Because I’m bad at vacation, over the long weekend, I finished Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars, his history of World War I that focuses on people who resisted the conflict, through pacifist appeals to the solidarity of all working people, protests against conscription, or work towards the humane treatment of people who experienced shell shock or as-yet-unnamed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on the battlefield. It’s a striking book to read in the context of our current debates about everything from the Justice Department’s obtaining phone records for Associated Press, potentially to try to learn who provided information for a story about a terror plot, to the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes in targeted killing operations. There’s no question that the American War on Terror and World War I are significantly different conflicts, whether because the first is poorly defined by the borders between states while the latter saw states fall like dominoes through their complex alliance agreements, or because the former has been fought with volunteers, while the latter involved massive conscription. But in the midst of one conflict that’s been described as existential, it’s remarkable to look backwards at another one, and at the enormous compromises that Britain made, along with the ones we’re making today.
When World War I began, Hochschild explains that it did so in an environment where radical British movements were already highly mobilized around issues like workers’ rights and female suffrage, and that the war gave members of those movements opportunities to test their commitment to their own principles—or to move to the political mainstream. “[Women’s Social and Political Union] suporters,” Hochschild wrote, “shrinking in number but ever more extreme, set on fire an orchid house at Kew Gardens, a London church, and a racecourse grandstand; blew up a deserted railway station; and smashed a jewel case at the Tower of London. They cut the telephone wires linking London and Glasgow, and slashed the words NO VOTES, NO GOLF! into golf course greens and then poured acid in the letters so grass would not grow.” But WSPU founder Emmeline Pankhurst calculated that the millions of men and pounds that were going into the war effort would matter more to the British government than the half-million pounds in damage radical suffrage actions cost in private property and repositioned herself as a militant supporter of World War I, while her daughter Sylvia continued prioritized economic solidarity and anti-war sentiment, leading to a split within the family. “Only a year earlier Emmeline Pankhurst had been in prison for inciting the blowing up of Lloyd George’s house, but now both were smiling as they appeared together before the cheering crowd,” Hochschild notes. “For months afterwards, newspapers celebrated the odd new couple. As one headline put it: ‘The Ablest Woman, the Ablest Man in England, Once They Were Enemies, War Has Made Them Friends.'”
The existence of those radical movements weren’t the only element at play in the British government’s treatment of war resisters, of course. The idea that conflict between Britain and Germany would be existential was stoked by popular culture:
In 1906, a novel called The Invasion of 1960 was serialized in the Daily Mail; the newspaper advertised it by sending men in spiked Prussian helmets through the London streets. The book was a sensation and helped launch a whole fantasy literature of invasion. Another novel depicted the imperial German black-eagle banner flying over Buckingham Palace, the British king exiled to Delhi, and signs declaring it verboten to walk on the grass in Hyde Park. A play about an invasion by “the Emperor of the North” opened in London in 1909 and was still running 18 months later. So many invasion novels flooded the bookstores that the humorist P.G. Wodehouse satirized them with one of his own, The Swoop! or How Clarence Saved England, featuring an attack by the Swiss navy and the Chinese seizure of the Welsh port of Llgxtplll.
And the scale of the war, and the number of men required to feed into its maw—Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who was the commander during some of the war’s bloodiest battles, believed, in the absence of reliable casualty data, that the more of his own men were killed or wounded, the more of his enemies would have fallen in direct proportion—produced a sense that all of society needed to be mobilized into the war, with no room to opt out.
The responses to people who resisted the war were similarly total. The British government and individual British employers made it economically difficult for men of military age to avoid enlisting. “When London trolley workers went on strike, for instance, the city council simply fired all males of military age and urged them to join up,” Hochschild writes. “Young men working for local governments and businesses often found themselves ‘released’ from their jobs so they could volunteer. Although a bumpy economy had thrown hundreds of thousands of people out of work and was raising food prices, the government quickly asked charities not to aid jobless men eligible to enlist.” Lord Derby said he wouldn’t hire non-veterans to work in any of his enterprises, a rather less compassionate approach than the one taken by, say, Downton Abbey‘s Lord Grantham. The social pressures were enormous: “‘The conscientious objector is a fungus growth—a human toadstool—which should be uprooted without further delay,’ screamed the tabloid John Bull. The Daily Express declared that COs were financed by German money. Those against the war were so accustomed to being ostractized that they were sometimes startled when it didn’t happen. When an old friend, now in uniform, warmly greeted E.D. Morel in the street, Morel was so moved that he burst into tears, exclaiming, ‘I did not think anyone would speak to me now.'”
The pressure to come into conformity, whether by public support or material participation in the war, wasn’t only cultural. Morel went to jail on a charge that he’d distributed pacifist materials outside of Great Britain. Bertrand Russell publicly claimed authorship of a leaflet distributed by the No-Conscription Fellowship after other members were imprisoned for giving it out. “For this he was fined 100 pounds (which he refused to pay, forcing the authorities to seize some of his property), dismissed from his post at Cambridge, and denied a passport for a trip to lecture at Harvard.” The Defence of the Realm Act, in addition to letting the British government seize property needed in the war effort, declared “No person shall by word of mouth or in writing spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty’s forces or among the civilian population,” an extraordinarily wide-ranging prohibition. 6,000 war resistors who refused to do non-combat service as an alternative to military service did time in prison.
And while the United States has decided that it can kill its own citizens overseas without trial under certain circumstances—and has instituted reforms that would raise the standards for killing non-citizens to match the standards that must be met to use drone strikes against citizens who have been determined to be terrorists—Britain killed its own citizens simply for being afraid. The case of Lance Sergeant Joseph Stones is instructive: ordered to retreat during a German incursion into a British trench, Stones was found without his weapon, and with his commanding officer dead, his superiors didn’t believe he’d been ordered to retreat, or take into account the terrible shock he’d suffered, or the physical exertion of his retreat. He was ordered shot—and Albert Rochester, who had been court-martialed for writing a letter to the Daily Mail protesting the use of servants by officers, was ordered to dig holes to be used to sink the posts against which Stones and two other men would be shot, an experience that turned him into an even more committed activist than previously.
None of this is meant to suggest that the compromises of its values the United States has made in pursuit of a nebulous set of aims in a nebulously-defined War on Terror that combines both military actions and law enforcement efforts are minor in comparison, or somehow more worth it than the actions Britain took in World War I. But To End All Wars is a reminder that we’re comparatively fortunate that practices like, for example, an all-volunteer army have protected us from some of the abuses of civil society that come with conscription. And in examining the things Britain did to itself, it’s easy to see that, as with the War on Terror, the mark of whether a conflict is existential isn’t only the other party on a battlefield, but the conduct of the nation that understands itself to be under threat.