Sunday, November 11, 2018

Then and Now: 100 Years Since the End of the War to End All Wars

I have so many thoughts running in my head as folks remember and commemorate those who died in World War I.  We have learned so much and yet so little.  So, this really will be a semi-spew as I figure out what I am thinking today.

First, it is hard to imagine a more tragic conflict, as so much blood was shed by generals who thought that they could beat the other side with just a bit more audacity (someone else's blood) again and again.  For what?  For the rise of Communism.  For the prelude to fascism.  For a fun decade followed by a deep depression and then another World War.  Not every front in the war was as wasteful and pointless as the Western Front,

Second, the ending was so very strange--we must fight up to 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month.  I get it that they could not do it immediately after the signing since comms were not so great.  But to continue offensives when you know the end is near?  How wasteful is that?

Third, when we talk about the origins of the war, much focus is on whether to blame Germany or not, but that misses the larger point--there were both agents and structures in play here.  Not just the people who ran the various countries, but the balance of power, the arms races, the security dilemmas, the alliance structures, the lessons from the past that all combined to lead to this war.  When international relations scholars look back, we tend to focus on the structures.  When journalists look back, they focus on the people.  It is important to learn how individuals handle a crisis, for instance, since the war didn't happen overnight.  Yes, mobilization started not that long after the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo, but there were points where individuals made things worse.  Likewise, it is important to consider how structures enable leaders to make good or bad decisions or constrain choices.

For me, a few things resonate loudly 100 years later because of my own biases:
  • Kaiser Wilhelm, if I get the stylized history correct, believed in pushing hard, expecting others to give in.  The idea was that threats and bluster work in international relations, which contradicts much of what we mostly think these days--that the nature of the international system means that threats create counter-reactions most of the time among "peers".  This resonates because Trump's behavior, chock full of bluster, expecting countries to back down, seems just as ill-considered and just as contrary to the way countries react.
  • One of the key parts of the constraints facing politicians at the time was lousy civilian control of the military. This was the war that taught the civilians that "war was too important to be left to the generals" as the war plans seemed to deprive politicians of choices (mobilization meant war) and that the conduct of much of the rest of the war wastefully destroyed a generation of young men.  These days, "we must support our troops" has meant perhaps that oversight is not what it used to be.  And, in the US, politicization of the armed forces is happening, so we need to pay more attention to how civilian control of the military is exercised.  And not just in the US as Dave, Phil and I are discovering, as it turns out that in many democracies, too few are paying attention to what their militaries are doing.
  • The war saw lots of innovation that had marginal effects during the war but ultimately led to revolutions in warfare and expansion in how many civilians would die in future wars--airpower, submarines, chemical weapons, etc.  The technological arms races today--who will develop hypersonic missiles, the best cyberoffensive weapons, AI, and all the rest--may lead to yet greater destruction.  We can imagine better how horrible it can be mostly because we have the exemplars of World War I and II.
  • That the war itself also set the context for a particularly devastating flu epidemic.  I wonder what a new big war would do in terms of global health.
  • And, of course, the war is partly about the mismanagement of the relative decline of the country, the UK,  that led and shaped the international order such as it was, and the rise of several contenders--Germany, Russia and the US.  How are we doing on managing the rise of China, the temporary return of Russia, and the decline of the US?  Not very well right now.  
So, there is much to remember.  Not just the sacrifices of a generation of soldiers and sailors, but the lessons learned and unlearned.

No comments: