would they have done it? When would they have needed to act to do so?

See, your premise requires either demigods stalking the earth or, well, yeah.