Samuel Brittan on an imperfect book which nevertheless should be read by as many people as possibleby Samuel Brittan / January 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
it is almost certain that, as you read this sentence, in some places people are being killed and in others people are being tortured.” This reflection is not the most cheerful one with which to embark on a new century, but it is all too realistic.
There have been many accounts of the horrors of particular regimes or episodes in the 20th century, of which the best known are the mass killings of Hitler, Stalin and-as more people are forcing themselves to admit-Mao in China, as well as, of course, Pol Pot in Cambodia. It is all too easy to concentrate on whichever of these episodes fits our political prejudices.
One virtue of Jonathan Glover’s new book is that it is too wide ranging to allow the reader such an easy escape. Above all, he reminds us of unnecessary suffering and killing emanating not merely from these demonised regimes, but from what may be loosely called “our own side.”
The author is not a pacifist. But he does make us realise that the horrifying trench warfare in the first world war was not an unavoidable by-product of the conflict, but the result of a cold-blooded indifference to the human consequences, by the officer class. One of the few to protest against so much killing for so little purpose was Winston Churchill, whose memorandum was greeted with a rebuke from that awful authoritarian, King George V.
Then there was the blockade of Germany, which continued until March 1919, months after the end of the fighting, and which led to many deaths from starvation. Again it was Churchill who dissented and wrote: “These bitter experiences stripped their conquerors in German eyes of all credentials except those of force.” The year 1919 also saw General Dyer’s massacre of 500-1,000 peaceful demonstrators at Amritsar in India. This was only the worst of the “fancy punishments” he and his fellow officers prescribed.
Yet another example was the continued mass bombing of civilians in German cities, by Air Marshall Arthur Harris, long after the Normandy landings when the second world war was clearly in its closing phase. Later in the century there was the massacre by US forces of civilians in the village of My Lai during the Vietnam war. This was not an isolated incident, but an all too likely outcome of the nature of that conflict.
Many of these episodes were accompanied by…