One night in early 1983, my teenaged-Christian-60s-obsessed-socialist/pacifist-leaning self heard this song on the radio. I had not heard U2 before, and I was thrilled. Here was a band politically committed in a way that smacked of the idealism of the 60s I had been reading about in library books, and that, sound-wise, was a bridge from the hard rock I was familiar with to the “new wave” I was becoming fascinated by. I was all the more smitten when later on I absorbed the staggering news that U2 were not only openly opposed to rock’s usual sex & drugs hedonism, but Christian!

There was a distinct moment that first time, amid that melancholy piano line paired against The Edge’s chick-a-chick-a-chick-a guitar style, when chills went down my spine. It was upon hearing these words:

And so we are told
this is the Golden Age,
And gold is the reason
for the wars we wage . . .

“Somebody sees it!” I said to myself. Poor lonely idealistic me, feeling boxed in by my era’s and suburb’s Reaganite “complacency,” coming to notice, I thought , how so many bad things could be traced to “capitalism.” These were the sorts of notions that had trickled into my mind from somewhere . . . perhaps from my regular diet of Newsweek, and that mixing there with my own yearnings and youth made me quite ready to welcome “New Year’s Day” as a sign, contrary to the letter but not the spirit of its lyrics, that it might not always be the case for my “apathetic” era that nothing changes on New Year’s Day. It really was a sacred moment for me, and is still to be respected as such.

But now let’s jerk things into the perspective that I hold today. Let’s pose a terribly simple question to my teenaged self: which wars that we have fought were primarily caused by the desire for gold?

Iraq II?
Iraq I?
Spanish-American War?
Civil War?
Mexican War?

Perhaps the lyrics apply to the last one, if we equate land-hunger with the desire for “gold,” but political history accounts of why “such-and-such a President or Congress eventually entered us into such-and-such a war” reveal time and again that a motivation of economic interest was not the reason, and seldom even the second or third reason, offered or discussed(even in the secret discussions hence uncovered by historians). Even with WWI, or even more so with Iraq I, where stronger cases can be for the importance of U.S. economic motivation, it becomes very hard to distinguish the “we must not let Germany control Europe” or “Iraq control the Gulf”-type argument made on geostrategic grounds, from the same argument made on economic grounds.

But perhaps I’m being too parochial. What about, say, Irish wars? Were the “troubles” of North Ireland waged for gold? The Revolution of 1916? Hmm . . . better look at Europe instead. The “we” of the lyric probably means “we Europeans,” or “we moderns.” True, applying the lyrics this way would rather crudely suggest that WWII was also at bottom caused by economic interests as well, but hey, we’ve still got WWI to bank upon. Or have we? The most incisive discussion of the causes of WWI is supplied by Raymond Aron in his long 1951 essay “From Sarajevo to Hiroshima,” available in The Dawn of Universal History . A few quotes:

“ . . . all we can say is that the Central Powers had created conditions that made war probable.”(71)

“The Germany of Wilhelm II . . . was more inclined to war and contemplated a recourse to war with less reluctance than the bourgeois democracies. Nonetheless the explosion of 1914 was first and foremost the result of a diplomatic bungle.”(73)

“The hostility between Britain and Germany had one essential cause, and that was Germany’s building up of an oceangoing fleet.”(127)

“Through the workings of a diplomacy based on the balance of power, a local conflict was transformed into a European war, which itself, through the influence of industry, democracy, and the rough equivalence between the opposing forces, grew into a hyperbolic war.”(156)

More specific blows to the gold is the reason generalization occur in a section of the essay entitled “The Leninist Myth about Imperialism.” Aron’s summary of Lenin’s theory:

1) “A capitalist economy, by its very structure, is unable to absorb its own production and so is bound to expand . . . ”
2) “The scramble by the European nations for overseas territories and colonial exploitation is an inevitable consequence of [capitalist] competition.”
3) “The European wars are the inevitable outcome . . . what is really at stake in them is the dividing up of the world, even when their immediate cause is some European quarrel.”

Aron’s findings about this theory can be conveyed with a few key graphs:

“It cannot be denied that capitalism tends to incorporate unexploited territories into its system. . . . But . . . two questions remain: Did the formation of the colonial empires in Africa correspond to this pattern? And were . . . [WWI and WWII] . . . a consequence of quarrels over how to divide the planet into colonial empires? The facts . . . answer no to both questions.”

“But apart from the Boer War, . . . none of the colonial enterprises that gave rise to really important diplomatic conflicts in Europe was motivated by the search for capitalist profits; all were inspired by political ambitions that chancelleries disguised by invoking practical concerns.” (121—The italics are Aron’s.)

Raymond Aron would make a poor rock star.

He presents many other facts and findings of this sort—particularly striking is the one showing that German capitalists actually exerted pressure upon their government to avoid going to war over a colonial dispute, the one over Morocco in 1911, so as to preserve their profitable trading.

So, all in all, Lenin’s more specific theory, and the general one assumed by the song, are both baseless. The protection or pursuit of “gold” by nations, that is, of economic self-interest in a modern(i.e., capitalist) mode, is not the primary cause of modern wars. And what is more, such a general theory is essentially a Marxist-Leninist hand-me-down.

U2 didn’t know it was such a hand-me down, and neither did I. Both they and I would have been insulted to have been told that there was something communist-like about the idea of modern greed/capitalism causing modern wars. Placed next to my U2 poster on my bedroom’s wall, after all, was my hand-made Solidarnosc sign. I had a peace symbol up there also.

What could have benefitted me in those days was to have been asked, after having been shown Aron-style how the idea applied so poorly to specific historical examples, the following: “isn’t there something in this idea that goes well beyond what pacifism itself logically demands?” We can rephrase this question, which will set the agenda for the next songbook entry, as follows: “what is it with modern pacifism that makes it so unpeaceful?”

In the meantime, remember today that our soldiers, with all their own human failings and the moral ambiguities of all wars taken as given, were nonetheless not fooled into spilling blood for “oil” or “gold.” The sad old grateful pull of a nation’s Memorial Day, and especially this nation’s, must ultimately outweigh young yearnings for a truly new New Years’ Day.

Articles by Carl Scott


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