Perhaps the most powerful antiwar film that I’ve seen is “Testament of Youth” (2014), based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of the same title. I watched it soon after it first came out, and I rewatched it this past week after Russia invaded Ukraine. The film rips your heart out with its depiction of the costs of war: battered and bloodied bodies, blasted and shattered nature. It’s set during World War I and recounts Brittain’s heartrending loss of her fiancé, her brother, and other close friends. Brittain is played brilliantly by Alicia Vikander, who pours her heart and soul into every scene.
Especially powerful is the scene near the end, where Brittain passionately denounces war and the way it demonizes and dehumanizes the enemy, even as “patriots” (including her younger self) send young men off to fight and die in the name of honor. Even if you haven’t seen all that leads up to this scene, it retains its power (you may need to click and watch on YouTube):
“No to killing. No to war.”
Near the end of Brittain’s memoir, she passionately asks us to find another way, a better way, than the murderous one of war. She seeks to “rescue mankind from that domination by the irrational which leads to war,” to lead an “exultant fight” against war that would enlarge the soul of humanity.
Earlier in her memoir, she quoted from the war diary she kept that “It is impossible to find any satisfaction in the thought of 25,000 slaughtered Germans, left to mutilation and decay; the destruction of men as though beasts, whether they be English, French, German or anything else, seems a crime to the whole march of civilization.” How right she was, and remains.
One aspect of this film I truly appreciate is that it shows the costs of war without glorifying battle. In fact, there are no spectacular battle scenes; no rousing music; nothing to distract us from war’s many horrors. The movie does not romanticize war in any way, which makes it that much more effective.
I’m astonished this movie isn’t better known. It is worth 100 “Avatars” and “Titanics” and Marvel/DC superhero movies. Then again, I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked; antiwar films are rarely that popular, no matter how powerful, no matter how well-crafted, no matter how true.
If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Think about its message. We need to ask ourselves, again and again, why we as humans simply can’t say no to war.
In the early 1990s, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting friends in a newly unified Berlin, where we were introduced to the work of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). Kollwitz lost a beloved son, Peter, in World War I and turned against war in her art. We visited the museum dedicated to her work, which reflected the causes that moved her. She was for people, for workers, for equity, for equality, for mothers and fathers and their children, and she was very much against war.
Here’s one of her powerful images with the theme of No More War:
“Never again war” was a common sentiment across the world in 1924, in the aftermath of the death and devastation of World War I. Yet that sentiment didn’t last, and in the chaos of the Great Depression the Nazis soon gained power and then ruthlessly acted to consolidate it. So much for “never again war.”
The Neue Wache: here Kollwitz has a sculpture of mother and her dead son, based on the Christian imagery of Mary cradling Jesus after his death by crucifixion. Why do we crucify so many of our young via endless war?
Kollwitz was haunted by the death of her son, Peter, in World War I. The burden of pain she carried is captured in this moving and powerful sculpture. There is no glory here. Only grief and suffering and love of the most painful kind.
It’s well worth watching this brief and moving ceremony:
For far too many, war is something like a game, as shown in this telling image of Napoleon playing chess against the Russian Winter (Andreas Paul Weber). So many of us are only pawns in the “game” of war. Where is the glory here, emperor?
Kollwitz knew the pain and loss of war, and she knew how to share that pain and loss with the world. If you should find yourself in Berlin, I urge you to visit her museum and also to visit the Neue Wache memorial to the victims of war and dictatorship.
Back in 1992, when I was thinking about what to write my dissertation on, I put together a statement of intent and a bibliography. My statement was titled, “Economic Mobilization and National Strategies in Great Britain and France during the Great War.” As it turns out, I decided not to pursue a military subject, turning instead to science and religion, an area I examined when I pursued my master’s degree. I was reminded of all this as I looked through old documents this weekend in pursuit of references for a friend.
Anyway, here’s my statement from 1992 about World War I as a killing machine:
The Great War was a struggle waged by modern industrial juggernauts. The Western Front witnessed organized destruction on a scale heretofore thought impossible. Staggered by the costs of modern war, all combatants mobilized their economies, with varying degrees of success.
All countries in 1914 expected a short war and lacked plans for economic mobilization. Confronted by a stalemate on the Western Front which owed everything to modern industrialism, Britain and France drastically modified their economies. In Britain, the “Shells Scandal” provoked a cabinet crisis and the establishment of a new ministry of munitions, headed by David Lloyd George. Riding roughshod over the army’s traditional procurement practices, Lloyd George worked production miracles. Fed by massive imports of coal and metal from England, France embarked on an industrial program characterized by massive improvisation. Together, Britain and France formed an industrial alliance that proved to be a war-winning “arsenal of democracy”.
My dissertation will examine the efforts of Britain and France to gear their economies for war. I will focus on cooperation between the two countries. Since the Great War was primarily an industrial war, events in the economic sphere largely determined national strategies. My dissertation will also examine how economic concerns drove military strategy and operations on the Western Front.
As a preliminary thesis, I hold that the “industrial miracle” of Britain and France led to an overvaluing of machines at the soldiers’ expense. For Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and others like him, the new artillery with its massive stockpile of shells was a deus ex machina, a winning god of war. In his hands, soldiers became little more than power units, trained automatons who at the Somme in 1916 only needed to walk across no-man’s land and occupy the enemy’s trenches.
Overwhelmed by the conditions of modern warfare, British and French commanders placed too much faith in machines. Far from underestimating the impact of technology on the battlefield, they saw it as a panacea. Triumphs of production were frittered away in battle due to inadequate training and insufficient attention to tactical performance. Worst of all, as commanders consumed vast quantities of munitions, they seemed to become hardened to an expenditure of lives on a similar, but infinitely more horrendous, scale.
Furthermore, as economic means were mobilized, sacrifices incurred by destructive industrialism drove nations to inflate strategic ends and incite national will. Total economic warfare led to heightened political demands, eliminating chances for compromise; an incited populace could only be calmed by total victory. War was not politics by other means; it was industrial production by any means. This was not at the bequest of a “merchants of death” cartel; it was the natural outcome of a crisis which turned nations into machines for war.
In a sense, modern war became equivalent to modern industrialism, and vice-versa. Lewis Mumford suggests that “The army is in fact the ideal form toward which a purely mechanical system of industry must tend.” The individual soldier was reduced to a power unit and trained to be an automaton. Mass production and mass conscription had much in common, Mumford notes. “Quantity production must rely for its success upon quantity consumption; and nothing ensures replacement like organized destruction.”
The Great War witnessed a crisis of morale, and at the root of this crisis was the realization that military power had grown uncontrollable, and this was directly attributable to weapons technology. What disturbed so many was the futility of their efforts: the decidedly unheroic deaths awaiting them. As historian Paul Kennedy observed, victory went to the side whose combination of both military-naval and financial-industrial-technological resources was the greatest.
Extreme military effort drove countries to pursue extreme political gains. Nations became machines for war and little else.
Looking back, I can see why I didn’t pursue this. I wasn’t interested in economic mobilization; what really interested me was how warfare had changed, how nations became war machines, how it altered the politics of nations and the mindset of peoples. In a way, fascism in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere in the 1920s and 1930s was the logical outcome of near-total war mobilization in World War I.
Consider the United States today. The U.S. dominates the world’s trade in weaponry. The U.S. spends enormous sums of money on its military. The U.S. is devoted to the machinery of warfare, celebrating its weapons of mass destruction at various sporting events. The U.S. is even planning on revamping its world-destroying nuclear arsenal at a cost of $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years. All of this is considered “normal” in what Americans still consider as the world’s leading democracy.
Yet, how can a machine for war be consistent with democracy? How did we come to see more and more weapons — even WMD — as the guarantor of peace and freedom? How did the machinery of war become synonymous with the health of the state? What does it say about us as a nation?
There he goes again. Donald Trump has insulted our French allies, apparently in retaliation for Emmanuel Macron’s sensible speech this past weekend that assailed nationalism as divisive and dangerous to world peace. In his retaliatory tweet today, the Trumpet had the following to say about France and its war effort in World Wars I and II:
Emmanuel Macron suggests building its own army to protect Europe against the U.S., China and Russia. But it was Germany in World Wars One & Two – How did that work out for France? They were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along. Pay for NATO or not!
Suggesting the French were learning German because they couldn’t or wouldn’t fight is more than insulting: it reveals Donald Trump’s utter ignorance of history.
First, consider World War I. The French lost roughly 1.4 million men in that war. More than any other country, France should be credited for defeating German militarism. Indeed, France served as America’s “arsenal of democracy” in that war, supplying U.S. troops with weaponry and helping to train them for war as well. The French, after all, had fought the war for nearly four years before American troops showed up in large numbers. Yes, the U.S. military helped to stiffen French and British resistance in 1918 and contributed to turning the tide toward victory, but overall France deserves tremendous credit and deep respect both for its victory and for the enormity of its sacrifice.
Now, let’s turn to World War II. It was the devastation of France in World War I (along with interwar political divisions and an overly defensive mentality) that contributed to its relatively quick defeat in World War II. Because of this defeat, France paid a high price indeed under German occupation. Some French people collaborated; many more resisted and paid for that resistance with their lives.
Trump insults the memory of millions of French men and women who died resisting German militarism in both world wars, and to what end? Just so he can score cheap points with his base by tweeting ignorant insults against an ally that fought side-by-side with Americans in both world wars?
The French, of course, helped to secure American independence in the 18th century, a favor you could say we repaid during the closing stages of World War I. And while World War II was a disaster for French arms, there was no lack of fighting spirit among major sectors of the French populace.
Suggesting the French were studying German because they were militarily inept until Americans rode to the rescue does more than a grave disservice to history. It gravely insults the French people. Such is the idiocy of Donald Trump.
My dad left me two silver dollars. They’re worth much in sentimental value (I’ll explain in a moment), but they also teach us something about how America has changed.
Here’s a photo of them. Lady Liberty is on the front, an eagle is on the back.
These were “peace” dollars issued in the aftermath of World War I. (Note the word “peace” under the eagle.) Imagine that: a coin issued by the USA dedicated to and celebrating peace! It’s truly hard to imagine such a coin being issued today, and not only because our currency is now made only with base metal (a debased currency?).
In keeping with U.S. foreign policy today, an equivalent 2018 (faux silver) dollar would doubtless feature the god of war on the front with a menacing eagle clutching missiles, drones, and bombs on the back.
Anyway, I promised a story about my dad’s silver dollars, and I’m going to let him tell it:
“I have a silver dollar in my coin collection. Helen and I were courting at the time. At Nantasket beach [in Massachusetts] there was a glass container with prizes, candy, coins, etc. Also a crank on the unit which when turned controlled a flexible scoop. The idea was to work the scoop to pick up something of value. Well, I took a chance. It was like magic; the scoop just went down and picked up the silver dollar. I gave it to Ma as a remembrance. We’ve had it ever since.”
“The other silver dollar has a story also. A buddy in the service [Army] gave it to me for a birthday present [during World War II].”
After my dad died, these coins passed to me. One is from 1922, the other from 1924. I love the “peace” eagle they feature, though we know peace was not in the cards for long after the Great War. And of course I love my dad’s stories of how he came to possess them.
When will America’s coinage next feature a tribute to the end of war and the promise of peace?
My father’s family was Italian, and his relatives fought, suffered, and died in Italy’s wars before and during World War I. In his diary, my dad recounted these relatives and their fates:
My mother as far as I can recall had two brothers in the [Italian military] service. One brother had an exploding shell land near him. He was highly agitated. A doctor who knew my mother’s family saw that he got a medical discharge.
His brother had a much more dangerous career in the Italian Army. He was a forward observer for an artillery unit. He was severely gassed on the Austrian front. He survived the war but had a premature death from the effects of the gas.
Luigi, Uncle Louie, Astore had quite a career in the Italian Army. My mother used to call him El Sargento.
Uncle Louie fought three years in the Turkish War[1911-12] and four years in World War 1. He was a prisoner of war in Germany for a year. I overheard a conversation and he remarked that things were tough as a prisoner and food was a scarce item. He never told me about his experiences in World War 1.
So, my grandmother had one brother who had shell-shock (PTSD) and another who died prematurely from poison gas. My grandfather had a brother (Luigi) who was a POW who nearly starved and who didn’t talk about his war experiences. (I am too young to have clear memories of Luigi, but photos show an unsmiling man, which is not surprising given his war experiences.)
War is all hell, as General William Sherman said, and my father’s family’s experience in Italy illustrates the truth of that.
A childhood friend of mine, who also had Italian parents, sent along a book recommendation to me: The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson. My friend wrote a nice little review of it in an email to me, which follows below:
The White War (about Italy’s WWI fight against the Austro-Hungarians) has been fascinating but also depressing. The insistence of Italian staff officers to send poorly armed and trained men into a battlefield even more deadly than the western front (the Italians had to scale hills and mountains in the face of withering machine gun and artillery fire) boggles the mind. The Italian high command also had the dubious distinction of ordering more summary executions of the rank and file than the Brits, French, Germans, and Austrians. Illiterate peasants needlessly sent to their deaths in the hundreds of thousands with Italian military policemen stationed with machine guns to their rear with orders to fire on them in case they did not show the requisite élan. (My mother’s paternal uncle fell in that war–I wonder what horrors he saw and experienced.) If it did not already exist, surely the stereotypical Italian cynicism toward governmental authority resulted from the incompetence and brutality of Italian military leadership in WWI.
With respect to Italian POWs and food scarcity during captivity, my friend noted the following startling fact that he gleaned from reading The White War:
Italian authorities made it a policy to prevent food packages from being sent to Italian POWs in Austrian control as part of their strategy to deter Italian soldiers from surrendering. Many POWs died as a result. Unbelievable.
So much for the alleged glories of war. Italy’s war against Austria-Hungary, fought under bitterly cold conditions in the torturous terrain of the alps, is little known in the United States. It was a disastrous struggle that consumed nearly a million men for little reason, and the frustrations of that war – the betrayal of common soldiers by societal elites – contributed to estrangement, bitterness, and the embrace of fascism in the 1920s as an alternative to the status quo.
In U.S. politics today, with the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s strong man posturing that recalls the thrusting belligerence of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, are we witnessing something similar? Recall that Trump in 2016 garnered a lot of support in rural areas by taking a position against America’s wasteful wars, even as he beckoned to an unspecified “great” past. Mussolini, who railed against Italy’s “mutilated victory” in World War I, also won support by calling for societal revival, even as he beckoned to the greatness of Italy’s imperial past.
Like Mussolini, Trump wasn’t (and isn’t) against war. Rather, both men were against losing wars. Appealing to tough-guy generals like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Trump promised Americans who had suffered they’d “win” again. Like Mussolini, he promised a brighter future (endless victories!) through higher military spending and aggressive military action. No more shame of “mutilated” victories — or so Mussolini and Trump promised.
Trump tapped the anger and resentments of American families who’d borne the sacrifices and suffering of the mutilated victories of Afghanistan and Iraq. He did this so well that, according to Zaid Jilani at The Intercept, citing a study by Boston University political science professor Douglas Krinera and University of Minnesota Law professor Francis Shen, it may have provided his winning margin of victory in 2016. As the study notes (also see the illustration above):
“[The] three swing states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — could very well have been winners for [Hillary] Clinton [in 2016] if their war casualties were lower.”
Like rural Italian families in the aftermath of World War I, American rural families in the Bush-Obama “war on terror” rejected the status quo posturing of establishment politicians (e.g. Hillary Clinton), turning instead to the anger-driven nationalism (Italy first! America first!) of self-styled strong men like Mussolini and Trump.
The question is, as America’s fruitless wars persist, and as rural American families continue to bear a disproportionate share of the burden of these wars, will “strong” men like Trump continue to prosper? Put differently, will the Democratic Party finally have the guts to offer an alternative vision that rejects forever war across the planet?
We know what happened to Mussolini’s quest to make Italy great again — total defeat in World War II. Will a similar fate befall Trump’s quest?
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?
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.