The Great War revisited

I just read a monumental review of the latest books on World War I, one of those great pieces that make history come alive and fill you with questions and leave you with a sense of wonder. This isn’t for everyone, but certainly for anyone who, like me, is utterly fascinated with how the civilized world allowed itself to get sucked into the most pointless and ruinous war of all time. One from which we’re still recovering, and which can even be pointed to as at least a partial cause of our problems today in the Middle East.

If you share my curiosity, you’ll definitely want to read it. The writer, Adam Gopnik, never once mentions Iraq. But as the long article draws to a close, it isn’t too hard to see Gopnik’s point.

History does not offer lessons; its unique constellations of contingencies never repeat. But life does offer the same points, over and over again. A lesson is many-edged; a point has only one, but that one sharp. And the point we might still take from the First World War is the old one that wars are always, in Lincoln’s perfectly chosen word, astounding. They produce results that we can hardly imagine when they start. It is not that wars are always wrong. It is that wars are always wars, good for destroying things that must be destroyed, as in 1864 or 1944, but useless for doing anything more, and no good at all for doing cultural work: saving the national honor, proving that we’re not a second-rate power, avenging old humiliations, demonstrating resolve, or any of the rest of the empty vocabulary of self-improvement through mutual slaughter.

Kipling learned this, if the Kiplingites still haven’t. Niall Ferguson ends his recent neo-imperialist polemic “Colossus” with a mention of Kipling on the White Man’s Burden (which he rejects), and then a quote from Kipling on the fragility of empire (which he admires), but he leaves uncited the best poem Kipling ever wrote about war and its consequences, the simple couplet produced after his son was killed:

If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

No one has ever thought that the First World War didn’t have meaning, in the sense of an effect on things that came after, and purpose, in the sense that it happened because people believed it to be necessary. The questions persist. Were this purpose and this meaning worth the expense of life, the deaths of all those nineteen-year-old boys? Was what had been achieved in Europe by 1919 worth knowing that your son gasped out his last breath in the mud, as Kipling and eight million other fathers did? Was the credibility of liberal civilization worth the suicide of liberal civilization? One of the things that twentieth-century philosophy learned, in the wake of the war, is that big words are empty uniforms without men to live out their meanings, and that high moral purposes have no value outside a context of consequences. As the new century begins, the First World War seems as present, and just as great a pity, as it ever did.

This is so important, this idea that a war, no matter how carefully planned and scripted, always, always, always becomes something different and more horrible than intended. In August of 1914 civilized Europe went to war as if they were going to a tea party. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite go as expected; within 20 days, for example, more than a quarter-of-a-million French boys lay dead on the battlefield.

We’ve learned a lot about the science of war, about war technology. But it seems we still haven’t learned about the nature of war itself, and how once started it can never be controlled and contained the way its architects envisioned it.

The Discussion: 17 Comments

Adam Gopnik, of the New Yorker?

August 19, 2004 @ 11:52 pm | Comment

The link to the review has a double-quote character (the %22) at the end of it that should be removed.

August 20, 2004 @ 1:15 am | Comment

Thanks Martey.

Yes, the New Yorker. Check it out.

August 20, 2004 @ 1:59 am | Comment

I think Captain Blackadder said it best:

“The real reason for the whole thing was that it was too much effort not to have a war.”

August 20, 2004 @ 3:21 am | Comment

Pointless? It planted the seeds for the United Nations and allowed a forum for which conflicts could be discussed rather than fought over (don’t blame the Great War itself for nations’ inability to follow through on this). It provided self-determination for oppressed peoples (the Polish, Czechs et al. no doubt were grateful). Without the War, would the world have been a better place with increased militarism on the part of the Germans, Austrians, Turks, etc.? Indirectly, it forced governments to change, institutions to be questions, suffrage to be granted to women…

August 20, 2004 @ 8:00 am | Comment

Keor has some good points, although the League of Nations was a joke, and the way that the British and French acted after WWI, with all the crap reparations applied to Germany and its allies, led to WWII and the Holocaust.

Then again, a war that has “within 20 days, for example, more than a quarter-of-a-million French boys lay dead on the battlefield” can’t be all that bad.

August 20, 2004 @ 9:39 am | Comment

Oh… gratuitous Francophobia. How original.

Jeremy, I realize it’s au courant to loathe France these days… but why don’t you substitute “British” or “Canadian” or even “American” for the word “French” in your post above, and see what you think.

Fucking pathetic, is how.

August 20, 2004 @ 11:36 am | Comment

Jeremy, that was truly dumb and unworthy of you. Do you really wish death on French teenagers, do they really deserve to die? Come on, post that sort of shit over at LGF, not here.

August 20, 2004 @ 12:12 pm | Comment

I realize now that my previous comment was somewhat lacking in coherence. The phrase “see what you think” should instead read “see how it reads.”

Which doesn’t change my utter revulsion at the idea that someone in 2004 could, with no apparent qualms whatsoever, adopt a position vis-à-vis France that is indistinguishable from that of Kaiser Wilhelm.

August 20, 2004 @ 12:50 pm | Comment

planted the seeds for the United Nations and allowed a forum for which conflicts could be discussed rather than fought over (don’t blame the Great War itself for nations’ inability to follow through on this). It provided self-determination for oppressed peoples (the Polish, Czechs et al. no doubt were grateful). Without the War, would the world have been a better place with increased militarism on the part of the Germans, Austrians, Turks, etc.? Indirectly, it forced governments to change, institutions to be questions, suffrage to be granted to women…

So, you think the Great War was a net plus? This may be literally the strangest perspective on world history I’ve ever encountered (aside from those Chinese people who say Mao was good for China). Let’s take a look at some of the things that happened as a direct result of WWI:

First, the collapse of the Russian monarchy; this wasn’t necessarily bad, but because the Germans sent Lenin over there to speed things along, it resulted in the great cloud over the second half of the century — the cold war, the slaughter of untold millions of Russians, the Iron Curtain, Stalin, Beria and so much more misery to be enjoyed by the entire world. This also played a role in making possible the Communist takeovers of North Korea and China, increasing the world’s misery index ever higher.

But that’s nothing. The one thing that made Hitler the man he was was the November surrender. He referred to it to his dying day, and it radicalized him and much of Germany. Nazis would have been laughed off the streets prior to the humiliation and harshness of Versailles. If you read any of the scholarly works on the rise of the Third Reich — Kershaw, Burleigh, etc. — you’ll discover that WWII arose directly from the ashes of WWI — you wouldn’t have had the 2nd without the 1st. In his great book The Pity of War, Niall Ferguson goes far deeper in examining just how hideous an effect WWI had on European history, destroying just about everything that had been achieved the century prior.

It may have given the Poles a sense of “self determination” as you say, but weigh this against their rape and slaughter by the Nazis. The self-determination would have come anyway; that was inevitable. The murderous Nazi regime was not inevitable, a thesis Ferguson goes into in great depth. If you really think anything good came out of WWI, anything at all, that’s the book you need to read. As to the pointlessness argument, did you read the article I linked to? It explained this well, and it’s the conclusion of just about every historian who’s written about it. One huge killing machiune, a meat grinder for the youth of Europe, with nothing positive in its wake (well, maybe some Poles who were a bit more self-determined).

August 20, 2004 @ 1:57 pm | Comment


My dislike for the French has nothing to do with it being in vogue right now, but goes back years, to their complicity in WWII and the Holocaust, among other issues. It’s a dishonourable country that still thinks its a superpower, and why the Soviet Union and the USA let them have an adult chair at the UN is still incomprehensible to me. Treat the country as the bratty, annoying child it truly is.

Richard, you know that quite well, and you also know my tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. If we are going to bring out instances of dumb, we can go mano-a-mano.

August 20, 2004 @ 5:26 pm | Comment

Well, I guess we could go mano a mano, but not here. Anyway, you’re too smart to make blanket statements like you hate the french (and I can;t tell all the time when you’re being tongue in cheek). Any stereotyping like that is wrong. If you said you hate the French government, it mightnot be so bad, but not the kids, not the individuals. I can’t say I hate the Germans, despite some nasty patches in their history. I know some magnificent German people, and French, too.

August 20, 2004 @ 6:22 pm | Comment

Well, if you’re going to bring up a country’s behavior during World War II as a basis for detesting its people, what about the Japanese — who, to this day, continue to deny full responsibility for its many wartime atrocities? Yet no one, apart from Michelle Malkin, ever bashes Japan.

Or how about the Dutch? They, too, were “complicit in the Holocaust” — the Netherlands lost a greater proportion of its Jews than any other occupied country except Poland, and Dutch collaborators played an instrumental role. The Dutch surrendered to the Germans after just five days. And, of course, the Dutch eat enormous amounts of cheese.

As for the UN Security Council seat, maybe France doesn’t deserve it anymore — but then, based on its currently reduced circumstances, neither does Russia. I think a case can be made for expanding the number of permanent members, and/or converting France’s seat to a European one. In 1945, though, France really was one of the five most powerful countries in the world. Who else would you have chosen instead? Certainly not Germany or Japan, and obviously not India.

August 21, 2004 @ 3:20 am | Comment

A dishonourable country, France? Every man, woman, and child? Ah, does that include the father of Philippe de Hautecloque (General Leclerc), who as a wealthy minor nobleman at the age of 58 in 1914 went off and enlisted in his son’s cavalry regiment? And served throughout the war as an enlisted man? Or how about Monclar of the French Battalion in the Korean War, who resigned his commission as a Lieutenant General to command that batallion in combat. Or Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, who turned down a safe command in Nato to take command of the French Far East Expeditionary Force in Indochina after the 1950 Colonial Route 4 disaster. Like all nations, France occasionally gets represented by buffoons, just as buffoons will occasionally rise to great heights in any burueacracy, military, civil, or diplomatic. But that does not render all of their countrymen “dishonourable”.

August 21, 2004 @ 11:54 am | Comment

Lirelou, it’s a tragedy, the way hatred of the French — every one of them — is is encouraged i n America, mainly for their having opposed the war in Iraq. And, sacre bleu, it turns out they were right all along.

August 21, 2004 @ 11:57 am | Comment

The US, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China received permanent seats on the Security Council because of their roles as the victors of World War II. If only the most powerful nations of 1945 received permanent seats, then Great Britain, China, and France certainly would NOT be deserving:

China was utterly devestated in the war against the Japanese and Guomingdong control was greatly weakened.

By the end of the war, both France and Great Britain had effectively lost their Great Power status. The sudden collapse of France thoroughly exposed it as an imposter. Great Britain, though never defeated, suffered a similar fate. As a result, both nations soon lost their colonial empires. Their delegation to lesser power status was further displayed during their humiliation in the Suez Crisis.

Taking only the power players of 1945, the permanent members of the Security Council would have consisted of the US, the Soviet Union, and, despite being shattered and defeated, Germany. Ever since its unification, Germany was and, to this day, is the most dominant force in continental Europe. It had the greatest population, resources, and economic potential of all Western and Central Europe.

However, the permanent members of the UN Security Council were not selected because of the desire for a governing body by the world’s most powerful nations. It was an organization set up by the victors of a war, who then promptly placed themselves in all the positions of power.

The results have reverberated throughout history. Germany and Japan currently are more powerful than either France or Great Britain. Yet, the former have no permanent voice in the security council while the latter do.

The UN was never meant to be a political institution for encouraging dialogue among the world’s powers. If this was the case, the hierarchy of the UN would reflect such power. Instead, the UN has become another political lever in geopolitics. It should be noted that the ROC (Taiwan) held China’s Security Council seat until 1971, when Nixon gave it to the PRC while negotiating the end of the Vietnam War.

I’m getting a little off track here with my analysis of the purpose and role of the UN. In conclusion, it is a mistake to think that France was given a permanent seat in the Security Council because of its Great Power status.

Whether France deserves such a seat or not is moot. The beauty of the permanent seat is that it’s PERMANENT.

August 21, 2004 @ 7:39 pm | Comment

Visiting Skeptic: I would argue that Britain merited a seat on the Security Council if only out of regard for its sacrifice when it stood alone. In addition, what other country could the US count on to address the communist threat? As Churchill so eloquently mentioned in his “sinews of Peace” (Iron Curtain) speech, an English-speaking alliance of the US and a British-led Commonwealth was still a possibility. With the territory it still held in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, most of which would not be given independence until the 60s, the UK was still a formidable force. Its true status would not be truly acknowledged until the Suez debacle of 56.

August 22, 2004 @ 11:07 am | Comment

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