On Unjust Peace

“Unconditional surrender” came into historical use with those unsettling terms that Ulysses Grant gave Simon Buckner, one of the Confederate brigadier generals in charge of Fort Donelson, which Union armies took in February 1862. Faced with negotiations from Buckner while the fort was under siege, Grant responded by demanding nothing short of unconditional surrender. Thereafter, the initials U.S. in Grant’s name (which stood for Ulysses Simpson) became inextricably associated with the terms delivered to Buckner.

It should be made clear that Grant stated his stark terms out of impatience. Buckner had been his classmate and friend at West Point, and Grant was annoyed with Buckner’s haggling after his fort had been obviously lost to the besieging Union soldiers. Once the surrender took place, Grant and Buckner engaged in affable conversation, and the Union forces shared their provisions with the starving Confederates. In earlier battles in the Mississippi campaign, Grant and his Confederate counterparts engaged in something like 18th-century contests between European professional armies. These early encounters, very often between West Point graduates, some of whom had fought together in the Mexican War, seemed mercifully free of ideological passions. Although lives were lost, these battles were not infused with the rage that the American Civil War would assume as the bloodletting went on.

By the time the Western Allies demanded “unconditional surrender” from the Axis powers, that term had taken on an ominous meaning that had not been attached to it in the first year of the American Civil War, at least not in battles fought along the Mississippi. The attitude toward armed conflict and toward the enemy underwent a transformation in the intervening time. As a result, the opponent was transformed into the Devil Incarnate, and American military involvement just about anywhere morphed into what Richard Gamble characterizes in his study of the ideological background of American entry into World War I as “a war for righteousness.” Periodic attempts to adopt a realistic, that is, nonideological, approach to shooting wars has not really gone anywhere, even if it has produced stimulating exponents like George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, Walter McDougall, and John Mearsheimer.

The reason should be obvious. Ideological passions and febrile crusades have become the moral cement holding together a post-national America that has been uprooted from older cultural and religious traditions. Struggles against anti-democrats and more recently against those who resist the LGBT cause are meant to bring us together against a designated ideological enemy. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the aristocratic statesmen who ran European affairs regarded wars, as German legal theorist Carl Schmitt pointed out, as interruptions in normal statecraft. Wars were fought for limited geopolitical advantage, ideally sparing civilians, when other means of resolving tensions had been exhausted. These exercises of force were ended through negotiations with what was then perceived as a hostem justum, that is, a just opponent, not a demonic evil.

Although wars in the golden age of statecraft often proceeded far more brutally than Carl Schmitt would have us believe, they did typically end with negotiated settlements reached by the belligerents after they put down their arms. The treaty settlement after World War I, by contrast, in which the defeated Central Powers were treated as war criminals and forced to accept sole moral blame for a war that both sides had created, would have been unthinkable at an earlier time. It is interesting that the American president who shoved the U.S. into the European bloodbath—which would have ended by negotiations without the American presence—insisted that the German government had to abolish its monarchy and adopt a republican constitution before the U.S. would make peace. The adoption of that desired government, needless to say, did not prevent the losing side from being saddled with a Carthaginian peace. The German republicans, who were summoned to affix their signatures to the document, were forced to accept articles 227 through 232 of the Versailles Treaty, which placed the burden of war guilt entirely on their country’s shoulders.

It was, of course, Woodrow Wilson who pushed the U.S. into what he depicted as a “crusade for democracy” and a “war to end all wars.” And as we all know, Wilson was a progenitor of our liberal internationalist foreign policy, the one that has been dominant in the U.S. for more than a century. Thanks to our ruling class, we are not likely to abandon this call for armed moral crusades in the foreseeable future. Even for what still seems to have been a reasonable military objective, the removal of the Nazi government in Germany, we should ask whether that goal was pursued in a reasonable way. Getting rid of an aggressive, genocidal dictatorship did not require the devastation of entire countries, the demand for unconditional surrender, and the handing over half of Europe to Stalin’s murderous rule.

The war should have been prosecuted while keeping channels open to opposition forces in Germany with which the U.S. could have negotiated. And it should have been waged against a dangerous, inherently belligerent government, not against an entire people, who were destined to be remolded to fit progressive American schemes concerning how they should live and think. This was colossal moral arrogance. Not surprisingly, our moral and mental reconstruction of the Germans, something that Richard Weaver warned against, has come back to bite us in the form of our own state-of-the-art woke dictatorship. There’s nothing we did to reprogram our onetime enemies that we didn’t later inflict on ourselves.

One sees the same ideological forces being unloosed in the “Western democratic” response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian efforts at expansion can be traced back to Peter the Great in the early 18th century and even earlier. Later these actions met Western resistance followed by a bilateral treaty, as at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Treaty of Paris in 1856, and the Congress of Berlin in 1878. On these and other occasions, Russian tsarist efforts at expanding, usually against the Turkish Empire and often in pursuit of controlling the Dardanelles Strait, were frustrated. But the Western powers did not try to oust those Russian governments they opposed by claiming they were criminal. They proceeded to negotiate a peace with the other side, even after the bloody Crimean War. That conflict went on from 1853 to 1856, involved English, French, Turkish and Piedmont Sardinian forces fighting Russian ones, and claimed 650,000 lives. It too ended, as it should have, in a negotiated peace.

That was the way armed conflicts were supposed to end back then, before the leftist media and neocon “advisors” were allowed to determine the outcome. Taking this critical position is not the same as backing Putin’s attempt to grab Ukrainian territory. It is recognizing conflict as something that happens periodically in international relations and does not require woke ideological hysteria as a response. The Ukrainian invasion may not have happened if the American government and its European satellites had not tried to push NATO to the borders of Russia. It may also not have happened if the Obama administration in 2014 had not been complicit in overthrowing a pro-Russian Ukrainian government and replacing it with an anti-Russian one. None of this is intended to excuse Putin’s brutal aggression. But provocative actions taken by the “democracies” before this invasion occurred were not exactly innocent.

I also think that military aid to the Ukrainians to protect themselves against this aggression was at least defensible. But then the question arises as to what end and to what degree should this aid have been given. Moreover, the amount given should be weighed against other priorities, like taking all necessary action to restore the U.S.-Mexico border or keeping enough military resources to deal with more perilous challenges, for example from China. In any case, we are long past the point at which serious consideration should have begun about negotiating a peace—one short of what the left and their neocon allies are calling for. Ending the war should not mean trying Vladimir Putin as a war criminal or fighting until the Ukrainians get back Crimea (most of whose residents seem delighted to be under Russian rule). Nor should this end, with due respect for neocon gay-rights advocate James Kirchick, by forcing the Russians to allow LGBT propaganda and legalize gay marriage.

Unfortunately, it seems that a “democratic” foreign policy in this country means nothing less than stuffing the latest ideological nostrum of our elites down the throats of the unwilling. We have also reached the point where woke regimes, which have long been on a journey toward soft totalitarianism, hand out democracy grades to other countries that seem no less unfree. Thus Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—under whose government parents can be stripped of their offspring and even put in jail for not accepting their children’s gender change—rants against the socially conservative Putin as an antidemocrat. Meanwhile, Joe Biden, who has worked to dehumanize his political opponents and especially the Christian right, awards high grades for democracy to the Ukrainian government, which has been mired in corruption for years.

In the past I have argued in favor of American assistance to those resisting the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But taking that position now puts me in profoundly disgusting company, from which I feel driven to distance myself. I don’t care for the company of crusading moral degenerates, ranting Wilsonian global democrats (who usually don’t believe any more than Wilson in freedom at home), and the fans of the warfare-welfare state. These forces have jumped on the Russo-Ukrainian War train to further their perpetual drive for control over the rest of us. They are the forces hoping to benefit from any military conflict that the American government decides to promote.

Not at all incidentally, the U.S. ambassador to Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is David Pressman, a homosexual activist married to another homosexual activist. In between bullying the Hungarian state into pushing the LGBT agenda, Pressman has been scolding Orbán for pushing policies—“from condemning sanctions to embracing Russian ‘cease-fire’ proposals”—that are “endorsed by Putin.” Unfortunately, there’s an obvious linkage between these causes.

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