Churchill’s military history sheds light on today’s moral challenges
It is an unfortunate fact of secular history that its main turning points are wars. We might wish it were otherwise, but it is not, and it is at our peril that we ignore the study of war and its relationship to political developments.
Book by military historian Anthony Tucker-Jones Churchill: master and commander, Winston Churchill at war, 1895-1945 examines the great man’s experiences and involvement in the many wars that shaped his career. It is important reading not just for admirers of Churchill, but for anyone who wants to understand how the moral challenges posed by warfare were profoundly altered by the technological developments of the first half of the 20th century.
Churchill’s early wartime experiences came, in part, as a journalist when he traveled to Cuba as both a war correspondent and an official British government observer. The experience enthused him, and for the next few years Churchill traveled to the front lines in Sudan, then Afghanistan and finally South Africa, each time blurring the lines between combatant and journalist. It was during the last conflict that he was captured, and after successfully escaping from a POW camp and traversing hundreds of miles of enemy territory, the escapade made him a celebrity. . He remained, now as a soldier, to join the victorious British forces when they raised the siege of Ladysmith and affected the conquest of Pretoria.
These different experiences offered lessons that Churchill would absorb, refine, and deploy later in life. For example, in Cuba, “although Churchill had a high opinion of the performance of the Spanish troops, he was dismayed that they then abandoned the initiative and did not pursue the retreating rebels”, observes Tucker-Jones. “He couldn’t understand why, after ten days of enduring all sorts of hardships, they were just taking a low hill.”
In South Africa, Churchill was impressed with the effectiveness of small Boer raiding parties, which were able to attack the larger, less mobile British forces and cause significant damage and even alter the overall trajectory of the conflict. Later, this impression would form the basis of his insistence and support for commando operations during World War II.
Churchill also learned how to make a living during these years. In addition to filing articles on war zones, he would compile them into book form when he was done. “It was a dubbing technique he was to use for the rest of his life,” notes Tucker-Jones. This attention to the art of writing would serve the future Prime Minister well when he “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle”, as Edward R. Murrow said of his speeches in the days dark 1940s.
The future Prime Minister turned his fame to politics and entered Parliament in 1901 at the age of 25. Popular and insistent, he entered the Cabinet and at the start of the First World War, Churchill was the first Lord of the Admiralty, the equivalent of our American Secretary of the Navy. In this position, he headed the “Land Ships Committee”, which oversaw the development of the modern tank as the British Army was not yet interested in the idea of armored vehicles.
Churchill also defended an attack at Gallipoli, where a British attempt to force the Dardanelles, take Constantinople and open a sea route to its ally Russia failed. The episode dogged his reputation for years, but the failure of the operation was more the result of a lack of inter-service cooperation and the ambivalent support for the operation from General Herbert Kitchener, Secretary of State for War. at the time. Churchill learned two lessons from the fiasco. First, that people are ill-advised to try to launch a cardinal operation from a subordinate position. Second, that in wartime the government needed someone with authority over the whole scene, someone who could demand the cooperation of the various departments. Thus, in May 1940, when he became Prime Minister, Churchill also gave himself the title of “Minister of Defence”. The British Constitution being less rigid than ours, he preferred not to define the duties or rights that came with this new job title. When, years later, the time came to cross the English Channel and storm the beaches of Normandy, the vast military operation was mostly spared the kind of rivalry that had doomed the effort to force the Dardanelles 30 years ago.
Tucker-Jones skilfully considers criticism and praise of Churchill’s wartime leadership. He was wrong about India, about Ireland, about free trade, but he was right about Hitler at a time when hardly anyone else was, and that turned out to be the problem most important of the 20th century. This does not excuse the many mistakes and mistakes he has overseen.
From a moral point of view, one mistake stands out as far greater than the others: Churchill accepted the indiscriminate bombardment of German and later Japanese cities. Tucker-Jones recounts how at first Churchill was reluctant to endorse the bombing of urban centres, and how on March 14, 1933, he told the House of Commons that any country which “dropped its bombs on towns in order to kill as many women and children as possible…had committed the greatest crime.” But when the war came, Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal and, later, Arthur Harris, the chief of the Bomber Command, exhausted him, arguing that strategic bombing could break the will of the German nation.
Churchill knew better – and so did his military advisers. The indiscriminate bombardment of London during the Blitz had not broken the will of the British people. Yet he followed his military advisers, who really had no better argument for the indiscriminate bombing campaign than the fact that they were unfamiliar with precision bombing of military targets. It’s hard not to read these painful accounts of decision-making in Whitehall and conclude that they are all rationalizations of the urge for revenge.
World War II ended with the horror of nuclear mushroom clouds over Japan and the prospect of even more powerful nuclear weapons. Thus, it is understandable that in the post-war era the focus of moral attention was to prevent a nuclear holocaust. But those killed by the firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden were just as dead as the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tucker-Jones’s book does not consider, but does invite, this question: Wouldn’t the world have been better served if, in the post-war period, the moral concern had been to eliminate the bombing of any target? civilian, especially from the air? , rather than the unique horror of nuclear weapons? Would Ukraine’s suffering today have been less severe if the injunction against the targeting of civilians, which is a pillar of the teaching of just war, had been at the center of moral analysis, rather than the distinction between nuclear weapons and conventional weapons?
It is impossible to answer such hypotheses, but they stimulate the intellect and the moral sense. Murder and war are as old as mankind, and we ignore the lessons that previous wars teach us at our peril. Some of these lessons are the provenance of military historians, while others require moral analysis, and the two intertwine extensively and intricately. Tucker-Jones’ achievement in this book is to relate, sympathetically but not uncritically, with attention to the contingencies of time and place, how the outstanding 20th century figure struggled with these issues throughout his life. . This is not an easy task. It is a very beautiful book.