From Deterrence to Doomsday?

moab
A harbinger of bigger bombs and missiles to come?

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I investigate what an “America first” foreign policy actually means in practice.  What follows is an extract from the article in which I consider whether the U.S. military has morphed from a deterrent force (at least in its own eyes) to a doomsday machine.  This idea is inspired in part by an article that Dennis Showalter, a fine historian and an even better friend, wrote back in 2000 about the German military prior to World War I.  Excerpt follows:

Deterring Our Way to Doomsday

Who put America’s oil under all those Middle Eastern deserts?  That was the question antiwar demonstrators asked with a certain grim humor before the invasion of Iraq.  In Trump’s oft-stated opinion, the U.S. should indeed have just taken Iraq’s oil after the 2003 invasion.  If nothing else, he said plainly what many Americans believed, and what various multinational oil companies were essentially seeking to do.

Consider here the plight of President Jimmy Carter.  Nearly 40 years ago, Carter urged Americans to scale back their appetites, start conserving energy, and free themselves from a crippling dependency on foreign oil and the unbridled consumption of material goods.  After critics termed it his “malaise” speech, Carter did an about-face, boosting military spending and establishing the Carter Doctrine to protect Persian Gulf oil as a vital U.S. national interest.  The American people responded by electing Ronald Reagan anyway.  As Americans continue to enjoy a consumption-driven lifestyle that gobbles up roughly 25% of the world’s production of fossil fuels (while representing only 3% of the world’s population), the smart money in the White House is working feverishly to open ever more fuel taps globally.  Trillions of dollars are at stake.

Small wonder that, on becoming president, Trump acted quickly to speed the building of new pipelines delayed or nixed by President Obama while ripping up environmental protections related to fossil fuel production.  Accelerated domestic production, along with cooperation from the Saudis — Trump’s recent Muslim bans carefully skipped targeting the one country that provided 15 of the 19 terrorists in the 9/11 attacks — should keep fuel flowing, profits growing, and world sea levels rising.

One data point here: The U.S. military alone guzzles more fossil fuel than the entire country of Sweden.  When it comes to energy consumption, our armed forces are truly second to none.

With its massive oil reserves, the Middle East remains a hotbed in the world’s ongoing resource wars, as well as its religious and ethnic conflicts, exacerbated by terrorism and the destabilizing attacks of the U.S. military.  Under the circumstances, when it comes to future global disaster, it’s not that hard to imagine that today’s Middle East could serve as the equivalent of the Balkans of World War I infamy.

If Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian “Black Hand” terrorist operating in a war-torn and much-disputed region, could set the world aflame in 1914, why not an ISIS terrorist just over a century later?  Consider the many fault lines today in that region and the forces involved, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, all ostensibly working together to combat terrorism even as they position themselves to maximize their own advantage and take down one another.  Under such circumstances, a political temblor followed by a geo-political earthquake seems unbearably possible.  And if not an ISIS temblor followed by major quake in the Middle East, there’s no shortage of other possible global fault lines in an increasingly edgy world — from saber-rattling contests with North Korea to jousting over Chinese-built artificial islands in the South China Sea.

As an historian, I’ve spent much time studying the twentieth-century German military.  In the years leading up to World War I, Germany was emerging as the superpower of its day, yet paradoxically it imagined itself as increasingly hemmed in by enemies, a nation surrounded and oppressed.  Its leaders especially feared a surging Russia.  This fear drove them to launch a preemptive war against that country.  (Admittedly, they attacked France first in 1914, but that’s another story.)  That incredibly risky and costly war, sparked in the Balkans, failed disastrously and yet it would only be repeated on an even more horrific level 25 years later.  The result: tens of millions of dead across the planet and a total defeat that finally put an end to German designs for global dominance.  The German military, praised as the “world’s best” by its leaders and sold to its people as a deterrent force, morphed during those two world wars into a doomsday machine that bled the country white, while ensuring the destruction of significant swaths of the planet.

Today, the U.S. military similarly praises itself as the “world’s best,” even as it imagines itself surrounded by powerful threats (China, Russia, a nuclear North Korea, and global terrorism, to start a list).  Sold to the American people during the Cold War as a deterrent force, a pillar of stability against communist domino-tippers, that military has by now morphed into a potential tipping force all its own.

Recall here that the Trump administration has reaffirmed America’s quest for overwhelming nuclear supremacy.  It has called for a “new approach” to North Korea and its nuclear weapons program.  (Whatever that may mean, it’s not a reference to diplomacy.) Even as nuclear buildups and brinksmanship loom, Washington continues to spread weaponry — it’s the greatest arms merchant of the twenty-first century by a wide mark — and chaos around the planet, spinning its efforts as a “war on terror” and selling them as the only way to “win.”

In May 1945, when the curtain fell on Germany’s last gasp for global dominance, the world was fortunately still innocent of nuclear weapons.  It’s different now.  Today’s planet is, if anything, over-endowed with potential doomsday machines — from those nukes to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

That’s why it’s vitally important to recognize that President Trump’s “America-first” policies are anything but isolationist in the old twentieth century meaning of the term; that his talk of finally winning again is a recipe for prolonging wars guaranteed to create more chaos and more failed states in the Greater Middle East and possibly beyond; and that an already dangerous Cold War policy of “deterrence,” whether against conventional or nuclear attacks, may now have become a machine for perpetual war that could, given Trump’s bellicosity, explode into some version of doomsday.

Or, to put the matter another way, consider this question: Is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un the only unstable leader with unhinged nuclear ambitions currently at work on the world stage?

Surging to Defeat: Learning from the Germans

armor show

W.J. Astore

I recently read “Armor and Blood” by Dennis Showalter.  It’s about the Battle of Kursk in July of 1943, the massive, last-ditch offensive by the Nazis on the Eastern Front, and how the Soviet Army was able to stymy it, seize the initiative, and take the offensive for good.  As Showalter notes, the Nazi offensive at Kursk in 1943 was much like the Ludendorff Offensives in the Spring of 1918 near the end of World War I.  They were offensives of desperation.  As General Ludendorff said in 1918, first we’ll punch a hole in the enemy’s lines, and then we’ll see.  Tactical zeal (and wishful thinking) took the place of careful strategic calculation.

In 1918 as well as in 1943, the German military was given free rein to pursue a military solution when there wasn’t one to be had.  Germany simply didn’t have the military means for the strategic end they sought to achieve.  In 1918, Ludendorff believed he could defeat the Entente forces (the French, British, and other allies, to include the rapidly arriving Americans) on the Western Front, but his offensives only served to weaken his own army, ensuring its exhaustion and defeat by that November.  In 1943, Hitler gambled he could defeat the Soviet Army at Kursk, but his massive offensive only weakened his own army, ensuring its exhaustion and eventual defeat in the spring of 1945.  Both times, more military action only precipitated defeat and disaster.

Is the United States the inheritor of this Germanic bias?  Instead of punching a hole, the U.S. military speaks of “surges.”  It surged in Iraq in 2007.  It surged in Afghanistan in 2010-11.  But after each “surge,” the situation in those countries was basically the same – and, over time, grew worse.

Of course, U.S. “surges,” in each case involving roughly 30,000 additional troops, were in scale dwarfed by the German offensives in 1918 and 1943, involving millions of men and the movement of entire armies.  But scale is less important than process.  In each case, “victory” was staked on more military action, in part because both Germans and Americans believed themselves to be in the possession of “the finest fighting forces in the history of the world.”  Neither, of course, would admit that they were fighting on foreign soil, that the enemy had agency too, and that the longer the fighting continued, the weaker they grew as the enemy grew stronger.  So, in the name of “victory” the German and American “surges” played themselves out, and nothing changed strategically – there were no victories to be had.

The Germans, of course, drove themselves to utter collapse, both in 1918 and especially in 1945, after which they could no longer fool themselves as to the success of their “surges.”  A superpower with enormous resources, the United States is not yet on the verge of collapse.  But enormous budgetary deficits, driven in part by endless wars and a plethora of imperial commitments and overseas bases, are gradually eating away at the sinews of American strength, even as militarism eats away at the marrow of democracy.

After their utter defeat in 1945, the Germans learned to avoid endless war and the seductions of militarism.  The question is: Will it require a total collapse of the American Empire before its leaders learn the same lesson?

Defeating ISIS: Do We Even Have A Strategy?

AP_jihadi_john_cf_160119_12x5_1600
Image showing Jihadi John.  Apparently killed, then quickly replaced by a new “Jihadi John” — a visual metaphor of “progress” in the war on ISIS (AP photo)

W.J. Astore

An overarching strategy for defeating ISIS is simple enough to state:  A concerted effort by regional power brokers to tamp down Islamic extremism while reducing the violent and chaotic conditions in which it thrives.  Regional power brokers include the Israelis, the Saudis, the Iranians, and the Turks, joined by the United States and Russia.  They should work, more or less cooperatively, to eliminate ISIS.

Why?  Because you never know when a spark generated by extremists will ignite an inferno, especially in a tinderbox (a fair description of the Middle East).  We know this from history.  Consider the events of the summer of 1914.  A Serbian “Black Hand” extremist assassinates an archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Balkans (that era’s tinderbox of extremism).  Most of Europe yawned, at least initially.  A small brush fire between the Serbs and the Empire, easily containable, people said.  Yet within weeks European troops were marching in the millions to their deaths in what became World War I.

In today’s Middle East, we’ve been lucky (so far) to avoid the kind of provocation and miscalculation that led to World War I.  But consider the actions of a new president, say a Chris Christie.  During a presidential debate, Christie promised to declare a no-fly zone over Syria and to shoot down any Russian plane that violated it.  It’s the kind of ultimatum that very well could lead to another world war.

Provocations and ultimatums can rapidly spiral among nations that lack uniformity of purpose.  For many of the power brokers engaged in the Middle East, defeating ISIS is either not the goal, or it’s not the primary one. Put differently, there are too many forces involved, working to discordant ends.  Their actions, often at cross-purposes, ensure that entities like ISIS survive.

Let’s take the United States, for example.  Every American politician says he (or she) wants to destroy ISIS.  Yet in spite of this nation’s enormous military strength, we seem to be too weak, psychologically as well as culturally, to deal with Russia, Iran, et al. as diplomatic equals.  The “exceptional” country thinks it must “lead,” and that means with bombing, drone strikes, troops on the ground, and similar “kinetic” actions.  Rather than dousing the flames, such actions fuel the fire of Islamic extremism.

Consider America’s domestic political scene as well.  ISIS is incessantly touted as a bogeyman to fear, most notably by Republican presidential candidates seeking to draw a contrast between themselves and Barack Obama, the “feckless weakling” in the words of Chris Christie.  But the Republican “alternative” is simply more bombing and more U.S. troops.  Making the sand glow is no strategy, Ted Cruz.

Strategy is a synthesis of means, ends, and will.  Currently, the means is military force, with a choice of more (from Obama) or even more (from Republicans).  Our leaders have no idea of the ends at all, other than vague talk of “destroying” ISIS.  The will they exhibit is mostly bombast and fustian.

A nation lacking will, with no clear vision of means and ends, is a nation without a strategy.  And a nation without a strategy is one that’s fated to fail.

I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier: A Mother’s Plea for Peace

My copy of the sheet music (1915)
My copy of the sheet music (1915)

W.J. Astore

The year was 1915.  Europe, indeed much of the world, was embroiled in the devastating Great (or World) War.  Under President Woodrow Wilson, the United States was proud to have stayed out of the war, the massive bloodletting of which seemed peculiarly European, an “Old World” form of militarized madness that most Americans wanted no part of.  In fact, in 1916 Wilson would be reelected in large part because he had kept America out of Europe’s great war.  (Of course, the very next year the United States did choose to join the war effort against Germany.)

Yet in 1915 the idea of celebrating the military, nobilizing the military experience, finding higher purpose and meaning in war, was the furthest thing from the minds of most Americans.  Unlike the America of 2015, there was no mantra of “support our troops,” no publicity campaigns that encouraged citizens to “salute” the troops.  What publicity existed discouraged Americans from getting involved in war, a fact exhibited by some old sheet music that I recently ran across in a local thrift shop.

“I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” copyright 1915 and “respectfully dedicated to Every Mother – Everywhere,” shows a mother protectively holding her grown son as visions of battle assault her mind near the family hearth.  It was a popular song; you can listen to an old Edison recording here.

The lyrics are as simple as they are telling:

Ten million soldiers to the war have gone,

Who may never return again.

Ten million mothers’ hearts must break,

For the ones who died in vain.

Head bowed down in sorrow in her lonely years,

I heard a mother murmur thro’ her tears:

Chorus:

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,

I brought him up to be my pride and joy,

Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder,

To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?

Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,

It’s time to lay the sword and gun away,

There’d be no war today,

If mothers all would say,

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.

(Chorus)

What victory can cheer a mother’s heart,

When she looks at her blighted home?

What victory can bring her back,

All she cared to call her own.

Let each mother answer in the years to be,

Remember that my boy belongs to me!

Nowadays, such lyrics seem hopelessly quaint and naïve, or even cowardly and defeatist.  America must stand up to evildoers around the world.  We must fight ISIS and other elements of radical Islam.  We must “stay the course” in Afghanistan.  We must maintain large and deadly military forces, ever ready to slay other mothers’ sons and daughters in the name of making peace.  Or so we are told, almost daily, by our leaders.

Indeed, our new national chorus goes something like this:  Let’s have another drink of war!  We haven’t had too many.  Keep the bullets coming and the blood flowing.  That is the way to victory!

But as we dream about “victory” by arms, we should recall the line from “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”:

What victory can bring her back, All she cared to call her own.

Unlike in 1915, that’s a question that’s never asked in today’s America.

World War I: The Paradox of Semi-Modern War

British Machine Gun Team in World War I
British Machine Gun Team, 1916

Dennis Showalter.  Introduction by William Astore.

Over the next four years, historians around the world will grapple with the meaning and legacies of the “Great War” fought one hundred years ago (1914-1918).  An epochal event in world history, World War I has as many meanings as it has had historians.  Among those historians, Dennis Showalter is one of the very best.  In this article, Showalter argues that the war was, in many ways, not “modern” at all.  The enormity of the war, to include its enormous wastage, generated primitivism as much as it stimulated innovation.  On the Western Front, site of industrialized mass destruction, troops fought with modern machine guns and chemical weapons even as they revived maces and mail armor of medieval vintage.

Most remarkable, as Showalter notes, was the resilience of home front support.  As dreams of quick, decisive battles turned into long, murderous slogs of nightmarish proportions, control of events was ceded to military men who saw only one way to victory — exhaustion through attrition and economic warfare.  When Germany finally collapsed near the end of 1918, few people were as surprised as the victors or as shocked as the losers.  As the victors exulted, the losers licked wounds — and vowed vengeance.

So it was that the “war to end all wars” became just one major act in a never-ending tragedy in a century dominated by war.  Even today, warfare in places like the Middle East reflects the poor choices and conflicting promises made during the Great War by the major powers.  In fact, what was perhaps most “modern” about World War I was the blowback that plagued its putative victors.  Consider, for example, France’s decision to ignore requests in 1919 by a young Ho Chi Minh for greater autonomy to be granted to Vietnamese in French Indochina.  France had leaned on Vietnamese labor during the Great War (with as many as 140,000 Vietnamese doing grunt work such as digging trenches), and the Vietnamese expected something in return.  They got nothing, a decision that set the stage for Vietnam’s revolt and France’s eventual defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  W.J. Astore

Dennis Showalter on the Paradox of World War I: A Semi-Modern War

The looming centennial of the Great War has inspired a predicable abundance of conferences, books, articles, and blog posts. Most are built on a familiar meme: the war as a symbol of futility. Soldiers and societies alike are presented as victims of flawed intentions and defective methods, which in turn reflected inability or unwillingness to adapt to the spectrum of innovations (material, intellectual, and emotional) that made the Great War the first modern conflict. That perspective is reinforced by the war’s rechristening, backlit by a later and greater struggle, as World War I—which confers a preliminary, test-bed status.

Homeward bound troops pose on the ship's deck and in a lifeboat, 1919. The original image was printed on postal card ("AZO") stock. Public Domain
Homeward bound troops pose on the ship’s deck and in a lifeboat, 1919. The original image was printed on postal card (“AZO”) stock. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In point of fact, the defining aspect of World War I is its semi-modern character. The “classic” Great War, the war of myth, memory, and image, could be waged only in a limited area: a narrow belt in Western Europe, extending vertically five hundred miles from the North Sea to Switzerland, and horizontally about a hundred miles in either direction. War waged outside of the northwest European quadrilateral tended quite rapidly to follow a pattern of de-modernization. Peacetime armies and their cadres melted away in combat, were submerged by repeated infusions of unprepared conscripts, and saw their support systems, equine and material, melt irretrievably away.

Russia and the Balkans, the Middle East, and East Africa offer a plethora of case studies, ranging from combatants left without rifles in Russia, to the breakdown of British medical services in Mesopotamia, to the dismounting of entire regiments in East Africa by the tsetse fly. Nor was de-modernization confined to combat zones. Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and arguably Italy, strained themselves to the breaking point and beyond in coping with the demands of an enduring total war. Infrastructures from railways to hospitals to bureaucracies that had functioned reasonably, if not optimally, saw their levels of performance and their levels of competence tested to destruction. Stress combined with famine and plague to nurture catastrophic levels of disorder, from the Armenian genocide to the Bolshevik Revolution.

Semi-modernity posed a corresponding and fundamental challenge to the wartime relationship of armed forces to governments. In 1914, for practical purposes, the warring states turned over control to the generals and admirals. This in part reflected the general belief in a short, decisive war—one that would end before the combatants’ social and political matrices had been permanently reconfigured. It also reflected civil authorities’ lack of faith in their ability to manage war-making’s arcana—and a corresponding willingness to accept the military as “competent by definition.”

Western Battle Front 1916. From J. Reynolds, Allen L. Churchill, Francis Trevelyan Miller (eds.): The Story of the Great War, Volume V. New York. Specified year 1916, actual year more likely 1917 or 1918. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The extended stalemate that actually developed had two consequences. A major, unacknowledged subtext of thinking about and planning for war prior to 1914 was that future conflict would be so horrible that the home fronts would collapse under the stress. Instead, by 1915 the generals and the politicians were able to count on unprecedented –and unexpected–commitment from their populations. The precise mix of patriotism, conformity, and passivity underpinning that phenomenon remains debatable. But it provided a massive hammer. The second question was how that hammer could best be wielded. In Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, neither soldiers nor politicians were up to the task. In Germany the military’s control metastasized after 1916 into a de facto dictatorship. But that dictatorship was contingent on a victory the armed forces could not deliver. In France and Britain, civil and military authorities beginning in 1915 came to more or less sustainable modi vivendi that endured to the armistice. Their durability over a longer run was considered best untested.

Even in the war’s final stages, on the Western Front that was its defining theater, innovations in methods and technology could not significantly reduce casualties. They could only improve the ratio of gains. The Germans and the Allies both suffered over three-quarters of a million men during the war’s final months. French general Charles Mangin put it bluntly and accurately: “whatever you do, you lose a lot of men.” In contemplating future wars—a process well antedating 11 November 1918—soldiers and politicians faced a disconcerting fact. The war’s true turning point for any state came when its people hated their government more than they feared their enemies. From there it was a matter of time: whose clock would run out first. Changing that paradigm became—and arguably remains—a fundamental challenge confronting a state contemplating war.

Dennis Showalter is professor of history at Colorado College, where he has been on the faculty since 1969. He is Editor in Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Military History, wrote “World War I Origins,” and blogged about “The Wehrmacht Invades Norway.” He is Past President of the Society for Military History, joint editor of War in History, and a widely-published scholar of military affairs. His recent books include Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk (2013), Frederick the Great: A Military History (2012), Hitler’s Panzers (2009), and Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century (2005).

Article used by permission of the author. See more at http://blog.oup.com/2014/06/first-world-war-paradox-of-semi-modern-war/#sthash.opNivppW.dpuf

A Century of Mass Slaughter

Big Bertha (wiki)
Big Bertha (wiki)

W.J. Astore.  Also featured at Huffington Post.

This August marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. That “Great War” was many things, but it was most certainly a war of machines, of dreadnought battleships and “Big Bertha” artillery, of newfangled airplanes and tortoise-like tanks. Industrial juggernauts like Great Britain, France, and Germany succeeded more or less in mobilizing their economies fully for war; their reward was reaping the horrors of death-dealing machinery on a scale theretofore thought impossible.

In that summer of 1914, most experts expected a short war, so plans for sustaining machine-age warfare through economic mobilization were lacking. Confronted by trench warfare and stalemate on the Western Front which owed everything to modern industrialism and machinery, the “big three” antagonists strove to break that stalemate using the means that had produced it: weapons and munitions. Those empires caught up in the war that were still industrializing, e.g. Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, found themselves at a serious disadvantage.

Together, Britain and France forged an industrial alliance that proved (with help from the U.S.) to be a war-winning “arsenal of democracy.” Yet this alliance contributed to an overvaluing of machines and munitions at the soldiers’ expense. For Entente leaders — even for old-school cavalry officers like Britain’s Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig — new artillery with massive stockpiles of shells promised to produce the elusive breakthrough and a return to mobile warfare and glorious victory.

Thus it was that at the Battle of the Somme that began on July 1, 1916, British soldiers were reduced to trained occupiers. Lengthy pre-battle artillery barrages, it was believed, would annihilate German defenders, leaving British troops to slog uncontested across no-man’s land to occupy the enemy’s shattered and empty trenches.

But those trenches were not empty. Germany’s defenses survived Britain’s storm of steel largely intact. And Britain’s soldiers paid the price of misplaced faith in machine warfare: nearly 20,000 dead on that first day, with a further 40,000 wounded.

The Somme is but one example of British and French commanders being overwhelmed by the conditions of machine warfare, so much so that they placed their faith in more machines and more munitions as the means to victory. After underestimating the impact of technology on the battlefield up to 1914, commanders quickly came to overestimate it. As a result, troops were inadequately trained and tactics inadequately developed.

As commanders consumed vast quantities of machinery and munitions, they became accustomed to expending lives on a similarly profligate scale. Bodies piled up even as more economic means were tapped. Meanwhile, the staggering sacrifices required by destructive industrialism drove nations to inflate strategic ends. Industrialized warfare that spat out lead and steel while consuming flesh and bone served only to inflame political demands, negating opportunities for compromise. Total victory became the only acceptable result for both sides.

In retrospect it’s remarkable how quickly leaders placed their faith in the machinery of war, so much so that military power revved uncontrollably, red-lined, then exploded in the faces of its creators. Industrialized destruction and mass slaughter were the predictable outcomes of a crisis whose resolution was driven by hardware — more weaponry, more machinery, more bodies. The minds of the men who drove events in that war could not sanction negotiation or compromise; those were forms of “weakness” that neither side could accept. Such murderous inflexibility was captured in the postwar observation of novelist Virginia Woolf that “It was a shock to see the faces of our rulers in the light of the shell fire. So ugly they looked — German, English, French — so stupid.” Note how she includes her own countrymen, the English, in the mix of the ugly and the stupid.

In World War I, Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum of war as an extreme form of politics became tragically twisted to war as the only means of politics, with industrialized mass destruction as the only means of war. The resulting failure to negotiate a lasting peace came as no surprise since the war had raced not only beyond politics, but beyond the minds of its military and political leaders.

The Great War had unleashed a virus, a dynamic of destruction, that would only be suppressed, and even then only imperfectly, by the wanton destruction of World War II. For what was Auschwitz but a factory of death, a center for mass destruction, a mechanized and murderous machine for efficient and impersonal slaughter, a culmination of the industrialized slaughter (to include mass gassing) of World War I?

The age of mass warfare and mass destruction was both catalyst for and byproduct of the age of machinery and mass production. Today’s age is less industrial but no less driven by machinery and mass consumption (which requires a form of mass destruction inflicted largely on the environment).

Aerial drones and cyber warfare are already providing disturbing evidence that the early 21st century may yet echo its predecessor in introducing yet another age of misplaced faith in the machinery of warfare. The commonality remains the vulnerability of human flesh to steel, as well as human minds to manipulation.

A century has passed, yet we’re still placing far too much faith in the machinery of war.

World War I, the Death of Chivalry, and the False End of War

Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen

W.J. Astore

This summer marks the 100th anniversary of World War I.  Today in my daily “alert” from The New York Times, there are five articles related to the war.  Steven Erlanger writes about how the war brought fundamental changes to the world; Jim Yardley writes about the Yanks in the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918; Alison Smale recounts the costs of German militarism, then and today; John F. Burns raises the specter of Gavrilo Princip’s assassination (on June 28th, 1914) of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and its legacies in the Balkans and specifically in Bosnia; and Tim Arango recaptures the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915 and how it forged national identities among the Turks and Australians.

An immensely destructive war, World War I saw the full application of mass production and the machine age applied to warfare.  Mass production enabled mass mobilization as well as mass destruction; the machine age enabled the machine gun and automated death on such a massive scale that bodies were collected in ossuaries, boneyards of doomed youth.

Four decades ago, Paul Fussell famously captured the loss of idealism that accompanied mass death on an industrial scale in his book The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).  As Fussell noted in a separate essay on “The Fate of Chivalry,” idealistic codes of chivalry, popular in the Victorian age, became “ludicrously inappropriate” in World War I, defeated entirely by “poison gas, zeppelin raids on civilians, the machine gun, and unrestricted submarine warfare, not to mention such very unchivalric experiences as soldiers’ passively trembling under artillery shelling hour after hour or soiling their trousers for weeks with acute dysentery (sometimes requiring the cutting of large holes in the rear of their clothing), or milking down their penises monthly before the eyes of bored and contemptuous medical officers alert for unreported gonorrheal discharges.”

Wilfred Owen, a British officer and war poet, condemned the “old lie” of Horace, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country), in his famous poem, which concludes:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Amazingly, the ideal of military service and war as ennobling, even liberating, survived World War I and is thriving today, most notably in the United States.  The “doomed youth” of World War I, marching off to mass death, have become the universal heroes of the American moment, to be sent to places like Iraq as liberators.

We would do well to recall that World War I, a “war to end all wars,” has led only to new wars, with today’s unrest in the Middle East connected to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and conflicting agreements made at the time by manipulative power players like Great Britain and France.

Once again, at least in the United States, the cry is for more military action in the Middle East – more killing – as a solution to complex political, social, economic, and religious problems.  Those who are most strident in sending in more bombs, if not more troops, are usually those “donkeys” who are well past military age themselves, and most concerned about appearing tough and decisive.  Great believers in the utility of war, they seem to have no regard for the big lesson of World War I: the utter unpredictability as well as the horrifying destructiveness of modern, machine-age war.

All sides marched to war in the summer of 1914 looking ahead to decisive victories.  The fighting was supposed to be over by Christmas, and it was: well, not 1914, but 1918.  The result?  Four empires in ruin, ten million dead, and legacies of massive destruction and revolutionary change that we’re still coming to grips with.

And yet despite all this there are still those who call for more weapons and more war.  In the U.S. they are held up as serious and respectable statesmen.  Yet they are merely old men propagating old lies.

If they are so ardent for some desperate glory, let them take up the lance and charge forth in foreign fields.  Until they do, let’s hear no talk of more weapons and more war.