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 [Latin for “Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country”].
The past weeks should have been a remarkable occasion to reflect on history, on the magnitude, costs, and legacy of what was once commonly known as the Great War, the most cataclysmic single war in Western history ever up until that point or at least since the fall of Rome and easily one of the worst and most lethal in world history.
And yet reflection on the war and its horrific costs and legacies has been woefully lacking. Whether it was due to questionable political and behavioral decisions during centenary commemorations that overshadowed the remembrances, a news media that sorely lacks competency in this type of historical examination, or a combination of reasons, something vital was missing: sober reflection that takes a measure of history, of its impact on the present and potential effects on the future, and on the many millions of lives cut short in conditions few of us could even imagine, let alone endure.
Indeed, it is hard to say which is most stunning: the incredible impact that four measly years in the span of human history had on the world one-hundred years ago, the impact it is still having and will continue to have, the incredible toll of lives lost (around some 16.5 million dead—about half military, half civilian—by some solid estimates, surpassed only by the next, and, we may hope, last, World War that followed just a few decades later), or the utter lack of general awareness today of all of these things.
In the spirit of righting pretty much the one thing that can be righted still, below is an effort to wage war against this lack of awareness, an outline of four important ways we should all respect what World War I can teach us still, a century after its conclusion.
1. War is possible no matter how great things seem.
One of the most remarkable things about World War I is how advanced, culturally speaking, Germany, Great Britain, France, and Austria-Hungary were just before the war: they represented the most advanced civilizations Earth had to offer technologically, scientifically, culturally. They were producing arguably the greatest contemporary works of art, literature, architecture, and music, and, inarguably, the greatest contemporary works of science, medicine, and machinery. They were all rich and stable, and, with the exception of Germany as a rising and newly unified state, had been great powers for many centuries. And they all had intense, intimate ties with each other, both between individual leaders and as empires and nations as a whole, ties that bound them culturally, economically, socially, and politically. As the first years of the twentieth century unfolded, the world (at least the Western world) seemed to be entering a new era of globalization, peace, prosperity, luxury, electricity, increasing access to information, communication, booming technology, relatively rapid travel, improving medicine, and cooperation (an era not unlike our current one). In fact, Europe had seen the longest stretch of peace since the Pax Romana of ancient Rome: with just a few notable exceptions, there were no wars on the European continent from the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
None of this mattered: not the long peace, not the advanced technology, not the increasingly interrelated ties between future combatant leaders, nations, and peoples, nor their representing the peaks of human civilization at the time. What was then a long peace rapidly devolved into one of the most destructive wars in human history, one that erupted between these most advanced nations in the world because of a series of freak events and decisions that caught pretty much everyone off guard in terms of the results.
The violence in the human animal is always there, below the surface if not on the surface, ready to break out without warning; nations and human society, as collections of individual humans, are clearly no different.
2. “Stupid is as stupid does.”
One hundred years after the outbreak of World War I, Graham Allison, the famed international relations scholar most recognized for his analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis (a crisis remarkably influenced by World War I), made clear that for him, World War I’s most important lesson is that “despite the fact that there’s many reasons for believing that something . . . would make no sense, and therefore would be incredible, and therefore maybe even impossible, shit happens.”
In this case, these nations had so many more reasons not to go to war than to go to war, and even when everyone was losing so much, and gaining almost nothing but death and destruction, they persisted in conducting the war even after bloody stalemates often became the norm, the war raging on for years even after this. None of this was rational or in the self-interests of these nations, but that is the course they chose. Of the leaders of the major powers who went to war in 1914, none would remain in power by the war’s end; four of the six main initial belligerents—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire—had their governments overthrown in revolutions (“the greatest fall of monarchies in history,” to quote the late Christopher Hitchens) and lost their empires by the war’s end, while Britain and France were so weakened that the roots of the post–World War II unraveling of their empires were set in motion. In other words, the war was ruinous for all the major players that started it and suicidal for most of them. And still they perpetuated it.
Many books over many years have been written about this, many lectures given and panels held, many articles penned—and it would be easy for me to write a whole series of articles about the awful decision making just before and throughout the war. But what is important to note here is that, when confronted with a range of options, the belligerents often chose a horrible option when there were better ones available, and they often doubled down on the same or similar decisions despite repeated failure, continuing stalemate, and appalling loss of life. As the old adage goes, repeating the same failed actions in the hopes of a different result is the very definition of insanity, and insanity describes the nature of World War I (not just in hindsight but also contemporaneously) as well as any other word.
Whether in the outbreaks of wars or in their conduct, the role of stupidity and insanity in such affairs is considered by many to have no finer example than World War I. And yet, this lesson is harrowingly relevant event today, as the 2003 US decision to invade Iraq and the early incompetent years of its occupation there make all too clear.
3. A bad peace just means more war.
As great the Roman historian Tacitus, nearly two thousand years ago, quoted the sentiments of some Roman leaders discussing a possible war, “for a miserable peace even war was a good exchange!” A bad peace is not only a definite recipe for misery, but far more often than not is merely a prelude to further violent conflict. The brief peace after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003 is an excellent recent example, but perhaps no example in contemporary thinking exists more so as an example of a bad peace than the post–World War I settlements, most famously the much-maligned 1919 Versailles treaty that saw harsh terms imposed on Germany, but also a string of other, far lesser-known treaties.
In fact, though the war “ended” in 1918, there was hardly a break in the east, where violent conflicts continued or erupted and persisted for years, including the deadly Russian Civil War, which itself claimed the lives of millions. In the west, rebellion and civil war erupted in the United Kingdom’s Irish territory (bad enough that many fled Ireland, including my grandparents to New York). Even after Versailles, more treaties had to be concluded and were being negotiated well into the 1920s, particularly concerning the former Ottoman Empire’s territories, which Britain and France had planned to split between themselves since the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement was reached secretly during the war in 1916.
This bad peace not only led to the messy wars that raged right after World War I, and to World War II, but also in large part set the stage for many wars since then. Just since the 1990s, there were wars in the Balkans, wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Africa’s World War in the Congo, various Arab-Israeli conflicts, Russia’s wars with Georgia and Ukraine, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and civil wars, insurgencies, or separatist conflicts in countries spanning the globe, even in a region as remote as the Pacific.
There’s even the war with ISIS.
A good number of these conflicts are still ongoing in one form or another and can arguably trace their causation more to the aftermath of World War I than that of World War II. That this is the case one hundred years after the end of World War I is as good an indication as anything of the terrible price of a bad or failed peace.
4. There is no divine “plan”; decisions of war and peace are up to us and only us, and we own the results.
“The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” So begins the first chapter of the late historian John Keegan’s The First World War. Not everything has meaning or happens for a reason; some monumental efforts come to naught, some conflicts are pointless and meaningless, and lives—many millions—can be lost in vain. Considering that World War II happened just a little over two decades after the fighting stopped in World War I, to a large extent much of World War I’s deaths can be said to have been in vain, and this does not even address the futility of the suicidal tactics throughout the war that produced a great many casualties that can be said to have been totally unnecessary, especially in the trench warfare on the Western Front.
In addition, the stupidity of the strategic decisions that led to truly global war and its perpetuation also showcase how utterly avoidable and unnecessary the overall conflict was. Unlike World War II, which especially in Europe was motivated by sharply different ideologies that were being aggressively exported, World War I was generally lacking in ideology, more or less just a competition among empires that were exploitative of their subjects. For many (probably most) fighting in the war, they could not even explain why they were fighting beyond mere nationalism and coercion.
Few people know one of the worst outrages of the war, perhaps the most awful example of senseless battlefield slaughter of the entire conflict. Though the final armistice on the Western Front was reached in the early morning hours of November 11, 1918, just after 5 a.m., it was not put into effect until 11 a.m., allowing several hours of unforgiveable, pointless slaughter. Not one person needed to die in those final hours, likely the most needless carnage on the field of battle of the entire war. Incredibly, the Allies kept up assaults against the German lines “until the very last minute,” notes Adam Hochschild, a great chronicler of the era. He continues:
Since the armies tabulated their casualty statistics by the day and not by the hour, we know only the total toll for November 11th: twenty-seven hundred and thirty-eight men from both sides were killed, and eighty-two hundred and six were left wounded or missing. But since it was still dark at 5 a.m., and attacks almost always took place in daylight, the vast majority of these casualties clearly happened after the Armistice had been signed, when commanders knew that the firing was to stop for good at 11 a.m. The day’s toll was greater than both sides would suffer in Normandy on D Day, 1944. And it was incurred to gain ground that Allied generals knew the Germans would be vacating days, or even hours, later.
One particular story Hochschild shares is especially heartbreaking: “Private Henry Gunther, of Baltimore, became the last American to be killed in the war, at 10:59 a.m., when he charged a German machine-gun crew with his bayonet fixed. In broken English, the Germans shouted at him to go back, the war was about to stop. When he didn’t, they shot him.”
This was hardly just a case of a few callous or glory-obsessed commanders. Hochschild sheds light on the true extent of such disgraceful leadership: “A few Allied generals held their troops back when they heard that the Armistice had been signed, but they were in the minority.”
He concludes: “And so thousands of men were killed or maimed during the last six hours of the war for no political or military reason whatever. . . . The war ended as senselessly as it had begun.”
Taking into account all of this, the idea that there was some great divine plan guiding these events is an obscenity, even more so if one can accept the idea it was with willful divine purpose that so many people would be conscripted by governments that dehumanized them into cannon fodder, some even being conditioned and led, often unthinking and slavishly, to commit outrages and atrocities against the defenseless. On this note, it is no surprise that from the trenches of World War I, The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien—who fought on the Western Front, saw most of his closest friends die there, and was so deeply shaped by the war like nearly everyone of his generation—could draw inspiration for orcs. Writing to his son in 1944, who was fighting in World War II, and commenting on the war and on war in general—commentary obviously influenced by his experience in World War I—Tolkien multiple times noted the potential for all kinds of people to become orcs. In one letter, commenting on the war effort against the Axis powers, he wrote that “we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs.” In another: “I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction . . . only in real life they are on both sides, of course.” In a third, he is even more explicit about even his own countrymen’s ability to become orc-like:
There are no genuine Uruks [a special kind of strong orc bred for war], that is folk made bad by the intention of their maker; and not many who are so corrupted as to be irredeemable (though I fear it must be admitted that there are human creatures that seem irredeemable short of a special miracle, and that there are probably abnormally many of such creatures in Deutschland [Nazi Germany] and Nippon [Imperial Japan]—but certainly these unhappy countries have no monopoly: I have met them, or thought so, in England’s green and pleasant land).
That so many millions of people could be reduced to mere means to evil ends, often with little or no choice or agency, is as much proof against the idea of some divine plan orchestrated by a concerned celestial being as anything.
“Both Kipling and Owen,” wrote Hitchens of two World War I–era poets he admired, “came to the conclusion that too many lives had been ‘taken’ rather than offered or accepted, and that too many bureaucrats had complacently accepted the sacrifice as if they themselves had earned it.”
Thus, millions died in a wholly unnecessary, deeply avoidable, strategically stupid war that was generally conducted with stupid tactics throughout, resulting in possibly the worst loss of life in such a short time in all of human history, until World War II outdid even this two decades later.
If anything, these sobering realities—that war can happen at any time, can be incredibly stupid, that planning for war’s aftermath is so crucial for avoiding further conflict, and that there is not a master plan from some spiritual being—teaches us that our actions are of the utmost importance and are all we can hope or strive for besides luck: everything happens not for a grander reason, but simply because of the mix of chance and of the consequences of our own decisions and those of others. In other words, whatever “plan” there is carries on not in spite of human willpower, but only because of it, and, if it even exists, exists only because of it. Therefore, our decisions throughout our lives—personal political, national—are what matter most, and rather than just toss up our hands and place hope in some greater plan beyond our power to absolve us from having to fret over our own decisions, it is our very decisions that are supremely powerful and which must be given the greatest weight and consideration, and for which we must take the greatest responsibility.
If all we truly have to count on are our decisions and actions, we cannot trust in some nonexistent cosmic plan, only in ourselves and our fellow humans, as problematic as that is. If anything, then, there is an even greater urgency in helping our fellow humans develop their potential, because much of our lives and existence will depend on them, along with ourselves, being equipped and in positions to make better decisions than they would generally otherwise.
It is these decisions that affect our world, our lives, together with chance. Chance is indifferent and immovable, but human action is not, so it is in helping each other that we have our only hope. The less we support each other, then, the higher the chance for deadly conflict of the very type epitomized by the Great War. Contrary to much of the spirit of human history, then, instead of placing blind faith in some sort of divine power to actually intervene to guide, protect, and empower us, we must place that faith in humanity, and for placing that faith to be a safe bet, we must guide, protect, and empower each other.
Ultimately, the very horrors exhibited by humankind in World War I and the lessons discussed here are all the more reason why we must focus on helping our fellow human beings if we want to avoid such abysmal catastrophes in the future. That is not to oversimplify a very complex conflict, or to show disrespect for the millions who fought, died, and sacrificed in this great tragedy; far from it. Rather, to honor their sacrifices, we must heed these lessons so that such needless sacrifice is not forced upon many millions in the future. In many ways, this one-hundred-year-old conflict is shaping our world today more than any of the wars that have been fought since.
Here let us end as we began, with words of Wilfred Owen from 1918:
This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, dominion or power,
Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry.
The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are not to this generation,
This is in no sense consolatory.
They may be to the next.
All the poet can do to-day is to warn.
Owen died, twenty-five years of age, in action on the Western Front almost exactly a week to the hour before its Armistice went into effect; his mother received notification of his death on Armistice Day itself, as her local church bells were ringing in celebration.
Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer and consultant from the New York City area who has been based in Amman, Jordan, since early 2014. He holds an MS in Peace Operations and specializes in a wide range of interrelated topics, including international and US policy and politics, security, conflict, terrorism and counterterrorism, humanitarianism, development, social justice, and history. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981.