They Knew Not Where They Were Going or Why

In times of war, people do strange and irrational things. They also do things that they would never think of doing in peacetime — like killing and maiming people that never lifted a finger against them, that they didn’t know, and that they had never even spoken to.

It was one hundred years ago that the first war ended in what was to be a very bloody century of war. The Russo-Japanese War began on the night of February 8, 1904, with the Battle of Port Arthur, a port on the Liaotung peninsula in Manchuria that served as the primary base for the Russian fleet in the Pacific. Port Arthur, which took its name from British Royal Navy Lieutenant William C. Arthur, was a strategic seaport coveted by Russian and Japan.

Although the immediate cause of the war was the Japanese naval attack on Port Arthur, the Russo-Japanese War was preceded, as are most wars, by interventionism. Russia and Japan, at the expense of China, wanted control or “influence” in the Far East. After warring against China in the mid 1890s, Japan demanded control of Port Arthur. The European Powers objected, not because they respected Chinese sovereignty, but because they had their own ambitions in the Far East. Within a couple of years, Russia took control of Port Arthur, gaining a valuable ice-free port to supplement Vladivostok. Suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 resulted in more intervention by Japan and the European powers. Russian troops remained in Manchuria after the fighting ended. It was Russian refusal to make good on its promised withdrawal of Russian troops that led to the Russo-Japanese War.

The outcome of the Battle of Port Arthur was inconclusive, but Japan was victorious when the Siege of Port Arthur ended on January 2, 1905. The Japanese also defeated the Russians at four major land battles and two major sea battles before the war effectively ended on May 28, 1905, with the defeat of the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima. Nearly the entire Russian fleet, which had sailed all the way from the Baltic coast, was destroyed in this battle in the waters of Tsushima Straits (between the Japanese island of Kyushu and South Korea), along with over 4,300 men. The Japanese lost only three torpedo boats and a little over 100 men.

The wasting of the lives of over 4,400 men in this battle is a great tragedy. But the role of the state in sending men off to war and the blind obedience to the state by the men sent off to war is an incredible outrage. The same can be said about almost any war or foreign intervention. In the 1998 Discovery Channel video, Last of the Czars, the narrator speaks these solemn words as pictures of Russian troops are shown:

In 1904 Nicholas had been drawn into a disastrous war with Japan. He dispatched his troops with his blessing. Not that they knew where they were going or why. The Russian people believed the propaganda which promised a short, sharp, victorious war. But the Japanese people believed their propaganda which promised the same and proved to be right. It took the Russian navy’s Baltic Fleet six months on the high seas to make the engagement; only to be sunk in a single day at the Battle of Tsushima.

About 130,000 men were killed in the Russo-Japanese War. Although the Treaty of Portsmouth, signed at the Portsmouth Naval Base, New Hampshire, on Sept. 5, 1905, officially ended the war, it did not end the folly of war and intervention that is still with us one hundred years later.

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