Monday, July 29, 2013

The war to end all wars

Western front, 1915-1916. (Source: U.S. Military Academy.)

Over on The American Catholic, DarwinCatholic has posted an interesting article on an ongoing reassessment of World War I. The American Catholic has a lot of posts on American history that don’t even begin to reference Christ, the Church or anything specifically Catholic, so I don’t feel so bad about calling this blog a Catholic blog.

The main thrust of Darwin’s post is that post-war revisionism struck early and hard. Most of us who learned anything about the war in school learned that it was a horrendous waste of life, as idiot generals and field marshals hurled frontal attack after useless frontal attack in an obscene homage to Napoleon’s tactics; why, such attacks had become outdated by the end of the American Civil War!

Of course, now that I read this, I realize that the Civil War never dealt with front lines that extend hundreds of miles; with one end fused to the English Channel and the other to the Swiss Alps, the Western front didn’t permit flanking attacks. Just the sheer number of soldiers by itself changed the way the war had to be fought.

The generals of the war, Darwin points out, knew very well Napoleonic tactics wouldn’t work. The problem was finding something that would work. Both sides were fairly evenly matched for inventiveness; as soon as one side found a possible solution, the other side would develop a counter. For instance, gas worked for the Germans only until the French and English started producing their own gas masks. The art of war had to be not just changed but reinvented altogether.

But did the war have to be fought at all?

In the midst of the discussion, Jay Anderson complained that, “in my opinion, ‘the war to end all wars’ was a war that cost too many lives and accomplished too little other than to create or exacerbate the conditions for future conflicts, from the Bolshevik Revolution to World War II right down to the Bosnian Conflict of the 1990s.”

Is such an assessment fair?

It’s true that the Austro-Hungarian Empire didn’t have to declare war on Serbia, despite the latter’s insistence on interfering with the Empire’s rule in Bosnia. The Serbian government had accepted eight of their ten demands — demands the Austrians deliberately made unacceptable — and asked for international arbitrators on the other two, signaling their willingness to work with the empire to avoid war. The Austrians and Germans knew that any attack on Serbia would bring in the Russian Empire and France. But while Germany prepared for such a contingency by planning a coup de main attack on France (essentially a one-punch knockout), they hedged their bet by shifting units away from the northern attack through Belgium and into the southern defensive line. A realistic, pragmatic appraisal of the situation should have concluded that war with Serbia entailed too much risk for too little gain.

You could say, then, that from the perspective of the Triple Alliance World War I was unnecessary and avoidable, if only in the remote, optimistic way that all wars are unnecessary and avoidable. Certainly, if we believe in free will, we must believe that all the parties responsible could have made different choices that could have defused the crisis, from the assassin Gavrilo Princip to Kaiser Wilhelm II and Emperor Franz Josef.

However, from the point of view of the Triple Entente — save perhaps for the Russians — the Great War achieved precisely what it was meant to achieve: the defeat of the Triple Entente. Aggressors can have long-term objectives; defenders, however, have only three options: defeat the aggressor, fight to a stalemate or surrender. The war was necessary from the perspective of the poilu in the trenches because the Boche had invaded his territory and threatened his country’s independence.

If fault for the turmoil over the next century could be laid any one place — and we would be doing history an injustice if we tried — it should be laid with the Treaty of Versailles rather than the war itself.[*] But that would be denying significant contributions by the rise of Communism/socialism, the German leaders who deflected blame by creating the Dolchstosslegende (the “stab in the back” myth), the weakness of the Weimar Republic, and the rising of various ethnic and national identities that had been suppressed under decades and even centuries of European imperialism … to name just a few factors, some of which long preceded the “July crisis” of 1914.

Someone once observed that a well-turned phrase can stop analysis for a century and a half. “The war to end all wars” hasn’t quite stopped analysis so much as misdirected it. Even during the war, the phrase met with skepticism; George Santayana scoffed, “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” and Prime Minister David Lloyd George reportedly quipped, “This war, like the next war, is a war to end wars.” Doubtless Woodrow Wilson truly saw the adoption of his Fourteen Points, especially the League of Nations, as a means to prevent future wars. But neither he nor H. G. Wells, who had written The War That Will End War in 1914, succeeded in convincing many people that the end of war as a human activity was an achievable goal.

If anything, the only way war can truly come to an end is through a radical change of the human heart. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Mt 15:19; cf. Gal 5:19-21). In absence of this change, treaties, laws, forcible redistribution of resources and the like won’t by themselves create the culture of justice which must necessarily precede the culture of peace. So long as men view other men as either instruments or obstacles, so long as greed, envy, pride and hatred are allowed free rein, peace on earth will continue to escape us.

In such a condition, the only war which could end war itself would be one that annihilates us all.


[*] Some historians argue that, if the Treaty of Versailles failed, it failed by exacting too little in reparations, leaving most of the German political structure intact, and leaving the German economy relatively healthy despite the brief period of massive hyperinflation which followed the war.