Unlimited War

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 03-27-2022

As we try to come to grips with the situation in Europe - a war in Ukraine, a great deal of pressure on the NATO alliance, the problem of Vladimir Putin - we need to take a look at history to provide us with some guidance. And, while comparing anyone to Hitler is often a bad place to start any discussion, in this case it may provide some insights.

Simply put, should the US have attempted to negotiate a ceasefire with NAZI Germany and a peace treaty with Hitler before the US entered the war?

In fact, we did. In February of 1940, nearly 6 months after the NAZIs invaded Poland, President Roosevelt sent Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles to speak to Mussolini and then Hitler. Nothing came of the meeting, but he tried. It wasn’t until the US had been in the war for 14 months that the US, Great Britain and the USSR formally and publicly adopted the policy of Unconditional Surrender (during the Casablanca conference in January 1943).

While it has a great visceral appeal, a call for unconditional surrender must not be taken lightly; unconditional surrender of a nation means that the government of the nation is going to be changed, and that the nation is giving itself over entirely to victor; it is an existential statement: the government is saying that, if the victor so wishes, the victors can do what they will, destroy the state, even. It is unlimited.

So, to call for unconditional surrender is to insist on that very thing.

The idea of limited war versus unlimited war has existed for as long as we have recorded history. A fight to gain a little piece of soil could end with a deal. But a fight to remove the chief, the king, the emperor, that was something different. Louis XIV coined the phrase "L’Etat C’Est Moi" (The State Is Me), but every king, every absolute ruler, believed it in his own time. And every modern government - collectively - still believes it - though they are, of course, incorrect. 

Note that the “United States” is not the members of the government bureaucracy and their leadership that exists in the District of Columbia; that is simply the bulk of the elected representatives of We the People; we are the country, they are, in fact, nothing more than the hired help. The distinction is important in understanding the difference between a country like the US and a dictatorship (or nearly so) such as Russia or China. 

And thus, to remove the king, the emperor, the maximum ruler, is, from the perspective of the king, emperor, czar, etc., to destroy the state as it now exists. It is existential war, unlimited in the most complete sense. And once an emperor realizes he is engaged in unlimited war, he has no boundaries, no limits to his actions, survival justifies any actions.

Stated differently, calling for unconditional surrender effectively frees your enemy from any restraints, while forcing yourself into a corner. The enemy is no longer limited, but you are, you now must fight an unlimited war even if you are not prepared to do so.

Hence, a demand for an unconditional surrender needs to be made very carefully. 

Now, ask the question again: should we have attempted to negotiate with Hitler  in light of our post-war knowledge of the NAZI desire, and effort, to wipe out the Jewish people? Also knowing the war would cost the lives of 75 million people. 

Irrespective of what the war would cost, the simple truth is that it would not be correct to bargain with Hitler if that meant leaving him in power to wipe the Jews of the face of the earth. Genocide could not be allowed to continue as a price for peace.

Dealing with an individual like Hitler, a leader who was clearly immoral, evil, a criminal in the worst sense of the word, can’t be done. Right?

What about Stalin? He killed far more of his own people than Hitler killed Germans. But, we dealt with Stalin because he was fighting Hitler. And we needed to defeat Hitler first. And by the time we were ready to address the USSR, the USSR had atomic weapons. And a huge army sitting astride Eastern Europe. So, we dealt with him.

And we dealt with Mao, who killed more of his own people than died in all of World War II.

So, ask yourself the question a third time: Would it have been acceptable to negotiate with Hitler if Germany had had nuclear weapons?

Can we deal with a head of state who is a war criminal? We refrained from calling Stalin, or Mao, war criminals, though they clearly were evil men. In fact, they were far more evil than Putin, if we were to attach some sort of quantitative human misery scale to their times in office.

Hitler was a criminal, and was seen as consummately evil by the time FDR announced that we were seeking unconditional surrender. And arguably, we knew we were winning. 

Calling someone evil, a war criminal, as with, for example, the Serbian President Milosevic, removes them from the company of heads of state and in practical terms makes it impossible to deal with them. In the case of someone like Milosevic, with few resources, that is not of great concern to the US. 

In effect, calling someone a war criminal is equal to calling for unconditional surrender; which makes it equal to a call for unlimited war. The problem is that it forces us into a corner and frees Putin of any restraints.

We didn’t call Stalin a war criminal. We didn’t call Mao a war criminal. We didn’t even call the Emperor of Japan a war criminal. In fact, we left him in power. We chose to not insist on unconditional surrender with Japan. Because it limited us to actions whose costs would have been too high.

But what if the individual has several thousand nuclear weapons?

By declaring - again and again - that Putin is a war criminal, we are in essence tying not his hands, but our own. At this rate we will soon find it impossible to come to any terms at all with Putin. We will have forced ourselves into a situation with essentially no room to maneuver. And in doing so, we will have at the same time relieved Putin of any constraints. Said simply, we will be cornered, and he will be free to act.

Putin is an evil man, and Russia’s efforts to seize Ukraine are just flat wrong. The West, and the West is led by the US, needs to unravel the Russian effort to takeover of Ukraine. 

We may want Putin to be forced out, to be run out of town on a rail, to rot in the 7th circle of hell, with a seat next to Attila. But we don’t get to make that a part of US or NATO policy, not unless we want to wage unlimited war.

We could get away with it with Hitler because Hitler didn’t have nuclear weapons. We didn’t try it with Stalin or Mao. Vlad has nuclear weapons - a lot of them. And as Winston Churchill noted: nuclear powers must not fight total war against each other.  Churchill understood that nuclear powers can, in fact, fight total wars against each other. But no one would like the result.