Our Opinion: The lesson of World War I


One hundred years ago yesterday, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, igniting a conflict that would take the lives of more than 10 million soldiers and seven million civilians. Another 20 million people were wounded in the four year war.

Most of us are familiar with what precipitated the war that is most remembered for its trench warfare and the use of poison gas.

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist. Unhappy with Serbia's response to the assassination, Austria, with the backing of Germany, launched a military attack on July 28, which resulted in Russia being drawn in due to its alliance with Serbia. In short order, in fact in less than a week, France and Britain were drawn into the war as well.

When war erupted, Pres. Woodrow Wilson pledged neutrality for the United States. However, Britain was one of the nation's closest trading partners, and boats traveling between the two countries were in danger of attack by German U-boats. Most notoriously, the Lusitania, traveling from New York City to Liverpool, was torpedoed on May 7, 1915, killing 1,198 of the cruise ship's 1,959 passengers.

In January of 1917, the Germans attacked and sunk another American liner, the Housatonic, but no one was killed. Two months later, the Germans sunk another four U.S. merchant ships and on April 6, the United States formally entered the war.

Though the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, it's not a far cry to state 100 years later we are living in the shadow of "The war to end all wars."

"The modern world began with the Great War," writes J. Fred MacDonald, for the History News Network. "New blueprints for human arrangement emerged from the rubble ... New forces ... unbridled science, ethical uncertainty, international distrust ... dominated global politics ..."

In addition, the United States took the stage as the world's dominant economic and military power, but a leviathan that refused to take on a role as a stabilizing force, resulting 30 years later in World War II.

Burt Solomon, writing for The Atlantic, characterizes World War I as "A sad pointless war, for which we're still paying the price. The world was a nastier place after the war than before it."

In an interview with National Geographic, British historian David Reynolds reminds us that World War I resulted in the collapse of the Romanov Empire in Russia (anyone remember the USSR?), the Hapsburg Empire and the Ottoman Empire. In the vacuum of power, France and England redrew the boundaries in the Middle East under the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement.

"The British gradually conquer what became Palestine, and what is called Mesopotamia at the time but becomes the state of Iraq. Those areas that are hugely controversial all through the 20th century and remain so now. If you think of the fraught relations between Arabs and Jews. If you think of the patched-up state of Iraq."

Noting the state of the world -- the upheaval in the Middle East, the unrest in Ukraine, the precarious balance of power in the Pacific, the rising death toll in Gaza, the murderous condition of life in many Central American nations, continued religious and political conflict in Africa -- it would be easy to conclude that our future on planet Earth is bleak indeed.

"Has our species evolved?" asks Solomon. "The counterevidence is distressingly abundant. The Nazis' ovens in World War II. Stalin's gulags. The genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda. The return to seventeenth-century standards of thought and behavior incited by the Iranian revolution of 1979 and practiced by jihadists across the Middle East. Evidence is slim that we've grown wiser since the war intended to end all wars did nothing of the sort."

But Adam Hochschild, writing for The Guardian, insists there is an opportunity for us to learn from World War I a lesson that has almost been forgotten.

He maintains that while we should honor our war dead, we should more heartily remember the men and women "who recognized the war for the madness it was and did all they could to stop it."

Those include the Germans Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and the American Eugene V. Debs, all three of whom were jailed for their vocal opposition to the war. In fact, notes Hochschild, Debs was still jailed in 1920, a year in which he received one million votes in the presidential election. Jean Jaures was assassinated in Paris several days before the war began for speaking out against the coming war. Jane Addams, another American, organized a conference in 1915 to bring together women from all sides of the conflict. And, Hochschild reminds us, Edmund Dene Morel and Bertrand Russell were imprisoned in Britain for their opposition to the war.

Emily Hobhouse traveled across war-torn Europe, notes Hochschild, attempting to find an end to the war to no avail. She was dismissed by British authorities as a subversive eccentric.

"People like her deserve monuments as great as those for any general," writes Hochschild.

Time and time again, history has been commandeered by the jingoists and war memorials have been thrown up to honor the patriotism of the dead and wounded. But other than the heartrending Vietnam Veterans Memorial, most of them glorify the sacrifice rather than question and warn against it.

"The poetic patriotism of fighting often disguises the terrible reality of death," writes Tim Stanley, for The Telegraph. "The pointless, horrible, lonely death of young men crucified in barbed wire, hundreds of miles from home. There is no shame in being a peace-monger, and the anniversary of 1914 is a poignant opportunity to revive the case against rushing to war."


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