I just read an excellent book on World War I, and it made me incredibly sad. World War I was the beginning of all the horrors of the 20th century and of problems we still have to deal with in the 21st century. It all started there.
What’s so sad is that we really learned nothing – not from World War I, not from World War II, not from Korea or Vietnam or the Cold War. It’s almost as if world leaders in every country manage to get through school without learning anything about the past.
The Experience of World War I, by J.M. Winter (Oxford University Press), lists some of the errors that helped to bring on or make worse the horrors that killed 10 million people, mostly young men in the armies and air forces.
One error was demonizing the enemy. What that does is preclude negotiations. You can’t negotiate with Satan, so if you brand your opponent an unmitigated evil demon, then you guarantee conflict. As you can see from the way both Bushes demonized Saddam Hussein (after the U.S. assisted him in the 1980s), this error continues to be repeated.
Another thing that grew out of that war was crushing dissent by questioning the dissenters’ patriotism. That, too, still goes on.
Of course, there’s also lying. It is an old cliché now that truth is the first casualty in war. Truth is killed not only by outright lies but also by excessive secrecy and propaganda. I wouldn’t believe the Bush administration if it issued a press release that the sun rises in the east.
There’s the prostitution of the press and the clergy. Every war, in the beginning, is cheered on by the press and from the pulpit. It’s only later, if things go badly, that the press might begin to carp a little, forgetting entirely its earlier boosterism on the behalf of war.
Then there’s the punitive peace. The Versailles Treaty, which ended World War I, produced World War II and was the mother of the Third Reich. It was punitive and humiliating to Germany, which had not felt defeated and thought it would sign an armistice, not a surrender document. It gave Adolf Hitler every grievance he needed to rise to power. After the first Gulf War, we imposed the same kind of humiliating peace on Iraq. I said at the time that Bush I had, in effect, guaranteed Saddam’s survival because Iraqis would so resent the conditions imposed on them that none would dare to be thought of as an ally of the U.S.
Of course, World War I also gave us the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and millions around the world would die as a result of that. It created the mess in the Middle East when Great Britain decided that Jewish colonization of Palestine would be a workable idea.
World War I shattered the existing world order. Empires collapsed or entered their death throes. Faith in religion was shattered. Aristocracies became meaningless. The world economy soon collapsed. Communism and fascism rose from the war’s ashes and for a while contended with the West for supremacy. Politics was militarized. It gave us the tank, the first bombings of civilian cities, chemical weapons, the machine gun, aerial warfare and mass murder on a genocidal scale – all of those things that continue to consume blood and treasure like a vast, dark hole.
It’s been only 86 years since the Treaty of Versailles was signed. The world is still broken and in ferment. The neocons’ celebration of a new Pax Americana was grossly premature. The new world order so many have sought has yet to take firm shape. The future remains uncertain.
It seems we are still, as Matthew Arnold put it, “on a darkling plain/swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/where ignorant armies clash by night.”