This article is slated to publish at 11:00 Eastern today — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It marks the 89th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, rather quaintly called then “The Great War” or “The War To End All Wars.”
I am reminded of a part of one of Tom Clancy’s later novels, “Debt Of Honor,” where Jack Ryan ruminates on the nature of war. Ryan concludes that the decision to initiate to war is almost always an irrational one.
Ryan turned his head back to meet the President’s eyes. “Sir, the decision to start a war is almost never rational. World War One, kicked off by some fool killing some something-or-other, ‘Poldi,’ they called him, the Austrian Foreign Minister. Skilled manipulator, but he didn’t factor in the simple fact that his country lacked the power to achieve what he wanted. Germany and Austria-Hungary started the war. They both lost. World War Two, Japan and Germany took on the whole world, never occurred to them that th rest of the world might be stronger. Particularly true of Japan.” Ryan went on. “They never really had a plan to defeat us. Hold on that for a moment. The Civil War, started by the South. The South lost. The Franco-Prussian war, started by France. France lost. Almost every war since the Industrial Revolution was initiated by the side which ultimately lost. Q.E.D, going to war is not a rational act. Therefore, the thinking behind it, the why isn’t necessarily important, because it was probably erroneous to begin with.”
Nothing quite exemplifies this than World War I. The Second World War is more of my area of knowledge, but what little I know about the first one pretty much confirms it was a comedy of errors — and the joke is on all of us. The war started out because a bunch of people with no sense of the long-term set up a bunch of secret interlocking alliances, each pledging to stand by others when they went to war. So when Serbia and Austria-Hungary found themselves in “mine’s bigger than yours” argument over one extremist killing one royal bureaucrat, they whipped out their allies, setting off a domino-like cascade that soon involved nearly every nation in Europe — and, through their colonies, started fighting around the world.
And no one really understood what the hell they were fighting over, because they weren’t really fighting for anything except to prove they were stronger than the rest.
As if to symbolize the utter pointlessness of the war, so many of the battles and events of the war were also marked by sheer lack of foresight. The Ottoman Empire — already failing and on its way out — sought to stay out of the war. So, naturally, England pissed all over them, showing them such utter contempt and derision that Germany sought to win their favor. Then Germany pulled a few fast ones and the Ottomans found themselves at war with the Allies, without really knowing what the hell happened. (Short version; longer version is England had been building a couple of battleships for the Ottomans. When war broke out, they decided to not only keep the ships, but the money they’d been paid already. Germany offered the Ottomans a couple of ships that had been trapped in the Mediterranean with the outbreak of war. Then the German crews — flying under the Ottoman flag — sailed up and bombarded a few Russian cities. The Russians declared war on the Ottomans, and the rest of the Allies followed suit.)
The entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war brought about whole new levels of farce. It led to some of the worst-planned and worst-executed moves by Great Britain, the intrusion into the Dardanelles by allied naval forces (that failed maneuver cost them three battleships sunk, as well as two battleships and a battle cruiser badly damaged by mines.) That was followed up by the landing at Gallipoli, another defeat that ended up with nearly 100,000 dead and almost a quarter of a million wounded.
Then there was the ground war in France. In the leadup to the war, a great revolution had taken place in military technology. The machine gun had been introduced, along with great strides in artillery. Poison gas was also used copiously. In short, everyone knew how to fend off attacks and how to sterilize battlefields, but no one had yet worked out just how to win the fights. So they fought and fought and fought over the same stretches of land, over and over and over, doing nothing but adding to the piles of corpses.
So, in the end, with over seventeen and a half million troops lost in total from both sides, and another 21 million wounded, what the hell was achieved?
Well, the Ottoman Empire was finished. It’d been tottering on its last legs for some time, but the end of the war put the final nail in its coffin. The triumphant allies took a look at the maps of the area and got out the butcher knives, carving up the corpse into new nations and territories and protectorates and other artificial structures that bore no resemblance to how those living in those areas might want to arrange themselves. Thus we ended up with the roots of the modern Middle East, with various tribes and other ethnic factions lumped into countries that have little national identity, political Frankenstein’s monsters that plod along to this day, to the world’s constant dismay.
Germany had been the main force on the losing side, so it obviously needed to be punished. And punished so severely that it would never again think about waging aggressive war. Well, that worked out well for about 20 years, then brought about a bit of tidying up called World War II, and that only cost us about 72 million people killed.
France lost pretty much an entire generation in the War, as most of the fighting had taken place on French soil. I know I get pretty good mileage out of French-bashing, but the losses of so many of its young men left a huge scar on the Gauls, and I can’t help but speculate that that is a major factor in so many of the things I regularly assail the French over. Then again, maybe I could be feeling a bit softer towards the French of late have been considerably better allies than they have in decades, and I’m not feeling quite so ashamed of my mother’s side of the family having some rather hefty French connections.
The United States was disgusted with the whole war and tried to avoid it as long as we could. Then, after the war, we were disgusted with the way the Allies handled the armistice and formal surrender of the Central Powers, and said, essentially, “screw you guys, we’re going home” and went back to our isolationism — a move that cost us dearly when it all went straight back into the toilet less than 20 years later.
And let’s not forget that World War I also polished off the weak Russian Empire, bringing us a chain of events that culminated in the rise of the Soviet Union as a superpower — and communism’s death toll, at last count, has broken nine figures, dwarfing the two World Wars combined.
I know it’s a logical fallacy to point to a single event as a catalyst for everything that happens afterward. History is a continuum, with each event predicated on prior events, and so on, and so on. But it’s so seductive to look at how one man — Gavrilo Princip — with one shot from a pistol started a chain of events that ultimately killed at least a quarter of a billion people — and the toll is still rising.
Today, the United States is fighting in two nations. In Afghanistan, we are trying to make certain that the place where those who attacked us on 9/11 does not sprout another threat to world peace. And in Iraq, we are trying to finish off the job started in 1991, when we finally recognized that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the region. And in neither nation do we have a single, unified enemy that we can recognize on sight, that we can fight against, and that can offer a meaningful surrender to formalize our victory.
Indeed, both of these are different fronts in the same war, the war that historians ought to call “The War on Militant Islam” — or, if it doesn’t go well, “The Great Triumph Of Allah’s Righteous Over The Infidels And The Birth Of The Caliphate.” Or maybe not. This conflict doesn’t lend itself to a catchy title. We’ve overused World Wars, “War On Terror” was always a bit of a dippy title (“terrorism” isn’t an enemy, it’s a tactic), and “War On Militant Islam” can imply that Islam is the defender here. I guess I ought to leave it up to those future historians to come up with something appropriate and memorable.
So, on this day when we honor those who have served our nation, we owe it to them — and ourselves — to consider very carefully just when we place them in harm’s way. It seems that the ones who bear the greatest burden when we go to war are almost never the ones who have any say in the matter. So those of us who do not pay that price need to make absolutely certain that when we do call upon them, it is for something worthy.