Summary: History makes her lessons available to us, if we wish to use them. Today we look at WWI, finding some insights from that great war that apply to our long war. This should disturb us, and inspire us to do better this time as we fight a war that many Americans are almost unaware of, but might have horrific consequences for us. No nation, however powerful, can prosper if it does not learn from history.
“What experience and history teach is this — that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”
— Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1832).
Many of the great events in history have lessons for those living in radically different eras. Unfortunately Hegel’s generalization describes most peoples in most times. But it is not true of truly great nations. It has not been true of America, which has become a great nation in part because we have learned well and rapidly (e.g., our resolution of WW2 and construction of the post-war world).
Are we still learning? The long war will provide an answer. See this article for a powerful example of painful lessons from the past that apply quite well to us today. It’s well-worth reading in full, implicitly posing questions the next few years will answer.
Excerpt from “‘The Greatest Catastrophe the World Has Seen’“
by R.J.W. Evans, New York Review of Books, 6 February 2014
But of course the Sarajevo assassination captivates posterity for its consequences. … Thus was unleashed the calamitous conflict that, more than any other series of events, has shaped the world ever since; without it we can doubt that communism would have taken hold in Russia, fascism in Italy, and Nazism in Germany, or that global empires would have disintegrated so rapidly and so chaotically. A century on we still search for its causes, and very often, if possible, for people to blame.
… Margaret MacMillan charts the series of resultant international crises that had a cumulative effect, among them the two Balkan Wars of 1912–1913: they tested commitments and amplified anxieties, but also fostered a sense of controlled brinkmanship. Much depended upon the “unspoken assumptions,” the mental maps that made war seem acceptable, at least as a last resort; and upon the increasingly autonomous army chiefs wedded to the doctrine of the offensive, just as significant sections of the populace were seduced by war’s perceived glamour, and vaunted its benefits with reference to the ideas of thinkers as diverse as Darwin, Nietzsche, and Bergson.
By May 1914 President Woodrow Wilson’s adviser Colonel House summarized the mood in Europe as “militarism run stark mad.”
… Most obvious is an amplification of military power once armies entered the field. … Censorship also soon grew rampant with the tools for savage repression of any potential dissent. … Besides, none of the combatants had a ready exit strategy. Rather, war aims responded to the need to justify sacrifices already made. Finally there was the fact of a remarkably swift acceptance of the dictates of total war on all sides, in societies where deference to established authority remained strong.
Today is not 1914. But there are similarities.
- The government need not censor the news media. Journalists usually adequately censor themselves, and the public usually ignores any unpleasant truths that leak out. The result is the same, an acceptance of whatever the government tells us.
- Our war aims easily expanded from Congress’s 60 words authorizing force only (they thought) against those who did 9-11, not a general war against Islamic insurgents everywhere.
- Our government has no exit strategy for the long war (it might even prefer the long war continues).
- Our society has accepted with remarkably swiftness the dictates of the security services (formerly known as law enforcement agencies). And our deference to authority remains strong, despite the increased burdens placed upon us.
- If Colonel House visited our time he would say that our foreign policy is “militarism run stark mad.”
I find the second paragraph of the excerpt the most disturbing. In hindsight WWI was the inevitable result of growing tensions in Europe — tensions that the great nations not only failed to resolve, but repeatedly played upon. William Lind explains …
One pebble touched off an avalanche. It did so because it occurred, not as an isolated incident, but as one more in a series of crises that rocked Europe in its last ten years of peace, 1904-1914. Each of those crises had the potential to touch off a general European war, and each further de-stabilized the region, making the next incident all the more dangerous.
- 1905-06 saw the First Moroccan Crisis, when the German Foreign Office (whose motto after Bismarck might well be “Clowns unto ages of ages”) pushed a reluctant Kaiser Wilhelm II to land at Tangier as a challenge to France.
- 1908 brought the Bosnian Annexation Crisis, where Austria humiliated Russia and left her anxious for revenge.
- Then came the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911,
- the Tripolitan War of 1911-1912 (Italy actually won, against the tottering Ottoman Empire) and
- the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.
By 1914, it had become a question more of which crisis would finally set all Europe ablaze than of whether peace would endure. This was true despite the fact that, in the abstract, no major European state wanted war.
If this downward spiral of events in Europe reminds us of the Middle East today, it should. There too we see a series of crises, each holding the potential of kicking off a much larger war.
… A basic rule of history is that the inevitable eventually happens. If you keep on smoking in the powder magazine, you will at some point blow it up. No one can predict the specific event or its timing, but everyone can see the trend and where it is leading.
The tragedy is that the great powers were not alarmed by these crises, but took comfort from their resolutions. Signs that their foreign policies were destabilizing Europe were interpreted as success (or at least tolerable patchwork).
In the long war our foreign policy lurches from crisis to crisis, from intervention to intervention (Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya), to almost-interventions in Syria and Iran. Plus our drones and special operations forces interfere in dozens of nations (see Nick Turse’s “The Special Ops Surge“). It’s a mad patchwork, probably destabilizing both some of the nations involved (e.g., Pakistan) and perhaps entire regions.
The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.
— Attributed to Mark Twain
About the author
R. J. W. Evans is a Fellow of Oriel College and Regius Professor of History Emeritus at Oxford. His latest book is Austria, Hungary, and the Habsburgs: Central Europe, c. 1683–1867 (February 2014). Wikipedia provides more information, and a list of his other books.
For More Information
(a) See more of Reylia’s artwork at DeviantART.
(b) Posts about WWI:
- The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009
- Is Europe primed for chaos, as it was in July 1914?, 7 October 2011
(c) Lessons from the past about our foreign policy and wars:
- America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past, 30 June 2008
- President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris, 1 July 2008
- The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008
- A note from America’s diary: “My power proceeds from my reputation…”, 22 September 2009
- The SecDef gives the definitive analysis of the War, a must-read, 30 December 2009
- France gives us tips for the Afghanistan War, from their successful role in the American Revolution, 11 March 2010
- Advice from one of the British Empire’s greatest Foreign Ministers, 18 November 2011 — by Lord Palmerston
- Lessons for America from the Russo-Japanese War, 4 February 2012