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On War

This article is slated to publish at 11:00 Eastern today -- the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It marks the 89th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, rather quaintly called then "The Great War" or "The War To End All Wars."

I am reminded of a part of one of Tom Clancy's later novels, "Debt Of Honor," where Jack Ryan ruminates on the nature of war. Ryan concludes that the decision to initiate to war is almost always an irrational one.

Ryan turned his head back to meet the President's eyes. "Sir, the decision to start a war is almost never rational. World War One, kicked off by some fool killing some something-or-other, 'Poldi,' they called him, the Austrian Foreign Minister. Skilled manipulator, but he didn't factor in the simple fact that his country lacked the power to achieve what he wanted. Germany and Austria-Hungary started the war. They both lost. World War Two, Japan and Germany took on the whole world, never occurred to them that th rest of the world might be stronger. Particularly true of Japan." Ryan went on. "They never really had a plan to defeat us. Hold on that for a moment. The Civil War, started by the South. The South lost. The Franco-Prussian war, started by France. France lost. Almost every war since the Industrial Revolution was initiated by the side which ultimately lost. Q.E.D, going to war is not a rational act. Therefore, the thinking behind it, the why isn't necessarily important, because it was probably erroneous to begin with."

Nothing quite exemplifies this than World War I. The Second World War is more of my area of knowledge, but what little I know about the first one pretty much confirms it was a comedy of errors -- and the joke is on all of us. The war started out because a bunch of people with no sense of the long-term set up a bunch of secret interlocking alliances, each pledging to stand by others when they went to war. So when Serbia and Austria-Hungary found themselves in "mine's bigger than yours" argument over one extremist killing one royal bureaucrat, they whipped out their allies, setting off a domino-like cascade that soon involved nearly every nation in Europe -- and, through their colonies, started fighting around the world.

And no one really understood what the hell they were fighting over, because they weren't really fighting for anything except to prove they were stronger than the rest.

As if to symbolize the utter pointlessness of the war, so many of the battles and events of the war were also marked by sheer lack of foresight. The Ottoman Empire -- already failing and on its way out -- sought to stay out of the war. So, naturally, England pissed all over them, showing them such utter contempt and derision that Germany sought to win their favor. Then Germany pulled a few fast ones and the Ottomans found themselves at war with the Allies, without really knowing what the hell happened. (Short version; longer version is England had been building a couple of battleships for the Ottomans. When war broke out, they decided to not only keep the ships, but the money they'd been paid already. Germany offered the Ottomans a couple of ships that had been trapped in the Mediterranean with the outbreak of war. Then the German crews -- flying under the Ottoman flag -- sailed up and bombarded a few Russian cities. The Russians declared war on the Ottomans, and the rest of the Allies followed suit.)

The entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war brought about whole new levels of farce. It led to some of the worst-planned and worst-executed moves by Great Britain, the intrusion into the Dardanelles by allied naval forces (that failed maneuver cost them three battleships sunk, as well as two battleships and a battle cruiser badly damaged by mines.) That was followed up by the landing at Gallipoli, another defeat that ended up with nearly 100,000 dead and almost a quarter of a million wounded.

Then there was the ground war in France. In the leadup to the war, a great revolution had taken place in military technology. The machine gun had been introduced, along with great strides in artillery. Poison gas was also used copiously. In short, everyone knew how to fend off attacks and how to sterilize battlefields, but no one had yet worked out just how to win the fights. So they fought and fought and fought over the same stretches of land, over and over and over, doing nothing but adding to the piles of corpses.

So, in the end, with over seventeen and a half million troops lost in total from both sides, and another 21 million wounded, what the hell was achieved?

Well, the Ottoman Empire was finished. It'd been tottering on its last legs for some time, but the end of the war put the final nail in its coffin. The triumphant allies took a look at the maps of the area and got out the butcher knives, carving up the corpse into new nations and territories and protectorates and other artificial structures that bore no resemblance to how those living in those areas might want to arrange themselves. Thus we ended up with the roots of the modern Middle East, with various tribes and other ethnic factions lumped into countries that have little national identity, political Frankenstein's monsters that plod along to this day, to the world's constant dismay.

Germany had been the main force on the losing side, so it obviously needed to be punished. And punished so severely that it would never again think about waging aggressive war. Well, that worked out well for about 20 years, then brought about a bit of tidying up called World War II, and that only cost us about 72 million people killed.

France lost pretty much an entire generation in the War, as most of the fighting had taken place on French soil. I know I get pretty good mileage out of French-bashing, but the losses of so many of its young men left a huge scar on the Gauls, and I can't help but speculate that that is a major factor in so many of the things I regularly assail the French over. Then again, maybe I could be feeling a bit softer towards the French of late have been considerably better allies than they have in decades, and I'm not feeling quite so ashamed of my mother's side of the family having some rather hefty French connections.

The United States was disgusted with the whole war and tried to avoid it as long as we could. Then, after the war, we were disgusted with the way the Allies handled the armistice and formal surrender of the Central Powers, and said, essentially, "screw you guys, we're going home" and went back to our isolationism -- a move that cost us dearly when it all went straight back into the toilet less than 20 years later.

And let's not forget that World War I also polished off the weak Russian Empire, bringing us a chain of events that culminated in the rise of the Soviet Union as a superpower -- and communism's death toll, at last count, has broken nine figures, dwarfing the two World Wars combined.

I know it's a logical fallacy to point to a single event as a catalyst for everything that happens afterward. History is a continuum, with each event predicated on prior events, and so on, and so on. But it's so seductive to look at how one man -- Gavrilo Princip -- with one shot from a pistol started a chain of events that ultimately killed at least a quarter of a billion people -- and the toll is still rising.

Today, the United States is fighting in two nations. In Afghanistan, we are trying to make certain that the place where those who attacked us on 9/11 does not sprout another threat to world peace. And in Iraq, we are trying to finish off the job started in 1991, when we finally recognized that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the region. And in neither nation do we have a single, unified enemy that we can recognize on sight, that we can fight against, and that can offer a meaningful surrender to formalize our victory.

Indeed, both of these are different fronts in the same war, the war that historians ought to call "The War on Militant Islam" -- or, if it doesn't go well, "The Great Triumph Of Allah's Righteous Over The Infidels And The Birth Of The Caliphate." Or maybe not. This conflict doesn't lend itself to a catchy title. We've overused World Wars, "War On Terror" was always a bit of a dippy title ("terrorism" isn't an enemy, it's a tactic), and "War On Militant Islam" can imply that Islam is the defender here. I guess I ought to leave it up to those future historians to come up with something appropriate and memorable.

So, on this day when we honor those who have served our nation, we owe it to them -- and ourselves -- to consider very carefully just when we place them in harm's way. It seems that the ones who bear the greatest burden when we go to war are almost never the ones who have any say in the matter. So those of us who do not pay that price need to make absolutely certain that when we do call upon them, it is for something worthy.


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Comments (13)

Actually, the main force be... (Below threshold)
stan25 Author Profile Page:

Actually, the main force behind the Russian Communist Revolution was Germany. The war in Russia was holding back troops that Germany desperately needed on the Western Front (France). Germany provided the money that Lenin and Stalin needed to keep the revolution going. When the Russians signed the separate treaty with Germany, this freed up the troops in the east. As we all know, Ludendorf launched a major offensive as soon as the bulk of the troops arrived in France, which caught the Allies by surprise. The Brits and the French don t like to admit it, but the United States Marines turned the strategic tide of the war to the Allied side at Belloeu Woods. From then on, Germany was on the defensive and eventually sued for peace.

If the French and the British high command had let T E Lawrence do what he wanted to do, there would be no Islamic terrorism as we know it today. No, they wanted the oil that was there and to hell with the native population and we are paying for that today. There would have been no Saddam Hussien or there would have been an Iranian hostage crisis.

Jay: "I guess I ought to... (Below threshold)

Jay: "I guess I ought to leave it up to those future historians to come up with something appropriate and memorable."

how about:
"The War of Survival"
"The War to Preserve Freedom"

because if we DON'T win this war, we will either be DEAD or ENSLAVED! Our enemies want absolutely NOTHING else!

It's just that clear.

This may be kind of picky, ... (Below threshold)

This may be kind of picky, but I'm guessing you meant WW I, not WW II.

Sigh... fixed. Thanks, Daniel.

Whoops, just the first ment... (Below threshold)

Whoops, just the first mention, it was right down below.

And RICHARD GERE said WAR I... (Below threshold)
Spurwing Plover:

And RICHARD GERE said WAR IS NEVER THE ANSWER thats becuase this jerk has lived too long in his pampered privlaged spoiled brat life-style and is too dumb to know what history is

Yep Germany and Great Brita... (Below threshold)
stan25 Author Profile Page:

Yep Germany and Great Britain were involved in a pissing contest, since the end of the Franco-Prussian War and of course, France had to stick their two cents in. France dearly wanted the territory that Germans took from them at the end of that war. Quite naturally ,the Tsar of Russian took an interest in what was going on, because he needed something to take the country s mind off of the growing ineptitude of the Romanoffs and the massive system that ran the Russian Government.

As for tactics in World War 1, most of the higher commanders in Europe, still embraced the Napoleonic Wars style of tactics ie stand shoulder to shoulder in massive formations. The American Civil brought that antiquated concept to a crashing halt, but did the Europeans pay any heed to those changes? Not in the least. Oh, they finally realized it after 3.5 years and the massive amount of casualties that both sides endured. It took Von Ludendorf to show that the tactics that he used were highly effective.

Thus we ended up with th... (Below threshold)

Thus we ended up with the roots of the modern Middle East, with various tribes and other ethnic factions lumped into countries that have little national identity,

Not just in the Middle East. In Africa too.

It's amazing to look back a... (Below threshold)
Dave W:

It's amazing to look back and see what little vision for the future there was back after WW1 that allowed for a rise to power of Hitler, and the forming of the current middle east. If any event would have been different, it could have changed the way the middle east acts and the way they respond to outside influences.

Instead we are dealing with a twisted maniacal batch of ignorant buffoons that think they should intrude on everyone's way of life for the glory of allah.

Unfortunately the argument for war on these people is necessary as they threaten the entire planet. The threat from islam is much much greater than the threat from global warming or any other such nonsense that is spewed on a daily basis.

Well, that worked ... (Below threshold)
Aaron Pollock:
Well, that worked out well for about 20 years, then brought about a bit of tidying up called World War II,
"Once all the Germans were warlike, and mean But that couldn't happen again. We taught them a lesson, in 1918 And they've hardly bothered us since then."
                      -Tom Lehrer, "MLF Lullaby"
stan25,"If the Fre... (Below threshold)


"If the French and the British high command had let T E Lawrence do what he wanted to do, there would be no Islamic terrorism as we know it..."

SQ: What, exactly, did Lawrence want to do?

He wanted to set the Arabs ... (Below threshold)

He wanted to set the Arabs up as their own country. He called a grand council in Damascus as soon at the Turks were defeated at the gates of that city. Allenby and the French representative made sure that would be no support by the British army in anyway possible. They even schemed to wreck the grand council, which they did.

Lawrence knew what was being planned and he hoped that the powers that be would change their minds. That did not happen, so Lawrence resigned his commission and went home.

Several interesting points ... (Below threshold)

Several interesting points occur to me that actually require separate comments
. I remember reading about a proposed treaty with Russia that would have required Russia to fight against itself as it would have been allied to nations that were on opposite sides in the war. Luckilly the Russian forein service managed to convince the Czar not to sign the treaty.

I have seen articles that c... (Below threshold)

I have seen articles that claimed that what we call World War I and World War II were really two phases of the same war. In both cases Germany took on the rest of the world and almost one. I remember seeing an article that stated that the Germans where about to order a charge but the general's pen ran dry and he decided to sign the order in the morning. However, that was the night when the taxis of paris were commandeered to rush reinforcemnets to the line and the Allies won the Battle of the Marne.

I have no idea if it is true or not, but it is certainly an interesting concept.

The entire history of the world change by a single drop of ink.






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