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Tuesday, March 8, 2016
History ... Society ...

Every now and then I come across an historical speculation article that ponders the question of what would have happened had Germany had won the First World War. One of the more interesting of these articles appeared several years ago on the Guardian web site. The article raises an interesting and thought provoking question — was WW1 really about anything? Here’s a quote from the article:

[We are] likely to witness plenty of debate about . . . whether the war achieved anything. At present, argument about the war mainly consists of two mutually uncomprehending camps. On the one hand, there are those who, as Margaret MacMillan put it recently, think the war was “an unmitigated catastrophe in a sea of mud”. On the other, there are those who insist that it was nevertheless “about something”.

Hmmm. So what WAS World War 1 about? What is any war about? For most of history, wars were ultimately about a nation or tribe trying to increase its strength and economic well-being at the expense of some other nation or tribe; or conversely, trying to keep its strength and economic well-being from being taken away by some other nation or tribe.

Nonetheless, there is sometimes a “higher theory” behind a war. Often in the past, this has involved religion. The fight was for God! One group assumed that the other group had an improper and dangerous concept of what God is and what God demands of us, e.g. the Crusades or the many European Protestant-Catholic battles in the 16th and 17th Centuries (and yes, modern radical Islamic violence, with the current day poster-child being ISIS). Occasionally, one side assumes that its opponents entirely and wrongfully deny the existence of God, e.g. the 40 year “Cold War” which pitted the enlightened West against “Godless Communism” (let’s not forget that the war against Communism became pretty hot for the many hundreds of thousands of soldiers who served in Korea and Vietnam; there were around 81,000 total American casualties in these two wars, about 60% more than total US casualties in WW1).

But most modern big wars aren’t inspired by religious sentiment. World War 2 was fairly easy to depict as a struggle against fascism in the West and imperialist dominance in the East. The US War for Independence fit into a narrative regarding freedom from monarchical abuse and the struggle to create a new and enlightened form of Constitutional government (“by the people, for the people, and of the people”). The Civil War is alternately cast as the war to free the slaves or the war to save the Union.

Of course, all of these grand themes served as propaganda to help maintain popular support and sacrifice while they were being fought, and later on provided a post-hoc rationalization for the terrible price that was paid in their execution. No war was purely inspired by some lofty ideology; you cannot even say that a particular war was “mainly inspired” in such fashion. In every instance, our leaders were responding to geographic, economic and political forces that seemed to threaten the continuance of the status quo, that threatened to take something precious and necessary away from America (especially from those who were or are better off in America). The reality behind most wars is not nearly as noble as the way that they are presented by our leaders, and later on by teachers and mainstream historians.

But back to World War 1 . . . that one is a toughie to make sense of. To some degree you could describe the Imperial German, Austrio-Hungarian and Turkish/Ottoman Empires as expansive, oppressive and anti-democratic, worthy of being beaten. Of course, a lot of people around the world at the time would have described Germany, Belgium and France with the same words, given their extensive colonial system. About the best that President Woodrow Wilson could do to justify eventual American involvement in the bloody donnybrook was to promise that this would be “the war to end all wars” and that it would make the world “safe for democracy“. Wilson was sort-of hinting that WW1 was so terrible and so ridiculous that the major world powers would finally learn their lesson and would come together to guarantee that another one like it would never happen. And thus the “League of Nations” — we all know how that turned out.

Parliamentary democracy was supposed to have shone through all the gloom and have become the world standard for all civilized nations. In some ways, WW1 did allow certain areas to move towards representative government — for example, Ataturk helped Turkey to evolve into a modern nation-state, and the colonial western powers started to realize that they had to release their colonial grip and set their world empires free (of course, much of this inspiration was economic, as France and Belgium and Great Britain could no longer afford to administrate and defend their vast territorial holdings after WW1). But democracy just didn’t find good soil in Russia, and it was eventually turned for malevolent purposes in Germany during the great economic depression that followed the “Great War“. (Yes, the rise of Hitler and the Nazi’s in the 1930s).

So, is any war “really about anything” — anything that could be described as “good” or “just”? In my idealistic youth, I would strongly answer that question in the negative. In my world-weary old age, I would say that modern wars are almost always “over sold” (and perhaps many not-so-modern ones — recall that the Roman Empire tried to justify its many wars as strictly necessary for the defense of itself or its allies, or strongly required to bring the barbarian tribes into the light of civilization). Most of the standard justifications for the killing, mayhem and destruction of war are actually polished versions of propaganda; inspirations for young men to sacrifice their lives and older men and women to diminish their treasures by supporting the national leaders. Later on these justifications serve to protect against long-term nation-wide guilt. But occasionally, often more by historical accident than by design, some good outcome does eventually manifest itself following a war (e.g. the permanent ending of slavery in the US in the second half of 1860’s). Every new war serves to prove that the fate of humankind is not in the hands of humankind. We are still just swimming along in a powerful river of forces and fate, able to bank a little to the left or right now and then, but basically beyond ultimate control of our fates.

So, I will end this essay on that fatalistic and pessimistic note. But with the footnote that perhaps in the long term, the accumulated effect of such little moves left or right (along with a lot of luck) can eventually help “bring us to the shore”, where we can better see where we are and figure out how to make things truly better for all. To keep it real, however, I must note that we are talking about centuries and perhaps even millennium, with painful and sorrowful (but unavoidable) steps backward yet to come. (The eventual effects of climate change might contribute to an upcoming “dark age” — as they probably did in the past). Perhaps someday, all of those Christmas holiday songs asking why we can’t live in a peaceful world will finally be answered in a joyful fashion; but between now and then, there will be a lot more blood in the mud. Ultimately, that’s about all that any war will “be about”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:27 am      

  1. Jim, To put it briefly, I’d say you are 100 percent right-­all wars (or no war) is worth anything. They all are based on some sort of desire for someone to gain power in some way. In addition there is the “our God is better than your God” idea, as you mention.

    As I read your post, I thought of de Chardin who maintained, when he was in WW I that there was some overall “master” evolutionary plan at the root of war. In my secret thoughts I’ve always considered that the League of Nations, as poorly as it worked out was some kind of preliminary (or practice) attempt at a kind of “union” of the nations of the world, bringing to them to a “one world”. Yes, it was preliminary or a “try” at such an attempt, but there had to be some beginning of the idea. I often think that the United Nations is a second such attempt. Yes, it often seems useless in its attempts at what it does; but it’s a second such attempt at a try to unite the nations of the world.

    Whether or not an attempt at uniting the nations of the world will result in more of the same on a higher level or not may be another story. Teilhard thought there was an evolution of a layer of thought that was slowly growing over the world we presently have; perhaps he’s not too far from wrong. Yet, I’m sure that if he was right, such a layer of thought will bring with it its own problems.

    Regarding the Civil War: Yes, the overall idea that that war was to free the slaves or save the union seems(ed) valid; yet even 100 years later there was still a great deal of “freeing” that needed doing for a great many people and there was still much “saving of the union” was still needed. The 1960s and all its turmoil were evidence that those two things had not been accomplished.

    Then too: I cannot think of WW I without seeing in my mind’s eye a picture of my mother’s brother who fought in Europe during WW I. It was surely a horrendous war, a war of more blood than mud. Who knows what, if any, good came as a result of it. I had a cousin, nineteen, who fought in WW II and was killed there at such a young age. My parents were forever against war as a result of those deaths. Who can dispute them?

    Surely one can wonder if there is any good at all that comes from a war; yet, as with most things in life there are both the good and the bad that result. The good may often be difficult to see, but somewhere the good may sometime come to be seen. Teilhard thought so; the most the rest of us can do is hope he was right. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 12, 2016 @ 7:09 pm

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