The Great War
One hundred years ago, millions of men engaged in combat on a scale that had never been seen before. World War I, or the Great War, would consume a generation of young men, remake the world map and sow the seeds of an even more deadly and destructive conflict. It was a four-year-long apocalypse that would change the way people thought about war itself.
While in many ways, World War I looks like an inevitable conflict to us today, at the time there were many educated persons who thought that the major European powers had moved past the notion of using armies to settle conflict. The Franco-Prussian War was 40 years in the past, just as far away as we are from the Vietnam War now.
In those four decades, Europe had grown wealthy. Germany and Italy, previously composed of smaller, independent states, had united under modern governments. Trade ties between all of the major powers had blossomed. Germany was, in fact, dependent on foreign imports of grain to feed its people.
The German, British and Russian monarchs were all grandsons of Queen Victoria. George V of Britain actually had to change the name of the royal house from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor when hostilities broke out.
But war did break out, as the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand led to the activation of alliances. While business leaders and the general public may have been unprepared for war, the leaders of Germany had been preparing for years. At a secret war council meeting in 1912, Kaiser Wilhelm and his top commanders had concluded that war was inevitable. They set about planning a way to swiftly deal a knockout blow to France and then turn and defeat Russia. They stockpiled materials and trained what would become one of the finest fighting forces ever assembled.
At this point 100 years ago, Germany, France and England were engaged in a theater-wide conflict that came to be known as the Battle of the Frontiers. In just a month, the French would suffer more than 300,000 casualties and the Germans would be on the outskirts of Paris. By the fall, the war would settle into trenches and frontlines that hold for the next four years.
The critical question for us today is whether it could all happen again? Every war is different, but that does not mean that we can’t learn from the past and work to secure peace.
The world is more unsettled now than it has been in decades. We have reports of Russian forces shelling Ukraine. Civil wars rage in Libya and Syria. ISIL is waging war to create a new Islamic State in the Middle East. Israel and Gaza have fought their longest lasting conflict yet. China has engaged in brinksmanship with its neighbors over control of small islands.
The goal of the United State should never be to prevent all conflicts. That would be foolish, dangerous and impossible. We must think strategically about whether a conflict is a threat to us or a close ally. Then we must decide the right amount of force to bring to bear.
The utter horror of World War I was felt deeply by the allies, and they watched blindly as Hitler reconstituted the German army and spread its borders to Austria and Czechoslovakia. Military enforcement of the Treaty of Versailles would have been easy in 1936, but by 1939 it was impossible. Diplomacy was not backed up effectively by military strength.
While the world is even more knit together with trade, and while prosperity has grown around the world, we cannot forget that people crave more than security and material goods, they also want purpose and pride. ISIL has among its ranks soldiers who grew up in wealthy households in Western nations. Right now, the Russian people approve of Putin despite the economic damage sanctions may bring.
Peace has to be preserved through strength and through wisdom. World War I was far from wise. The European powers buried their young men and burned their treasure to achieve practically nothing. Nineteen-fourteen may be a century past, but it should not be distant from our mind in this age of uncertainty.