Remembering World War I, 100 Years Later
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, a war ostensibly fought to end all wars and to make the world safe for democracy. We now know this day as Veterans Day, but for much of the rest of the World, today is Armistice Day and commemorates the end of that tragic conflict.
For many Americans, 100 years later, the First World War holds little importance. It doesn’t enter our routine historical callbacks or political discourse in the same way as WWII, the Civil War, or Vietnam. Yet the course of that war and its subsequent but temporary peace impacted the world and the following century in a profound way. It outlined a new world order—the consequences of which we are still wrestling to this day. While this war may seem a distant relic, much of the conflict we see occurring in the Middle East today can trace its lineage directly to the decisions made in this period.
Now, it is important to reflect. As we are reminded that the guns fell silent at this very moment of the 11th hour, of the 11th Day, of the 11th month 100 years ago in Europe, here are 11 lessons we should heed as we now enter the second century since the war’s end:
- When the United States commits the full weight of its resources to the world, it has the power to change that world. The introduction of American soldiers onto the battlefields of WWI eliminated any prospect of the Central Powers attaining a favorable or equitable end to the war. WWI saw a massive mobilization, as did the Second World War that followed it. 8 million people served in the U.S. military during WWI. The result was a world forever changed. Save for perhaps the space race, we have not since seen a national commitment to anything on the scale of World War I or II. Simply put, if America truly decides it wants to solve a problem, it is capable of doing so by using all of the various tools of national power at its disposal, and by enlisting the help of its partners.
- When the US withdraws its commitment, it affects that same world, but not necessarily for the better. After the war, and the flawed writing of the Treaty of Versailles, America withdrew from involvement in Europe’s problems. It was this withdrawal from America’s responsibilities that helped set the stage for disaster. The League of Nations, set up to basically prevent another world war, had its flaws. But the death blow to the organization was the refusal of the United States to join. At the end of WWII, the U.S. pushed heavily to create the United Nations. The UN is inherently a tool of U.S. foreign policy. While flawed, continued U.S. commitment to that body will help ensure future American influence. We must remain committed to the international institutions for which we sacrificed so much to create, and work to shape them for the better.
- Peace cannot be simply punitive, the enemy must buy into it. The Treaty of Versailles, the primary treaty used to formalize peace between the warring powers, was notoriously punitive towards Germany, and demanded that Germany repay the cost of the war to the victorious powers. While Germany certainly deserved blame for the conflict, there is plenty of blame that could go around for the war. Unfortunately, the punitive nature of the treaty helped seed resentment in Germany, and prevented it from truly holding onto a vision of a democratic future. For the Germans, the cost of remaining bound by the Treaty appeared much greater than the alternative.
- Peace requires a vision. Starting a war is easy, fighting a war is hard, and achieving a lasting peace is harder. At the outbreak of war, many expected a relatively short conflict, but it turned out otherwise. While the course of battle may ultimately set the stage for peace, convincing all participants to abandon their grievances and work together for the cause of peace is a problem to which there is no sure formula. But having a vision of what that peace looks like—an achievable peace which accounts for the needs of both sides—is necessary to create something that is sustainable. This vision must be defined, and it must be realistic. Peace is fragile; it must be cultivated and maintained, as it does not last without constant care.
- Arbitrarily dividing conquered lands lays the groundwork for future conflict. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the political landscape of the Middle East, which was carved up between the French and British at the end of WWI. These artificial borders were ignorant of tribal, ethnic, and religious lines, and discarded promises made to the people of the regions in exchange for their support during the war. Sectarian divisions and violence became incredibly evident during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Syrian civil war today. The insistence on preserving these lines today continues to cause problems in this region.
- Narratives matter. World War I industrialized propaganda on a scale never seen before. Ideas of national identity, injustices, atrocities, and duty were whipped up to create public buy-in to the war. Narratives inspired nationalism, and were created, manipulated, and propagated to maximum affect. Years after the war, narratives in Germany about the surrender were bathed in anti-Semitism and became a rallying cry for revenge. Other narratives gained prominence granted by the futility of the slaughter, giving birth to the communist revolution in Russia. In the victorious European countries, a new narrative developed during the interwar period which debated the legitimacy and legacy of the war, and subsequently prevented European leaders from taking decisive action to prevent yet another war.
- Nationalism sews seeds of hatred and destruction. We all know that the spark that set off WWI was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian Nationalist. Nationalism is widely recognized as a motivating cause of WWI. This unquestioning pride in one’s country’s superiority and moral supremacy over others led people to violence, increased their susceptibility to propaganda, and fed the human machine required to wage war. Its resurgence in Germany prior to WWII serves as a precautionary tale of just how dangerous nationalism can be. We must defend against calls to return to nationalism in this 2nd
- We must innovate and adapt. The First World War was rife with new technologies: aircraft, machine guns, modern artillery, diesel powered u-boats, tanks. The first few years of the war on the western front demonstrated slow adaptation to the challenges of machine guns and artillery. Artillery dominated the battlefield and caused the vast majority of casualties. Lives were wasted in futile and repeated attempts to gain ground in the new reality of trench warfare. Some technologies, like tanks, were developed rapidly in order to overcome the challenges posed by trench warfare. By the end of the war, there were many advances, driven by the realization that attrition would not win the war. Never again should we repeatedly throw lives away for zero gain.
- Robust systems for countering pandemics before they reach a global nature are vital. The spread of the Spanish Flu at the tail end of WWI, fueled by troop movements and close quarters, killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, dwarfing the death toll from combat. Today, international travel is infinitely easier and faster, enabling a pandemic to spread even faster. America’s response to the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa was admirable, but we must continue to monitor and prepare for the likelihood of the next major pandemic.
- We must care for our veterans after our conflicts. While medical advances by WWI had enabled our soldiers to survive previously unconscionable physical disfigurement, the concept of “shell shock” and what we now identify as PTSD, soon came to be public knowledge. Our soldiers, regardless of the visibility of their wounds, deserve our nation’s support after they have put everything on the line in the name of service. This includes physical healthcare, mental healthcare, moral support, and assistance in finding work after their service has ended.
- We owe it to our military to exhaust every option before sending them to war. The decision to go to war should never be taken lightly. The cause should be just, it should be consistent with our principles, and it should be in the vital interest of our country. Decisions to use non-military tools to achieve these goals must also be consistent with our principles. We must resist the urge to use bombs and bullets as a first resort to solve our differences and secure our interests, but we must also recognize when using force is necessary. When we send our men and women into harm’s way, to possibly give up their lives for their country, we must seriously ask ourselves, is it worth it? Once those lives are gone, they are gone—they are not merely a resource to be consumed.
On this 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, we celebrate the sacrifice made by the millions of allied soldiers, and the 116,516 American soldiers who gave their lives for victory in that war. But this celebration could do without the cheering—rather it should remain a somber remembrance, one characterized by national introspection and serious thought. We mourn the 320 Americans killed in the last 11 hours of the war for no compelling reason. We mourn that the cause for which these soldiers gave their lives would not be realized, and a new, deadlier war would emerge a mere 21 years later. We mourn that our institutional and collective memory of this war is fading, and affirm that we have a solemn duty to heed its lessons and pass them on to the next generation. And so, if there is anything we must take away from the distant memory of the disaster that shaped the world in which we now live, it is simply that we must preserve that memory, and ensure that it remains distant—for it is incumbent upon us to remember.