Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of Austria-Hungary’s Declaration of War against Serbia, and lighting the fuse of what would become known as the “war to end all wars.” Such was the carnage, people who lived through the four bloody years of World War I could not imagine that statesmen in the future would fail to grasp the necessity of avoiding war at all costs. Alas, the hope that the evils of war had not been in vain, but had paved the way to a more pacific future, that hope proved illusory.
Growing up, I never could really understand what World War I was about. The principal actors seemed to stumble into the war, constrained by their prejudices and their treaties of alliance, and many of the actors were autocrats who could do as they wished with their empires and their subjects. It was always especially strange to me that so many of the principals were descended from, or married to descendants from, Queen Victoria. Was this just a family squabble gone terribly bad? The role of industrialists in pushing for an expansion of armaments in the years before the war certainly played a role in convincing the autocrats that those weapons should be put to good use. The leaders of industry stood arm-in-arm with the military leaders of the different countries in urging war, when no war was necessary.
World War I witnessed many innovations in the art of war, all of them horrible. This was the first war in which gas was used against combatants. Churchill’s idea for a moving, armored vehicle, a sort of battleship on the land, became the tank and revolutionized military tactics in both world wars. And, World War I saw the first instance of what we would call strategic bombing, although in the second decade of the century, they were still morally sensible enough to try and cover up the indiscriminate bombing of civilians from the air. Only in the Second World War would the fiction be proclaimed that bombing civilians would weaken the morale of the opponent. In fact, it had quite the opposite effect.
World War I was not, as Woodrow Wilson claimed, about making the world safe for democracy. The democratization of war, begun in World War I and brought to fruition in World War II only led to wider mobilizations, fewer distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, a deeper and more pervasive nationalism and jingoism. In the eighteenth century, wars were fought by professional soldiers, who sometimes ran amok in the surrounding areas to be sure, but war itself was confined to the soldiers. Only in our progressive, modern times, did we find a way to bring war to the masses. And, despite Wilson’s hopes, the badly made peace at the end of World War I only planted the seeds of resentment that would come to flower in the next generation.
Today, we are witnessing another war, better to say a series of wars, in the Mideast. If it is still difficult to grasp what World War I was about, it is very easy to see what these wars are about. Extremist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and, now, ISIS, are not so much governments to which we are opposed as criminal gangs that happen to control strategically placed real estate. They are quite willing to use civilians as shields for their armaments, knowing that the death of civilians will tug on the heart strings of those who do not share their craven morbidity. Yet, it is far from clear that the weapons of war will defeat these terrorist brigades. Israel, in attacking Gaza, is only hoping for a respite from the rockets and mortars. In Iraq, the Maliki regime seems crippled by its own incompetence and its own score-settling, religiously based approach to governance. And, in Syria, the West finds itself in the unenviable position of finding itself allied with the war criminal Assad in opposing ISIS. In none of the three instances is it clear that a military victory, whatever that would look like, would lead to anything resembling peace. Most assuredly, none of the three conflicts are about making the world safe for democracy.
It is difficult, intellectually and emotionally, to sustain one’s hope that humankind can ever move towards the broadlit uplands of peace. Human progress seems equally inclined to perfect the instruments of war as it perfects the instruments of peace. Some conflicts do come to an end. Protestants are not routinely killing Catholics, and vice-versa, in Northern Ireland. Bosnia is unsettled but is no longer a killing field. The battlefields of yesteryear along the French-German border have not seen bloodshed in almost seventy years. But, I look at the Mideast today with the same sense of incomprehension as I look back at the First World War. Why the killing? What will it achieve? How to bring it to an end? There are, at present, no answers to these questions. Those fighting have their reasons for continuing their struggles, and have found ways to derive political benefit from those struggles. Anniversaries are invitations to introspection, but no amount of thoughtfulness seems much of a match for human iniquity. The four horsemen of the apocalypse continue to roam the earth.