Thoughts on World War I

Yesterday, I was going to write a blog post about the 100th year anniversary of the WWI armistice and of Poland’s independence, but I couldn’t find the right words. I wanted to celebrate with Poland (lord knows they deserve it), while also properly reflecting on the war that killed 7 million civilians and 10 million military personal, shattered three empires, and created a decade of instability and civil wars, culminating in the Second Word War.

            WWI holds an interesting sphere in the US. It is often overshadowed by WWII and I think Americans have a shaky understanding (if any understanding at all) of the causes and consequences of the First World War-to our detriment. I have been saying this for a while, but the claustrophobic feeling of the international arena shares terrifying similarities with the pre-war world and the return of isolationism and nationalism has only made matters worse.

If we learn anything from WWI it should be that no one can fight the entire world and that supporting nationalistic claims of the giants of the world while ignoring the nationalistic claims of small nations and oppressed peoples will only bring the entire system crashing down.

My first introduction to WWI was through David Lean’s movie Lawrence of Arabia. I was seven and they were releasing it in a rundown theater in Seattle. My father took me, despite my mother’s warnings, and I can still remember being transfixed the minute the first note in the overture played. I was too young to fully understand it, but I instinctively understood the romance of riding for freedom and ‘glory’ with the Bedouin and I was instinctively angry and confused by the ending. All that pain and suffering, for what?

I ask that question, every time I think about the war.

What was it for?

Why couldn’t they have ended it sooner?

The disillusionment grows worse when one realizes that WWII was only twenty-one years later.

Twenty-one years.

Because I rode with Lawrence before ever visiting the Somme, WWI will always be associated with the rights of small nations and oppressed people and how global powers will manipulate that desire for their own ends. It may also be because I am an American and it was Woodrow Wilson who wrote about the rights of minorities in his fourteen points. I am not a fan of Wilson, but I fundamentally agree with his assertion that the peoples have a right to self-determination

Henry Kissinger, in his book Diplomacy, argues that Wilson’s points introduced the first hint of ‘Americanism’ into the international arena, providing us a foothold that we would expand upon during WWII and the Cold War. I think, it might be better to think of WWI as introducing America to itself.

WWI was the first time America fought in continental Europe and it was the first time America had to deal with being part of something larger then itself. I often wonder if it had a bigger impact on America, then it did on Europe. It’s hard to detangle the effect WWI had and the effect WWII had, especially since we stayed involved after WWII. But I would argue that the backlash against Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the League of Nations occurred BECAUSE of the shock America suffered having to deal, coordinate, and fight alongside Europe.

Our narrative of WWI always reflects this seeming revulsion of having to be part of something besides America. The Western Powers never would have won without America. America to the rescue again. As if we had done Europe a big favor and the war would never had touched us. As if we weren’t losing ships through the u-boat program and Germany wasn’t trying to incite Mexico to invade America. As if we weren’t providing materials to both sides during the beginning of the war and then only the allied side towards the end. As if we didn’t have men and women traveling to Europe to serve in the French Foreign Legion, Lafayette Escadrille, Red Cross, and other organizations. As if there weren’t national guard units preparing and pushing for America to enter the war.

America cannot stand on its own no more then Germany or Russia or Serbia can stand on its own. If we were to return to the age of great power preying on smaller nations, then we run the risk of repeating the past and this time we may not be able to pull back from all that horror. Might cannot make right. Nations cannot be carved up and traded amongst the great powers. Minorities cannot be persecuted and slaughtered. It should never be forgotten that the first acknowledged case of genocide was the Armenian Genocide.

Given the number of nukes existing in the world and the level of destruction modern weapons can unleash, we cannot afford to misunderstand how technology affects warfare. We cannot be arrogant enough to think that nuclear weapons will prevent war or that we won’t be affected by war or that we’ll somehow survive. Nor can we underestimate how small nation conflicts can affect the international order.

However, I don’t want to ignore the nations that were liberated after WWI, such as the Eastern European and Balkan nations. I think the fact that Armistice Day and Poland’s Independence occur on the same day highlights the inherent contradiction of the First World War. For all of that destruction, the beginning of an international order was created, nations that had been subjected for over a hundred years were freed, and advantages in medicine and various other industries. However, we also can’t forget that the Middle East was turned into colonial territories for France and the UK and that countries like India, South Africa, and Ireland were kept under colonial oppression. We cannot make the same mistake we made in the past. Liberation/self-determination cannot be allowed for a select few and kept from supposedly ‘inferiors’. We cannot support a liberal order or democracy unless everyone is free.

So, this year, on its hundredth anniversary, I am grateful that I have not seen a war in continental Europe, but fear that it will not be the case for long. I can only imagine what it must be like in Poland to celebrate a hundred years of existence as a nation after being wiped off the map for so long. I can only imagine the relief that flowed between both Macron and Merkel as they stood together during the Remembrance Day celebration. I pray that we will remember the past, but not repeat it, and resist those foolish enough to yearn for the days of openly predatorial nations, unabashed colonialism, and harmful and short sighted isolationism and narcissism.

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