The Road to Universal Slaughter
by Ryan McMaken
For what did thousands of Americans die in the First World War? This is a question to which few educated people will venture to provide an easy answer for anymore. Some wars, as viewed by average Americans today still provide some easy answers (whether true or not): WWII was fought to defeat the Nazis, the Civil War was fought to end slavery, etc. Ask an ordinary American about why we entered the First World War, however, and you are likely to get a shrug, or some vague answer about it being a noble effort as a "war to end all wars." The sacrifice of 100,000 American lives (and millions of European ones) on the altar of some utopian program to end all war should be enough to make any decent man’s stomach turn, but few really give the question much thought.
If one really knows his trivia, he might venture the explanation that the Wilson administration went to war because the Germans sank the Lusitania, a British ship carrying munitions that happened to have a few Americans on board. Surely that was worth so many lives and so many millions of dollars. Sadly, many Americans did believe that the sinking of Lusitania merited American entry into the war and the sacrifice of so many lives and so much treasure. This was not because the sinking of the Lusitania was such a dastardly deed of unprecedented barbarism that any sane person would support a war over it. Rather, ordinary Americans were so shocked and appalled by the sinking of the Lusitania because they had been trained for three years to be outraged by virtually anything the Germans did.
In 1914, the British Foreign Office authorized the creation of the War Propaganda office, and one of its central missions was to flood the United States with anti-German propaganda under the "American Ministry of Information." The ministry quickly set to work producing "research" and "evidence" proving an unparalleled militarism in German civilization that could not be found in any other culture. Knowing that proving such an assertion would not necessarily translate into the need for American involvement, the British tried to move beyond simple excessive militarism and to show that the Germans (whom they called "The Hun") were savage beasts that were impossible to appease and were beyond the usual peaceful tactics of deterrence and negotiation. According to David Gordon:
[The British] attempted again and again to portray the Germans as beyond the pale of civilized humanity. If the Germans were behaving monstrously, were they not by that simple fact a direct threat to the United States? However dubious its logic, this proved a very effective argument indeed.
The most often cited "atrocity" committed by the Germans was the never proven rumor that the Germans had mutilated babies in their occupation of Belgium early in the war. The British fed stories to the American press about the Germans nailing babies to walls, cutting off their hands, impaling them on bayonets and parading them around cities. No proof was ever produced, but the Americans bought the nonsense wholesale. By the time the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine in 1915, who could doubt what the American response would be?
The lies had not gone unnoticed by everyone, and as early as 1915, two years before the United States would finally enter the war, Emma Goldman, the antiwar anarchist (who was later deported to Russia for her radical agitation) pleaded with Americans to not buy into the hysteria.
Goldman identified a trend, which would become a staple in American foreign affairs during the 20th century: War propaganda leads to fear, fear leads to military build-up, and the build-up always leads to war. In her essay titled "Preparedness, the Road to Universal Slaughter," Goldman denounced the military build-up that was taking place in the United States under Wilson before anyone in the Wilson administration would even admit to wanting to enter the Great War in Europe. Goldman believed that the call for "preparedness" would lead inevitably to war. Americans, she believed, would support the war since they had been convinced by their leaders that the very existence of the United States was at stake, and that "a billion dollars of the people’s sweet and blood" was a small price to pay. She continued:
The pathos of it all is the America which is to be protected by a huge military force is not the America of the people, but that of the privileged class; the class which robs and exploits the masses, and controls their lives from the cradle to the grave. No less pathetic is it that so few people realize that preparedness never leads to peace, but that it is indeed the road to universal slaughter.
Indeed, the patterns that Goldman spoke of in 1915 would be repeated again and again through the 20th century and would be perfected in the Cold War and then in the War on Terrorism where the purveyors of war could proclaim that, in fact, the enemy might never be defeated and eternal militarism is now the only answer.
What American today would even blink if he were told that the regimes of the "Axis of Evil" nail babies to walls or ritualistically cut off their hands for sadistic pleasure? The Iraqi regime has been accused of almost every horrendous deed under the sun, yet what threat do they truly pose to the United States? At least the Germans actually killed some American civilians (albeit inadvertently) before we chose to declare war on them. While the United States continues to fail to build a case that the secular regime of Iraq conspires with the religious fanatics of Osama Bin Laden’s gang, they have had to rely more and more on the roundabout strategy that the British employed in 1914, except this time, it is the governments of the Middle East who are "beyond the pale of civilized humanity." Saddam Hussein is no doubt a more violent and despotic leader than the vilified German Kaiser ever was, but even if both were spectacularly evil, what business is it of the United States? The British knew in 1914 that there was no reasoned answer to this question, so they simply repeated the same lies over and over again, counting on Americans to conclude that the sheer barbarity of the foreigners would induce us to stamp out the implacable evil.
The Bush Administration’s proof of Iraqi involvement in the terrorism of September 11th (or any other terrorism against the United States) has amounted to nothing more than repetition of rumor and hearsay. This war against this modern Hun for which we are now preparing can only distract us from the real business of self-defense through the control of our borders, the withdrawal of American troops from Islamic holy lands, and ending the drain of American treasure on foreign outposts and military adventures.
Let us not put our descendants in the position of being asked 100 years from now, "For what did thousands of Americans die in Iraq?" Surely, they would only be able to answer with a shrug.