War of Choice or War of Necessity?
In the first days of August 1914, Great Britain found itself at a strategic crossroads. Regardless of whom it held responsible for the war, it now faced the prospect of a single adversary dominating Europe in a manner reminiscent of Napoleon. Hastings and Ferguson agree wholeheartedly on two points essential to determining whether the British were wise to fight or had better options at their disposal. First, they agree that a German victory was imminent if the British refused to fight. Second, Hastings and Ferguson agree that the wisdom of the decision to fight depends on the implications of a German victory. Ferguson spells this out more clearly. He explains:
It’s always illuminating to think about what we historians call the “counterfactuals,” the “what ifs” of history. What if the British cabinet had decided not to intervene in 1914. . . . What would Europe look like today if the Germans had indeed won that limited continental war?
To answer his question, Ferguson gestures to a screen behind him that rolls stock footage of a German auto plant. Answering his own question, Ferguson continues, “A Europe dominated by the German economy. What’s more, the German chancellor’s proposal for a European customs union [during the war] . . . was to a remarkable extent an anticipation of our own European Union.”
Ferguson made this same point 15 years ago in an influential book also entitled The Pity of War. The argument drew heavy fire then and is no more persuasive now. Midway through Hastings’s film, the eminent historian Sir Michael Howard tells Sir Max, “If the Germans had won the war, I see no way in which they would not have used their dominance of Europe to bring the British down. So we would not have avoided a war, we would only have postponed one.” In September 1914, when it still seemed that the Germans might achieve the rapid and decisive victory they hoped for, their chancellor composed a list of concessions Germany expected in exchange for peace. It included the seizure of large tracts of land from France and Russia, while Belgium and Holland would become vassal states.
Had the Reich actually prevailed, it is difficult to identify any potential constraints on its ambitions. The Germans might have resumed their decades-long naval arms race with the British, this time with Belgian and Dutch ports under their control. Furthermore, actual German atrocities in Belgium and Eastern Europe during the war suggest a mindset not conducive to a pacific future.
While it may be fascinating to speculate about what might have been, there is simply no way to confirm that one projected future is more plausible than another. When Ferguson and Hastings address the implications of a German victory, they step outside their role as scholars and become educated guess-makers. This is not a condemnation. In the first days of August, 100 summers ago, the British cabinet had no choice but to make an educated guess about whether the consequences of fighting would be better or worse than the consequences of passivity.
The same is true for every government that confronts the prospect of war. For this reason, the effort to distinguish wars of choice from wars of necessity is inherently flawed. To argue that a war is necessary is to argue that the consequences of not fighting would be intolerable. Yet the decision to fight renders the consequences of inaction unknowable. Conversely, the decision not to fight renders the impact of a hypothetical conflict unknowable.
Even resistance to a direct attack on one’s homeland does not amount to a war of necessity. The decision to resist aggression always has a strong ethical component. After Pearl Harbor and 9/11, Americans overwhelmingly supported going to war because our enemies violated our most deeply held notions of justice and freedom. In both instances, there were strong reasons to believe that a refusal to fight would result in further attacks. Yet no one will ever know for sure what would have happened if America chose not to fight. The Japanese sought to pre-empt the projection of American power into the Western Pacific. They had no interest in California. The United States could have pursued al-Qaeda by means of law enforcement, not war, an alternative embraced by some on the left.
In the aftermath of 9/11, there was good reason to ask whether the United States should have done more, sooner to prevent the attacks. If invading Afghanistan was the right choice, it would have made more sense to do so before the devastating attack that cost the lives of 3,000 civilians. Similarly, the best time to declare war on Japan was before Pearl Harbor. Yet the imperative to act became visible only in hindsight. Americans believed they had a choice. Perhaps more important, going to war early would have been far more difficult to justify. What one perceives as choice or necessity depends in no small part on moral considerations.
The Future of History
A hundred years from now, the British may remain no less divided than today about the wisdom of the Great War. The threat posed by the Second Reich will never match the malevolence of the Third. The human cost of the First World War will never seem tolerable, especially when the magnificent victory of 1945 demanded so much less.
Today, after lengthy and divisive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is profound skepticism in the United States of any assertion that enemies must be confronted abroad so they do not strike us at home. Yet the fading memory of 9/11 reminds Americans that sometimes, such warnings are valid. If only there were a clear standard against which to judge the necessity of fighting. The troubling lesson of Britain’s centenary debate is that history may never vindicate difficult choices on behalf of either war or peace.
— David Adesnik is a visiting fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.