This week marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, the four-year bloody nightmare that claimed 16 million lives — 7 million of them noncombatants — and wounded over 20 million people.
That would have been bad enough, but the conflict was merely Act One in a much bigger war. The “peace” settlement vindictively branded Germany uniquely culpable and imposed border adjustments that made Act Two a virtual certainty. The so-called Second World War, which began after the 21-year intermission from 1918 to 1939, claimed at least 60 million lives, at least 19 million of which were noncombatants.
Act Two culminated in President Harry Truman’s two gratuitous atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 69th anniversaries of which are also observed this week. As has often been pointed out, without World War I (and especially Woodrow Wilson’s entry into it in 1917), there would have been no World War II — nor any of the other major consequences that inflicted so much death and mayhem to the 20th century and beyond: among them the Bolshevik Revolution, which brought Lenin and then Stalin to power; Hitler’s rise in Germany; the Holocaust; China’s fall to communism and Mao Zedong; and the Cold War. (For an example of how the world still suffers the consequences of the Act One, see my “The Middle East Harvests Bitter Imperial Fruit.”)
With so much having been written in the last century, what’s left to be said about the “Great War” at this late date? I think what gets overlooked is that the war is the clearest possible lesson about the omnipresent danger of government power. Governments — politicians and monarchs — went to war, some perhaps more reluctantly than others. All shared responsibility for the carnage and devastation. (Historians will debate the relative shares of responsibility forever.)
Could the men responsible for the war have wrought anything like the horrors they inflicted had they not controlled a state apparatus — an army, a navy, a compulsory revenue-collection agency, and a bureaucracy to conscript (enslave) the nation’s young males? (The draft was fittingly called the blood-tax.) It wasn’t just the European state system that is implicated. Three years into the conflict, a purported constitutionally limited republic — the United States — joined the orgy of violence and determined the tragic outcome. That the Great War brought to an end the halting, imperfect journey toward genuine liberalism merely compounded the catastrophe.
This was no noble war, not by a long shot. It was a war driven by imperial rivalries (Germany was the relatively new player in the empire game); balance-of-power politics; the alliance system, which hid obligations to go to war from the people who would pay the butcher’s bill; petty, vainglorious rulers; and nationalism, that pernicious invention of ambitious rulers. “It is nationalism which engenders nations, and not the other way round,” Ernst Gellner wrote in Nations and Nationalism.
The Great War was a struggle for political aggrandizement, territory, domination, and economic advantage. The politicians’ solemn declarations to the contrary notwithstanding, it had nothing to do with democracy, self-determination, or a wish to “end war,” that marvelous means to national greatness, masculinity, and enforced collectivization. (Collectivist pacifists like William James lied those features, but hoped for a “moral equivalent of war.”)
Moreover and most disturbingly, the war demonstrated how easily populations can be incited to eagerly shelve their normal lives, leave their homes and loved ones, and lunge for the throat of the Other, or die trying. (The Left was stunned that average people put nation before class. This revelation drove Mussolini from the universalist totalitarian Left, Marxism, to the nationalist totalitarian Right, fascism.) Dehumanization of the enemy plumbed sickening depths. The idiotic willingness to take sadistic orders in the prosecution of the futile and lethal insanity of trench warfare hardly complimented a generation of young European men. (The hope engendered by the spontaneous Christmas truce was short-lived.)
But as we’ve seen from America’s experience in 1917 and beyond, this was not unique to Europeans. What induces young people and their elders to believe politicians who suggest that the noblest thing is to die for your country (meaning the government)?
In this connection I always think of the words Paddy Chayefsky wrote for his protagonist Charlie Madison (James Garner) in the movie The Americanization of Emily, spoken to a woman who preferred to pretend that war had not taken her husband and son:
I don’t trust people who make bitter reflections about war, Mrs. Barham. It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a Hell it is. And it’s always the widows who lead the Memorial Day parades.… We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogies. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers; the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widows’ weeds like nuns and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices.… Maybe ministers and generals blunder us into wars, Mrs. Barham, the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution.
Madison goes on to say that since war brings out the best in the people in combat — bravery and all — it’s “cowardice that will save the world.”
War isn’t hell at all. It’s man at his best; the highest morality he’s capable of.… It’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed or ambition that makes war: it’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons, for liberation or manifest destiny, always against tyranny and in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we’ve managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we’ll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It’s not war that’s unnatural to us; it’s virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice we shall all be saved.
Another source of insight about war, the Great War in particular, is Paul Fussell, who dedicated himself to examining “some of the literary means by which [the war] has been remembered, conventionalized, and mythologized.” War changes people and societies, so Fussell looked closely at
the way the dynamics and iconography of the Great War have proved crucial political, rhetorical, and artistic determinants on subsequent life. At the same time the war was relying on inherited myth, it was generating new myth, and that myth is part of the fiber of our own lives.
(See his The Great War and Modern Memory as well as Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War.)
In The Great War and Modern Memory, Fussell wrote,
Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends. In the Great War eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his Consort, had been shot.… [T]he Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing Meliorist myth which had dominated the public consciousness for a century. It reversed the Idea of Progress.
Fussell was fascinated by war’s capacity to create absurd juxtapositions: one moment a British soldier quietly enjoys his tea and biscuits in a trench in France; in the next his skull is blown open by a German shell and the human debris injures his friend nearby. Fussell’s virtue is in demythologizing “good” wars, showing that, regardless of what patriotic poets and novelists may say, there is no glamour, no romance, no redemption in the whole bloody business.
Everyone knew what Glory was, and what Honor meant. It was not until eleven years after the war that Hemingway could declare in A Farewell to Arms that “abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”
I don’t like it when the Great War is described deterministically. The war was not really caused by the Serbian plot in which Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sofie, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but coveted by Serbia. The rulers of Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Russia, Germany, France, and Great Britain did not have to do what they subsequently did — the ultimatums, the mobilizations, the honoring of secret alliances. At every stage, fallible persons operating under perverse incentives (they’d never be on the front lines) made choices — poor choices with respect to most people. War was never inevitable. It was a product of human agency.
The world should keep this in mind as the politicians make choices today with respect to mythologized Ukraine and demonized Russia. This time the great powers have nuclear weapons. Who can be confident that these similarly flawed “leaders” learned anything from the Great War?