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5 things we should have learned from World War I
One hundred years ago this month the human race launched the greatest man-made catastrophe in history.
Yet a century after the outbreak of the first World War, we keep failing to learn many of the basic lessons of that terrible summer of 1914.
On July 23, 1914, the government of Austro-Hungary issued an ultimatum to the government of Serbia following the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The ultimatum, prompted by Austria’s ally Germany, was draconian and stunned Europe. It set in motion the train of events which mobilized the entire continent for war by early August.
This is not some distant and dull historical anecdote. The first World War cost tens of millions of lives. It shattered the old world in Europe and paved the way for Stalin, Hitler, and, in 1939, the second World War. Historians today often call 1914-45 a single crisis spanning 31 years. When it was over, somewhere approaching 100 million people were dead. The wars united modern science and the horrors of the Middle Ages. We are still feeling the effects today.
There have been comparable catastrophes in human history, such as the Black Death bubonic plague of 1348-49, which killed a third of the people in Europe. But those of 1914-1945 have one terrible distinction: Human beings inflicted disaster upon themselves. This was no earthquake, flood, or disease. It was a choice — or a series of choices.
Long before I became a scribbler about Wall Street I was a student of history. I am frequently surprised at how little people today study history, and how oblivious they are to the lessons and warnings of the past.
Here are five really simple lessons from the events of 1914 which should be taught to every new generation of school children — and every generation of adults, including investors.
1. The crowd is not wise
There’s been a fashion to trust in “the wisdom of crowds” these days, whether it be the “crowd” of the stock market or that of public opinion.
My response is one word: Seriously?
One hundred years ago this summer these “wise” crowds were cheering for a war that would kill them or their loved ones and rain horror down on their heads for a generation. There is a picture from August 1914 of a German crowd in a Munich square cheering the outbreak of war. It is famous because among those apparently present — the authenticity has been questioned — is a youthful Adolf Hitler. This looks like a crowd cheering victory in the World Cup. Instead they are turkeys cheering Thanksgiving.
As any student of history knows, sometimes crowds are wise — and sometimes they are crazy, or stupid, or both.
2. The recent past is not the future
Few things are as dangerous today as the “click and drag” feature in Microsoft Excel, which allows you to take a trend from the past five or 10 or 20 years and extrapolate it into the future.
Sometimes the recent past continues into the future. Maybe it even happens often. But not always.
Anyone living in 1913 could have looked back on a century dominated by growing European peace, international trade, and rising prosperity. The industrial revolution had spread from Britain across Europe, even including Czarist Russia, bringing with it rising living standards. Richer countries had invested in universal education and the rudimentary beginnings of social insurance and a welfare state. Since the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815, the continent had also suffered only a few, very short and limited wars. Each had been followed by a quick peace and a resumption of the upward trend.
Anyone who extrapolated from the past to the future would have assumed the future was bright. Imagine telling someone in 1913 that within a year the great powers would be machine-gunning each other’s young men — or that the next three decades would include poison gas, Josef Mengele, or Stalingrad. They’d have looked at you as if you were crazy.
3. It’s not a conspiracy
My super-liberal friends are still convinced that behind everything there are a small number of very rich plutocrats in top hats pulling the strings.
Some call it the Koch Brothers, or the Bilderberg Group, or the Trilateral Commission. The story’s about the same.
Meanwhile the people who watch Fox are also convinced there’s a conspiracy, but one of “liberal elitists” including, of course, “the media.”
But the lesson of 1914 is much more alarming. In a nutshell: No one is flying the plane. The real menace isn’t conspiracy, it’s anarchy.
Europe in 1914 was ruled by a small and aristocratic clique. The crowned heads were all related to each other. The aristocrats shared a common background and often a common education. Yet despite this they were unable to prevent or halt a fire that burned down their house — often with them in it.
This was not a war whose cost was borne entirely by the poor. The sons of Britain’s upper classes lined up to volunteer in August 1914. Many paid the price. They formed the bulk of the junior officers who led their troops “over the top” on the western front, and their casualty rates were horrific. Visit any Oxford or Cambridge college and you will see a plaque listing all the students who died in the war. Many of the richest and most powerful families lost their eldest sons. These included Raymond Asquith, the son of Britain’s prime minister, who was killed in 1916.
4. The “experts” know less than you think
It’s often tempting to assume that people in charge, or in the know, or industry “experts” know what they are doing.
“The machine gun is a much over-rated weapon,” said Sir Douglas Haig in 1915. He was the leader of the British expeditionary force. At the time his strategy was to take Britain’s youngest and bravest young men, send them to France, and then order them to walk toward Germany’s machine guns. The strategy has since been called one of “fighting machine gun bullets with young men’s chests.” It did not work. In Alan Clark’s book “The Donkeys,” a riveting account of the western front in 1915, one German soldier describes the young men being “mown down like corn.”
The British might just as well have shot their own men. When a young man refused to participate, they did.
Haig was not alone. All the generals in the war on all sides pursued similar strategies. And carried on doing so, year after year. Not until 1918 did the Germans pioneer different tactics, including smaller and faster units.
After the war, the “experts” imposed a disastrous peace treaty on Germany which almost guaranteed another war. They pursued mistaken economic and financial policies in the 1920s and 1930s, and stupid diplomatic and military policies which permitted the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan’s military junta. As late as 1944, the brightest, best-informed people were still pursuing stupid tactics, such as bombing Germany’s cities as well as her factories.
5. We are manipulated by illusion
The first World War sparked the beginning of mass marketing and professional “propaganda.” The British government pioneered techniques to manipulate public opinion — techniques later adopted by Woodrow Wilson’s administration. The first generation of spin doctors, such as Edward Bernays, learned to use words and pictures to dominate public discussion, creating stories, heroes and villains. Thus began the story of the resistance of “heroic Belgium” to the “German bully,” and the demonization of Germans.
In retrospect it is stunning just how cynical this was. The war was every bit as much the fault of the British, French and Russian governments as it was of the Germans. The Belgian decision to fight the German invasion, far from “heroic,” now seems just a monumentally stupid waste of life, as there was absolutely no opportunity of victory. The Germans had no particular designs on Belgium — they invaded simply because it offered a back door into France. The German government, far from being monstrous and evil, had been pioneers in providing public education and social insurance for ordinary people.
Today we live in a world of illusion created before our eyes and ears by propagandists and marketers. They create false images and fake stories in order to get our votes and our money. It is all cynical. Yet the public fall for it, again and again.
Important lessons learned from WWI
Empires were destroyed, millions were killed and the world was upended in a war meant to end all others.
On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, a move that came a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. In a matter of days, Europe's great powers went to war.
USA TODAY Network reached out to historians and foreign policy experts to determine what lessons from World War I can be applied a century later.
1. 'Exhaust diplomacy before you use force'
Though the assassination of the archduke was the flash point that led to war, some have suggested that, given the underlying tensions that had built up in Europe over decades, war was, to some extent, inevitable. Was it? Is war ever unavoidable?
"There's always a way out," said Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and veteran diplomat who served as undersecretary of State for political affairs in President George W. Bush's second term. "Imaginative, courageous leaders can avoid the worst happening if they're smart enough, if they're aware enough, if they work hard enough," he said.
That doesn't mean war can always be averted, Burns cautioned, but an effort must always be made.
The assassination of the archduke on June 28 was almost avoided. If Franz Ferdinand's driver had followed the correct route, the assassination may not have occurred — at least not that day.
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Though it's difficult to fathom that such a seemingly trivial move could have triggered a global conflagration, if the spark that ignited World War I hadn't happened, who knows what could have occurred in the intervening time, says Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor and a former diplomat who served as an assistant Defense secretary in the Clinton administration.
"Yes, it's true that sparks come along all the time," Nye said.
"But on the other hand, if a spark doesn't happen, it may rain," he said, explaining that circumstances could have changed in the months or years that followed that made the triggering event not as explosive as the assassination proved to be.
U.S. troops of the 107th Regiment Infantry, 27th Division, advance through a barbed-wire entanglement Sept. 13, 1918, near Beauqueanes, Somme, France. (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps via AP)
"You need open and trustful channels of communication," said David Kennedy, a Stanford history professor. Kennedy's history of World War II and the Great Depression, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize.
He said that today there are global institutions — the United Nations, the G8, G20 and European Union, among others — that at least provide forums for states to talk.
Global systems such as these weren't in place in 1914, Kennedy noted, saying he believes "the international system today has a lot more resilience than it did in 1914."
"If you think that war is a possibility, you really have an obligation to your people to exhaust diplomacy before you use force," Burns said. "Force has to be the last option. It can't be the first."
Canadian soldiers carry a stretcher through the mud near Boesinghe, Belgium, in 1917. (Photo: AP)
2. War is always unpredictable
It's almost hard to believe 100 years later, but many leaders at the time thought World War I would be over quickly. Few, if any, would have predicted a four-year battle of attrition that would result in millions of lost lives.
"Leaders on all sides did not choose the war that they ended up fighting," said Daniel Sargent, a history professor at the University of California-Berkeley.
This is not a wartime phenomenon unique to the leaders of the era — and it's a lesson that perhaps hasn't been fully learned.
"It's the repeated story, and you wonder why it takes people so much effort to learn it: that once you unleash large-scale violence, i.e. make war, it's almost impossible to predict the course of events thereafter," Kennedy said.
"Policymakers, in general, exaggerate their own capacity to control historical events," Sargent said.
The two most recent conflicts the United States engaged in — Afghanistan, which is still winding down, and Iraq — are both cases of the unpredictability of war.
"I don't think that the leaders of the Bush administration in March 2003 thought that by invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein, we were embarking on an eight-year occupation" of Iraq, Burns said. He said that although he believed in the necessity of the mission, the administration likewise didn't imagine they were launching a 13-year war in Afghanistan.
What is the takeaway from a lesson that emphasizes unpredictability? Burns said we're simply not able "to know with precision what the consequences of our actions are." We must realize that using force is a "combustible event."
An American soldier throws a hand grenade in battle during World War I on March 15, 1918. (Photo: AP)
3. History should be remembered
Since 1945, the major powers in the world have not gone to war with one another — even at the peak of the Cold War.
"That's some kind of accomplishment," Kennedy said. "And we shouldn't forget what a positive accomplishment that is and what's enabled it."
Perhaps the biggest reason for this — and why a war on the scale of World War I is unlikely to occur again — is the advent of nuclear weapons and the reality that, if war broke out between two major powers, the consequences could be unlike any the world has ever seen.
Just because it's unlikely doesn't mean it's impossible.
"There's always the danger of accidents and miscalculations getting people in places where they don't want to be," Nye said.
Memories of the destruction that can be caused by global conflict can fade as time passes — certainly after 100 years. There are no living veterans of World War I the last died in 2012. No one who was there can tell the world what it was like at Verdun or the Marne or the Somme and what we should learn. We can rely only on history.
"There's a danger that these events become so distant in our memories they become abstract," Burns said, adding that's why it's vital to study history.
The milestone anniversary being marked and the attention it brings to how World War I unfolded may remind people that it would be a mistake to assume it couldn't happen again.
Ultimately, it may depend on the mindsets of the leaders we choose and whether they choose to follow the lessons of history.
"Some leaders study history and bring to the responsibilities of leadership a real sense of history. Others do not," Sargent said.
History has shown that one cannot assume a lesson — even one from war — will remain in the collective consciousness forever.
Rethinking the “Lessons” of the First World War
History can be a good friend of confirmation bias. We often look to the past for lessons that support beliefs that we already have instead of the ones best supported by a deep analysis of the evidence. For most of today’s pundits and those academics who use the past to imagine the future, the origins of the First World War generally present one of two sets of “lessons.” The first, taking its cue from a recent best seller, characterizes the leaders of that age as “sleepwalkers” who were unusually incompetent and out of their depth. A second set of lessons argues that a presumed similarity between our times and the years prior to 1914 makes conflict today more likely, or even inevitable. These “lessons” need nuance and historical context if they are to provide any insights for today’s policymakers.
We’d like to believe that the First World War began because of the mistakes of a singularly incompetent generation or over some long-buried dispute like Alsace-Lorraine. If that were true, then there would be nothing for us to learn from that catastrophe. But, as I have argued elsewhere, the real lessons of 1914 for strategists and politicians today are far more disconcerting and terrifying because that year’s perfect storm of alliance obligations, public messaging, outdated strategic assumptions, and misperceptions could well repeat. The war that results, moreover, may be quite different from the one that military and political leaders imagine.
Historical analogies are tempting and provide an easy heuristic for processing information, but they can also be quite dangerous. The world of 1914 does indeed bear many similarities to 2018, but, as always, the parallel is far from exact. As that fateful summer began, few people expected great power conflict. Long, drawn-out crises in Morocco, Sudan, and the Balkans had recently come and gone with little impact on the peoples of Europe. The literature of the day featured numerous books predicting an end to major wars experts perceived them as being too expensive, too unproductive even for the winners, or no longer a tool that so-called civilized nations used to pursue state interests.
If there were to be a crisis, most Europeans expected it to come either on the Rhine River between Germany and France, or in the North Sea between the British and German fleets. But the French and Germans had resumed normal, even productive, relations after the 1911 Morocco crisis, and the Germans had largely ended their attempt to challenge the Royal Navy. In late June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife arrived in Sarajevo, sailors from the two fleets were getting drunk together at Fleet Week in Kiel. Winston Churchill, who was there, later observed that no one in Kiel could have imagined that they would be at war within a few short weeks.
The shooting of an obscure archduke ought not to have changed this placid picture indeed, for most Europeans, it did not. Within a few days, the story of a supposedly deranged teenager’s act in a faraway city had largely disappeared from the front pages of newspapers in London, Paris, Berlin, and even Vienna. When European newspapers did discuss their fears of an impending war, they most commonly referred to the possibility of civil war in Ireland after the passage of a controversial Home Rule act in Parliament. If anything were to come out of the latest crisis in the Balkans, it would involve Austria-Hungary and Serbia only, and even then only if the Austrians could prove their allegations that Serbian officials had been behind the plot.
But the Austrian higher leadership read something different into the assassination. They believed that Franz Ferdinand’s assassination amounted to what we would today call state-sponsored terrorism. In their eyes, this meant that Austria found itself in a strangely advantageous strategic situation. All European governments and most European peoples sympathized with the murdered archduke and his wife. If Europeans knew anything about the couple, they knew that Franz Ferdinand had married the woman he loved, despite the fact that she was not a Habsburg. As a result, they had made a modern marriage for love instead of power, even though the emperor’s disapproval led them to be snubbed at court and their children excluded from the line of succession.
To the senior leaders of the empire, the sympathy pouring into Vienna meant that, for the first time in decades, Austria-Hungary appeared as an aggrieved party in a Balkan crisis. They therefore believed that European public opinion would permit them to push matters with Serbia a bit further than they had been able to do during past crises. Moreover, the absolutist regime in Russia might hesitate to support a state that backed regicide, even if the Russians publicly posed as Serbia’s nominal protector. Britain, meanwhile, was distracted by events in Ireland, and the French were enraptured by the final days of the trial of Henriette Caillaux, the wife of a prominent politician who had shot a newspaper editor. (Her lawyer claimed, for the first time in French legal history, that she was not guilty by reason of mental defect because, her husband having refused to challenge the editor to a duel, her female brain could not adjust to playing the male role of having to defend the family’s honor.) In any case, both Britain and France had shown themselves reluctant to get directly involved in past Balkan crises. Austria-Hungary’s leaders had every reason to believe that officials in London and Paris would move slowly during this one.
For senior Austro-Hungarian officials, the military situation created by the assassination was almost ideal. They guessed that no regime in Europe would jump to Serbia’s defense, not even Russia. The British, French, and Italians would likely stay neutral or, in any event, not intervene while Austro-Hungarian forces moved south. If those forces moved quickly and crushed the Serbians, they might present Europe with a fait accompli before the great powers could stop them.
Their German allies read the situation in much the same way. Senior military leaders in Berlin worried about Russian military and industrial growth. Within a few years that growth would render most German military planning obsolete, confronting the Germans with a two-front war that most assumed they could not win. Although only a few people knew it, the German war plan tried to get out of that dilemma by sending seven of its eight field armies against France no matter what diplomatic crisis triggered war. In this particular one, therefore, France might be caught sleeping, Britain might declare neutrality, and, for once, the Austrian ally in whom they had so little faith might have a motivation to fight well. The stars would likely never line up so favorably again.
Thus did Germany issue a “blank check” of support to Austria. If, as expected, Russia remained neutral, then Austria could inflict a devastating blow onto Serbia and Germany would gain by association without having to do anything. If Russia mobilized, then Germany could enact its war plan under extremely favorable circumstances, most notably by quickly attacking a distracted France, most of whose people saw no link whatsoever between themselves and an assassination in Sarajevo. Perhaps most crucially, the German regime could defend its efforts to the German people as a purely defensive response to Russian provocation.
Having drawn these conclusions, the Austro-Hungarians delivered their now infamous ultimatum to Serbia on July 23. It gave Serbia just 48 hours to reply, meaning that the long, slow diplomacy that had taken months to resolve and defuse recent crises in Morocco and Sudan had no time to work. Serbia tried to be conciliatory, but the Austrians, with German backing, wanted war on terms that they assumed were as favorable to them as they could ever hope to get.
Europe was stunned by the ultimatum, not the assassination for this reason we call the crisis leading to war the July Crisis, not the June Crisis. Soldiers, including many senior leaders on leave in countries soon to be their enemies, hurried home to their units. Statesmen canceled vacations, and many foresaw that Europe was about to go to war over an issue that did not actually affect the vital interests of any of them except Austria-Hungary. They did not so much sleepwalk as awaken from a deep and pleasant slumber by a terrible fire that they could neither extinguish nor escape.
This is why the war that began in 1914 became the First World War instead of the Third Balkan War. The crisis hit too quickly and did not conform to the intellectual idea Europeans had of future war. It had not begun over a German-French confrontation as expected, yet the Germans were sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers to invade France and neutral Belgium. Perhaps more importantly, because Russia had mobilized first, every nation in Europe could defend its actions as essentially defensive in nature, and therefore just.
Europe, and by extension much of the world, was now at war for reasons no one could quite explain, except to say that they were fighting to protect themselves from an enemy immoral and inhuman enough to break the peace. Thus even socialists and most pacifists initially supported what they saw as a just war. Within a few dizzingly short weeks, the initial premise of Austria-Hungary’s demands on Serbia had fallen aside and the war had become a total war, fought for national survival and the complete destruction of the enemy. Unlike many past wars, there were no limited war aims to compromise over or to stop the fighting once attained. Thus were future mediation efforts by the Vatican, the Socialist International, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson doomed to fail.
The causes of the First World War do not belong to a dead past of ancient ethnic grievances or governments ruled by incompetent aristocrats. Instead, the war began because of fatal miscalculations and unexpected contingencies. Put bluntly, strategists had planned for one set of crises, but got another. Their world, much like our own, had changed far too quickly for their plans or their intellectual preconceptions to adjust. In effect, they fought the wrong war, but all of the great powers could plausibly claim (at least in August 1914) that they had fought for the right reason, self-defense.
The lesson, therefore, is to underscore the need for constant reevaluation of assumptions through critical thinking. In our time, rapid change in the international and domestic order might mean that crises do not conform to the intellectual preconceptions of the strategists. Without critical thinking, especially about the so-called lessons of history, leaders may not be supple enough to adjust their thinking in time to avert war. And, as in 1914, once begun, wars often continue until nations and empires lie in ruins without anyone able to explain why.
Farewell to Isolation
The "Lusitania" preparing to dock in New York.
With American trade becoming more and more lopsided toward the Allied cause, many feared that it was only a matter of time before the United States would be at war. The issue that propelled most American fencesitters to side with the British was German submarine warfare.
The British, with the world's largest navy, had effectively shut down German maritime trade. Because there was no hope of catching the British in numbers of ships, the Germans felt that the submarine was their only key to survival. One " U-boat " could surreptitiously sink many battleships, only to slip away unseen. This practice would stop only if the British would lift their blockade.
Sinking the Lusitania.
The isolationist American public had little concern if the British and Germans tangled on the high seas. The incident that changed everything was the sinking of the Lusitania . The Germans felt they had done their part to warn Americans about the danger of overseas travel.
The German government purchased advertisement space in American newspapers warning that Americans who traveled on ships carrying war contraband risked submarine attack. When the Lusitania departed New York, the Germans believed the massive passenger ship was loaded with munitions in its cargo hold. On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the ship without warning, sending 1,198 passengers, including 128 Americans, to an icy grave. The Lusitania, as it turned out, was carrying over 4 million rounds of ammunition.
The sinking of the British ship RMS Lusitania in 1915, helped move American public opinion away from neutrality. Nearly 1200 civilians lost their lives in the German torpedo attack, 10% of them American
President Wilson was enraged. The British were breaking the rules, but the Germans were causing deaths.
Wilson's Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, recommended a ban on American travel on any ships of nations at war. Wilson preferred a tougher line against the German Kaiser. He demanded an immediate end to submarine warfare, prompting Bryan to resign in protest. The Germans began a 2-year practice of pledging to cease submarine attacks, reneging on that pledge, and issuing it again under U.S. protest.
Wilson had other reasons for leaning toward the Allied side. He greatly admired the British government, and democracy in any form was preferable to German authoritarianism. The historical ties with Britain seemed to draw the United States closer to that side.
Many Americans felt a debt to France for their help in the American Revolution. Several hundred volunteers, appropriately named the Lafayette Escadrilles , already volunteered to fight with the French in 1916. In November of that year, Wilson campaigned for re-election with a peace platform. "He kept us out of war," read his campaign signs, and Americans narrowly returned him to the White House. But peace was not to be.
The Zimmermann Telegram
In February 1917, citing the unbalanced U.S. trade with the Allies, Germany announced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. All vessels spotted in the war zone would be sunk immediately and without warning. Wilson responded by severing diplomatic relations with the German government.
Later that month, British intelligence intercepted the notorious Zimmermann telegram . The German foreign minister sent a message courting support from Mexico in the event the United States should enter the war. Zimmermann promised Mexico a return of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona — territories it had lost in 1848.
Relations between the U.S. and Mexico were already strained. The U.S. had sent troops across the border in search of Pancho Villa , who had conducted several cross-border raids of American towns. Failing to find Villa, the troops had been withdrawn only in January 1917. Despite the recent souring between Mexico and its Northern neighbor, the United States, the Mexican government declined the offer. In a calculated move, Wilson released the captured telegram to the American press.
War Declared on Germany
A tempest of outrage followed. More and more Americans began to label Germany as the true villain in the war. When German subs sank several American commercial ships in March, Wilson had an even stronger hand to play. On April 2, 1917, he addressed the Congress, citing a long list of grievances against Germany. Four days later, by a wide margin in each house, Congress declared war on Germany, and the U.S. was plunged into the bloodiest battle in history.
Still, the debate lived on. Two Senators and fifty Representatives voted against the war resolution, including the first female ever to sit in Congress, Jeannette Rankin of Montana. Although a clear majority of Americans now supported the war effort, there were large segments of the populace who still needed convincing.
Online Class: World War I
Much more than just an isolated incident in the history of humankind, the developing political climate in Europe had been brewing for a very long period of time. Alliances were formed, wars were fought over disputed territories, and bitter rivalries were established. What resulted was an epic-scale struggle for the domination of a continent and, perhaps, the world itself. For the first time in the history of warfare, aerial combat was used extensively. The trench-style warfare, complete with artillery fire, barbed wire, and chemical weapons, was unlike any conflict ever seen before. The aftermath of this brutal war would resolve little and, ultimately, pave the way for establishment of Nazi Germany and the next World War.
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The Urgent Lessons of World War I
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori [Latin for “Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country”].
—“Dulce et Decorum est,” 1917-1918, by Wilfred Owen, British poet who fought in the war
The past weeks should have been a remarkable occasion to reflect on history, on the magnitude, costs, and legacy of what was once commonly known as the Great War, the most cataclysmic single war in Western history ever up until that point or at least since the fall of Rome and easily one of the worst and most lethal in world history.
And yet reflection on the war and its horrific costs and legacies has been woefully lacking. Whether it was due to questionable political and behavioral decisions during centenary commemorations that overshadowed the remembrances, a news media that sorely lacks competency in this type of historical examination, or a combination of reasons, something vital was missing: sober reflection that takes a measure of history, of its impact on the present and potential effects on the future, and on the many millions of lives cut short in conditions few of us could even imagine, let alone endure.
Indeed, it is hard to say which is most stunning: the incredible impact that four measly years in the span of human history had on the world one-hundred years ago, the impact it is still having and will continue to have, the incredible toll of lives lost (around some 16.5 million dead—about half military, half civilian—by some solid estimates, surpassed only by the next, and, we may hope, last, World War that followed just a few decades later), or the utter lack of general awareness today of all of these things.
In the spirit of righting pretty much the one thing that can be righted still, below is an effort to wage war against this lack of awareness, an outline of four important ways we should all respect what World War I can teach us still, a century after its conclusion.
1. War is possible no matter how great things seem.
One of the most remarkable things about World War I is how advanced, culturally speaking, Germany, Great Britain, France, and Austria-Hungary were just before the war: they represented the most advanced civilizations Earth had to offer technologically, scientifically, culturally. They were producing arguably the greatest contemporary works of art, literature, architecture, and music, and, inarguably, the greatest contemporary works of science, medicine, and machinery. They were all rich and stable, and, with the exception of Germany as a rising and newly unified state, had been great powers for many centuries. And they all had intense, intimate ties with each other, both between individual leaders and as empires and nations as a whole, ties that bound them culturally, economically, socially, and politically. As the first years of the twentieth century unfolded, the world (at least the Western world) seemed to be entering a new era of globalization, peace, prosperity, luxury, electricity, increasing access to information, communication, booming technology, relatively rapid travel, improving medicine, and cooperation (an era not unlike our current one). In fact, Europe had seen the longest stretch of peace since the Pax Romana of ancient Rome: with just a few notable exceptions, there were no wars on the European continent from the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
None of this mattered: not the long peace, not the advanced technology, not the increasingly interrelated ties between future combatant leaders, nations, and peoples, nor their representing the peaks of human civilization at the time. What was then a long peace rapidly devolved into one of the most destructive wars in human history, one that erupted between these most advanced nations in the world because of a series of freak events and decisions that caught pretty much everyone off guard in terms of the results.
The violence in the human animal is always there, below the surface if not on the surface, ready to break out without warning nations and human society, as collections of individual humans, are clearly no different.
2. “Stupid is as stupid does.”
One hundred years after the outbreak of World War I, Graham Allison, the famed international relations scholar most recognized for his analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis (a crisis remarkably influenced by World War I), made clear that for him, World War I’s most important lesson is that “despite the fact that there’s many reasons for believing that something . . . would make no sense, and therefore would be incredible, and therefore maybe even impossible, shit happens.”
In this case, these nations had so many more reasons not to go to war than to go to war, and even when everyone was losing so much, and gaining almost nothing but death and destruction, they persisted in conducting the war even after bloody stalemates often became the norm, the war raging on for years even after this. None of this was rational or in the self-interests of these nations, but that is the course they chose. Of the leaders of the major powers who went to war in 1914, none would remain in power by the war’s end four of the six main initial belligerents—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire—had their governments overthrown in revolutions (“the greatest fall of monarchies in history,” to quote the late Christopher Hitchens) and lost their empires by the war’s end, while Britain and France were so weakened that the roots of the post–World War II unraveling of their empires were set in motion. In other words, the war was ruinous for all the major players that started it and suicidal for most of them. And still they perpetuated it.
Many books over many years have been written about this, many lectures given and panels held, many articles penned—and it would be easy for me to write a whole series of articles about the awful decision making just before and throughout the war. But what is important to note here is that, when confronted with a range of options, the belligerents often chose a horrible option when there were better ones available, and they often doubled down on the same or similar decisions despite repeated failure, continuing stalemate, and appalling loss of life. As the old adage goes, repeating the same failed actions in the hopes of a different result is the very definition of insanity, and insanity describes the nature of World War I (not just in hindsight but also contemporaneously) as well as any other word.
Whether in the outbreaks of wars or in their conduct, the role of stupidity and insanity in such affairs is considered by many to have no finer example than World War I. And yet, this lesson is harrowingly relevant event today, as the 2003 US decision to invade Iraq and the early incompetent years of its occupation there make all too clear.
3. A bad peace just means more war.
As great the Roman historian Tacitus, nearly two thousand years ago, quoted the sentiments of some Roman leaders discussing a possible war, “for a miserable peace even war was a good exchange!” A bad peace is not only a definite recipe for misery, but far more often than not is merely a prelude to further violent conflict. The brief peace after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003 is an excellent recent example, but perhaps no example in contemporary thinking exists more so as an example of a bad peace than the post–World War I settlements, most famously the much-maligned 1919 Versailles treaty that saw harsh terms imposed on Germany, but also a string of other, far lesser-known treaties.
In fact, though the war “ended” in 1918, there was hardly a break in the east, where violent conflicts continued or erupted and persisted for years, including the deadly Russian Civil War, which itself claimed the lives of millions. In the west, rebellion and civil war erupted in the United Kingdom’s Irish territory (bad enough that many fled Ireland, including my grandparents to New York). Even after Versailles, more treaties had to be concluded and were being negotiated well into the 1920s, particularly concerning the former Ottoman Empire’s territories, which Britain and France had planned to split between themselves since the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement was reached secretly during the war in 1916.
This bad peace not only led to the messy wars that raged right after World War I, and to World War II, but also in large part set the stage for many wars since then. Just since the 1990s, there were wars in the Balkans, wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Africa’s World War in the Congo, various Arab-Israeli conflicts, Russia’s wars with Georgia and Ukraine, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and civil wars, insurgencies, or separatist conflicts in countries spanning the globe, even in a region as remote as the Pacific.
There’s even the war with ISIS.
A good number of these conflicts are still ongoing in one form or another and can arguably trace their causation more to the aftermath of World War I than that of World War II. That this is the case one hundred years after the end of World War I is as good an indication as anything of the terrible price of a bad or failed peace.
4. There is no divine “plan” decisions of war and peace are up to us and only us, and we own the results.
“The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” So begins the first chapter of the late historian John Keegan’s The First World War. Not everything has meaning or happens for a reason some monumental efforts come to naught, some conflicts are pointless and meaningless, and lives—many millions—can be lost in vain. Considering that World War II happened just a little over two decades after the fighting stopped in World War I, to a large extent much of World War I’s deaths can be said to have been in vain, and this does not even address the futility of the suicidal tactics throughout the war that produced a great many casualties that can be said to have been totally unnecessary, especially in the trench warfare on the Western Front.
In addition, the stupidity of the strategic decisions that led to truly global war and its perpetuation also showcase how utterly avoidable and unnecessary the overall conflict was. Unlike World War II, which especially in Europe was motivated by sharply different ideologies that were being aggressively exported, World War I was generally lacking in ideology, more or less just a competition among empires that were exploitative of their subjects. For many (probably most) fighting in the war, they could not even explain why they were fighting beyond mere nationalism and coercion.
Few people know one of the worst outrages of the war, perhaps the most awful example of senseless battlefield slaughter of the entire conflict. Though the final armistice on the Western Front was reached in the early morning hours of November 11, 1918, just after 5 a.m., it was not put into effect until 11 a.m., allowing several hours of unforgiveable, pointless slaughter. Not one person needed to die in those final hours, likely the most needless carnage on the field of battle of the entire war. Incredibly, the Allies kept up assaults against the German lines “until the very last minute,” notes Adam Hochschild, a great chronicler of the era. He continues:
Since the armies tabulated their casualty statistics by the day and not by the hour, we know only the total toll for November 11th: twenty-seven hundred and thirty-eight men from both sides were killed, and eighty-two hundred and six were left wounded or missing. But since it was still dark at 5 a.m., and attacks almost always took place in daylight, the vast majority of these casualties clearly happened after the Armistice had been signed, when commanders knew that the firing was to stop for good at 11 a.m. The day’s toll was greater than both sides would suffer in Normandy on D Day, 1944. And it was incurred to gain ground that Allied generals knew the Germans would be vacating days, or even hours, later.
One particular story Hochschild shares is especially heartbreaking: “Private Henry Gunther, of Baltimore, became the last American to be killed in the war, at 10:59 a.m., when he charged a German machine-gun crew with his bayonet fixed. In broken English, the Germans shouted at him to go back, the war was about to stop. When he didn’t, they shot him.”
This was hardly just a case of a few callous or glory-obsessed commanders. Hochschild sheds light on the true extent of such disgraceful leadership: “A few Allied generals held their troops back when they heard that the Armistice had been signed, but they were in the minority.”
He concludes: “And so thousands of men were killed or maimed during the last six hours of the war for no political or military reason whatever. . . . The war ended as senselessly as it had begun.”
Taking into account all of this, the idea that there was some great divine plan guiding these events is an obscenity, even more so if one can accept the idea it was with willful divine purpose that so many people would be conscripted by governments that dehumanized them into cannon fodder, some even being conditioned and led, often unthinking and slavishly, to commit outrages and atrocities against the defenseless. On this note, it is no surprise that from the trenches of World War I, The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien—who fought on the Western Front, saw most of his closest friends die there, and was so deeply shaped by the war like nearly everyone of his generation—could draw inspiration for orcs. Writing to his son in 1944, who was fighting in World War II, and commenting on the war and on war in general—commentary obviously influenced by his experience in World War I—Tolkien multiple times noted the potential for all kinds of people to become orcs. In one letter, commenting on the war effort against the Axis powers, he wrote that “we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs.” In another: “I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction . . . only in real life they are on both sides, of course.” In a third, he is even more explicit about even his own countrymen’s ability to become orc-like:
There are no genuine Uruks [a special kind of strong orc bred for war], that is folk made bad by the intention of their maker and not many who are so corrupted as to be irredeemable (though I fear it must be admitted that there are human creatures that seem irredeemable short of a special miracle, and that there are probably abnormally many of such creatures in Deutschland [Nazi Germany] and Nippon [Imperial Japan]—but certainly these unhappy countries have no monopoly: I have met them, or thought so, in England’s green and pleasant land).
That so many millions of people could be reduced to mere means to evil ends, often with little or no choice or agency, is as much proof against the idea of some divine plan orchestrated by a concerned celestial being as anything.
“Both Kipling and Owen,” wrote Hitchens of two World War I–era poets he admired, “came to the conclusion that too many lives had been ‘taken’ rather than offered or accepted, and that too many bureaucrats had complacently accepted the sacrifice as if they themselves had earned it.”
Thus, millions died in a wholly unnecessary, deeply avoidable, strategically stupid war that was generally conducted with stupid tactics throughout, resulting in possibly the worst loss of life in such a short time in all of human history, until World War II outdid even this two decades later.
If anything, these sobering realities—that war can happen at any time, can be incredibly stupid, that planning for war’s aftermath is so crucial for avoiding further conflict, and that there is not a master plan from some spiritual being—teaches us that our actions are of the utmost importance and are all we can hope or strive for besides luck: everything happens not for a grander reason, but simply because of the mix of chance and of the consequences of our own decisions and those of others. In other words, whatever “plan” there is carries on not in spite of human willpower, but only because of it, and, if it even exists, exists only because of it. Therefore, our decisions throughout our lives—personal political, national—are what matter most, and rather than just toss up our hands and place hope in some greater plan beyond our power to absolve us from having to fret over our own decisions, it is our very decisions that are supremely powerful and which must be given the greatest weight and consideration, and for which we must take the greatest responsibility.
If all we truly have to count on are our decisions and actions, we cannot trust in some nonexistent cosmic plan, only in ourselves and our fellow humans, as problematic as that is. If anything, then, there is an even greater urgency in helping our fellow humans develop their potential, because much of our lives and existence will depend on them, along with ourselves, being equipped and in positions to make better decisions than they would generally otherwise.
It is these decisions that affect our world, our lives, together with chance. Chance is indifferent and immovable, but human action is not, so it is in helping each other that we have our only hope. The less we support each other, then, the higher the chance for deadly conflict of the very type epitomized by the Great War. Contrary to much of the spirit of human history, then, instead of placing blind faith in some sort of divine power to actually intervene to guide, protect, and empower us, we must place that faith in humanity, and for placing that faith to be a safe bet, we must guide, protect, and empower each other.
Ultimately, the very horrors exhibited by humankind in World War I and the lessons discussed here are all the more reason why we must focus on helping our fellow human beings if we want to avoid such abysmal catastrophes in the future. That is not to oversimplify a very complex conflict, or to show disrespect for the millions who fought, died, and sacrificed in this great tragedy far from it. Rather, to honor their sacrifices, we must heed these lessons so that such needless sacrifice is not forced upon many millions in the future. In many ways, this one-hundred-year-old conflict is shaping our world today more than any of the wars that have been fought since.
Here let us end as we began, with words of Wilfred Owen from 1918:
This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, dominion or power,
Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry.
The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are not to this generation,
This is in no sense consolatory.
They may be to the next.
All the poet can do to-day is to warn.
Owen died, twenty-five years of age, in action on the Western Front almost exactly a week to the hour before its Armistice went into effect his mother received notification of his death on Armistice Day itself, as her local church bells were ringing in celebration.
Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer and consultant from the New York City area who has been based in Amman, Jordan, since early 2014. He holds an MS in Peace Operations and specializes in a wide range of interrelated topics, including international and US policy and politics, security, conflict, terrorism and counterterrorism, humanitarianism, development, social justice, and history. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981.
Conclusion: lessons learned, lessons still to learn
The 1918 pandemic was a global and shared human tragedy. Its consequences were political, social, economical and emotional. The legacy of the flu is substantial: the influenza viruses of 1957, 1968, and 2009 are all descendants of the H1N1 virus that caused the 1918 pandemic. The ‘Spanish Flu’ is a story of failure, a symbol of failed management of a pandemic in the name of military interests.
On the other hand, the 1918 pandemic is also the story of a painful apprenticeship. As several researchers recently recalled, it ‘led to enormous improvements in public health. Indeed, several strategies, such as health education, isolation, sanitation, and surveillance, improved our knowledge of the transmission of influenza, and are still implemented today to stem the spread of a disease that has a heavy burden’. It contributed to the creation of ministries of health in France and Great Britain, along with a heightened acknowledgment and appreciation of the professional work carried out by nurses. One century later, doctors and nurses carry us all through the COVID-19 pandemic. We will all remember the nightly rounds of applause for health care workers when looking back on this period in our lives.
Nevertheless, as recalled by Daniel Flecknoe, not all lessons have been learned: ‘The fact that the risk of a new global pandemic arising from any modern war zone seems to so rarely feature in the political decision-making which determines whether or not nations go to war in the first place, indicates that the lessons of 1918 have not all been well learned. Wars weaken the ability of a country to prevent, detect, or fight outbreaks of infectious disease, and leave the civilian population incredibly vulnerable’. Of course, the outbreak of COVID-19 did not originate in a country at war but its impact is disastrous wherever there are armed conflicts or other situations of violence.
On a positive note, and despite many parallels, the 1918 influenza and the current coronavirus pandemic also differ in one fundamental way: in the last one hundred years since the ‘Spanish Flu’, medical advances have been extraordinary. The COVID-19 pathogen was quickly identified and sequenced. Thousands of researchers all around the globe are actively working to better understand its mechanism and characteristics, and to find effective therapies and a vaccine. Governments can build on a century of progress and experience in public health.
This difference must conjure optimism. Humankind already has and will continue to find new and effective means to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. However, for all the existing scientific measures to be effective, they must be put into practice and therefore understood and accepted. Trust – towards authorities, public health institutions, medical researchers and practitioners – is once again a key concept in times of crisis.
- Cordula Droege, COVID-19 response in conflict zones hinges on respect for international humanitarian law, April 16, 2020
- Adriano Iaria, We are not at ‘war’ with COVID-19: concerns from Italy’s ‘frontline’, April 9, 2020
- Keltoum Irbah, Vincent de Paul: A groundbreaking humanitarian, August 14, 2019
- Audrey MacKay, From ‘false news’ to ‘fake news’: 3 lessons from history, February 23, 2017
The United States was developing a nasty pattern of entering major conflicts woefully unprepared.
When Congress declared war in April 1917, the army had enough bullets for only two days of fighting. The army was small in numbers at only 200,000 soldiers. Two-fifths of these men were members of the National Guard , which had only recently been federalized. The type of warfare currently plaguing Europe was unlike any the world had ever seen.
The Western front, which ran through Belgium and France, was a virtual stalemate since the early years of the war. A system of trenches had been dug by each side. Machine-gun nests, barbed wire, and mines blocked the opposing side from capturing the enemy trench. Artillery shells, mortars, flamethrowers, and poison gas were employed to no avail.
The defensive technology was simply better than the offensive technology. Even if an enemy trench was captured, the enemy would simply retreat into another dug fifty yards behind. Each side would repeatedly send their soldiers "over the top" of the trenches into the no man's land of almost certain death with very little territorial gain. Now young American men would be sent to these killing fields.
Feeling a DraftGeorge M. Cohan's "Over There" was one of the most popular songs of the World War I era .
The first problem was raising the necessary number of troops. Recruitment was of course the preferred method, but the needed numbers could not be reached simply with volunteers. Conscription was unavoidable, and Congress passed the Selective Service Act in May 1917.
All males between the ages of 21 and 30 were required to register for military service. The last time a draft had been used resulted in great rioting because of the ability of the wealthy to purchase exemptions. This time, the draft was conducted by random lottery.
By the end of the war, over four and a half million American men, and 11,000 American women, served in the armed forces. 400,000 African Americans were called to active duty. In all, two million Americans fought in the French trenches .
The first military measures adopted by the United States were on the seas. Joint Anglo-American operations were highly successful at stopping the dreaded submarine. Following the thinking that there is greater strength in numbers, the U.S. and Britain developed an elaborate convoy system to protect vulnerable ships. In addition, mines were placed in many areas formerly dominated by German U-boats. The campaign was so effective that not a single American soldier was lost on the high seas in transit to the Western front.
The American Expeditionary Force began arriving in France in June 1917, but the original numbers were quite small. Time was necessary to inflate the ranks of the United States Army and to provide at least a rudimentary training program. The timing was critical.
When the Bolsheviks took over Russia in 1917 in a domestic revolution, Germany signed a peace treaty with the new government. The Germans could now afford to transfer many of their soldiers fighting in the East to the deadlocked Western front. Were it not for the fresh supply of incoming American troops, the war might have followed a very different path.
The addition of the United States to the Allied effort was as elevating to the Allied morale as it was devastating to the German will. Refusing to submit to the overall Allied commander, General John Pershing retained independent American control over the U.S. troops.
Paris: Ooh, La La
The new soldiers began arriving in great numbers in early 1918. The " doughboys ," as they were labeled by the French were green indeed. Many fell prey to the trappings of Paris nightlife while awaiting transfer to the front. An estimated fifteen percent of American troops in France contracted venereal disease from Parisian prostitutes, costing millions of dollars in treatment.
The African American soldiers noted that their treatment by the French soldiers was better than their treatment by their white counterparts in the American army. Although the German army dropped tempting leaflets on the African American troops promising a less-racist society if the Germans would win, none took the offer seriously.
A German "unterseebooten" — or "U-boat" — surfaces. Until the Allies could successfully deploy mines to neutralize these German submarines, the U-boats destroyed many Allied ships and brought terror to the sea.
By the spring of 1918, the doughboys were seeing fast and furious action. A German offensive came within fifty miles of Paris, and American soldiers played a critical role in turning the tide at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood . In September 1918, efforts were concentrated on dislodging German troops from the Meuse River . Finding success, the Allies chased the Germans into the trench-laden Argonne Forest , where America suffered heavy casualties.
But the will and resources of the German resistance were shattered. The army retreated and on November 11, 1918, the German government agreed to an armistice. The war was over. Over 14 million soldiers and civilians perished in the so-called Great War , including 112,000 Americans. Countless more were wounded.
The bitterness that swept Europe and America would prevent the securing of a just peace, imperiling the next generation as well.
1869 and Beyond
Since both movements were fighting for the advancement of women’s rights, they eventually merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Success was seen almost immediately when in 1869, Wyoming became the first state to grant suffrage to women.
The movement received support from other groups as well. In 1916, the National Woman’s Party (NWP) was formed by Alice Paul. The goal was to achieve suffrage by working towards constitutional amendments instead of state amendments. The party protested outside the White House and continued its movement throughout the First World War.
Several members were arrested, and several more went on strikes. People tried to bring pressure on Wilson's administration in favor of suffrage. At the same time, the president of the NAWSA supported the US’ War effort, thus indicating that NAWSA was also a patriotic organization that was aiming to protect its country and not one that aimed to disrupt it, as some politicians saw it at the time.
The movement continued to develop in other aspects of women’s life. For one thing, it started to question reproductive rights. In 1916, Margaret Sanger established the first birth control clinic in the US, defying the New York State law that forbade the distribution of contraception. Later on, she would establish the famous Planned Parenthood.
Finally, in 1920, after much protest and picketing, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. The Amendment declared, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” It is important to remember that while the amendment granted women of all colors the right to vote, in practice, it remained difficult for black women to vote, especially in the South.