John Saville


Never ending story

(December 1995)

From Socialist Review, No.192, December 1995.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Century of war
Gabriel Kolko
The New Press £19.95

It is now generally accepted that the 20th century – the short 20th century from 1914 – measured by the numbers killed wounded and tortured, has been the bloodiest period in the whole of recorded history; and it is now coming to be recognised that unless certain fundamental changes take place the century we are soon to enter will not be different.

The future could be less horrendous of course, if certain basic revolutionary changes were to occur, but there are no signs at present that any such changes are in motion. The long run is still a very long run, and whether the disintegration of the present world capitalist order will take another century, or two or three more, will depend on a range of historical factors some at least unknown at the present time. Whether the present increasing world disorder will eventually be replaced by a more decent, sensible and humane form of social organisation – some version of what we have always understood as classical socialism – is also beyond our present predictions. Those of us who are socialist activists obviously think it will be.

Some of these thoughts come out of a reading of Kolko’s book. He has already written many volumes on the diplomatic and political history of the world since 1939 – of which his large scale volume on Vietnam is perhaps his most impressive achievement – and this present volume brings together his research and appreciation of war in society since 1914. It is a subject requiring serious analysis, because war has increasingly entered into the lives of whole populations as each decade has passed. From 1950 to 1980 there were around 150 wars – large and small – most of them in the Third World with an estimated 30 million dead at a time when Western Europe and North America were enjoying the expanding pleasures of consumerism. The last 15 years since 1980 have not witnessed a slowing down of conflict and its associated butchery.

The greater part of Kolko’s book is concerned with the Second World War and the decades which followed. The countries of Europe, China and South East Asia receive quite detailed summaries of their bitter experiences from which he draws some broad generalisations. One is the increasing involvement of societies in war and war preparations. A second is the widespread failure of politicians and military leaders to foresee the consequences of the war or wars they are embarking upon. Stupidity, imbecility, naiveté and plain ignorance have been factors within the leadership of all countries engaged in 20th century wars and Kolko is right to underline their significance.

A third conclusion, upon which he very properly lays emphasis, is the elimination of any distinction between combatants in uniform and civilians: a distinction which continued to be recognised for the most part during the First World War but which from 1937 began to be eliminated. I assume, though he is not specific on the matter, that he chose the date 1937 to refer to the German bombing of Guernica (although he could have used the earlier example of the Japanese Army in North China). The lack of differentiation between civilians and those in uniform was a striking feature of the Second World War in Europe, but what Kolko does not bring out sufficiently sharply is the bitter contrast between the Western and Eastern Fronts in Europe, and not just the actions against the Jews in Eastern Europe.

It is surprising that Kolko does not include in his bibliography Arno J. Mayer’s classic Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? – a book everyone should read – for while Mayer is centrally concerned with ‘the Final Solution’ he documents in chilling terms the Wehrmacht’s butchers of the civilian populations of Eastern Europe extending deep into the lands of the Soviet Union: a frenzied carnage on a very large scale which may be compared in its ferocity with the utter devastation of Protestant Magdeburg in 1631 by the Catholic troops of Tilly during the Thirty Years War. What happened in Eastern Europe and the western areas of Russia was the most harrowing and gruesome experience of any area during the war years, much played down by Stalinist diplomacy and not appreciated by the ordinary people of Western Europe.

There are some other gaps in Kolko’s analysis. He fails to discuss one of the main factors which brought about the escalation of wars in the Third World, namely the international trade in armaments by the advanced industrial societies. In the 1930s the arms trade was condemned as obscene by the whole labour movement in Britain. As a result of public pressure there was even a Royal Commission on the subject but today? Who worries about the killing of hundreds of thousands of the people of East Timor since 1975, achieved with a considerable proportion of the weapons and arms supplied by Britain? At least 10 percent of all British export values are of military equipment and arms. They include instruments of torture which the British governments in the 1980s expressly denied were required for British forces. Obscene is the word. About three quarters of British arms exports are taken by Third World countries with deaths on a massive scale as the consequence. A priority for New Labour?

Kolko provides a great deal of detail on Europe, China, the Philippines and Vietnam but very little on the other areas of the world. Africa, South America and most of the Pacific are outside his analysis, yet it is in these continents and countries that much of the butchery of the past decades has taken place. His book is useful then for what he tells us although it would certainly be improved with a more rigorous editor, for his writing is becoming much too wordy and diffuse; and he has missed much from the bloodstained history of the world in these past decades. His subject is of quite central concern to all of us concerned with the increasingly threatening character of world capitalism in what would seem to be a historical period of disintegration. Workable alternatives for socialists need to be grounded firmly in as close an analysis of what is really happening in the world as can be achieved.

Last updated on 4 July 2010