War – an Evocation

During World War I Ludwig Wittgenstein served as an Austrian enemy combatant on the  Eastern front from 196-1918 and spent a further year as a prisoner of war in Italy.  He spent his downtime working on his treatise that became his only published book, his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).   His understanding was that  logic is only what can be sensed  and all else is mysticism and can only be shown and language cannot describe.

It is interesting that at the same time a young man, Erich Remarque was fighting for the Imperial German army on the Western Front from 1917-1918.

For Wittgenstein and Remarque, they were two men profoundly effected by their war experiences shaping both their  thoughts and writing. The difference though is that Wittgenstein did not overtly describe his war experiences, having it instead  shape his philosophy on logic, whereas for Remarque they formed the foundations for two staggeringly expressive and powerful books, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Way Back, on what war is like and what it does to a person .

Wittgenstein was not able to apply logic to the act of war. He did not appear to comprehend the illogic of serving in the Austrian army intent on killing  enemies many of whom would have been contemporaries of his at Cambridge. He did not analyse the futility of war and that history teaches us, if not nothing about war, then not the means and attitudes  to not do it again. By contrast his long time mentor, Bertrand Russell, was a pre war philosopher on mathematical logic  who became an ardent anti-war voice during the war and was jailed for those beliefs.

To Wittgenstein a logical picture of facts  is a thought and a thought is a proposition with sense, that can be shown. Logical form cannot be expressed within language for it is the form of language itself.  Anything outside that is ‘nonsense’ mystical, and because we do not have the language for it we should stay silent. The limits of language, for Wittgenstein, are the limits of philosophy. Much of philosophy involves attempts to say the unsayable. What we can say at all can be said clearly – we have the language.  Anything beyond that – religion, ethics, aesthetics, the mystical – cannot be discussed. They are not in themselves nonsensical, but any statement about them must be. Though inexpressible they manifest themselves in life. Wittgenstein could not believe that it was logical or possible to describe metaphysical phenomena such as ethics aesthetics , religion , the mystical in my view Remarque proved him wrong.

The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I and II was about 40 million, while deaths are estimated as ranging from around 15 to 22 million

Remarque describes an encounter by the demobbed soldiers in  ‘The Way Back. The  soldiers have returned home – shattered, dehumanised, grieving, to a society they have never experienced as adults, to a society that doesn’t want to know.   They are in the woods of home, old comrades together reminiscing. They hear a troop of young army cadets  with their imitation guns, attentive and excited.

‘They don’t see the tiny miracle of the violets coming through the leaf mould, nor the promising purple haze on the ploughed field , nor the downy fur of the young hare as it lopes through the furrows. No, they do see the hare , but they aim their sticks at it , and the clattering against the tree trunks gets louder’.

‘What’s all this bloody nonsense?’, the tired so old, young  soldier comrades  angrily ask the leader of the troop and they are mocked by these know-nothings  as pacifists, cowards, traitors.  ‘Hurray for the front! Hurray for the front! Hurray for the front!’ the troop of teenagers chant.

‘Hurray for the front?’ the comrades reflect – ‘What if you’d said that to one of the men out there on the battlefield?’ ‘Yes’.  ‘That’s the way it all starts off again’.

There is no learning from history. We celebrate our war dead on Remembrance day but we do not do enough to prevent future wars. What we owe them is not just a debt of gratitude but a learning from history that we should never let our citizens die on war again.

World War II was  the deadliest military conflict in history.  Deaths directly caused by the war (including military and civilian fatalities) are estimated at 50–56 million.

Why do we go to war?

Don’t fight kids. Fighting never solved anything. How woefully the adults follow their doctrine in recent times in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Israel/Palestine. How quick we are to take sides when the only realistic end to war is not force but peace negotiations. Each combatant  has a view and a cause that is bigger and more righteous than the enemy. Not in my name take sides.

You will not find a short explanation for the cause of World War I.  An unholy mix of assassination, alliances Imperialism, militarianism and  patriotism.  You probably couldn’t find a new recruit in 1914 able to tell you. What they were asked to believe  was that they were protecting their homeland, they would be with their mates and it was an exciting adventure, and it was their duty.  Everyone in the war believed that – on all sides, on all nationalities, a whole generation of young men.

Kenneth Boulding,  was  one of the most remarkable lives of this century, a pacifist, renowned multidisciplinary economist,   wrote ‘It is the unselfishness, not the selfishness of mankind that causes the most trouble.  ..It is when the individual sets aside his personal interest in favour of a group that conflicts become acute. …In the political sphere war is unquestionably a result of two forces – the unselfishness of the individual and the selfishness of groups. Individuals do not go to war for personal ends – instead the love of country or of ideals which he feels must be defended by violence’.   (A Voice Crying in the Wilderness p46)

The reality for that cross-nation generation was brutal:

‘I see people being driven against each one another, and silently, uncomprehendingly, foolishly, obediently and innocently killing one another.  I see the best brains in the world inventing weapons and words to make the whole process that more sophisticated and long lasting. And watching this with me are all my contemporaries, here and on the other side of the world – my whole generation is experiencing with me. What would our fathers do if one day we rose up and confronted them, and called them to account?  ‘ (Remarque All Quiet on the Western Front 1929).

The cause of World War II  was Hitler’s Lebensraum, power and doctrine on one side and the Allies defence on the other. It would be hard to add the humanitarian cause of war as Allied  protection of  Jewish people  from transportation and genocide because what began as the  pogrom of 1938 known as Kristallnacht, was no war trigger, nor focus during  the subsequent escalations of the Holocaust under the Nazi regime.

Wars are eternal and the causes depressingly replicated for land, resources, doctrine (religion) power. The Falklands conflict in 1982 Argentine invasion- cause –  land, power, doctrine;   Iraq War 2002 –  oil, power, doctrine;  Crimean War 1853-1856 – power, imperial empire, doctrine; land; Boer War Imperial empire land, power;  Hundred Days War 1815 – land,  Napoleonic power, doctrine; Henry V’s  French War in 1415 –  imperial land, power, doctrine;  Empire wars  – Roman, British, Moghul, and so on  land, power,  doctrine;  Ukraine Russian War 2022  – land, doctrine, power.

War is  about  two sides the takers and the defenders. Land is  the primary cause, and people’s welfare secondary. The Battle of the Somme on the Western Front took place between July  and November of 1916. The British and French advance amounted just  6 mi (9.7 km) on a front of 16 mi (26 km) length,  at a cost of 419,654 to 432,000 British and about 200,000 French casualties, against 465,181 to 500,000 or perhaps 600,000 German casualties.

Land is the most precious static concrete finite resource there is for human beings. Not gold or diamonds but land. 

So on one side of the equation making the case for war is the acquiring or defending land is also wealth it holds. Not true of the mud and barren Somme but  industrial heartlands offer  oil, mines,  metal.  The  irony, another,  is often in war the industrial base is destroyed. War works for eventual  regeneration and modernisation. It has been subliminally necessary and economically evolutionary on those terms.

The minus part of the equation is a land destroyed of buildings and infrastructure, soldiers and civilians dead, families bereft, a land and water polluted, wild animals and plants and trees obliterated, a people children, the demobbed soldiers lost and  traumatised. The equation for war appears wholly tipped towards the negative.

Remarque in the Way Back (p178/179):

‘We were deceived , and we know now how we were deceived! Because they abused us completely !  They would say the ‘the fatherland’, but they meant the annexation plans of greedy industrialists , they talked about honour, and meant the squabbling and power struggles of a handful of ambitious diplomats and rulers;  they said the nation’ and they meant the need for out-of-work generals to be doing !”Can’t you understand?’ They crammed into the word ‘patriotism’ all their overblown rhetoric, their vainglory, their lust for power, their fake romanticism, their stupidity and their commercial greed, and then presented it to us as a shining ideal! And we believed that it was the clarion call to a new, strong and vigorous existence! Don’t you understand? We waged war against ourselves, without realising it! And every shot that was fired hit one of us! Listen to me, I’ll shout  it at you as loudly as I can: the youth of the world rose up, and in every country they thought they were fighting for freedom! And in every country they were deceived and abused, in every country they were fighting for vested interests rather than for ideas, in every country they were mown down, and they destroyed each other. Don’t you understand There is only one battle , the one against lies, half-truths, against compromise , the old stuff! But we let ourselves be trapped by their rhetoric and instead of fighting against it we fought for it. We believed that it was all for the future! But it was against the future! Our future is dead, because the young men who carried the future are dead. We are just the remnants, what’s left over! But the others are still around , well-fed and contented, living better-fed and more contentedly than ever before!  Because the ones who were not contented,  who were tempestuous and forceful – they died for them! Think about it! A generation has been wiped out. A generation full of hope , belief, will, strength and ability , all hypnotised into shooting one another down, even though they all had the same goals in all the different countries!’

The real story of war economics

General Smedley Butler  is quoted as saying  ‘ War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable,  surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.’ (A Voice Crying in the Wilderness   page 20)

Naomi Klein in Shock Doctrine (2007)1 describes what is called the Davros Dilemma, ‘the contrast between the world’s favourable economics and troublesome politics’. In recent times the economy had faced a series of shocks – wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 9/11, the financial crash of 2007/8 and yet found itself in a golden period of broadly shared growth.  There appeared to be a near complete disconnect between politics and markets.    Klein describes the ‘guns-caviar index’ which tracks the sales of fighter jets (guns) and executive jets (caviar).  For 17 years it consistently found that when fighter jets were selling briskly then executive jets weren’t. This isn’t a Truism anymore.  Since 2003 when fighter jets sales went up executive jets went up. Now when international relations are poor, investors and financiers are seeing the best of times.  The timing mirrors the growth of the military industrial complex exemplified by US companies,  Blackwater and Halliburton.  Today global instability doesn’t just benefit a small group of arms dealers it benefits the high-tech security industry, heavy construction, private healthcare, oil and gas sectors, defence contractors and privatised reconstruction in warzones like Iraq.’

We have an Economics built on continual war and deepening disasters and probably always had.

There were more private army combatants working for the US than state army in Iraq. The Financial Times (2013) looked at how American and foreign companies had profited from the conflict with the US spending at least $138bn on private security, logistics and reconstruction contractors, who have supplied everything from diplomatic security to power plants and toilet paper.

In 2020 the UK arms trade was valued at £11 billion. UK was the world’s second biggest arms dealer after the US and ahead of Russia and France, with almost £100bn worth of contracts since 2010, including the sale of Typhoons to Saudi Arabia and missiles to Qatar. The UK exports 49% of its arms to Saudi Arabia, Oman 14%, Indonesia 9.9%. Countries receiving arms from other nations include India, Bangladesh, Vietnam. The US sells to 98 countries, China to 48, Russia to 47. The rich and poor of nations who somehow find the money for aircraft and guns. B

Spending on military budget diverts resources away from consumers in the economy. The Iraq War that started in 2003 had an estimated cost to the US government of  $2 trillion, yet no new taxes were levied to pay for this.  The Government holds the key to the printing press so it  simply shows up as a deficit on the governments balance sheet – same as it funded bank bail outs. So governments get full Keynesian type employment, economic stimulation and a great GDP.  Someone ends up paying for that deficit and as a country and citizens we were made poorer. Boulding described the war industry as a cancer. ‘It has contributed to our lack of increased productivity and our growing incompetence as a society. Rather productivity can be increased , as in agriculture, by diminishing the uncertainties of productive people .’   (p157  A Voice Crying in the Wilderness).

In 2006 the UK sent the final instalment of  £42.4 million to the US and £9.98 million to Canada, the 50th instalment on a loan,  without which Britain may have collapsed under the cost of six years of war with Germany. The original loan from the US in 1945 was for $4.3 billion, ( the equivalent of about £27 billion today )  and  £1.2 billion from Canada in 1946.   Loans issued by and to Britain during the first world war have never been resolved. A deal was struck in 1931 to wipe them out, to give countries a chance to rebuild during the Great Depression.  We can only wonder at the the hidden neglect in social services,  international development and environmental resource protection caused by theses wars, not of our making,  that could have been assuaged and money repaid as loans spent otherwise. 

War and the Environment

The effects of bombs and bullets and tanks on the land and the people, farm animals, domestic animals, rivers, seas, people is so, well so, bloody obvious. and I won’t  list all the effects of war on environment and biodiversity, though others have commendably done this. 10 Ways That War Impacts On Wildlife And Essential EcoSystems – Green Queen).

The UN recognises the effects of war on the environment. In his 2014 Secretary General of UN, Ban Ki-moon spoke on the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict, “The environment has long been a silent casualty of war and armed conflict. From the contamination of land and the destruction of forests to the plunder of natural resources and the collapse of management systems, the environmental consequences of war are often widespread and devastating,”

This was repeated by the new UN Secretary General António Guterres on the same International Day in 2021 ‘we recognize the environment as yet another victim of war.  Crops are torched, water wells polluted, and soils poisoned to gain short-term military advantages, with devastating consequences that can last decades. Protecting the environment is integral to conflict prevention, peace building and sustainable development, because there can be no durable peace if the natural resources that sustain livelihoods and ecosystems are destroyed.’

Little impact has be shown by those words in the international conflicts. between and around the dates of those statements- Russian-Ukrainian war, Yemeni Civil War, Kurdish- Turkish conflict, Niger delta conflict, Iraq conflict, Columbian conflict, Cameroon conflict, Gaza-Israel conflict, Ethiopian conflict, Togoland, Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, Afghanistan conflict and so on. .

Catherine Lutz of the Watson Institute for International Studies quoted in the Guardian says, ‘War changes our parameters. In the face of actual or perceived threat, acts that would normally be abhorrent become acceptable and even routine. One of the first of our sensibilities to be discarded is the protection of the environment. There is this notion that it is life or death for a nation so you don’t worry about niceties. We have this idea that human beings are separate from their environment and that you could save a human life through military means and military preparation and then worry about these secondary things later,”   

End War 

Let Queen Elizabeth II be the last UK monarch to go to her final resting place on a gun carriage. Let our present generation of UK monarchs be the last to marry in military uniforms. The symbolism of war the power and the glory of war is designed to send young men to their deaths. We can end the heroic symbolism of war and power.

Boulding suggests war is not the natural state, or inevitable.  It is people’s image of themselves as non-violent that keeps them in check. He believed that the  adage ‘ If you want peace prepare for war’, is  incorrect.. The size of the military/industrial complex may be correlated to war/peace probabilities.  Boulding argued for an organisation that is responsible for maintaining peace as its primary goal. He lamented  the value of the military industry and that it no longer serves as a force for defence, but instead as a weapon for exerting authority and control. We need an image of the future that projects peace (A Voice Crying in the Wilderness p158).

Balance the equation of war so the good of land protection and land grab is balanced by financial costs, economic costs in loss (and not gains ) in productivity and centrally the environmental costs that can be predicted and  itemised. Let the people decide on the value of war. Throughout history and to the present war is decided by leaders for motives good and bad. The people are propagandised and side-lined until the call comes for recruits to  enter the battle grounds. No longer marginalise environmental effects.  We need people assemblies to make the case.

Then we decide on war.

And then there’s the mothers’ call.

If mothers knew

If any one can counter Wittgenstein’s assertions that only logic can be described in words it is Remarque. For he shows and evokes like no other,  the truthful materiality of war.

Remarque in The Way Back  (p120) –  a mother is shocked by her returning soldier son’s use of bad language,  He says ‘ I can see why I am really different from all the other soldiers in the world to this careworn little woman: I am her child. I have always been that to her, even when I was a soldier. She saw the war simply as being like a horde of dangerous animals, threatening the life of her endangered child. It never entered her head that her endangered child might be an equally threatening animal as far as other mothers’ children were concerned.’

At eighteen on the Western Front this soldier son  had repeatedly  stabbed a man to death, shot men and seen them dying on the barbed wire and used a grenade to mutilate a man, heard his screams and watched him die.

‘You must never, ever find out about the last few years, you must never even suspect what it was really like and what it turned me into. The tiniest fraction of it would break your heart, since you are trembling with shame at a single vulgarity which has already shaken your image of me.’

‘ I know that I can never come to her and be with her and tell her everything and maybe find peace?’ Which are some of the saddest words you can read.

Its time to tell the mothers so they can stop sending their children to war.



Monk, R. (2012). Ludwig Wittgenstein: The duty of genius. Random House.

Remarque, E. M. (2004). All quiet on the western front (Vol. 68). Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Remarque, E. M. (2013). The Road Back: A Novel (Vol. 2). Random House.

Battle of the Somme – Wikipedia

Naomi Klein 2007 – The Shock Doctrine, Penguin Books p423, 425 428

Contractors reap $138bn from Iraq war | Financial Times (ft.com)

UK remains world’s second-biggest arms dealer, figures suggest – BBC News

 The top 10 countries exporting arms around the world – Global Defense Corp.


World War II casualties – Wikipedia

Secretary-General’s message for the International day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict [scroll down for French version] | United Nations Secretary-General

International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict | Messages | United Nations

List of wars: 2003–present – Wikiwand

What’s the environmental impact of modern war? | Environment | The Guardian