War By Any Other Name

Winston Churchill, reflecting in 1945 on the period between the two World Wars, recollects a move by the Conservative government to fortify England against the prospect of war. In anticipation of an imminent general election, their platform was decidedly pacifist. He writes:

In the early months of 1935 there was organised a Peace Ballot for collective security and for upholding the Covenant of the League of Nations. This scheme received the blessing of the League of Nations Union, but was sponsored by a separate organisation largely supported by the Labour and Liberal Parties. The following were the questions put:


  1.  Should Great Britain remain a member of the League of Nations?
  2. Are you in favour of an all-round reduction of armaments by international agreement?
  3. Are you in favour of the all-round abolition of national military and naval aircraft by international agreement.
  4. Should the manufacture and sale of armaments for private profit be prohibited by international agreement?
  5. Do you consider that if a nation insists on attacking another the other nations should combine to compel it to stop by: (a) economic and non-military measures, (b) if necessary military measures?

The Night of the Long Knives had already occurred, and Germany was obviously rearming, and with prejudice. Britain had lost air superiority (parity, as Churchill puts it). The Royal Navy still had the numerical advantage, but her ships were decaying while Germany was busily displacing the ocean with mighty battleships. It would be unfair to judge the government as completely blind: they were converting factories to produce armaments, albeit in small number and light caliber; moreover, any military paraphernalia was deemed strictly for “defence.” Just call it “defence,” and you’re still a pacifist.

War by any other name…

The Conservatives won by so large a margin that the Prime Minister felt no need to include critics of the government on his staff, so Churchill, once again elected an MP, mocking the internal inconsistencies within the ballot itself, much more within the opinion of the public, decided to pack up his paint box and go somewhere to enjoy “better climes.”

At once, Italy invaded Abyssinia, which threw the British public into a war fervor. What League of Nations? The clamoring for war by the British public caused Mussolini to rush into the arms of Hitler, forming the Axis alliance which brought a conflagration to inevitability.

There is practically no alarm or urgency in the tone of Churchill’s prose. It is counter-intuitive, of course, when you remind yourself that Churchill is writing after watching bombs drop ceaselessly upon London for several years. Rarely does he feel the need to vindicate himself: London was still impassable while he was writing. Years of horror changes mental calculations. Nevertheless, this reader feels his heartbeat quicken its pace, and a little outrage is poured forth. You fools! “The Peace Ballot!”

It is tempting (a temptation to which I yield with great pleasure) to see in the fog of war approaching enemies of the kind Churchill long foresaw. In 1932 he was already sounding alarums in the government.

Have you seen this psychological experiment? A foggy landscape is presented on screen, through which the mind struggles to perceive an object, any object. Hist! Approacheth something now. Be it friend or foe? At first, you see a knight mounted upon a stallion, but then you hear a noise, whereupon you see a tank. To arms!

Alas, she emerges from the fog, dressed in her best white dress, holding a lollipop in her hands. It is a little girl.

Fog skews perception, but the mind projects objects into the consciousness with certainty. It is a vestigial something something from prehistoric man to preserve the berry bushes from the enemy.

The difficulty with calling it vestigial, of course, is there are still such things analogous to The Peace Ballot to address those movements and noises in the fog which are most certainly not lollipop-bearing cutie pies.

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