Friday, October 21, 2011

The War that was not Hell

I grew up thinking about wars as huge nasty horrible bloody things full of savagery and carnage. War was what happened when all of the rules were thrown out of the window. I wondered why anybody would ever willingly enter one if there was any other choice, and thought that such choices were due to madness or socipathy.

But after reading this good article about privateers in the War of 1812, I have a better perspective. Consider the following story:

Boyle won a bruising battle but had little to show for it. The British man-of-war was heavily damaged, and because it was a man-of-war, not a merchant ship as Boyle had originally thought, it had little cargo of commercial value. Boyle could have sunk the St. Lawrence, but that action would have required taking onboard approximately sixty prisoners and then feeding and guarding them for the remainder of the cruise.
Not wanting to take on prisoners and bearing in mind his instructions from Congress and the president that "[t]owards the enemy vessels and their crews, you are to proceed, in exercising the rights of war with all the justice and humanity which characterizes the nation of which you are members" (qtd. in Garitee 1977, 97–98), Boyle sat down with the St. Lawrence's commander to strike a deal. Boyle would release the commander and his crew and return them to the St. Lawrence if they would agree to make immediately for the port of Havana with a promise not to take up arms voluntarily against the United States again. Such a promise, called a parole, had long been recognized as binding on both the parolee and his government. In practice, it was combined with another efficient and humanitarian institution—prisoner exchanges. Each prisoner's parole was treated as a debt. If the British released a captured American prisoner of equal rank, they thereby extinguished the debt and nullified the parole (Petrie 1999, 24–30)
Commander Gordon of the St. Lawrence issued a certificate to Boyle in consideration of Boyle's treatment of British prisoners,: "In the event of Captain Boyle's becoming a prisoner of war to any British cruiser, I consider it a tribute justly due to his humane and generous treatment of myself, the surviving officers and crew of His Majesty's late schooner St. Lawrence, to state that his obliging attention and watchful solicitude to preserve our effects, and render us comfortable, during the short time we were in hispossession, were such as justly entitle him to the indulgence and respect of every British subject" (qtd. in Coggeshall [1856] 2004, 366).

I had known about these kinds of things before but had not thought much about them. The naval part of the War of 1812 was fought with careful attention to honor and the rule of law. There was an amazing amount of trust on both sides. Partly this was because war was bring treated as an aristocratic game where the interests of the elites on both sides were not seriously threatened. In many ways, the opposing naval captains had more in common with each other than their countrymen. Winning the war and serving the interests of their country was less important to them than maintaining honor among their social circle and looking after their own comfort.

But it is true that the European nations had developed a long tradition of laws designed to make war less horrible. In many cases, armed conflict was seen as just another way of doing business. There were very few deaths due to combat, compared to deaths due to disease, which were endemic in the population anyway. There was more glory than horror in this kind of war, especially for the elites. This was the world that the people who started the massive wars of the modern age grew up in. Despite their other faults, most of the elites of this era had a deep respect for contracts and the rule of law. This kind of thing is the foundation of a healthy civilization. Wars fought among people who shared these cultural values really could be an honorable, civilized kind of thing.

European society between the start of the Enlightenment and the advent of mass public education was a thin veneer of civilization layered over a teeming mass of savagery. This is best illustrated in the treatment of Native Americans. Many of the wealthy aristocratic politicians tried to respect the rights of the natives, setting borders and treating them like independent sovereign nations, but the mass of common folk overran the countryside like a plague of rats, taking land with fraud and violence. This is why most of the natives sided with the British government during the Revolutionary War. It is also no accident that Andrew Jackson, the first president actually elected by popular vote, was responsible for the worst atrocities committed against the natives.

There was much evil and corruption within the aristocracy, but for a long time they were the only carriers of the Enlightenment values of reason, tolerance, rule of law, and human rights that eventually spread throughout Western society. A war conducted among such people will not have the same horror as a war where one or both sides are commanded by people who lack these values. The age of these kinds of wars was a brief and strange event of history, but it was real, and it generated a kind of romantic view of combat that still lingers to this day.

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