If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
And it's not as if nobody knew. It's not as if wars have to be fought in order to learn each time that war is hell. It's not as if each new type of weaponry suddenly makes war evil. It's not as if war wasn't already the worst thing every created. It's not as if people didn't say so, didn't resist, didn't propose alternatives, didn't go to prison for their convictions.
In 1915, Jane Addams met with President Wilson and urged him to offer mediation to Europe. Wilson praised the peace terms drafted by a conference of women for peace held in the Hague. He received 10,000 telegrams from women asking him to act. Historians believe that had he acted in 1915 or early in 1916 he might very well have helped bring the Great War to an end under circumstances that would have furthered a far more durable peace than the one made eventually at Versailles. Wilson did act on the advice of Addams, and of his Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, but not until it was too late. The Germans did not trust a mediator who had been aiding the British war effort. Wilson was left to campaign for reelection on a platform of peace and then quickly propagandize and plunge the United States into Europe's war. And the number of progressives Wilson brought, at least briefly, to the side of loving war makes Obama look like an amateur.
It was not a new story. From 1856 to 1860 Elihu Burritt had promoted a plan to prevent civil war through compensated emancipation, or the purchase and liberation of slaves by the government, an example that the English had set in the West Indies. Burritt traveled constantly, speaking all over the country. He organized a mass convention that was held in Cleveland. He lined up prominent supporters. He edited newsletters. And he was right. England had freed its slaves in the Caribbean without a war. Russia had freed its serfs without a war. Slave owners in the U.S. South would almost certainly have preferred a pile of money to five years of hell, the deaths of loved ones, the burning and destruction of their property, and the uncompensated emancipation that followed, not to mention the century and a half of bitter resentment that followed that. And not only the slave owners would have preferred the way of peace; it's not as if they did the killing and dying. What does being right get you? Forgotten. Who's ever heard of Elihu Burritt?
But the victories are as forgotten as the failures, and that's probably what hurts us the most. The Outlawry Movement of the 1920s--the movement to outlaw war--sought to replace war with arbitration, by first banning war and then developing a code of international law and a court with the authority to settle disputes. The first step was taken in 1928 with the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which banned all war. Today 81 nations are party to that treaty, including ours, and many of them comply with it. I'd like to see additional nations, poorer nations that were left out of the treaty, join it (which they can do simply by stating that intention) and then urge the greatest purveyor of violence in the world to comply.