Gwynne Dyer: The legacy of World War I

“It was not worth even one life,” said Harry Patch shortly before he died in 2009 at the age of 111. He was the last survivor of the 65 million soldiers who fought in the First World War, and by the time he died it was a normal, quite unremarkable thing to say. But he would never have said it in 1914.

Very few people thought that war was a bad thing in 1914. Losing a war could be a bad thing, but the obvious solution to that problem was to be very good at war. Human beings had always fought wars, military values were deeply embedded in our culture, and nobody expected those attitudes to change. And then they did change.              

The First World War was a human tragedy, of course, but this was when the human race began to question the whole institution of war: how useful it is, but also how inevitable it really is. And the answer to both questions is: not very.

There are still a few countries that owe everything to their ability to win wars: Israel comes to mind at once. But most countries, and most people, now see war as a very undesirable last resort. We have the First World War to thank for this great change.

The thing most people miss about the First World War is that it was a perfectly normal political event. Ever since the rise of modern centralized states in 16th-century Europe, they had all gone to war with each other in two big alliances at around half-century intervals. The wars were effectively about everything: borders in Europe, trade routes, colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

The great powers fought other, littler wars as well, but these big eventsthe 30 Years’ War, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Seven Years’ War and so on—were like a general audit of their status. Who’s up, and who’s down? Who can expand, and who must yield?

It was a perfectly viable system, because the wars mostly involved small professional armies and did not disturb civilian populations much. The casualties were low, and hardly any major player ever crashed out of the system entirely. Naturally enough, most people did not see this system as a problem that had to be solved. It was just another fact of life.

The only diplomatic difference in 1914 was that the great powers coordinated their moves better than before. Almost all of them were at war in a few days, where it would have taken months or even a few years in the old days. The armies could move quickly to the frontiers by rail, so now you created your alliances before the war—and everybody had the telegraph, so the final decisions were made fast.

But once the war started, everything was different. The armies were 10 times as big as they used to be, because these were now rich industrialized countries that could afford to put most of the adult male population into uniform. That meant that the soldiers getting killed were fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons: part of the community, not the wastrels, drunks, and men on the run who made up such a large part of the old professional armies.

And they were getting killed in unprecedented numbers. The new weapons—machine guns, modern artillery, and so on—were very efficient killing machines, and within a month the soldiers had to take shelter in trenches from the “storm of steel”. They spent the rest of the war trying to break through the trenches, and by the end of it 9 million of them had been killed. That is what changed everything.

One response to the ordeal, inevitably, was to demonize the other side and define the war as a crusade against evil. That way, at least, the ghastly sacrifice of lives could be seen as necessary and meaningful. But many people saw through the propaganda, and some of them were in high places.

The senior politicians and diplomats of 1918, living amid the wreckage of the Old World, could see that the old international system was now delivering catastrophe and had to be changed. So they set out to change it, by creating the League of Nations. They outlawed aggressive war and invented the concept of “collective security” to enforce the new international rules.

They failed, at first, because the legacy of bitterness among the losers in the First World War was so great that a second one came only 20 years later. That one was bigger and worse—but at the end, everybody tried again. They had to.

The United Nations was founded in 1945, with slightly more realistic rules than the League of Nations but the same basic goal: to stop wars among the great powers, for those are the wars that kill in the millions. Stopping other wars too would be nice, but first things first—especially now that there are nuclear weapons around.

All you can say is that it hasn’t failed yet in its main task: no great power has fought any other one directly for the past 69 years. Ignore the headlines that constantly tell you the world is falling apart. The glass is more than half-full.

Comments (12) Add New Comment
Bruce
"no great power has fought any other one directly for the past 69 years. Ignore the headlines that constantly tell you the world is falling apart. The glass is more than half-full."

Except for the minor quibble that there are still 16,000 or so nukes around, with about 2000 of them able to be launched within 20 minutes.

Try to name 2000 cities or towns.

Each year, there is a small chance they will be launched by mistake or by insanity. For each year, that risk is small. Over the decades, it isn't small. One study at Princeton put the annual risk at around 1% - based on accidental nuclear war alone.

That means your odds of dying by being burned to death or by fallout are higher than your odds of dying by cancer. It just isn't obvious because the odds of cancer apply to millions of people, so the statistics can be seen. Whereas the odds of nuclear suicide apply to only one planet we can see.
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Bruce
Oops, the estimate of the odds of nuclear war was actually from a Stanford engineering prof, Martin Hellman, a pioneer in cryptography:

http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/july22/hellman-nuclear-analysis-07170...

http://nuclearrisk.org/paper.pdf

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Baby Bayoneting
"All you can say is that it hasn’t failed yet in its main task: no great power has fought any other one directly for the past 69 years. "

There have been a few occasions in which there was a significant threat of nuclear war. The idiots always outnumber the sane:
"We and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose.

Consequently, if there is no intention to tighten that knot and thereby to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this. - Khrushchev to Kennedy, October 26, 1962"

"Ignore the headlines that constantly tell you the world is falling apart. "

Yellow journalism drives these wars:
"One response to the ordeal, inevitably, was to demonise the other side and define the war as a crusade against evil.

Newspapers accused German soldiers of a series of crimes including: gouging out the eyes of civilians, cutting off the hands of teenage boys, raping and sexually mutilating women, and bayoneting babies. Wythe Williams, of the New York Times, investigated these stories and reported "that none could be verified."

Yellow journalism is thriving today. The main printed medium in Australia, the Fairfax, the online edition never had any comments enabled, so it was always one-way, highly emotionally charged:
http://consortiumnews.com/2014/07/20/what-did-us-spy-satellites-see-in-u...
http://consortiumnews.com/2014/07/19/airline-horror-spurs-new-rush-to-ju...
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Jeff Ewener
Actually I think the 30 Years' War, while fun for most of Europe, was a epochal catastrophe for Germany, on whose land it was actually fought. Lots of civilian deaths, social, economic and political development set back maybe a century. The result for them was on a par with that of WWI and WWII, or with the Black Death, for that matter. See Brecht's "Mother Courage", for instance.
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P.Peto
Gwynne is optimistic, he is not worried about the future, there won't be another World War because we've come 69 years since the last one.
He says"Ignore the headlines that constantly tell you the world is falling apart. The glass is more than half-full."
Gee, I wish I could agree with him but current events seem to indicate that the Sheriff, Uncle Sam and his European deputies are confidant and ready for a showdown, perhaps even a shoot out with Russia!
According to Finian Cunningham Russia will have to get down on it's knees and lick Uncle Sam's boots if it wishes to avoid war.
"Licking Uncle Sam's boots, that is, giving way to US hegemonic dictates, will involve Russia relinquishing or rolling back energy deals with China and Europe, abandoning recent ambitious plans to set up a global bank to rival the Washington-controlled IMF, and getting Russia to reverse moves on dropping the American dollar as the world's reserve currency. It will also entail Russia giving the US a blank cheque to carry out foreign interventions in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere where natural resources are to be exploited."

http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article39298.htm

Do you really think Putin and Russia are so "yellow" that they will back down? Don't count on it!!
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I Chandler
Eric Margolis writes about how "a coterie of anti-German officials in Britain, led by the ambitious, war-yearning imperialist, Winston Churchill, pushed the British to war against Germany. British industrialists, fearful of German competition, and seeing huge profits to be made, backed the war party.
The British anti-German cliques played the same role as the pro-war American neocons, planting phony stories in the press and promoting pro-war allies into positions of power. We see the same dangers today in the petty but growing conflict over Ukraine between the US and its European satraps and Russia. Every week seems to bring the US and Russia closer to a collision as the Washington seeks to dominate Ukraine and use it as a weapon against Russia. Once again, neocons in Washington, allied to Ukraine’s hard right and neocons, are promoting the growing Russo-American conflict.
A conflict over a quasi-nation of absolutely no strategic interest to the US. American neocons are now calling for NATO to take control of Moldova and Georgia. Conrad von Hotzendorf would have approved.
No one in the west is ready to die for Luhansk or Donetsk, but few in 1914 Europe were ready to die for Verdun or Ypres – but millions did."

Robert Parry sees the danger of “information warfare” when facts give way to propaganda:http://consortiumnews.com/2014/07/27/blaming-russia-as-flat-fact/
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muskox37
We blunder into wars. Even the second war was something of a surprise to Hitler who had been a great admirer of Britain. He did not think Britain would go to war over Poland. I do wonder if the world had had social media in 1914 if the war would have happened. I know it sounds glib but communications between nations was still pretty elementary in 1900 and armies were able to browbeat their civilian leaders into war because of the need to be always ready. Once an army was mobilized it was very difficult for the civilian leadership to stop it out of the fear that the country would be left poorly defended. Canada blundered into the Afghanistan war but thanks to Lester Pearson and Jean Chretien it avoided the Vietnam mess and the Iraq folly. Participation in the Libyan war was limited thanks to Mr. Harper who has been learning the ropes while in office.
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Winston
"I do wonder if the world had had social media in 1914 if the war would have happened."

Hmm...Social media could also be abused to start wars:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Es1UM4_kcY
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Cassius
WW1 could have ended in 1916 when the Germans wanted negotiations. Their opening offer was to demand that the Allies let them keep what they occupied. But that was an opener. What the likes of Lloyd George feared was the start of negotiations would have seen troops, particularly the French, who have been bled white at Verdun, mutiny and desert the trenches. So Lloyd George ignored the offer. Henceforth, the Hun were to be "squeezed until the pip squeaked." Patch was right. WW1 wasn't worth one life. But the likes of Stephen Harper and well-meaning liberals at the Toronto Star want to make the war seem worth it. If so, they'd better look to the Middle East where the War to End All Wars has spawned more of them.
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Jeremy
WWI was economic. Germany was attempting to extend their rail, "The Orient Express", from Istanbul into the Middle East to gain access to oil and convert from coal to oil, like Great Britain. Of course, England would not approve. Oh well, History repeats itself, Hitler invaded Russia for oil, USA into Iraq for oil.
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scissorpaws
The problem was these nations and their generals always went to war ready and willing and perfectly capable of fighting the last war. Our current and next war is Global Warming, Climate Change, and if we lose this one we all lose and there may not be many of us left in any state to draw any useful lessons from. And one suspects that learning curve is getting steeper. That Ozone layer hasn't been fixed. The cod hasn't come back. The oceans are probably already to acidic and warm to expect coral reefs to survive let alone increase. How many more Harpers can we afford?
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Cassius
Dyer goes on in the book to make the specious proposition that Canada needed the war to prove it ready for nationhood. In other words, fighting alongside the Brits and joining in the carnage bought us respect in the eyes of our colonial masters. This is nonsense. Had we done less; had our leaders had the courage in both wars to tell the Brits to go shove it, we would have won independence simply because England had no power to deny us. In opposing conscription, French Canadians did English Canada a favour. They denied our generals, who were as dumb as the Brits in both wars, the opportunity to throw away more Canadian lives. This notion that we have to be armed to the teeth and willing to squander our blood and treasure to have influence is alive and well in the policies of the PM and quite likely Trudeau Jr., who has not had the time to package it for national consumption - probably Mulcaire as well.
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