‘Dealers’, ‘bleeders’, and a negotiated peace in Ukraine

Mar 2, 2023
Gold petals form a peace sign on a blue background

After a catastrophic year of war, there is talk of a negotiated peace in Ukraine. But those suggesting that it should be explored are often instantly slapped down. Familiar rhetoric is deployed. A negotiated peace is supposedly impossible – or dishonourable.

For instance, the Australian retired Major General Mick Ryan told Saturday Extra (RN 17 December 2022):

‘The thing about war is there’s many enduring elements, and this war will end when the loser decides they don’t want to fight any more. As terrible as it sounds, I do not see any short term prospects for any kind of ceasefire or negotiations or agreement about bringing this war to an end.’

Supposedly, we must fatalistically accept more war as the only way out. There are only winners and losers. Force will decide everything.

Some even depict the rejection of peace as an act of solidarity with those suffering in Ukraine. It isn’t. In fact, whatever praise we may lavish on the Ukrainian defenders, and whatever outrage we may pour upon the Russian aggressors, to reject all prospect of a negotiated settlement is callous – and extraordinarily dangerous.

We have been this way many times before. Consider the disastrous Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s. According to Selig Harrison, friend of the UN mediator Diego Cordovez, the key diplomat who sought a negotiated Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US gave Cordovez little help. There were tensions in the US administration between ‘bleeders’ and ‘dealers’. The ‘bleeders’ were keen to leave the Soviet forces floundering in Afghanistan, while the ‘dealers’ wanted to end the prolonged disaster before an ineradicable extremism took hold in Afghan society. The ‘bleeders’ dominated in Washington.

Similarly, during the First World War, ‘bleeders’ faced ‘dealers’ – although they had different names then. The Western ‘bleeders’ believed time was on their side and they urged an ever-escalating war until a victorious ‘knock-out blow’ was delivered. The ‘dealers’ urged a negotiated peace, before irreparable damage was inflicted upon Europe and the world. The ‘dealers’, supported by mounting peace activism across the globe, urged that only a ‘peace without victory’ – in Woodrow Wilson’s phrase – would last. Again, the ‘bleeders’ dominated, the war was prolonged, and decades of turmoil followed.

A dozen promising opportunities for negotiation were deliberately side-stepped. (See the latest studies by Philip Zelikow and Daniel Larsen.)

In First World War Australia, the conservative and imperial-loyalist newspaper press stuck murderously to the British imperial line. The press overwhelmingly supported the demand for a ‘knock-out blow’ and heaped scorn on the very idea of a negotiated peace. Our newspaper chains, owned mostly by reactionary press barons, relied almost completely upon the news cables that came to Australia, via the ‘all-red’ British imperial route. Those cables were rigorously censored at both ends. In addition, there was ‘patriotic’ self-censorship here in Australia, to buttress the ‘knock-out blow’ consensus.

Looking back now, and thinking of Ukraine, there is a painfully familiar ring in the arguments deployed by the ‘knock-out blowers’. Victory is indispensable. There is no alternative. All negotiation is an illusion. Only war offers deliverance. We must ‘see it through’. ‘War weariness’ is a terrible danger, to be countered with new weapons and lashings of propaganda. War must be waged – at any cost.

Let us review the mesmerising rhetoric that washed through our newspapers during the orgy of industrialised killing, 1914-1918. Are there not parallels to today?

First, the enemy was depicted as uniquely and monstrously evil. Immediate causes blotted out all consideration of long-term causes. The enemy started the war – all sides insisted. They waged it in inhuman, atrocious ways. Therefore, no fit partner for peace negotiations could be found on the other side. Rather, the enemy had to be bludgeoned into defeat. There was no alternative.

Second, the aim of the war was supposedly a ‘lasting peace’. Therefore, no ‘premature peace’, no ‘patched-up peace’, no ‘compromise settlement’, could possibly be contemplated. The fighting could not end until ‘guarantees’ were achieved. Peace terms had to be ‘dictated’ to the loser, in the enemy’s capital, after an unconditional surrender. There was no short-cut to peace.

Third, to avert the supposed peril of a negotiated diplomatic settlement, war aims were constantly scaled up. Impossible goals were set. ‘Prussian militarism’ had to be crushed; the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires partitioned. The Kaiser had to be toppled, and surrendered for international trial. All occupied territory had to be evacuated, and reparations accepted, before any peace talks could begin.

Fourth, those diplomats, citizen activists, or neutral states urging a compromise settlement were smeared as ‘defeatists’ and ‘peace-at-any-pricers’, ‘apologists’ for the enemy, ‘playing the enemy’s game’, showing weakness that would only ‘embolden’ the enemy – and perhaps, it was hinted, they were in the pay of the enemy.

Fifth, it was always ‘too soon’ to negotiate, because the forces of good were not yet within reach of victory, and not all weapons and manpower had yet been thrown into the cauldron. And, simultaneously, it was always ‘too late’ to negotiate, because victory would very soon be within reach, undoubtedly, in just one more summer of fighting. In the same way, the enemy was too powerful, just now, to be negotiated with – and yet the enemy was too weak, in the long run, for us to doubt that victory would eventually be won. So, the war must go on.

Sixth, any negotiations were depicted as bound to fail, in any case, because the gap between the two sides was too great. No point in trying. Any proposed armistice was just a trick, a ‘peace trap’, part of a ‘peace offensive’, designed to give the enemy a ‘breathing space’, to divide and conquer the forces of good. An ‘inconclusive peace’ would mean that war was bound to be resumed, in just a few months. Better to persist with it now. Stand firm.

Seventh, sacrificial nationalist fantasies were peddled. The poor people actually suffering so horrifically at the heart of the war were perpetually toasted as heroes – in capitals far away from the fighting. There was endless praise of the gallantry of the resistance, often pumped out by rich elderly men who would not themselves suffer even a stubbed toe in the quest for the victory they insisted upon – leave alone tax rises to fund the on-going war. Heaven forbid.

Eighth, the war was supposedly waged for the noblest of goals – democracy. It was fought for the sake of the whole world. Thus, the ‘knock-out blowers’ of the Great War, many of whom in subsequent decades would go on to support imperial aggrandisement, and to turn a blind eye to both Fascism and Nazism, proclaimed their faith in democracy. But in fact, many – then as now – would not have crossed the road for democracy.

Ninth, the opinion-makers plumbed the depths of hypocrisy. They churned out countless columns ignoring their own nations’ histories of aggression, interventions, and called for more and more war – in pursuit of peace through strength. Military experts indulged their schoolboyish enthusiasm for the contests of weaponry. With comparable hypocrisy, the established churches – on every side – depicted the war as a holy contest between heaven’s avenging angels and fiends from the depths of hell. The men of God, Christmas after Christmas, blessed the parades, and buried the riddled corpses in the name of Jesus.

Tenth, those calling for a long war deployed the oldest and most blood-stained card of all: ‘not in vain’. They warned that to talk peace before victory was won would dishonour the dead. Supposedly, only victory could vindicate them. Supposedly, the dead and their grieving survivors shunned the very idea of the diplomats ending the war with a ‘premature peace’.

Those peddling this drivel during the First World War helped prolong the catastrophe. Do we not hear echoes of this today?

During that war, Lord Lansdowne, one of the few Conservative British statesmen who shifted from the camp of ‘bleeders’ to the camp of ‘dealers’, argued passionately that ‘the responsibility of those who needlessly prolong such a war is not less than that of those who needlessly provoke it.’

Turning to our own day, we need to realise that the ‘hawks’ are often vultures and the ‘doves’ are often owls.

We need to realise that the self-styled ‘realists’, who seem to believe that victory can redeem all costs, might not be as realistic as the supposed ‘idealists’, who prefer to negotiate before the ruinous costs engulf us all.

We must remember the potential cataclysm that hangs over us all, beyond anything that could have been imagined by the generation that endured the Great War: the utterly monstrous peril of a horrific nuclear escalation.

We need to remember the wisdom distilled in the old adages: it is absurd to ‘burn down one’s house to roast a pig’; it is absurd to ‘commit suicide for fear of death’.

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