The Great and Unremembered War

by John Quiggin on May 29, 2008

This piece by Edward Lengel in in the Washington Post has a lot to say about something I’ve long regarded as critically important in explaining the strength of the war party in the US: the absence of any real recollection of the Great War of 1914-18, the opening round of the bloody conflict that dominated the history of the 20th century, spawning Communism and Nazism, Hitler’s War and the Cold War, and even, in large measure the continuing war in the Middle East. Of course, the US came late to the war, and its losses (50 000 combat deaths) were comparable to those of Australia, with around 10 per cent of the population. But there is more to it than that.

Lengel (a military historian writing on Memorial Day) makes the striking observation

Americans haven’t forgotten about the doughboys. We just didn’t want to hear about them in the first place.
and continues
“The boys would talk if the questioners would listen,” said one embittered ex-doughboy. “But the questioners do not. They at once interrupt with, ‘It’s all too dreadful,’ or, ‘Doesn’t it seem like a terrible dream?’ or, ‘How can you think of it?’ or, ‘I can’t imagine such things.’ It shuts the boys up.” … The Civil War and World War II seem to lend themselves to good storytelling, as long as one avoids the ugly, depressing bits. They appear to have clear beginnings and endings, with dramatic heroes and villains. They move. World War I, by contrast, with its images of trench warfare and mustard gas, is not so easy to manipulate in a marketable manner. Popular historians consequently avoid it.

It would be charitable to interpret the reluctance of Americans to talk about the horrors of the Great War as evidence of inherent pacifism and perhaps this element was present. As Andy McLennan points out in comments at my blog, the main reaction to WWI was an increase in isolationist sentiment: the problem was Europe, not war itself. After isolationism was discredited (which did much to strengthen the War Party) from a distance it looks like WWI was simply forgotten,and the end state is functionally equivalent.

In any case, in the long run, the absence of this most bloodily futile of wars from historical memory has been a huge boon to the war party. With a historical memory of war dominated by the “Good War” against Hitler and the Axis, it’s unsurprising that Americans have been much more willing than the citizens of other democratic societies to accept war as part of the natural order of things.

In Europe by contrast, the Great War and its consequences are still ever-present, and the Second World War is correctly seen as the inevitable product of the First. With all its faults, the EU is widely supported simply because it has been associated with sixty years of peace. Even in Australia where the Gallipoli campaign has long formed the basis of the official national myth, it has been impossible to avoid the fact that thousands of young Australians suffered and died in the most horrible ways, fighting people of whom we had barely heard and with whom we had no quarrel of our own, in a futile diversion from a futile war. Honouring those who died goes hand in hand with a general recognition that they died for the failures of the world’s leaders and that the only proper lesson from their deaths is to hope that we can avoid war in future.

Ignorance of the Great War also produces faulty historical understanding in other respects, as evidenced in the recent flap about appeasement (leaving aside its use by ignorant ranters who have clearly never even heard of Munich). For those without any memory of the Carthaginian peace of Versailles, the policy of appeasement seems to be simply a spineless failure to resist unprovoked aggression, starting with the repudiation of Versailles and the remilitarisation of the Rhineland. But by the 1930s the injustice and untenability of the Versailles settlement was obvious, and fighting a war to enforce it was unthinkable. The fact that merely redressing injustices would do nothing to contain Hitler only become clear gradually. The idea that the failure of appeasement in the 1930s shows that governments should never negotiate with hostile powers is simply silly.



mollymooly 05.29.08 at 10:53 am

“There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: The American Revolution, World War II, and the Star Wars Trilogy” — Bart Simpson

More Americans have compared Iraq to Vietnam than to WWII.


stuart 05.29.08 at 10:57 am

Failures of leadership causing WWI always makes me remember this:

Edmund: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent. That way there could never be a war.
Baldrick: But this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?
Edmund: Yes, that’s right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.
George: What was that, sir?
Edmund: It was bollocks.


A. Y. Mous 05.29.08 at 11:12 am

The U. S. of A. got nothing out of WW1. Except an opportunity to grab the whole wide world a few decades later – WW1 neccesitated WW2. But, that’s hindsight. So, yes. It is a forgettable war. Not enough spoils to be had. Why remember a wasted effort?


magistra 05.29.08 at 11:24 am

There are two reasons why World War I is remembered so much in the UK. One is that happened in the middle of a culture of permanent public memorialisation (which I guess extended from the Victorian period to WW2). Bunches of flowers fade, stone memorials last for centuries. So almost every church (even in small rural parishes) still has its visible war memorial, as do town centres, London railway stations (Waterloo’s is very prominent) etc. And secondly, World War I poetry is standard in English schools, because it’s both moving and relatively accessible in its language, as compared to Victorian and earlier poetry. I think it’s those factors as much as the war’s actual impact that keeps its memory alive in Britain. Blackadder IV does show signs of becoming a third factor in the memorialisation, but I’m not sure if the effect of that will linger: are ‘Breaker Morant’ and ‘Gallipoli’ still potent in Australians’ memory?


leinad 05.29.08 at 11:39 am

4: yes, both are fairly potent themes in the national legend – the former much more so.


George 05.29.08 at 11:42 am

WW II. Ah yes; the good war. You had a crypto-apartheid partial democracy, an empire that oppressed millions, and one of the vilest dictatorships in history; and those were the good guys.


Otto Pohl 05.29.08 at 11:45 am

WWI is hardly unique in not being as popular a topic for writers as WWII or the Civil War. There is also lot less popular literature on the Korean War than on WWII or Vietnam. But, I do not see how any of this has any bearing on current US policies. It is not as if the British who are obsessed with WWI then abjured from war in places like Iraq. The memory of WWI seemed not to have dampened the British and French “war parties” one bit as late as 1956 when they attacked Egypt.


Mikhail 05.29.08 at 11:59 am

“evidence of inherent pacifism”

you’ve got to be kidding! Americans are among the most warlike nations there is. It’s in their nature to settle arguments with force. This comes from the Wild West background and from never having to face the consequences of a war! The main reason for the strength of a War Party in the US is that there has never been a war on the American soil. The Civil War and the revolution don’t really count because (a) they were too long ago and (b) they were not agaist a foreign enemy – they were among the Americans and that’s different. The population in the US has no memory at all of the destruction and suffering endured by the general population during a war – thus the willingness to take it to others…


fjm 05.29.08 at 12:26 pm

4. World War I is remembered in the UK because *so many died*. Also, thanks to “Pals Battalions” whole school years, whole villages of boys, were wiped out. We have just as many memorials to the Boer war but because it was a small professional army, it had far less impact.

There is a lovely book came out last year called Singled Out about the women left behind that points out that almost every woman, from the age of 15 in 1918 upwards spent the rest of their life mourning a brother, a fiance, a husband or a son. If you read any “popular” book written before about 1980 when these women were dying off, someone always has an old photograph on the mantlepiece, someone’s aunt or granny has always worn black. There’s strong evidence that the entire UK education system and welfare state was built by women left behind by the war–surplus labour.

But that isn’t what I came here to say: some of the strongest evidence of the way the US “misunderstood” WWI is in US quest fantasies. All of these “Tolkeinesque” fantasies convert Tolkien’s rejection of great power, and acceptance of the awfulness of war, into some kind of glorification. The ommission of “The Scouring of the Shire:” from the films was not unexpected.


Tom T. 05.29.08 at 12:33 pm

Whereas a much closer and more brutal experience with WWI led Germany, the UK, France, and the USSR to renounce war thereafter? Except for WWII? John, this thesis doesn’t hold up.


SCM 05.29.08 at 12:59 pm

Magistra — it would be very sad if Australians were to use Breaker Morant as a way to remember WWI.


stuart 05.29.08 at 1:00 pm

Tom. T, surely the entire point was that UK and France were much less willing to go to war before WWII, to the point that most consider them far too pacifist/appeasing to the aggression of the axis powers in the 30s, which supports the theory. For the other two you have a better argument, but there are also confounding issues, for example a major factor in Germany was the WWI peace terms helping lay the seeds for WWII, and Russia had a completely different form of government and society to the one that was involved in WWI, so it would seem harder to trace the what impact it had there.


joseph duemer 05.29.08 at 1:09 pm

These fought, in any case,
and some believing, pro domo, in any case …

Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later …

some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some pro patria, non dulce non et decor” …

walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;

usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.

Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
Fair cheeks, and fine bodies;

fortitude as never before

frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.


There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

–Ezra Pound, from “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly”

It has been argued that the waste & slaughter of WWI is in part responsible for turning many intellectuals and artists toward fascism. In that sense, much of Anglo-American High Modernism can be read as a cultural reaction to the consequences of WWI.


Jacob T. Levy 05.29.08 at 1:38 pm

I think matters are worse than John describes. It’s not just that WWII eclipsed the memory of WWI– it’s that WWI cleansed the memory of WWI. To the (high) degree that Americans once understood the two as continuous, it had the effect that those who had opposed WWI in the first place, whether on pacifist or on non-interventionist grounds, were discredited thereafter. The fact that the Germans turned out to be *so* awful meant that it must have been right to fight them the first time.

In other words, the effect of WWII on WWI was less an eclipse than a halo. The good war made a bad war better, in historical memory.


Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 05.29.08 at 1:58 pm

“The ommission of “The Scouring of the Shire:” from the films was not unexpected.”

Yeah, but Jackson is a kiwi, but didn’t like the Scouring of the Shire. (To me, leaving out the scouring radically alters the message of the story.)


ajay 05.29.08 at 2:00 pm

12: as for the USSR, they didn’t exactly plunge into war with Germany – Stalin was terrified of the prospect, as witness his reaction to people like Richard Sorge, whose warnings he dismissed as “British provocations”.


Jeff Rubard 05.29.08 at 2:07 pm

This is — how do you say? — cod oral historiography. Even if the doughboys wanted to tell their stories, most of the living American public couldn’t hear them; my great-grandfather was in the AEF, but he died forty years before I was born, and a lot of people aren’t as close as that. I did know quite a number of American WWII vets when I was younger, and the definite impression I got was that “the done thing” was not to tell stories — when they did, they would make them as absurdist or nihilistic as possible. Hard to get a prowar message out of that.

Stepping outside living memory, it seems strange to think that a country with a permanent fixation on the first modern war, which had an incredible cost in lives and which many cannot but remember as an affront, would lack for examples that “war is all hell”. And as far as I can tell, it is historically inaccurate to think that World War I did not make Americans loath to fight; casting its influence on sentiment as “isolationist” is prejudicial, since a somewhat hazy hatred of arms merchants was as big a result as Lindberghianism.

Returning to the present, I think for the purposes of assessing Iraq it is more important that the US consider its history of sinister “projects” in non-European countries than that it further remember fighting with and against the (partially) consanguine. I fear people are getting worse, rather than better, at considering Guatemala and Haiti (and does the list go on) and that clarity about these “police actions” is the order of the day. We need to face the world, and I think we should try to do it eye-to-eye.

Americans are bad at remembering history; lots of people my age have only a vague idea who President Johnson was, and don’t think it’s because they lack schooling. But others doing a bad job remembering our history for us helps deliver our public discourse into the arms of idolatrous Establishment scholars, and their “re-revisionism” is no small component in the justification for the American nightmare.


Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 05.29.08 at 2:12 pm

“This piece by Edward Lengel in in the Washington Post has a lot to say about something I’ve long regarded as critically important in explaining the strength of the war party in the US: the absence of any real recollection of the Great War of 1914-18”

This is true: but it’s also the case for almost all wars the U.S. has been involved in (save the Civil War, for idiosyncratic reasons). Aside from the central myth of the wars in questions (WW2 and the Cold War = US saved world from dictatorship, Vietnam = dolchstoss from Dirty Hippies), you don’t find a lot of granularity of public understanding of events.

There’s also an absence of public memorials in public spaces (well, there’s a general lack of public spaces, and most suburbs post-date the wars in question). It was one of the things that struck me most when I moved to the US; the absence of physical memorials.


Matt 05.29.08 at 2:12 pm

The fact that merely redressing injustices would do nothing to contain Hitler only become clear gradually.

To many people, yes. Which is why many others have looked to those who had a solid understanding of who he was from an earlier point. Like the former pacifist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who quickly came to argue for US entry into WWII (and also wrote the serenity prayer). Hitler was quite explicit about what he wanted – he was only ever ‘rational’ in how he tried to go about achieving an insane, revolutionary, utopian vision when dealing with other powers.


roac 05.29.08 at 2:14 pm

Oh, come on. Next to Bombadil, the Scouring was the thing that most obviously had to be cut.

The most demoralizing thing, to me, about the reaction to the movies was the number of otherwise intelligent and sympathetic critics who thought the third one should have ended after the coronation scene. And it would have, too, if Walsh and Jackson had their way. Philippa Boyens had to stage a major fit to keep the real ending in.


EnlightenedDuck 05.29.08 at 2:17 pm

#8 – Try walking through the University of South Carolina sometime proclaiming the greatness of Sherman. The South remembers the depredations of the Civil War. And yet the South is heavily Republican, more likely to join the armed forces, and more likely to support foreign military interventions than other parts of the country.


socialrepublican 05.29.08 at 2:29 pm

If I may suggest –

R.N. Stromberg, Redemption by War: The Intellectuals and 1914. (Lawrence: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1982)

War in 1914 Europe was viewed as both a catastrophe and a chance at regenerating a meaningless anomic world.. War, upheaval and violence in Europe did not really finish till 1925 by which time the two legacies had been nourished by suffering and fear. Emilio Gentile is particularly good on the links between Italian intervention and cathartic violence


franck 05.29.08 at 2:31 pm


But Stalin did plunge into war, just not with Germany. He was quite happy to fight the Finns, the Baltics, the Poles, the Japanese, etc. It’s not correct to paint Stalin as reluctant to wage war – he just wanted to fight smaller, less powerful enemies that he could overwhelm and annex.


Aulus Gellius 05.29.08 at 2:47 pm

The Civil War and World War II seem to lend themselves to good storytelling, as long as one avoids the ugly, depressing bits.

I don’t think the Civil War is usually told without the ugly, depressing bits: the most cliched things one hears said about it are how terrible it was that “brother fought brother,” and how more Americans died in it than in all other wars together (I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly said quite often). And the “dramatic heroes and villains” don’t actually make as large a part of the story as one might expect; even though one side was fighting for slavery, the traditional attitude (right or not) is one of “malice toward none,” and sorrow for the dead of both sides. And of course, the claim that Americans only think about the Civil War and WWII pretty obviously leaves out attitudes towards Vietnam, which don’t fit into Lengel’s claims at all (unless he deals with that in the full article).

Really, I don’t think you need to look so far for an explanation of different attitudes toward WWI. For Europe, it was a five-year war that cost an unprecedentedly huge number of lives; for America it was a one-year war that was a lot less bloody than the Civil War.


Picador 05.29.08 at 3:10 pm


I believe the reference to “inherent pacifism” was in the context of 1920, not 2008; the complaint of the WWI vet was that people at the time were unwilling to discuss the horrors of the recent war. And I think that may have been a factor: at that time, the spectre of the Civil War was still active in the US, and people were still alive who remembered what it was like to live in a war-torn country. When that generation died, however, the US lost that memory, and has never regained it. And I agree with you that that memory is the most significant distinction between the US and most of the rest of the world.


World War I is remembered in the UK because so many died.

I think that’s right, and I think it also explains a lot about attitudes toward war in the US versus Canada. Canada lost about half as many men in WWI as the US, but their population was less than 10% of the US. The figures work out to roughly 2% of the UK population dying, 1% of the Canadian population, and .15% of the US population.

Accordingly, Veterans Day is observed in Canada with a great deal of reverence and public display, while I’ve never seen anyone do anything special for it in the US. I get the sense that that war was the last time Canada was willing to sacrifice a generation of men for such stupid reasons.


ajay 05.29.08 at 3:12 pm

22: OK, fair point. But I think that still represents a significant change from pre-Great War Russia (and the other Great Powers) which were all quite happy to go to war with other nations of equivalent size.

Perhaps, for the Soviet government, the real takeaway from the Great War was “don’t go to war with Germany” or “don’t get involved in a major European war” rather than “don’t go to war tout court“.

There was certainly, contra 10, a significant change in their attitude towards war, as there was in the attitude of all the European powers except Germany.


Tom T. 05.29.08 at 3:14 pm

Re: 12. I’m reading John’s post differently. He’s asserting that WWI has made Europe more pacifist than the US today, not before WWII. My response was meant to suggest that it seems implausible that the lesson Europe learned from WWI was pacifism, when in fact the continent found itself in an even vaster war a generation later.

It just seems to me that current differences in attitudes toward military action will have been so heavily influenced by the effects of WWII and post-WWII defense policy that WWI just doesn’t carry a lot of explanatory power.


John Emerson 05.29.08 at 3:29 pm

I have never heard a WWII veteran tell a war story, and that includes my father and 3 or 4 uncles. I don’t think that war propaganda usually comes from soldier or ex-soldiers; in fact, getting all but the pro-war veterans to shut up is part of the job. (The veterans who join the VFW or American Legion tend to be the hawkish ones; most of the veterans I know personally don’t join.)

Before WWI there were active pacifist and radical anti-war movements, and it came to nothing. Many ordinary people were happy to see a war begin; it was insane — the cleansing power of violence, patriotism, heroism, the search for meaning, blah blah blah.

Most of the WWI literature I can remember was disillusioned (“The Lost Generation”), and that made the glorification of WWI difficult. As far as that goes, many of the great WWI writers didn’t write about the war because they died in it.

I am convinced that the WWI is the turning point and that WWII was a spinoff. As far as I can tell, the nation-state and its institutions were the villains, and the cultural supports for militarism were derivative and relatively unimportant (in 1913 there were both strong nationalist-militarist and strong pacifist / anti-war cultural movements, but only the first made any difference.)


Henry 05.29.08 at 3:30 pm

bq. But that isn’t what I came here to say: some of the strongest evidence of the way the US “misunderstood” WWI is in US quest fantasies. All of these “Tolkeinesque” fantasies convert Tolkien’s rejection of great power, and acceptance of the awfulness of war, into some kind of glorification. The ommission of “The Scouring of the Shire:” from the films was not unexpected.

Farah – I’ve just finished reading your fascinating account of LOTR in _Rhetorics of Fantasy_ (will write up my reactions to the book in general when I get back to blogging). But there’s an interesting relationship between what you describe as Tolkien’s rejection of great power (which you develop in your argument about the Ring), and his account of politics. On the one hand, the nominally apolitical ‘anarcho-communalism’ of the Shire, on the other, the

bq. high politics of Middle Earth. Essentially high politics, it is the politics of kings and princes, wardens, and stewards, of decisions made and mysteriously carried out. The carrying out is never depicted, the link between decision and action is hidden. This is politics as magic, the will and the word transmuted.

Both of these, as you present them, are flights from politics – either into a bucolic rural community where politics more or less takes care of itself, or a high politics where we can and should leave grand decisions over war and the like to the Big Folks, who understand them better. And when a little person like Frodo becomes one of the Big Folks, he can never really go back.

While Tolkien is rejecting the awfulness of war (and its aftermath) in the LOTR, my first half-arsed reaction is that there is something interesting and weird in his abnegation of politics, which maybe has to do with WWI. He’s interested, perhaps obsessed with the consequences of war, but never wants to talk about war’s origins in any serious way, because that would get him embroiled in a discussion of politics that would be hard to fit into his ontological scheme of the world. Individual decency on the one hand, and lordly destiny on the other, substitute for any discussion of how wars happen, how people have clashing interests and understandings of the world and all that stuff (the only real exception I can think of is the Denethor-Faramir-Boromir triangle, and that is as much a family squabble as anything else).


Bruce Baugh 05.29.08 at 3:30 pm

The loss of WWI from US historical memory has consequences in unexpected places, since it was the excuse for an overnight boom in the power of the federal government. The equivalent of institutions that European nations had been tinkering up since Bismarck were laid down in very rapid fiat, with war needs as the excuse for a great centralization of power on terms usually very friendly to big business. Regulation of citizens’ movement, work, and public speech all increased a lot. So did the federalization of racist and otherwise bigoted discrimination. It is in a lot of ways reminiscent of the national security justification we get these days – given a rush to Do Stuff, the president and his administration did a lot of listening to whoever seemed to have a scheme.

Sometimes this led to good stuff. The emergence of a federal health service, for instance, was pretty much good all around…except insofar as it fed a particular style of professionalization of the role of doctors that screwed over nurses’ independence of action and cost a lot of poor people much of their health care. Sometimes there was no compensatory good stuff unless you happened to be a captain of industry. Sometimes I’d hate to have to say “that was overall worthwhile” or not. But it was a whole lot of state development done very rapidly and most of it left in place after the war, without anything like systematic evaluation or criticism. It all became just how we do things.


vanya 05.29.08 at 3:39 pm

WWI was a very painful and ugly experience for a lot of Americans at home and it’s not surprising that people wanted to forget it as quickly as possible. In 1913 the single largest non-anglo ethnic group in the US were German-Americans. In Milwaukee, in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, St. Louis, New York City and elsewhere there were still thriving German language schools, German language newspapers, German language churches, German language theatres, etc. Within the space of a few years all this was repressed, sometimes violently, millions of German Americans had to turn their backs on their culture to show their patriotism and bona fides. I think a lot of Americans just wanted to put that war behind them as quickly as possible.


anon 05.29.08 at 3:56 pm

“by the 1930s the injustice and untenability of the Versailles settlement was obvious”

Quiggin, the notion of a “Carthaginian peace” is a myth. You’re obviously unaware of recent historiography concerning the treaty (by recent I mean the past 40 years or so) so you should probably keep away from the subject. The the “Carthaginian peace” is still being taught in order to justify appeasement and heap blame for collapse of the interwar order on France. Sorry you’ve been taken in by nationalist Anglo-American propaganda.


Flying Rodent 05.29.08 at 4:01 pm

Don’t underestimate the importance of film in nations’ recollections which are, of course, subject to market rules – the people do not wished to be bummed out, man. Put simply, Saving Private Ryan was filled with opportunities for ruminating on the call of patriotic duty, while Gallipoli wasn’t. Similarly, The Dambusters gets a remake, but I think I’ll be waiting a long time to watch Mel Gibson play the war-crazed schoolteacher in a new All Quiet on the Western Front.

That’s before we get to the kind of emotions I feel whenever I’m confronted with the reality of WWI – not empathy for the soldiers, but wild anger and regret that so few of the generals and politicians involved in the genesis and conduct of the war finished it swinging from lamp posts*.

That kind of thing isn’t the type of message the ruling classes in, say, America or Russia want the populace thinking on too much, is it? Especially the latter, where they too are far keener on the Great Patriotic War, and a nation ruled by millionaire kleptocrats probably doesn’t want to prod memories of Tsar Nicolas.

Incidentally, Tony Judt wrote an excellent article on just this issue a couple of months back.

It’s particularly good on how we treat history in the modern age, especially the tendency to regard it as another country with little to teach us beyond “Tyrants must be stopped at Munich – Bombs away!”

*Prussians first, Haig second, everyone else after that.


Tom Hurka 05.29.08 at 4:07 pm

John’s thesis about the US vs. Europe is hard to square with some facts.

For example, in the leadup to the 1991 Gulf War, public opinion in the UK was *significantly* more favourable to war than in the US. Because of lukewarm US public opinion, the vote approving the war in the US Senate was very close, with lots of well-known senators (e.g. Nunn, Moynihan) voting against.

The UK remembered WWI, the US did not, and yet the UK public was significantly more pro-war than the US public in 1991. Go figure.


bigTom 05.29.08 at 4:10 pm

A big part of the US forgetfulness of WWI was the ambiguity of our participation. On the one hand we see ourselves as joining into a pointless futile slaughter. On the other, we see that the destructive stalemate had to be broken, and our entry into it pretty much guaranteed that it would end quickly. Then there is the huge disappointment with having been sold on it as the “war to end all wars”, then discovering that that was not its result.


Kieran 05.29.08 at 4:12 pm

War in 1914 Europe was viewed as both a catastrophe and a chance at regenerating a meaningless anomic world.

Weber and Durkheim both took something like this view, I think.


Peter 05.29.08 at 5:09 pm

As a Yankee transplant to the American South, I really have to agree with EnlightenedDuck: this notion that American’s are warlike because they have no historical sense of the horror and consequences that attended a conflict such and WWI simply does not hold water. The South is arguably that most militarily-oriented part of the country. It is here that martial values are mostly deeply held and revered.

And it is here that the memory of exactly the sort of costs we are all talking about is most acute. The Civil War was searing a defeat, and in a country (America) that does not handle most *victories* gracefully or with gentility, let alone defeat. It devastated the South’s economy and culture (which is not to defend the foundation of either, but simply to say that that was what it was). The casualties were simply staggering, and the destruction did reach into the living rooms of Southerners (Sherman is the most well-known example of the Union men who brought the war home to the South). The memory of this lives every day in this area of the South, in a thousand little ways. And yet these people will not shrink from a fight.

I just don’t think this core idea holds water.


Peter 05.29.08 at 5:10 pm

Apologies for a few grammatical errors in that last post: I’m doing about 24 things at one, with all of the normal consequences.


Matthew Kuzma 05.29.08 at 5:28 pm

Vietnam was a shining example of social awareness amidst America’s general head-in-the-sand approach to the horrors of war. Americans just avoid listening to stories about injustice and atrocity unless they know they have a happy ending, as the unpopularity of any movies about the current war has shown.


Martin James 05.29.08 at 5:31 pm

I think the primary view of wars in the USA is that one side should win them.

The Revolutionary War, Civil War, Mexican-American War, War with the Indians, WWII all are seen as cases where life was better for the winners than the losers. With the exception of the War with the Indians, the general public sentiment is that were not a waste of lives.

The wars that are treated as a waste of lives are those without a clear enough winner – WWI, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf I, etc.

The European experience is hard for US citizens to grasp because for all the Euro wars, no peoples ever really seem to have lost. Nobody had to give up slavery, nobody got moved off to reservations, no colonies extracted revenge on the European homeland. European wars do seem therefore somewhat pointless.

For US citizens its different. For us to say wars are bad is basically saying that the country is bad because it was built on wars from start to finish.

As for public memorials, I’m reminded of an article by James Fallows where he describes the reaction of his French friends to the war memorial for the marines that lists each encounter and what a prodigious amount of space had been left to engrave new names for future battles…


Righteous Bubba 05.29.08 at 5:32 pm

Who is supposed to be remembering WWI in order to avoid calamity? The nitwits propagandists and zealots who make up the executive branch?

There is plenty of history we can learn from but it’s probably more important to learn not to vote for imbeciles and to understand what evidence is. No analogies or remembered catastrophes were required to understand that Iraq was a stupid adventure on the part of fools.


Dave 05.29.08 at 5:32 pm

BTW, I do like the idea that the USA took nothing from WW1 – it’s true, of course, if you discount the opportunity to go from being a debtor nation to the world’s biggest creditor…. Leaving aside the Doughboys [and their later incarnation as the Bonus Army, etc], the USA had a dam’ good war, 14-18….


abb1 05.29.08 at 5:38 pm

Vanya, #31: In 1913 the single largest non-anglo ethnic group in the US were German-Americans.

I suspect that in 1913 (as well as today) people of German descent constituted the largest ethnic group, period.


Ozzie Maland 05.29.08 at 5:44 pm

A timeline for the US’ 20th century love-hate re war:

Theodore Roosevelt wrote in “The Strenuous Life” (1900): “It is only the warlike power of a civilized people that can give peace to the world.”

1945, The Preamble to the United Nations Charter, which reads as follows:


· to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind

This charter was signed at San Francisco, and the predecessor proposal from Dumbarton Oaks (Washington Conversations on International Peace and Security Organization. October 7, 1944) was also evidence of US interest in maintaining peace – consider:

Pamphlet No. 4, PILLARS OF PEACE
Documents Pertaining To American Interest In Establishing A Lasting World Peace:
January 1941-February 1946
Published by the Book Department, Army Information School,
Carlisle Barracks, Pa., May 1946

· There should be established an international organization under the title of The United Nations, the Charter of which should contain provisions necessary to give effect to the proposals which follow.
· The purposes of the Organization should be:
· 1. To maintain international peace and security; and to that end to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace and the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means adjustment or settlement of international disputes which may lead to a breach of the peace;
· 2. To develop friendly relations among nations and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;

(Notice the reference to *American* Interest In Establishing A Lasting World Peace, this reference being catalogued by the US Army Information School.)

January 17, 1961: in his farewell speech to the nation, Eisenhower warned that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex… Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Excerpt from the 1997 “Statement of Principles” of New American Century:”

[What we require is] a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities…The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire. The history of the past century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership.

NYTimes’ columnist Thomas Friedman in 1998 opined that the US should give war a chance.

I submit this timeline as evidence that the US did not experience the horror of WWI sufficiently to make its post-WWII commitment to peace strong enough to prevent another big swing pro-war at the end of the century.

Aloha ~~~ Ozzie Maland ~~~ San Diego


SamChevre 05.29.08 at 5:57 pm

Let me just second and extend peter’s comment. The South remembers the War Between the States, quite well; it was a civilization-destroying defeat; and the casualties were about as great (deaths as a % of population) as France’s casualties in the Great War.

Southerners are still pro-military.


Nabakov 05.29.08 at 6:20 pm

With his usual uncanny nose for the current gestalt of nostalgia (there must be a German word for this), Nicholson Baker has just released this
which I’ve just finished reading on the tram every morning on my way to work.

It’s a massive and deadpan presented collection of newspaper editorials, diary and letter extracts, contemporary commentary, speeches, judicious samplings of what Ballard called “invisible literature” and a whole bunch of other source material assembled chronologically in short sharp bites from 1892 to 1942.

It paints a stunning portrait of Western culture irresistibly turning into a inevitable tsunami of total war over half a century – with well meaning and often heroic dissenting individuals just bobbing around like corks on the crest of the wave.

A profoundly sad book that left me happy we now live in a world where it can be published and then purchased around the globe.

The title of the book comes from a Wehrmacht general who fell out of favour with Hitler, as he contemplated the ashes that blew in through the window of his cell at Auschwitz, just before he became human smoke too.


duncan 05.29.08 at 6:23 pm

This is admittedly based on a very partial knowledge of it, but the American South’s militaristic attitude has always struck as being based on a kind of never-to-be satisfied revanchism, a bit like the French Third Republic. Perhaps the key thing about the British and French memories of WW1 is that they won, and yet it was for nothing. Germany on the other hand was susceptible to the same revanchist feeling up to WW2, but the scale of the Nazi atrocities was horrifying enough to shock the population out of any kind of defeated side’s resentment.


roac 05.29.08 at 6:50 pm

Henry at 29: How Tolkien managed to be simultaneously a monarchist and an anarchist is a mystery to me, but it is clear from his published Letters that he sincerely held both positions. It is equally clear however that he was not any kind of imperialist, and that he was humane through and through.

You mentioned Faramir, which gives me an excuse to haul out a quote:

“. . . I know you well. Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That mnay well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be rep;aid with death.”

“So be it,” said Faramir.

“So be it!” cried Denethor. “But not with your death only, Lord Faramir, but with the death also of your father, and of all your people, whom it is your part to protect now that Boromir is gone.”

I can’t read that now without thinking: Denethor is Cheney.


Peter 05.29.08 at 7:02 pm

It is possible that there is some element of truth to what you say about the South’s martial values, but I am sort of skeptical. From my reading, this place has basically always been a factor in the South. My only point is that it was not, in fact, derailed by exactly the kind of collective memory experience the post and many of the comments in it implicitly suggest WWI might have imparted. I don’t think this counter-example to the core argument can so easily be written off.

The shadow of Silent Sam* is long, but has not fundamentally changed this place in the sense of its martial values.

*Silent Sam is the local nickname for a memorial statue of a CSA soldier who has from his post on the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus borne silent witness to an ever, but not all, changing South.


Peter 05.29.08 at 7:02 pm

Sorry, meant to write “From my reading, this has basically always been a factor in the South. “


Barry 05.29.08 at 7:08 pm

With the American South, it’d also be the apartheid system – continual violence was needed to keep it going, which produced a strange culture.


Peter 05.29.08 at 7:21 pm

Maybe, but remember Barry that places like New York (my home state) had slavery (complete with brutal suppression of slave uprisings) for most of the period that Southern States did and has, on and off but often for long periods, experimented with exactly the sort of implements of an apartheid system that I think you are referring to.

Even moving past race, I think that, for instance, the experience of poor Irish in NY in the 19th century reveals elements of the social and institutional structure of the time that most New Yorkers would rather find in Mississippi’s present than their own (not so distant) past.

Some of my people were your standard burly Irish cops in “enlightened”, “progressive” (“palatable to Europeans”-said jokingly) Massachusetts in the early 20th century. Their role as a social control tool, as well as the means by which to achieve that goal, was made perfectly clear to them.

Etc. etc.

Once again, it gets a lot messier up close.


nick s 05.29.08 at 7:40 pm

One has to wonder whether cultural distancing over the Great War in the US has made it easier for Niall Ferguson to market his increasingly obsessive counterfactual from over there — i.e. that if Britain had stayed out, there’d still be a British Empire, instead of the American half-arsed version of Empire.

It plays into the very different domestic treatment of Wilson that Americans generally learn (if they learn it at all), by comparison to the British classroom line on post-Wilson isolationism.

(Listening to Thomas Laqueur’s history lectures to Berkeley undergrads, there appears to be a historiographical trend towards seeing 1914-1945 as a modern 30 Years’ War, which has a certain amount going for it.)


Bruce Wilder 05.29.08 at 7:43 pm

It seems rather peculiar, in a post about historical memory, to posit the First World War as a point of origin: “. . . the Great War of 1914-18, the opening round of the bloody conflict that dominated the history of the 20th century, spawning Communism and Nazism, Hitler’s War and the Cold War, and even, in large measure the continuing war in the Middle East.”

Was there no history, before the First World War, which might figure in the development of any of what followed?

Was the First World War the “opening round”?

Another way of seeing the sweep of European history is to catalog the First and Second World Wars as two halves of an interrupted revolution and civil war — the last in a long series, necessary to overthrow the feudal ancien regime.


Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 05.29.08 at 7:53 pm

“Next to Bombadil, the Scouring was the thing that most obviously had to be cut.”

I’d put the “Aragorn takes a bath” bit in the film version of the Two Towers before the Scouring, myself.

Roac wrote:
‘I can’t read that now without thinking: Denethor is Cheney.’

Then when’s Dick gonna immolate himself on a pyre in Arlington Cemetery? [I want to set the VCR to record in case I’m out of the house.]

On the U.S. South and militarism: folks have to remember that the U.S. military plays a powerful social role (it’s almost like a state-within-a-state) and that its veteran’s program’s are the closest to social democracy in the U.S. (and is a source of social mobility). The South was poor, and so in the days of a volunteer army its contributed more than its share of personnel to the U.S. military.


Bruce Baugh 05.29.08 at 8:12 pm

This is not relevant, but the best MST3K-style snipe I heard on any of the LOTR movies came from a friend watching Denethor’s drop: “Wow, it’s really got to suck to have your last thought be ‘Oh, hey, Rohan showed up after all.'”


virgil xenophon 05.29.08 at 8:14 pm

Yes, the martial spirit has always been strong in the South, a fact attributed to the strong influence of the Scots-Irish who heavily settled the region A little known fact is that LSU’s first president was William Tecumseh Sherman (pre-Civil war, and at LSU’S precursor, LMI–Louisiana Military Institute). Even today two Confederate cannon that fired on Fort Sumpter sit in front of the Military Science ROTC Bldg. on campus.

WWI is not as forgotten as one might think–it is perhaps a generational thing, with the younger
generation not knowing where to look. Almost every small town in America both in the North and South east of the Mississippi have a monument to the WWI “doughboy” in the town square (or in front of the Post Office as it is in my home town of Charleston, Ill.). In the South, they are usually side by side with earlier Civil War statuary–not
so much emphasis in the North, except for really big ones like the one in Market Square in Indianapolis, Ind. The bell tower, or Campanile, at LSU is a monument to LSU’s WWI vets, and a fixture of the main quadrangle. LSU’s class rings feature the tower with crossed sabres on one side of the ring, and the school itself bears the nickname of “the Old War Skule.” At Eastern Ill. Univ. in Charleston the football field was named for the first EIU graduate killed in WWI and his name inscribed on a plaque affixed to a large boulder that used to sit in the end-zone. When the stadium was enlarged in the 70’s they renamed the field and stadium and unceremoniously dumped both the name and the rock. As I say, its in part a generational thing.


roac 05.29.08 at 8:50 pm

Further to Henry’s 29 and my 48: I went back and looked at Tolkien’s view of power politics as set out in Letters No. 183 (not actually a letter but a meditation in response to a review by Auden). I thought it was worth posting a rather long quote (the whole piece runs several pages):

It seems clear to me that Frodo’s duty was “humane” not political. He naturally thought first of the Shire, since his roots were there, but the quest had as its object not the preserving of this or that polity, such as the half republic half aristocracy of the Shire, but the liberation from an evil tyranny of all the “humane” – including those, such as “easterlings” and Haradrim, that were still servants of the tyranny.

Denethor was tainted with mere politics: hence his failure, and his mistrust of Faramir. It had become with him a prime motive to preserve the polity of Gondor, as it was, against another potentate, who had made himself stronger and was to be feared and opposed for that reason rather than because he was ruthless and wicked. Denethor despised lesser men, and one may be sure did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor. If he had survived as victor, even without use of the Ring, he would have taken a long stride to becoming himself a tyrant, and the terms and treatment he accorded to the deluded peoples of east and south would have been cruel and vengeful. He had become a “political” leader: sc. Gondor against the rest.


roac 05.29.08 at 8:51 pm

Goddamn HTML tags. Apparently you have to tag each paragraph separately. The quote runs to the end of the post.


virgil xenophon 05.29.08 at 8:54 pm

I might add that one of the lasting legacies of WWI was the infusion of both a post-Wilson isolationist impulse in the American cultural ethos on the one hand and, paradoxically, the interventionist strain of Wilsonian idealism(“We are going down in Mexico to teach the Mexicans how to elect good men!”) that seems to have precluded the election ever again of a leadership cadre capable of playing the role of “Perfidious Albion.”–a role, it seems to me, to be useful more often than not in the successful conduct of foreign affairs. “Secret treaties, secretly arrived at!” is my motto. Or, at the very least if
one insists: “Open Treaties, secretly arrived at.”


virgil xenophon 05.29.08 at 9:13 pm

More on the martial South.

The story goes that an Army drill instructor told his charges: “There are only three kinds of people in this man’s Army: White Southerners, Black Southerners–and everybody else.”


notsneaky 05.29.08 at 9:44 pm

“Was the First World War the “opening round”?”

Yeah. What about Bismarck? Wasn’t WWI just a continuation of the Franco-Prussian War (with Austria switching sides)?


John Quiggin 05.29.08 at 10:12 pm

I agree that the South plays a big role as the base of the US war party. I’ve been planning to post on this for a while, and obviously I should do so.


Peter 05.29.08 at 10:18 pm

“Of course, the US came late to the war, and its losses (50 000 combat deaths) were comparable to those of Australia, with around 10 per cent of the population.”

10 percent? Shurely, shome mishtake! The true proportion was closer to 5 percent.

According to Wikipedia, Australia’s population in 1916 was 4,943,1730:

The US population as measured in the 1910 census was 92,228,496.


smaug 05.29.08 at 10:29 pm

The ommission of “The Scouring of the Shire:” from the films was not unexpected.

FJM is right that in the US, the quest fantasies tend to glorify war, but not this is because courage in combat in thought of as glorious, not that war itself is.

However, the omission of the “Scouring of the Shire” I think reflects not the filmmakers refusal to confront the horrors of war, but their desire to be apolitical. In the “Scouring,” the Hobbits’ efforts to secure themselves enslaves them, and the shire is defaced in order to save it. The potential parallel to US security myopia is clear. Likewise, the the result of the Entmoot is changed. Rather than deliberating and choosing war, the Ents reject war, but are enraged at the destruction of Fangorn. They choose war out of vengeance. Given the drumbeats toward war in the US in 2002, I wonder if the Entmoot outcome was changed to avoid implying that war was a reasonable choice.


bernard Yomtov 05.29.08 at 10:34 pm

I agree that the South plays a big role as the base of the US war party. I’ve been planning to post on this for a while, and obviously I should do so.

Don’t overlook the fact that the South has a disproportionate share of US military bases. That alone affects the attitudes of the population. There are more military families, military retirees, business and towns dependent on the military, than elsewhere.


Gene O'Grady 05.29.08 at 10:45 pm

I agree with those who suggest that degree of forgetfulness of World War I in the US can be exaggerated — but then my word of mouth memories go back to the Civil War (via my mother who as a teenager cared for her maiden aunts who probably never got over the death of the elder brother from wounds received at Stones River).

There are a couple of family stories about WW I that may be of interest. My grandfather joined the army shortly after finishing medical school but never got to France; instead he fought the flu epidemic in army camps on Long Island (?). While I actually talked to him quite a bit in his last years I regret I didn’t know enough to ask about that part of his life. I suspect he lost more patients than if he’d actually gone to France.

His younger brother, my godfather, (like Barack obama, I’ve always called him uncle) had the dubious distinction of being drafted in both world wars. Late in life he decided to leave Lodi and move back to live by himself in Traverse City in upper Michigan — where the family came from and I have never been. Places like that in the rural midwest are just where the memories of the Great War persisted longest, and many of his friends there were members of the last remaining WW I veterans drill team or drum and bugle corps or whatever. When the 60th anniversary of the war came, the French somehow heard about these guys and offered a free trip to Paris to be honored in the celebration (if that’s the right word). They offered to take Uncle John along with them, but he predictably declined. However, he did tell us that when they came they were ecstatic over how the French had treated them (this is probably not an overly Francophile part of the world). Apparently Pompidou (I think that was the French president at the time) came to the reception and shook hands with each of them and personally thanked them for their service to France.

So maybe it is a bigger deal there?


Bloix 05.29.08 at 11:06 pm

The omission of the Scouring of the Shire reflects the desire of the film-makers to devote as much time as possible to computer-generated battle sequences while staying within the time limits for a film in wide distribution. These are sword-and-sorcery movies for teenagers, not highbrow political allegories.


Dan Kervick 05.30.08 at 1:31 am

My hypothesis is that cultural memory of the First World War is so weak because Americans weren’t permitted to experience the war in the first place. The First World War saw the most strenuous and relentless state control and suppression of speech and communication in the nation’s history. The slightest expressions of dissent, and even doubt, about the war could be penalized with long prison terms. Criticism of war profiteering by US companies was also punished legally. Propaganda was omnipresent.

It was also a period in which the nation’s two largest and most well-established ethnic groups after the English – the Germans and the Irish – were subjected to relentless suspicion and harrassment due to the anti-English postures in their home countries. Newspapers and other important cultural institutions were silenced and lost. The works of German composers could not be played. In many ways the war in Europe appears to have been the occasion of a great cultural war at home between the WASP establishment, which was still clearly ascendant throughout the country, and virtually every other ethnic group. The experience of the war for the non-WASP American was in many cases one of shame, fear and humiliation, something most would be quick to forget as soon as possible. Reds and labor were also persecuted during that era.

Wilson and company perhaps succeeded in their repressive aims. They turned Americans into a nation of docile and intellectually terrorized subjects, wrapped in silence and emotionally muffled by the thick veil of taboos that prevented any frank intellectual encounter with the war, or frank reporting of the events of the war.

As Walter Karp has written, “The official repression drove millions of independent-minded Americans deep into private life and political solitude. Isolated, they nursed in private their bitterness and contempt.”


Britta 05.30.08 at 1:49 am

My family’s best WWI story is of great uncle Ludwig, who, in order to avoid conscription into the German army, skipped it to Australia and made his fortune in the wool business. He’s about the closest anyone in my family came to fighting in the war.
My relatives in the US both sympathized with the Central powers (my great grandfather was actually named after Kaiser Wilhelm) and were socialists/pacifists. My grandmother raised me to view WWI as a futile, pointless war that America never should have joined, especially not on the English side.

I think privately large swaths of older Americans, particularly in the midwest, feel the same way. Given both the distance of America from the war (it was a European war after all, fought over not much more then nationalistic pride in Empire) and the differing loyalties of Americans, it’s not surprising WWI doesn’t hold much sway in the collective conscious. In England and Australia, it seems that WWI is remembered somewhat disjointedly as both a bloody waste and a time when young men (mates) would lay down their lives for each other. In that way, it allows for both a condemnation of war and a glorification of those who fought in it. In America, we just didn’t have the sense of comraderie or the “united against a common enemy” attitude.


notsneaky 05.30.08 at 2:04 am

Uh, weren’t Germans, technically speaking WASPS? And was the WASP establishment really “at war” with the Poles, Jews, Italians, Greeks and other ethnic groups? I mean, more than usual for the time period.


agm 05.30.08 at 2:14 am


No, German-descended people are, by definition not WASP: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. There’s a lot of things that happened after the Angles joined the Saxons but before the colonies fought for independence.

But, hey, I’m all for bringing any people who can make beer and music that damn good, amongst their other many contributions to high culture.


roac 05.30.08 at 2:18 am

Uh, weren’t Germans, technically speaking WASPS?

Well, no – not technically speaking, anyway. WASP means White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon means “descended from the Germanic invaders of England during the Dark Ages.”

As a practical matter, I think the term comprises any light-skinned Protestant who is assimilated to the dominant culture, regardless of actual ancestry. (I myself am certainly a WASP although all the ancestors I know of were Celts of one kind or another, or Swedes.) There are many, many WASPs of German ancestry today, and surely during WWI as well — but there were also, as earlier commentators have pointed out, a whole lot of Germans who were barely assimilated at all.


fjm 05.30.08 at 2:40 am

I have utterly lost track of who else is talking Tolkien (but thank you for the compliment Henry!).

It helps to understand the position of the “Conservative and Unionist” party as it existed at local level in the 1920s. To them, they were the part of “ordinary apolitical people”. Everyone else, liberals, the nascent Labour Party, was “political”. And politics were vulgar.

One day The Lord of the Rings will be recognised as the great First World War novel it is, on a par with All Quiet on the Western Front. (Before you all jump on me, I am *not* a Tolkien fan.)


roac 05.30.08 at 3:04 am

I have utterly lost track of who else is talking Tolkien

That would be me, mostly I am a Tolkien fan (of more than 50 years’ standing), as can be seen from my username. I don’t get jumped on all that much, not here.


rea 05.30.08 at 3:06 am

it would be very sad if Australians were to use Breaker Morant as a way to remember WWI.

Well, yeah, considering that he was executed during the Boer War.

But also: shooting unarmed prisoners is clearly murder, even if done in retaliation for atrocities by the other side. That the high command who ordered him prosecuted were a bunch of hypocrites who had pereviously announced a “take no prisoners” policy is no defense, even if it is morally damning with respect to the high command.


Chris 05.30.08 at 3:54 am

Remember, too, that Morant’s problems was not so much that he shot civilians but that he didn’t understand that white civilians were different from black civilians. Australians didn’t, that much; one of the things that the Americans all commented on was the way the Australians shot their German prisoners. We were famous for it.


Bruce Wilder 05.30.08 at 4:49 am

The South’s outsized contributions to American martial committments pre-dated the Civil War, when a military education and career were honorable vocations for the scions of the South’s plantation aristocracy. The South’s large interest in a shaping Manifest Destiny to include expansion of Slavery’s Empire, pioneered the American interest in Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua. And, it was Southern refugees, particularly from the South’s defeated guerilla forces, who make the Wild West, wild.

The Confederates lost the Civil War, and they tell themselves that they were overwhelmed by Yankee industrial resources, which is true, but omits much that is unflattering about the Southern military genius and its strategic and planning incapacity. It might be interesting to pursue the thesis not merely that the South supplies American military aggression with its arrogant bravado, but also with its uncanny ability to lose conflicts through strategic insensibility and lack of planning.

I actually think a lot of the reluctant “liberal hawk” support the Iraq War was based on the misapprehension that the Iraq War and Reconstruction would be administered by a reincarnation of the competent pragmatists, who ran the Civil War for the Union side (and World War II). Instead, we got something that bore a closer resemblance to the way the Confederates conducted their side of the Civil War. The refusal of the plantation plutocracy to tax themselves to finance the Civil War was only one of many characteristic blunders, great and small, from the initial cotton embargo down to the unwillingness to forego profit on luxury contraband long enough to organize blockade-running.


J Thomas 05.30.08 at 5:50 am

Pre-WWI history isn’t my field, but I’ve heard that it was widely believed that a war like WWI would be too terrible. The network of alliances was supposed to prevent wars because small wars would turn into WWI which was not acceptable, and so everybody in europe had an interest in getting disputes settled without battle.

And then the war started that nobody wanted, and it was as bad as anybody had thought. Nobody could “win”, the best they could do was make the other side suffer horribly. Duty required people to die for no more purpose than keep the other side from “winning” a victory that also was not worth having.

It wouldn’t be surprising if they felt about it kind of like we would have felt if MAD had failed and we had a nuclear war that nobody ever wanted, that we had planned in meticulous detail with the entire intention that we had to be ready to kill everybody in the world so that no one would want to start a nuclear war. And then it happened anyway. Except with WWI they had a lot longer than a half hour to think about it.

That’s a completely different experence from the US south. Southerners fought to defend their homes from a brutal and implacable foe, and they failedl, and they suffered pretty severely for it.

The lesson from that experience is not “Try to stay out of disastrous wars that have no possibility of a good result”. The lesson is “Do your level best to protect your home, because losing hurts”.


virgil xenophon 05.30.08 at 7:39 am

Dan Kervick @69 is on target about the harrassment of the Germans in America. One of the oldest “silk-stocking” U.S. life insurance companies, Guardian Life, was originally named “Germanic Life” but changed to Guardian due to public pressure and distaste of all things German during the war. Allied false propaganda about purported wide-spread atrocities by German troops also fanned the flames of public discontent. Posters describing and depicting such supposed depredations were widely circulated in both America and in Europe.


virgil xenophon 05.30.08 at 8:19 am

I apologize for leaving out Vanya@31 who also outlines the plight of the Germans in the US during WWI. Another example of a name change was the venerable Roosevelt Hotel of “blue room” fame in New Orleans. Originally it was named “The Grunewald” after the German immigrant who built it. It fell on hard times during the war and, in 1923 was purchased by local businessmen who revived its fortunes in part by naming it after T.R.


abb1 05.30.08 at 9:02 am

Nobody could “win”, the best they could do was make the other side suffer horribly.

Yeah, right. The word ‘economics’ hasn’t been mentioned in this thread once. What – no Rosa Luxemburg, no Vladimir Lenin, no “highest stage of capitalism”, no “concentration of banking” – nobody believes any of this stuff anymore?


Ron Kerr 05.30.08 at 9:11 am

My father fought in WWI. He was a sergeant in the Gordon Highlanders and went to France with the expeditionary force at the beginning of the War. He was wounded but had recovered in time for Passchendaele where he got a bullet in the head. He was operated on and survived. He died in 1967. He would never – and my mother confirmed this to me – talk about the war. I believe this was common amongst suvivors, a combination of survivor’s guilt and of having been involved in something that was literally unspeakable. He had four sisters, one of whom married. One of the sisters was a career nannie with a London family and accompanied their children to Canada in WWII. Another was ‘companion’ to a rich old lady.

Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ trilogy gives, I think, some idea of the period.

Last month I was walking in the SW of France and stopped in a small rural village. It was a national holiday so the place was even quieter than usual. There’s a school (maternelle), a church with a preist who visits evry few weeks and a bar but no shops. There is of course a war memorial. It commemorates twenty-four young men from that one small rural community who died in 14-18.


JD Bell 05.30.08 at 9:44 am

Message 40:

As for public memorials, I’m reminded of an article by James Fallows where he describes the reaction of his French friends to the war memorial for the marines that lists each encounter and what a prodigious amount of space had been left to engrave new names for future battles…

I’d like to read that, can you give me a pointer to where I can find it.




John Meredith 05.30.08 at 10:46 am

“What – no Rosa Luxemburg, no Vladimir Lenin, no “highest stage of capitalism”, no “concentration of banking” – nobody believes any of this stuff anymore?”

No. Can’t think why.


Peter 05.30.08 at 12:10 pm

Bruce Wilder: Once again, a series of sweeping statements that don’t really hold up on closer examination.

1. Yes, there is a Southern elite martial tradition. But the martial culture has always had far more of a popular appeal, and wasn’t just Hee Haw’s answer to the cursus honorum. Examples: the Revolutionary war witnessed widespread and vicious guerrilla action at the most basic, micro-level, particularly in the Carolinas and Southern Virginia, as wide swaths of Southern Society fought each other and the Brits; the South always produced as enthusiastic a muster at the bottom of her regiments as the top, through one adventure after another by the United States and individual state governments in the pre-Civil War decades; for every aristocrat who fought like a banshee at the Alamo, 10 commoners did; the long-tradition of back woods noblemen like Andrew Jackson, who should never be confused with real, European-style elites, etc. etc. This tradition has been alive and well at all levels of Southern society, from the best families down to good old boys sippin’ whiskey and rye, singin’…

2. Your statement about the competent and cool management of the Union side in the Civil War is, frankly, laughable. Lincoln was a superb leader, and eventually the North found decent generals, but by and large it is a story of one society defeating another vastly inferior to it in resources, but doing so at extraordinary cost and over a long period of time mostly due to the ineptness of the application of those resources. For every Souther blunder you cite (and I grant you all of them) there was at least as spectacular a Northern misstep. The North just had the greater resource base. Point. Set. Match. Oh, and this is not some Southern revisionism: I am, as I said, a transplant and my routes extend back to the blue uniforms.

3. WWII was run by Americans from every regional background. Some Southerners of note: MacArthur; Patton (not raised in the South, but you can’t get more of a CSA heritage or upbringing than he had, even if you were raised in the South); Nimitz; Bradley; Truman; etc.

4. Many of America’s blunders have equally broad regional authorship. Vietnam was largely the responsibility of JFK (a Massachusetts man), Robert McNamara (California, and I’d increase the font by his name if I could do so, in order to emphasize his responsibility), Westmoreland (a South Carolinian), LBJ (a Texan), Dean Rusk (Georgia), Sir Robert Thompson (a Brit, he played a key role in the strategic hamlet program), Henry Cabot Lodge (Massachusetts), McGeorge Bundy (a Massachusetts man), etc. etc. So much for a pattern. Let’s turn to the Somalia debacle, where a President (George HW Bush, as Yankee as they come) decided to intervene late in his Presidency before turning the affair over to Bill Clinton (a Southerner, but as un-Southern as it gets in terms of what we have been discussing) who asked Les Aspin (of Wisconsin) to help him get rid of a pesky local warlord. He tasked William F. Garrison (a Texan, if memory serves) with actually pulling the trigger, but really gave him insufficient authority to really share in serious culpability (Garrison’s honorable actions afterward notwithstanding). The resulting raid was a disaster (for all but Ridley Scott) and the US then completely panicked and ran. And what if Iraq? Many Southerners were involved, but the blame is widely shared (eg for every Bush (fake Texas) there is a Cheney (West) or Rumsfeld (Illinois), most of the Neocon architects were from the North (eg Wolfowitz)). Not exactly clean examples of your “Southern hypothesis”. And I could go on.


Barry 05.30.08 at 12:36 pm

Virgil Xenophon: “…the interventionist strain of Wilsonian idealism(“We are going down in Mexico to teach the Mexicans how to elect good men!”)…”

I don’t think that it’s Wilsonian idealism, but simple imperialism and exploitation, wrapped in whatever ideological ‘flag’ was most suitable at any given time.

It’s like the current administration’s ‘humanitarian’ interventions:

1) Payback for 9/11 – minimal involvement, with involvement cut as soon as politically pragmatic.

2) Oil – wrapped in the flag of payback for 9/11/democracy/national security/excuse of the day.

3) Nothing else.


abb1 05.30.08 at 12:42 pm

Yeah, I can’t think why either; seems like a perfectly reasonable starting point. Also explains why the US society, dominated and propagandized by multinational corporate interests more than any other society, is also more imperialistic and militaristic.


academiclurker 05.30.08 at 12:46 pm

Re propaganda: I recall someone remarking on the odd fact that the Germans in WWII committed, in reality, many of the very atrocities that they were falsely accused of committing in allied propaganda of WWI.

Does anyone know if this is accurate (not the atrocities in WWII, but the propaganda in WWI)?


J Thomas 05.30.08 at 12:54 pm

“Nobody could “win”, the best they could do was make the other side suffer horribly.”

Yeah, right. The word ‘economics’ hasn’t been mentioned in this thread once.

OK, I’m lost here. Are you saying some european country won more than they lost in WWI? Some european population?

I’d right at first guess that a country that loses a big chunk of its labor force doesn’t come out ahead — all the production that those people would have done for the rest of their lives is lost.

To argue that somebody won you have to argue that this somebody is a distinct subset of the population. Capitalists? Jews? I can sure understand why we’d de-emphasise that reasoning. No idea how true it might be.


abb1 05.30.08 at 1:33 pm

J, are you denying that the geopolitical balance of power has changed dramatically? If you don’t, then clearly someone, some group, some subset got to exercise more power while some other subset had lost some power. That’s where you look for a rational explanation. Or, at least, that’s what I’ve been told.


roac 05.30.08 at 2:05 pm

#86: Bradley was from Missouri. As of course was Truman. (Who didn’t really have a lot of responsibility for the war before the endgame.) Missouri is Southern by some definitions, but Tara is not to be found there.


bernard Yomtov 05.30.08 at 2:16 pm

J, are you denying that the geopolitical balance of power has changed dramatically? If you don’t, then clearly someone, some group, some subset got to exercise more power while some other subset had lost some power. That’s where you look for a rational explanation. Or, at least, that’s what I’ve been told.

You should be more skeptical of what you’re told. An increase in relative power does not necessarily make one a winner.


abb1 05.30.08 at 2:23 pm

Of course it does. In the land of the blind one-eyed is King.


J Thomas 05.30.08 at 2:38 pm

abb1, thank you. Yes, definitely geopolitical balance of power has shifted a great deal. Given changing technology, changing resources, changing population sizes, large-scale immigration, etc it would be implausible for that not to change.

It sounds like you’re arguing that somebody figured out that they would be better off after a stalemated WWI and so they arranged for it to happen. This would be an extreme conspiracy theory.

More plausible is that somebody thought they could easily win WWI and they would be better off afterward. Then things didn’t go according to plan and whoever was best at picking up the pieces wound up comparatively ahead. It was maybe kind of accidental who actually wound up with the upper hand, and there’s no evidence that they did better than they would have without a war, but in any horce race some horses will run faster.

It isn’t my field, and I had the idea it was widely understood that WWI would be a MAD situation. That the british at least thought of their war preparation as a deterrent — not that they could come out winning more than they lost, but that they could prevent a war from starting by making it too costly for their enemy. Kind of like NATO — we were going to fall back and make the enemy take casualties, we were going to nuke german towns and cities as the russians entered them, and if the Warsaw Pact forces did make it past paris and to the coast they would not have won any valuable territory to justify their losses. Is my view of the british thinking wrong?

My layman’s reading hasn’t given me much idea what the french thought apart from them trying to apply Napoleon’s idea that elan was the most important thing. He was right, but …. The guys with low morale will tend to sit behind their machine guns and wait for something to happen while the high-morale team sneaks through and kills them. But you don’t keep high morale by taking lots of casualties for nothing. Did the french generally expect it to be a bloodbath or were they surprised?

The germans were in a bind — they could expect to lose a defensive war against britain, france, and russia simultaneously. So if a war started they needed to win quickly against france and then hope the others would back off. They had to hope they could win a short war because otherwise they would lose everything. When they failed to win quickly then sure enough they did lose everything.

I see three ways to go with this. One is that a war which nobody wanted, happened by accident. Once they mobilised they couldn’t send the troops home until the enemy did, and they couldn’t leave them in place at railheads etc. They didn’t know they were completely committed to war when they mobilised, but they were.

A second approach is to suppose that somebody (the german government?) thought they could win a quick war and profit greatly, so they tried. Things did not go according to plan. Some of the survivors wound up in better shape than others; hard to say whether they benefitted compared to how they might have done without a war.

A third approach is to figure that somebody correctly saw they’d be better off with WWI and so they started it and reaped the benefits. Who would that be? Americans? Hardly, how would we have started WWI? Jews? Bankers? Did a bunch of elite bankers start the Great Depression because they pretty much owned the world and they were shutting down the parts they didn’t want to bother with?

It’s hard for me to credit the third approach but I gather that before WWII a lot of people did believe it.


novakant 05.30.08 at 2:44 pm

War in 1914 Europe was viewed as both a catastrophe and a chance at regenerating a meaningless anomic world.

True, both Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and Musil’s Man without Qualities are powerful treatments of this subject.

As an aside: I always found it most impressive that Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus in the trenches and as a POW during WWI – how cool is that?!


bernard Yomtov 05.30.08 at 3:07 pm

Of course it does. In the land of the blind one-eyed is King.

But he still only has one eye.


abb1 05.30.08 at 3:23 pm

J, how they hoped to gain an advantage is irrelevant. One simple way to interpret it is, for example, that they saw this ripe and juicy steak called Ottoman Empire and they automatically went for it; someone was going to get it, right? Business-controlled political process does not act as a human being, it doesn’t think in terms you do, it doesn’t have any consideration other than cost/benefit analysis, and those millions of dead probably don’t get entered on the cost side of the ledger at all. Who cares.


Ken 05.30.08 at 3:24 pm

Just curious – do any American schools have war memorials in them? I can’t see why not but I’ve never been in one.


Bruce Wilder 05.30.08 at 4:12 pm

I erred in making it sound like I thought the Southern martial tradition, itself, was inherently incompetent, which is not what I think. I do think the South has bequeathed the country traditions of aggressive belligerance and political libertarianism. The aggressive foreign policy belligerance originated in antebellum Southern interest in expansion westward and in the Caribbean; it is a thread in American foreign policy analytically separable from the Yankee interest in using Naval power to, say, open Japan, as well anti-imperialist traditions. Political libertarianism in the U.S. descends in large part from States’ Rights hostility to Federal power, and to tariffs and economic development efforts.

The first architect of the Federal grand strategy in the Civil War was Virginian Winfield Scott, who proposed the Anaconda Plan to Lincoln, the outlines of which shaped all Union efforts outside the Virginia theatre. And, of course, the high quality of Confederate military leadership was a great Confederate strength. So, the martial tradition can be said to have served the Confederates well. Habits of political belligerance and the handicaps of States’ Rights as a framework of thought did damage the Confederate cause, helping to prevent adoption of a workable grand strategy.

I see parallels between Confederate attitudes and self-destructive policy and the recent course of American conduct in Iraq, where a pointless, aggressive war policy combined with the incompetent and corrupt conduct of Occupation and Reconstruction to create a catastrophe, despite a militarily well-executed invasion. These are topics perhaps best taken up and expanded upon at a later time.


notsneaky 05.30.08 at 4:16 pm

“Are you saying some european country won more than they lost in WWI? Some european population?”

Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Balts just to name a few. Not saying it was a “good war” or anything though.


notsneaky 05.30.08 at 4:52 pm

1. My great-grand father served in WWI as an officer in the Austrian army. I have an “official” photo of him in his Austrian military uniform (if you’ve read Svejk you know what that looked like) and a saber. He survived. My great grand mother also survived WWI but was murdered soon after in the chaos that followed it when she went outside her house to check on strange noises outside. Somebody was trying to steal the cows and when she saw them they shot her.

They’re both buried in a cemetery which I visited two years ago. As there was heavy fighting in the area during WWI – in what the Austrians used to call “Western Galicia” (Halicz) around Krakow and Tarnow – there is a large portion of the cemetery devoted to those who died in battle nearby. All the graves are marked with simple black and white tablets stating the name of deceased. In addition to many German names, there were a number of Polish, French, Italian, English, Serbian, Turkish, Spanish and many who’s nationality I could not decipher. You could really see the “World” in the World War I in the plaques of a small village cemetery. Then there was a large number of plaques which just read “Russen Soldat” (or something similar, I forget exactly) (some of whom were probably Poles fighting the other Poles like my great grand father). Presumably, the Austrians won that particular engagement.

2. It’s true that veterans often don’t speak of their experiences but sometimes deserters do. When we first moved to US we lived in Cleveland in an upstairs of a house owned by a very old, very large, German man. A few days after we first moved in my mom was cooking dinner and there was a knock on the door. It was the landlord and he said that he smelled “real German food” and was wondering if he could have some because he hadn’t had the real thing in a while. Well, it actually was Bigos ( but I guess close enough. Anyway, we got to know him pretty well and me and my sister referred to him affectionately as “grandpa”. He gave me many of his old baseball cards including a badly damaged Pete Rose rookie card (this was before the big gambling scandal so at the time it was worth a few bucks) and an old Roberto Clemente card.

He was a WWI veteran. And a deserter. He was at Verdun… I think, I might be confusing things now. One night, a troop of Algerians crossed the no man’s land from the French side and killed pretty much his whole troop with knives in their sleep. He was one of the few survivors, and he got reassigned to another unit. He had a friend who was a motorcycle runner, caring orders from the officers to the front and who found out, and who warned him, that his new unit was scheduled to be sent “over the top” in a few days, as one of the first ones in an upcoming assault.

At that point “grandpa” deserted, made his way to the French side, then to US and never looked back.


Soderberg 05.30.08 at 5:06 pm

#47 about unsatisfied southern revanchism sounds quite plausible. My understanding is that the current war party gets much of its fuel from resentment of the Vietnam war.


Bruce Wilder 05.30.08 at 5:20 pm

Far from being the “opening round” of anything, World War I was the latest in a long series of European revolutions and civil wars, which also involved international conflict.

The driving force was the emerging modern world — the economic disruptions of the industrial revolutions combining with demands for democracy and nationalism, running up against the reactionary and incompetent authoritarianism of the remants of feudalism.

The World War was the crashing together of the tectonic plates of feudalism, riding on top of the molten fluid of modernity, struggling to break the surface and dissolve the ancient rock.

It was the success of reactionary authoritarianism in resisting the demands of modernity earlier in the 19th century that bottled up these forces, creating the heat and pressure to forge ever more radical and violent subterranean movements that gave the World War its disruptive political aftermath.

The desire of a European elite, still dominated by a feudal landed aristocracy with martial tradition and inherited authority, for Empire drove international politics in the 19th and early 20th Century. The gradual deterioration of the Hapsburg, Romanov and Ottoman Empires drove the diplomacy of alliances and small wars, which actually ignited the Great War. In the history of that diplomacy, the Great War can be traced back to the Crimean War, when the British and French first allied, and the Russian and Austrian alliance broke down. The Austrian erred in not supporting the Russians, and that error cost them leadership of Germany, forcing the Hapsburgs into junior partnership with the rising German Empire.

The British, French, Italians and Germans — the modern nation-states were also ambitious for Empire, and the Great Game ranged far afield in Africa and Asia, as the Great Powers played.

But the details of strategic alliances and small wars and gunboat diplomacy were less important than the the series of European-wide political revolutions/counterrevolutions that occurred in the 1790’s, 1815, circa 1830, circa 1848, circa 1865-71, and the various radical reforms moving forward 1895-1912. It was the success of reactionary forces that incubated communism, anarchism and the various dark threads of later fascism in this period. It was the success of liberalism, which gave Britain and France their distinctively democratic character, attacting Wilson’s support. But, overall, liberalism fell short, and the reactionaries got their war.

To a large extent, for everyone concerned, World War I and the Peace of Versailles was a painful falling short, and World War II was a chance to correct the mistakes and shortcomings of the first war. Differences of opinion about what constituted the essential errors of the First War shaped World War II and its aftermath.


Peter 05.30.08 at 5:23 pm

Bruce Wilder,
Most of what you said in 100 I can agree with. I think the martial tradition of the South can be traced to several factors:

1. The cultural backbone of the predominant migrants to many areas of the South, who were essentially low-land Scots and Northern English from the Ulster Plantation (ie the so-called Scots-Irish). These people were the most martial and anti-government sub-populations in their own traditional ancestral setting (let’s face it, their journey to Ireland took care of two pacification needs at once from the British standpoint). They were hardened further by the savage low-level conflict with the native Irish. And the story of the Southern frontier to which they migrated is one of nearly constant warfare at a low level against fellow colonists (witness the incredible release of giant reservoirs of resentment during British Southern campaign) and Native Americans.

2. The experience of the Revolutionary war, which was a big deal everywhere but involved an exceptionally personal, immediate, in-your-living room kind of violence in the Carolinas, southern Virginia and all along the Appalachian frontier. (Would Banny Tarleton ever have found such a natural setting for a man of his talents in the North?)

3. Slavery, slavery, slavery. It required constant violence, or at least the undertone of it, to compel obedience. Moreover, the very fact of it militarizes all free males in the society (b/c a servile insurrection is likely to have implications far beyond the plantation).

4. An ingrained sense of insecurity regarding the North that was already evident in, for instance, many of Jefferson’s positions at the end of the Revolutionary war.

5. Reconstruction, which served primarily to deepen both hostility toward government and longstanding traditions of private justice.

6. An anachronistic attachment to a Walter Scott-esque sense of honor and chivalry, particularly among the Southern elites (who do have influence over common values). In their world view and aspirations, the Southern aristocracy of the 18th and 19th centuries were entranced by an English model of aristocratic values that had been gathering dust since the 17th century (one could argue that these people were sort of in a cultural time-warp).

7. A long-standing love affair with firearms for both silly (even I admit that M-14s, M-16s, AKs, etc, and their 18th century counterparts look cool) and more deep (eg some gut conviction that the state should not have a monopoly on violence) reasons.

Etc. etc.

All of these things held to a degree everywhere in the United States, I just think that they did so most strongly in the South. And yes, I do agree that the South as such has had some effect on America’s Roman outlook. But I also think a reasonably straight-line can be drawn from, say, the crusading elements of the abolitionist movement to the modern Neocons. All I am saying is that the outlook of segments of American society like the Neocons is the confluence of many complex streams of American thinking, and not simply the martial values of the South.

And, viz the original argument, the South is the place where the memory of a WWI-type experience (in the sense JQ invokes) is strongest, and that has not in any sense dulled the martial tradition. So I am really skeptical that this idea of collective amnesia (at least of the sort being discussed) in America can explain the present gulf in mindsets between, say, Americans and Europeans. The South provides too strong a counter-example.


J Thomas 05.30.08 at 5:26 pm

Notsneaky, I did a quick search on polish history. Poles got drafted into three different foreign armies and were supposed to fight each other. After the war none of the three previous occupying powers were in shape to occupy them so they did get a nation out of it, which promptly fought russia and then within 20 years they got split between occupying powers again, and during WWII the front lines swept across eastern poland twice, but western poland only once.

Is this a win? I guess it might be. So the argument I’ve been trying to track appears to say that these people had a rational expectation to gain from WWI so they started it?


Bruce Wilder 05.30.08 at 5:37 pm

Regardless of whether the survivors thought World War I fell short of expectations, World War I did bring about the final end of the political heritage of European feudalism and domination by an hereditary landed aristocracy. Whatever the diplomatic manuverings and aspirations, the demise of the political power of the landed aristocracy and absolute monarchy was a huge, irrevocable event. I would rank this change in Europe far above any diffuse philosophical reaction to the scale of bloodshed. After World War I, this powerful political class invested in martial tradition and ambitious for Empire was radically diminished.


Bruce Wilder 05.30.08 at 6:08 pm

The confluence of American political traditions and ideologies in the Neocon is difficult to trace with much authority, when based on Neocon rhetoric, because the Neocons were consciously co-opting traditional forms, as part of a manipulative public relations strategy. Rhetorical comparisons of George W. Bush to Winston Churchill don’t make Bush’s foreign policy Churchillian anymore than appropriating tropes from Wilsonian internationalism implicates Eleanor Roosevelt.

I actually think Southern martial traditions were every bit as much window dressing for domestic political consumption as the references to ambitions to spread freedom. Generals Tommy Franks or Petraeus are trotted out to decorate the cake for Fox News viewers in the South in the same way and for the same reason that the tropes of liberal internationalism have been set out as bait for Tommy Friedman and the fools who write for the New Republic.

It is not so much the receptivity to manipulation that ought to interest us, as the ability to disable and marginalize and hide resistance and opposition.


Bruce Wilder 05.30.08 at 6:24 pm

The United States has several distinct historical political cultures, of which “the South”, perhaps because of the Southern nationalist project, which led to the Civil War, is the most widely recognized. An almost separate nationalism leads Southerners to identify with and celebrate a Southern heritage that includes distinctive political committments and convictions. A moral culture of personal honor is also associated with this southern identity, as well as a distinctive role in American political history, as peter notes. Southern identity becomes a kind of jungian shadow of American idealism, with much of the non-southern population holding Southerners, to a degree, in contempt. The otherness of the South, for most of the country, has to figure in the dynamic of how Southern views filter into the mainstream and into the foreign policy of the country.


notsneaky 05.30.08 at 6:27 pm

“Is this a win? I guess it might be. “

Well, if you think WWI predetermined the occurrence of WWII, then no it wouldn’t be.
If you think that in 1924 things as they stood were still salvageable then it’s a close judgment call, given the costs you mention above.
I was more bothered by the fact that when folks start talking about WWI (or WWII for that matter) and “Europe” they almost invariably are referring to UK, France and Germany, forgetting that things worked differently elsewhere.


abb1 05.30.08 at 6:43 pm

World War I did bring about the final end of the political heritage of European feudalism and domination by an hereditary landed aristocracy.

I disagree. It was long past European feudalism; the Capital was written 50 earlier, the communist manifesto almost 70 years earlier; European feudalism was long gone. Hereditary aristocracy doesn’t matter: when they need to be gotten rid of – it happens internally.


roac 05.30.08 at 6:56 pm

To assert that WWI did not cause the Hohenzollerns, the Hapsburgs, and the Romanovs to lose their thrones would require an exceptionally rigorous definition of causality.


Peter 05.30.08 at 7:06 pm

I just took my dogs out to go and ran into a neighbor, an old Southern boy who has done multiple tours in Iraq (his joke about that: “if it’s being done wrong somewhere on earth, it’s probably being done by the Pentagon”), 75th Ranger regiment and 82nd Airborne vet, Bronze star, etc. He’s from an old Scots Irish line down here. I asked for his thoughts on this basic exchange and he perhaps cut right to the heart of it (I’m regenerating his quote as best I can from memory):

“Southerners really do make better fighters. And maybe that has to do with an outer layer of brashness and some inner insecurity. I mean to say, on some level there really is this sense that, bottom line, I am a son of the South, and hence will stand taller than you in any brawl and lick you, given even terms. At the same time, growing up working class in the South, you always sense people looking down on you. Elites here, Yankees, liberals, Europeans, whoever. On some level, I know they view me as just some kind of shit-eating redneck. A lesser-evolved ape. And that affects your sense of self-esteem, and one way can be to reinforce a kind of stubbornness: because you feel like these people view you as just lesser, you won’t give any ground. Not an inch. It’d be like admitting they’re right. Maybe if we hadn’t lost that war we wouldn’t be this way, but we did lose, and bad. Faulkner was right about what that did to us. We’d rather die than concede the point. That can admittedly make for a lousy political culture, but a great army. “


abb1 05.30.08 at 7:15 pm

Sure, it did cause them to lose their thrones, but almost any European war used to cause someone to lose a throne. That’s insignificant.

They had an equivalent of absolute monarchy in Russia and Germany again soon thereafter, so, was it all it about replacing a Romanov with a Jugashvili?


Bruce Wilder 05.30.08 at 7:33 pm

thanks for relating that conversation, peter


virgil xenophon 05.30.08 at 7:46 pm

Ken@99: Personal observation only, but such memorials are pretty much non-existent at the lower levels, but quite common at the university level, not so much in the way of glorifying past wars, but as memorials to war dead. Also these tend not to be single purpose stand-alone monuments ala the ANZAC War Memorial in Sydney, but structures built for other purposes which are named in honor of those who made sacrifices. War Memorial Stadium (football) at the Univ. of Illinois is one such example, there are lots of others scattered throughout most universities–the Campanile at LSU I mentioned @57 is another example.


J Thomas 05.30.08 at 7:51 pm

“I was more bothered by the fact that when folks start talking about WWI (or WWII for that matter) and “Europe” they almost invariably are referring to UK, France and Germany, forgetting that things worked differently elsewhere.”

Notsneaky, that’s a good point and certainly it’s what I was doing. The immediate context was the idea that WWI started *by accident*, that none of the major players particularly wanted it but it happened anyway.

I just don’t see that. “I think I’ll start a world war. Afterward *somebody* will gain control of the Ottoman Empire and it might be me!”

But then, there was a network of treaties and such, and some minor power could have wanted a war and maybe gotten it on purpose. That would be hard to document. If I ahd been involved in a conspiracy like that I would have done my best to make it hard to document.

It isn’t enough to look at who benefits from something to decide who made it happen. By that reasoning we could claim that the israelis were behind 9/11 and that Cheney is an iranian agent.

Sometimes people benefit from things they didn’t plan.

Even harder when it’s only a relative advantage. If we had managed a nuclear exchange in which we destroyed every russian city but they only nuked half of ours, it could be argued that we “won”. But it wouldn’t have seemed like a victory to me, assuming I survived. If I found a government official who admitted to planning that exchange on purpose so we’d be better off, and if there was a lamp post and a rope available….


abb1 05.30.08 at 8:11 pm

Nobody cares about any treaties, governments act according to their perceived interests, not according to treaties they signed.

Destroying the whole of Russia while losing a half of the US might’ve been beneficial, might have not; again: a cost/benefit analysis. Obviously someone though that it was worth losing 50K Americans in Vietnam to maintain control over the Southern part of it, why should it be any different with destroying Russia?

French, British, German and other governments were fighting that war for 4 years; it they didn’t want to do it anymore, if they though it wasn’t worth it, why didn’t they make peace? When the Bolsheviks decided to stop it, they did just that, signed a peace treaty in Brest-Litovsk and that was it.


virgil xenophon 05.30.08 at 8:18 pm

Barry@87: I think most “government” decisions and/or actions are the resultant blend of multiple inputs by multiple actors (not to say that somebody like Wilson can’t, by dint of force of personality, strongly impute overall coloration to everything) and that the old single-track Marxist theory of “Imperialism-as-the-cause-of-everything-bad-and explanation-for-everything-bad” (i.e.,Imperialism as the equivalent of Physics for explanatory power)is rarely the whole(or even main) explanation. Reality is more complex than this and, while I realize that it is the tendency of scientists(Social or otherwise) to attribute multi-casuality when they really can’t figure out exactly what the REAL reason is, very few Presidents make their decisions on a tabula rasa,
but are often moved to action as the near inevitable resultant of a whole series of little decisions made by previous governments and bureaucracies over the proceeding 10-20 yrs.


novakant 05.30.08 at 8:33 pm

World War I did bring about the final end of the political heritage of European feudalism and domination by an hereditary landed aristocracy.

Not really. On the level of national government, yes, but not on the ‘lower’ levels.

To give an example: huge parts of East Prussia were still owned by a few aristocratic families and even in the Nazi era, the upper ranks of the military, the foreign office and the diplomatic corps were strongly dominated by members of the aristocracy. Only World War II brought an end to most of this.

And if we only consider the aspect of land ownership, feudalism is still string in England, the Queen, Duke of Westminster and other members of the aristocracy still own astonishing parts of London and England.


novakant 05.30.08 at 8:34 pm

make that: feudalism is still strong


King of Men 05.30.08 at 8:38 pm

I think it is a rather strong distortion to call Versailles ‘Carthaginian’. When Rome made ‘peace’ with Carthage, the reason the term passed into use was that Carthage didn’t exist afterwards. The entire population was sold into slavery, the walls and buildings razed to the foundations, the fields sowed with salt. (I mean, literally, with actual salt. Which was expensive in those days.) But Versailles left a nation of eighty million disciplined, rich people seriously pissed off, and then didn’t provide a means for keeping them under control, except for the sanctity of treaties and the sustained willpower of two bled-dry democracies! Paper shackles, if that. The peace imposed on the Ottoman Empire, now that was Carthaginian, even in the watered-down version that eventually got enforced: A vast state ceased to exist.


Bruce Wilder 05.30.08 at 8:39 pm

abb1: “any European war used to cause someone to lose a throne. That’s insignificant.”

We are not talking merely about the fate of individual princes, but of four imperial dynasties, each at the center of an hereditary aristocracy and an extensive Empire — all four terminated suddenly without hope of revival. That was huge, a change not just in the person of the ruler, but in the whole theory and practice of government over a vast area of Europe and the Middle East.

abb1: “It was long past European feudalism; the Capital was written 50 earlier, the communist manifesto almost 70 years earlier; European feudalism was long gone.”

The Communist Manifesto was issued in the midst of a failed 1848 revolution and Marx was a refugee exile in London when he wrote Das Kapital. His writing inspired many, who worked against the oppression of the old regime, but did not magically overthrow 900 years of landed aristocracy.

The political power of hereditary elites, and the role of the landed aristocracy in supplying the officer corps in various European countries had significant effects in the runup to, and the conduct of World War I.

Britain had been among the most responsive to the forces of change, expanding the franchise in 1832 and 1867. Although the Chartists failed in 1848, the British had repealed the Corn Laws that provided high tariffs to protect the landlord classes, especially in Ireland. In stark contrast, the Junkers in Germany retained their political power, and German nutrition suffered from high tariffs right through WWI. That’s just by way of sketching a single substantive effect. But, hereditary landed aristocracy was a pervasive fact of European political life before WWI.

There are some great essays by Barbara Tuchman on this subject. The introduction to the Guns of August, where she describes the funeral parade for Edward VII, is one. There’s another essay I love, where she describes the last Conservative cabinet assembled by Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (and 9th Earl of Salisbury in the fifth [1605] creation of that title), a direct descendant of the chief advisers to Elizabeth I and James I, and the last Prime Minister to sit in the House of Lords. As I dimly recall, she describes the one Manchester magnate in that cabinet of 1900 as a cuckoo in the nest, a nest of the landed gentry and heriditary nobility, who had ruled England for over 800 years. It should give pause to any claims that feudalism was dead in the 19th century.


Bruce Wilder 05.30.08 at 8:46 pm

novakant is surely correct that the judicious choice of ancestors remains a sure route to riches in Europe, and all the remains of European feudalism did not disappear instantly or entirely in 1918. Still, the magnitude and extent of the change remain difficult to exaggerate.


John Quiggin 05.30.08 at 8:50 pm

One point that comes out of the discussion. The lesson about the futility of war may be clearer for the “winners” than for the losers, who can engage in all sorts of revanchist fantasies in the aftermath.


abb1 05.30.08 at 8:57 pm

I dunno, I just don’t equate feudalism with the fact that a bunch of landowners have fancy titles. Feudalism is a mode of production, with serfs and so on; following an industrial revolution it’s replaced by capitalism. In 1914 all of Europe was post-feudal, even (for the most part) Russia. It’s true, titles and monarchs are the remnants of feudalism, but I think by 1914 it was mostly superficial. The war was a capitalist enterprise, it had much more to do with trade, markets and resources than titles and crowns. IMO.


roac 05.30.08 at 9:19 pm

Hot damn! A crack big enough to stick another Tolkien post in!

This one is my parallel between LotR and – wait for it! – Lady Chatterly’s Lover! Specifically, the childless Frodo set against the hyper-fertile Sam, and the impotent Sir Clifford against the priapic Mellors. In each case, I would argue, representing an overturning of the prior social order as the result of a war.

No influence in either direction is suggested. I doubt very much if Tolkien ever read Lawrence (was LCL on the Index, does anyone know? Tolkien would have taken the Index seriously.) I submit that both authors were responding, Lawrence consciously and Tolkien less so, to the post-war situation. Which is of course the thesis of T. Shippey’s second book, apparently followed on by fjm, from whom I would like to hear more.

Yes, I know — the social order in the Shire didn’t change, it’s just that Sam and his family were recruited into the squirearchy. Nevertheless.)


virgil xenophon 05.30.08 at 9:23 pm

Reflecting back on abb1 @43. Wasn’t it debated at the US constitutional convention as to whether or not the proceedings of Congress in the Congressional Record should be printed in German as well?


novakant 05.30.08 at 9:28 pm

Feudalism is a mode of production, with serfs and so on; following an industrial revolution it’s replaced by capitalism.

Obviously not in large rural areas, such as East Prussia and elsewhere – he who owns the land calls the shots there and that land was inherited. The industrial and technological revolution was not a uniform development, there were large parts of the world who simply weren’t affected that much.

It’s true, titles and monarchs are the remnants of feudalism, but I think by 1914 it was mostly superficial.

The Duke of Westminster used to top the UK rich list until only recently, when he got replaced by naturalized foreigners like Mittal and Abramovic. Large parts of his net worth (~$14 billion)are derived from owning a lot of the world’s most expensive property in Mayfair and Belgravia, along with his estates in England and Scotland, all of which is inherited. Alright, maybe we shouldn’t call it feudalism anymore, but he does derive immense wealth and power from his aristocratic ancestry. And 90 years ago this was much more common than today.


abb1 05.30.08 at 9:42 pm

So what if he’s called ‘duke’ and inherited 10 billion pounds or if he’s called ‘Abramovich’ and got 10 billion pounds by speculating in privatization vouchers in 1990s Russia? I don’t see any difference. It’s a guy who’s worth 10 billion pounds. He can own estates in England or he can sell these estates and buy google stock instead. This is what capitalism is all about.


novakant 05.30.08 at 10:22 pm

You don’t see a difference between a speculator who made his fortune 15 years ago and a family who’s wealth dates back to 1677 ?


greensmile 05.30.08 at 11:12 pm

Americans haven’t forgotten about the doughboys. We just didn’t want to hear about them in the first place.

No foolin’! Some academician finally waded through enough studies to get a clue. We [the voters of the US, for want of a more relevant and identifiable demographic] wanted no part of Viet Nam, gladly forgot the alms seekers it left us, and but for a few shrill liberal voices, turn our gaze from the neglect of the shattered Iraq war vets. If Americans are blind to the “winners” of our wars, how much less do the want any reminders about the combatants in wars we did not really win? There are library shelves groaning under the volumes of rationales for war and the whole business, if you take but one step back, is as irrational as hell. [ah Sherman beat me too it.]


Bruce Wilder 05.31.08 at 12:12 am

“Feudalism is a mode of production”

abb1, I think you are being more than a little dense. Feudalism is a institutionalized political system for governance and land ownership. The mode of production associated with medieval feudalism would be manorialism.

I am using the term, feudalism, somewhat playfully, but the point is that World War I coincided with a revolution in political institutions, which terminated four Empires along with their hereditary monarchies and the whole associated theory of what constitutes legitimate political governance and organization.

When one looks backward, as Quiggin is attempting to do, it is easy to adopt the kind of perspective that lets the past recede into the background, the differences shrinking to insignificance.

The shock of World War I was how massive an undertaking the industrial revolution could make it. The concept of a battle, which could go on for weeks and claim a million lives, simply had never occurred to anyone. War had been a hobby of aristocrats, policy continued by other means or a grand adverture among the savages, narrated on the inner pages of the Times.

Europe’s take on World War I was not limited to, or even primarily, pacifist revulsion. The number one, immediate reaction was to reject aristocracy and Empire. The United States, with no feudal aristocracy to overthrow, saw World War I more clearly than the Europeans, as a phenomenon of the industrial revolution. And, the lesson the U.S. took from its clear sight was war by mass production. The Russian Communists took up much the same view.

“Stab-in-the-back” is a false gloss from overheated rhetoric. The deeper, broader problem in the inter-war period in Central and Southern Europe was the felt loss of aristocratic hierarchy and Empire, and the loss of a sense of place, shared identity, community and history with it. This was the emptiness into which fascism and national socialism stepped.

I don’t think anyone appreciated the risks of the Great Power machinations that led to World War I. But, it takes a lot of effort to fully appreciate the mindset of those playing the Great Game. They just assumed that conspiratorial diplomacy made sense, and it did within their shared worldview; wars were brief, limited affairs, in which gentlemen never lost their heads. And, beneath the surface, the industrial revolutions had created a monster. But, the aristocratic manuvering on the surface was, also, an antiquated monster. Europe discovered that its generals were privileged fools and bloody madmen.

The American way of war, as it emerged from the experience of WWI was to use mass production technology is a mass effort to change the world. The purpose of war would be to obtain unconditional surrender and then to restructure what had been conquered. This flowed from the American experience of WWI and the Civil War.

To a large extent, Europeans, especially after WWII, shared the American view, that the task was to remake the world in a complete and deliberate revision of institutions.

The Shadow view in the U.S. has always been a deep skepticism, not about the futility of war, but about the futility of remaking the world through diplomacy. Yalta is the American stab-in-the-back myth.

Bush and the neocons brought the Shadow view into power.


J Thomas 05.31.08 at 12:37 am

John Quiggin has it.

The winners look around and say “This is what we get for winning? It wasn’t worth it. We’d have done better not to fight.”

The losers look around and say “Losing is pure hell. If we’d just fought harder we might not have lost.”


J Thomas 05.31.08 at 12:45 am

“You don’t see a difference between a speculator who made his fortune 15 years ago and a family who’s wealth dates back to 1677 ?”

No, he believes in the axioms of capitalism and he doesn’t believe in the axioms of feudalism. Feudalists say those are very different. Capitalists say that those guys can sell all their land and buy Google stock. Feudal wealth is fungible so it isn’t special.

Feudalists believe there *is* something special about feudal rights and obligations, while capitalists think they’re wrong. Feudal rights and obligations are irrelevant to the real business of the world.

It’s like being able to pronounce shibboleth.


MichaelB 05.31.08 at 2:32 am

I don’t understand what this discussion is about. By just about every measure, World War One was of massively more significance for Europe then for America. It happened mostly in Europe. Most of the costs (most deaths, most injuries, most money, most disruption to daily life) were borne by Europeans. Of course it is better remembered in Europe – it was a bigger thing there!

It’s like asking why Hurricane Katrina is better remembered in New Orleans then in Seattle.


Britta 05.31.08 at 4:00 am

In my high school history class we spent some time analysing German vs British propaganda in America and its effect on American participation in the war. The British basically accused the Germans of being bloodthirsty Huns, ready to rape lady liberty and kill widows and orphans. British propaganda was highly racialized, often depicting Germans as gorillas or with darker features, in comparison to blonde women (representing Anglo-saxons or lady liberty). The term Hun, which implies non-Indo European ancestry (the Huns are from Mongolia originally) also was part of a move to make Germans seem not civilized or European. While the Germans have no one to blame but themselves for their self-aggrandizing racial views, British proganda did play a role to fuel German racial hysteria immediately after the war.

Ironically, during WWI the Germans played by the rules while the British disregarded them, by doing among other things: mining neutral waters, explicitly targeting civilian populations, sanctioning neutral countries who traded with the Central powers, and illegally detaining and searching neutral ships in British waters. Much of these actions contributed to America’s delay in entering the war, as Americans were annoyed by the behavior of the British. Also, the British were excellent at manipulating public outrage, usually by using civilians as a front to carry out military operations. For example, they used civilian ships (with passengers) to transport weapons and military personnel, and trained red cross nurses as spies. THis left the Germans in a double bind: they could either refrain from attacking and let the British smuggle in weapons etc., or the could attack and then be accused of killing women and children. Edith Cavell, the Belgian red cross nurse shot by the Germans was one of those spies, and the Lusitania was one such civilian cruise ship also carrying weapons.


Nordic Mousse 05.31.08 at 6:52 am

“With all its faults, the EU is widely supported simply because it has been associated with sixty years of peace”

Indeed, we actually seemed to have learned. Take heart, JQ – the English-speaking world may follow, one day


abb1 05.31.08 at 7:35 am

Right, what J said. In a feudalist society the guy called ‘Duke’ is special in a very significant way, it’s a caste system; in a capitalist society he is no different from Abramovich. If someone has 10 billion pounds in the bank (and no warrant for his arrest has been issued) – that fundamentally defines his status in capitalism; his name, the story of who he is and how he managed to acquire 10 billion pounds is irrelevant.


novakant 05.31.08 at 10:56 am

his name, the story of who he is and how he managed to acquire 10 billion pounds is irrelevant.

Well, a quick look at the British upper class will reveal that this is simply not true and while things have certainly changed it’s wrong to think that British society is a pure meritocracy in which ancestry and titles play no role.

But be that as it may, this is 2008 and we were talking about 1918. As I said, at that time large parts of e.g. rural Germany were still controlled by country squires through a system of, not de jure, but de facto feudalism, and it took the massive cataclysm of WW II to break their power.


abb1 05.31.08 at 12:36 pm

Who said anything about meritocracy? Many of the rich in England used to be aristocrats and many of the rich in, say, Azerbaijan used to be communists. Nevertheless, neither England is feudal nor Azerbaijan is communist. Personal identities of the rich (or, for that matter, the poor) are irrelevant in a capitalist system. Capitalism doesn’t care about hereditary castes.


novakant 05.31.08 at 3:04 pm

See, if you want to tell me that a title was of no importance in Europe after 1918, well, then you are obviously wrong.

History just doesn’t work that way: the emergence of a new paradigm doesn’t simply obliterate the previous one.


abb1 05.31.08 at 4:56 pm

That’s true. I’m just saying that by 1914 it’d been well over a century since the new paradigm emerged first in GB and then spread all over Europe. By mid-19th century it was already the dominant paradigm, I think.


Bruce Wilder 06.01.08 at 3:03 am

britta: “during WWI the Germans played by the rules”

well, there were the small matters of Belgian neutrality and unlimited submarine warfare, but why be nitpicky?


tzs 06.01.08 at 4:54 am

Random thoughts:

1. Only book I ran into during my childhood which even mentioned what people thought about during WWI was one of the Anne of Green Gable books.

2. Americans suck at history. Really really suck. We love forgetting stuff, because we always want to recreate ourselves. We’d much prefer to read Horatio Alger stories. Plus, as has been mentioned above, the fighting wasn’t on US soil.

3. Other historical events which helped wipe it out from US memory: flu epidemics, Great Depression. Prohibition.

4. If anyone wants to read what the average Frenchman thought about the Germans and what they did during WWI, go read L’eclat de l’obus by LeBlanc (author of the Arsene Lupin novels). It’s one of his grimmer novels, and even though there’s a lot of LeBlanc’s standard heroics and melodrama and it all ends happily, there’s a lot of war stuff in there and exactly what the Germans were accused of.

5. Own family history: suspicion that the reason my grandfather left Poland when he did was to keep from being forcibly inducted into the Polish army during WWI….


Martin James 06.01.08 at 6:20 am


You asked for a pointer to the article. I emailed Jim Fallows and he replied as follows… This was for an oddball travel piece I did for the Atlantic, when I took a Gray Line Tour Bus trip through DC and tried to see it as tourists would. This piece is NOT on line because it was published in a strange period when we had not worked out online rights to all the material in the magazine. (It would have been in 1993 or 1994, just when you remembered, and just before we had worked out all the online rights issues, starting with the 1995 issues.)


Bruce Wilder 06.01.08 at 7:02 am

abb1: “I’m just saying that by 1914 it’d been well over a century since the new paradigm emerged first in GB and then spread all over Europe. By mid-19th century it was already the dominant paradigm, I think.”

“paradigm” of what?

If we’re talking about Constitutional Monarchy and Parliamentary democracy, there’s certainly a sense in which the British model of political progress had become dominant by 1900, aspirationally, particularly in the minds of liberals. But, operationally dominant? Not so much, obviously, or there would not have been four Empires to fall with World War I.

Even in Britain and France, there were issues. The power of the hereditary House of Lords was curbed for the first time in the course of quite dramatic events in 1910-11. The Dreyfus Affair in France exposed deep fissures in French society.

Relating this to Quiggin’s speculation about the sources of comparative strength of “the war party” in the U.S. and Europe, I would submit that institutional factors probably dominate a diffuse collective memory. To the extent that a common interpretation of shared experience shaped institution-building strategies and goals, of course, there may be some shared causality. But, what has been forgotten and what is imagined may be more important than what is actually recalled.


abb1 06.01.08 at 11:48 am

Fair enough.

Anyway, this is what Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1916:

…But today matters are quite different in the belligerent states. Today war does not function as a dynamic method of procuring for rising young capitalism the preconditions of its “national” development [like the Franco-Prussian War of 1870]. War has this character only in the isolated and fragmentary case of Serbia. Reduced to its historically objective essence, today’s world war is entirely a competitive struggle amongst fully mature capitalisms for world domination, for the exploitation of the remaining zones of the world not yet capitalistic. That is why this war is totally different in character and effects.


PersonFromPorlock 06.01.08 at 9:33 pm

Maybe one reason we drew so few lessons about war from WW1 is because it was such an incompetently fought war. The Generals on either side had no idea of tactics beyond meat-grinding and no idea of strategy beyond grinding up the other side’s supply of soldiers first. And this was all pretty obvious not long after the War’s end.

So the assumption, I think, was that with better management the next war would produce better results; the problem was not with ‘war’ but with the leadership that particular war had suffered from. The fact that the entire world had, essentially, embarassed itself by such a monumentally stupid effort probably didn’t make people all that eager to dwell on the subject, either.


Chris Williams 06.01.08 at 10:07 pm

Personfromporlock, you are wrong: the WW1 generals were coping as well as they could with several diferent immense revolutions in technology. They were not fools.

Britta: ‘during WWI the Germans played by the rules’. Um, the German army was responsible for a large number of well-documented atrocities against the people of Belgium.

Finally: John, Versailles was not ‘Carthaginian’. For that, check out Brest-Litovsk.

I had my take on this issue here:
The interesting point for me was, and is, why in the UK WW1 is not remembered as a military victory, when it clearly was one.


PersonFromPorlock 06.01.08 at 11:07 pm

Personfromporlock, you are wrong: the WW1 generals were coping as well as they could with several diferent immense revolutions in technology. They were not fools.

You can cope ‘as well as you can’ and still be both incompetent and a fool. No sane person can look at Verdun or Ypres and say “Oh, good try!”

The interesting point for me was, and is, why in the UK WW1 is not remembered as a military victory, when it clearly was one.

First, because it wasn’t worth the cost and second, because Britain only acheived a tie; it took American numbers to force Germany to the armistice table.


John Quiggin 06.01.08 at 11:54 pm

#150 The linked piece is bizarre. It starts with the claim that memory of the war is focused almost exclusively on the Somme (what about Verdun, Ypres, Paschendaele (sp) and so on) and then says “if it was all like that, then how come the British won the war in the end? “

Umm, because in the end the Germans suffered even worse losses, at least relative to their population?


virgil xenophon 06.02.08 at 1:40 am

I should point out that Gallipoli was the brain-child of Churchill to attempt an “end-around” to shorten the war and avoid the meat-grinder stalemate of the trenches in Europe. Although Churchill received the lion’s share of blame for that disaster, some military historians say it was really the fault of the Royal Navy whose commanders were hesitant to press their initial advantage and expose their ships to shore battery fire. Had they provided aggressive naval gun-fire shore bombardment, so the critique goes, the plan would have succeeded. (But perhaps not, WWII naval gunfire was found after the fact to have been ineffective at Normandy, Tarawa, Iwo Jima and most of the other Pacific island landings. And the US Navy was just as skittish at Iwo Jima as were their WWI British counterparts at Gallipoli.)

The point is, if Gallipoli had succeeded Churchill would have appeared as neither incompetent nor a fool by the public of that time (especially in Aus/NZ) but rather as a far-sighted innovative strategic thinker/leader who shortened the war and saved many lives. He, for one, was not callous about the high casualty rates, which was what the landings at Gallipoli attempted to ameliorate. As it was, failure at Gallipoli proved not to be the proverbial orphan, but was seen to have been fathered by one man only–the future British hero and savior in WWII. Such are the fortunes of war and of man.


Britta 06.02.08 at 3:04 am

I’ll amend my statement. Except for the invasion of Belgium, Germany played by the rules during WWI. Certainly, the treatment of Belgian citizens was harsh (although exaggerated by British propaganda). The invasion itself though, was more due to incompetence than malice. Germany only had plan A, which involved invading France through Belgium (a bad idea), especially since their plans had been leaked to France & Britain. Of course, the whole war consisted of one incompetent blunder after another, both in terms of events leading up to the war as well as military actions during the war. As others have pointed out, the Generals who fought the war showed an outstanding obstinacy bordering on stupidity. Trench warfare + machine guns meant that any attacking army would be mowed to ribbons. Yet instead of abandoning traditional tactics, the Generals spent four years basically throwing away the lives of millions of young men in “offensive campaigns.”

In terms of losses, the French actually suffered a higher casualty rate relative to their population than the Germans, along with incredible destruction of the French countryside, as the war was fought almost completely on French soil. The Germans were not actually losing the war militarily, however British blockades were starving the German population, which created unrest and ultimately led to the surrender. These conditions helped contribute to the disastrous post WWI conditions–an angry France felt like even though they were the “victors,” they’d born the brunt of war damage, and a shocked German military felt they’d had the rug pulled out from under them from the powers back in Germany. This was exacerbated by one of our worst presidents of all times, Woodrow Wilson, who helped convince the Germans to surrender by promising them a peace treaty he had no ability to deliver. As a result, the Germans, who’d felt they’d made a concession by surrendering when they weren’t actually losing militarily, were completely shocked and unprepared for the harsh terms of the Versailles treaty. The French, wanting revenge, were completely unwilling to negotiate. The whole thing would have collapsed in the early 20s, except America had the money to prop it up, by giving Germany money so they could pay France and Britain, who could then pay back us. When the depression hit, the whole system fell apart.


Chris Williams 06.02.08 at 8:43 am

Britta, the Schlieffen Plan was not known to the French and British general staffs. There are a number of other errors in yr post but I’ve not got time to correct them.

With the usual proportion of exceptions, WW1 generals were not incompetent. They were attacking because they’d been ordered to: in the case of the allies on the Western Front, they were attacking because a large chunk of their country (or their allies’ country) was under foreign military occupation. What else could they do? It’s a war – people get killed. You had more chance to come back alive from WW1 than from the typhoid-ridden gentleman’s wars of the C18th.

NB, I’ll give the Liddell Hart fans the Third Battle of Ypres – that’s about the only battle of the war that the BEF chose to fight when it didn’t have to, and lost horribly. There are good reasons for all the rest (If you accept that WW1 was worth fighting, of course. Me, I don’t, but that would have put me in a tiny minority in 1914-18.)

By 1918, some generals had actually worked out how to make attacks on trenches work. They attacked and drove the enemy back for good. They won on the battlefield. That’s interesting and important, but has gone down the memory hole.

As for the Somme: John, from Australia I’m not sure that you can appreciate how much of the UK’s popular memory of WW1 is concentrated on the experience of the British army on July 1st 1916. Lots of people know about the 20,000 dead on that day: very few realise that by the end of the battle, allied and German casualties were of a similar order. Nobody remembers the second (or the 60th) day of the Somme.

Perhaps everyone who agrees with the Blackadder view could spend about half an hour reading anything written by a military historian on the topic in the last 20 or so years? A good place to start is Dan Todman’s blog _Trench Fever_ []

The interesting meta-issue here is that way that professional historians often have very little purchase on the views that the mass of the population – even those elements within it who consider themselves academics – have about history. If I want to find out about economics, I don’t turn to a Jeffrey Archer novel, but the first port of call for many people’s knowledge about WW1 is fiction.

PS The acutal US contribution in 1918 was largely financial rather than military. The huge US armies had not really learned to fight effectively by the Armistice. What they provided, though, was the prospect of a virtually unlimited well of manpower for the offensives of 1919.

PPS In WW1, the US war effort was fought very closely in tandem with the French: they didn’t have very much to do with the British. This contrasts strongly with WW2, where the majority of US combat troops in the ETO spent time in Britain. In 1917-18, the AEF was based in France, with French equipment, fighting alongside them. Perhaps this attached the memory of WW1 far more closely to the subsequent history of Franco-American relations?


John Quiggin 06.02.08 at 11:34 am

“Lots of people know about the 20,000 dead on that day: very few realise that by the end of the battle, allied and German casualties were of a similar order. Nobody remembers the second (or the 60th) day of the Somme.”

This seems to me to be a total misreading. I’d suggest that people remember the Somme battles (Like Verdun, Ypres, Bullicourt, Poziers, Messine, Vimy Ridge, Cambrai and dozens more) as bloody slaughter on both sides, serving only to move the trenches a few hundred yards in one direction or the other. I doubt if 1 in 100 could tell you which of these was a “victory” for one side or the other. I certainly couldn’t. If I’m wrong about this, maybe some of CTs British readers could set me straight.


Britta 06.02.08 at 1:43 pm

If you’re going to nitpick, in 1904 the French military gained access to the preliminary Schlieffen plan. Despite the 10 years in between that and WWI, the Germans pretty much left the plan unaltered. Not that it mattered all that much, because a)it wasn’t all that different from Franco-Prussian invasion plans, which the French already had experienced and b)the Germans didn’t get it right anyways (crucially, their bungling allowed enough time for the French army to escape entrapment, thus resulting the the French war of attrition).

You may not agree with my historical interpretation, but it’s based on far more than Black Adder. One of my favorite books about the lead up to WWI is “The Long Fuse.”


Chris Williams 06.02.08 at 2:33 pm

So, would that be a book written 37 years ago, then?


Bruce Wilder 06.02.08 at 7:09 pm

britta: “in 1904 the French military gained access to the preliminary Schlieffen plan”

Oh, good lord. There wasn’t a Schlieffen plan, until December 1905. Almost everything else you wrote earlier about the Plan was also wrong.

chris williams: “By 1918, some generals had actually worked out how to make attacks on trenches work. They attacked and drove the enemy back for good. They won on the battlefield. That’s interesting and important, but has gone down the memory hole.”

It may be diminished by our long perspective, but it did not go down the memory hole, at all, at the time. Quite the contrary. Storm troopers loomed large in the popular imagination. Tanks became the obsession of some key young career officers, from Patton to DeGaulle.

chris williams: “With the usual proportion of exceptions, WW1 generals were not incompetent.”

I have to disagree with this. Competence was a central issue during the war and in making sense of the war afterwards, for good reason. It would take a book, not a blog comment to tease out the how and the why competence was so clearly lacking, and so much in question, and the answer would contain many subtleties.

Technological capabilities had clearly outrun military training and traditions — much more in some countries than others. The mixed state of technological advance played a role: the industrial capacity to mass forces had outrun the communications and control capability to manage and direct them adaptively. Moreover, military strategy and tactics were inadequate to the industrial scale and firepower involved.

The questioning of political and military elite competence was a central aspect of the World War as a revolutionary event, overthrowing the old order and the unearned privileges of its social classes. Just as WWI was the culmination of Europe’s long ambivalence over absolute monarchy after 1789, WWI was also the culmination of a parallel ambivalence over the organization of the military after Valmy (1792).

The fog that surrounds questions about who was competent and who was not was a critical dynamic of the war. That fog is exemplified in continuing debates about the wisdom of Gallipoli, but there were many such controversies over events and persons, and one of the peculiar features of memory of the Great War was that people never seemed to get a useful or accurate moral narrative out of its failures: the wrong lessons were often drawn.

The French loved Joffre, who epitomized incompetence on many levels. Verdun convinced the French of the usefulness of fortification, inspiring the Maginot Line. Neither the Belgians nor the Dutch nor the French grasped the lesson of the Schlieffen plan, even after that full-scale demonstration. Kitchener, who actually seems to have known his business, was treated by the British as an annoying gadfly, while Haig and French . . . well, what can be said? The Italians decided that they had been on the wrong side, after all. And, the Germans, in the greatest blunder of all, convinced themselves that they had been winning all along.

For the Americans, WWI was more about the mass mobilization at home than about actual fighting in Europe, and more about victory and defeat in the diplomacy of Versailles than about battlefield manuever. And, the Americans generally seemed to learn from the experience. WWII mobilization was much better, and the American plan for afterwards was also far more sensible.


anon 06.02.08 at 8:29 pm

Britta is just plain wrong on atrocities. The Germans came awful close to committing genocide in Belgium and in Poland:

see: German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (Yale, 2001)
Absolute Destruction: Military Culture And The Practices Of War In Imperial Germany (Cornell, 2005)


J Thomas 06.03.08 at 2:22 am

“in 1904 the French military gained access to the preliminary Schlieffen plan”

Oh, good lord. There wasn’t a Schlieffen plan, until December 1905. Almost everything else you wrote earlier about the Plan was also wrong.

I found this easily. “link”:

“It contains interesting information about the way in which, in the spring of 1904, the French first became acquainted with the Schlieffen plan….”

I don’t have access to the actual article. I notice that the link itself includes the string “britta”. There is a possibility that the person you’re arguing with has been publishing on the topic, and is not simply misinformed at a basic level.

“==Apr.— > A spy slips an early version of the Schlieffen Plan to the French (though the episode may have been a ruse) -~ rising concern in the French Army over the possibility of a war with Germany ” Another claim about this 1904 event.

“The French were well aware of the German plan to attack using a strong right wing as they were given the plan by a German staff officer in 1904. (34)”

It seems to me that Britta is not insane to believe this. It could be wrong, but it isn’t just Britta making it up. There could have been a plan similar to the Schlieffen plan in 1904 that got revealed to the french, whether it was a proto-Schlieffen plan or not. In general terms the germans didn’t have a lot of good alternatives, though lots of details of the plan were open to innovation.


Chris A. Williams 06.03.08 at 9:57 am

The point isn’t what someone told the French in 1904, it’s what else they might have heard in the next ten years – during which time, they could have (correctly) expected Moltke to be modifying the plan, or even (incorrectly) that he had changed his mind about it.

It’s pretty obvious that in 1914 they weren’t expecting the Schlieffen Plan they got, because Joffre waited to see what the Germans were up to before making his own plans. He suspected that they might come through Belgium, but was not certain that they would.

If there’s any evidence that Joffre _knew_ of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914, and thought that the Germans would use it, then I’d love to see it. So would the editors of the Journal of Military History. The last word on the topic (so far) seems to be this article by Robert Doughty:

‘French Strategy in 1914: Joffre’s Own’ in The Journal of Military History, Vol. 67, No. 2, (Apr., 2003), pp. 427-454


“Joffre’s strategy suffered from several flaws, the most serious of which stemmed from assumptions that the Germans would not drive across Belgium deep into the French rear, and that they would not integrate reserve units into their leading forces.”

ie: he didn’t know how strong the right wing was going to be. He didn’t know about the Schlieffen Plan. QED. Amazing what you can find out if you use the fruits of up-to-date historical research, isn’t it?

History is an interesting academic discipline precisely because it’s obviously relevant. Everyone’s an expert. This is often frustrating to professional historians like me, but it’s a nice problem to have.


John Quiggin 06.03.08 at 12:37 pm

Chris W, I’d certainly be interested in some empirical support for the claim that British memory of the War is dominated by an incorrectly perceived defeat at the Somme rather than (as I’ve suggested) an accurately perceived grinding mutual slaughter in a series of pointless battles.


Chris A. Williams 06.03.08 at 1:35 pm

OK John, here is the result of some Google searches,:

” Battle of x”
UK Web
Mons 918 27,000
Loos 11,300 64,000
Somme 95,300 185,000
Ypres 10,300 63,200
Amiens 2,700 17,900

That’s a first cut. Are you in a position to get hold of Todman’s ‘Great War, Myth and Memory’? If not, I’ll have to get back to you in a few days.

How does Amiens meet your criteria of accurately perceived ‘pointlessness’? How about Mons?

By the way, here I agree with the military aspects of Gary Sheffield’s revisionism. I don’t agree with the political aspects of it. When I talk about ‘pointless’ (or not) I’m talking in purely military terms, not political terms. Rosa and Ramsay were right.


Nordic Mousse 06.03.08 at 3:18 pm

Chris W, why would you agree with the military revisionism when it’s clear the generals’ strategy didn’t, and couldn’t, work? They used attrition against an enemy far more skillful than they, and who killed Allied soldiers far quicker and at much less expense.

And on what scale did they squander their blood and treasure!

That is why this form of revisionism is so unconvincing.

But it doesn’t end there, because their tactics were miserable as well, almost until the end. Even a laymen would see that. No person of average intelligence or above would repeat costly operations that are known not to work, would they.

Which is why the people of Britain rightly perceived and still perceive the “blimps” to have been incompetent. It’s also why the British Army to this day teaches — even to the lowest ranks — that that kind of engagement is STUPID

However, I agree with you on the political aspects


Chris A. Williams 06.03.08 at 3:29 pm

Nordic, where did you get this idea from? The BEF’s tactics did evolve throughout the conflict (with the possible exception of a de-skilling between 1915 and 1916). Strategically, with the significant exception of 3rd Ypres, they attacked because they had to, in order to relieve pressure on their other Allies, or, later to drive the German armies from France and Belgium. They knew that their course of action was ruinous, but they also knew that they had very little choice in the matter.

Far from being inherently unworkable, the generals’ strategy _did actually work_. They won. Pretty much everyone accepted this at the time, even Ludendorff. It’s not surprising that Ludendorff changed his tune soon after and spoke of ‘a stab in the back’: what is surprising is that so many people still take the old fascist’s word for it.

Please, read anything written on the BEF in the last 20 years by a military historian, then come back. Robin Pryor is the most critical of Haig, so why not start with him? But even he is likely to put the boot into your ideas about WW1.


Nordic Mousse 06.03.08 at 3:56 pm

Chris, my bookshelves are packed with it, in four languages, including the revisionist stuff, and it’s obvious to me, as it is to most people, that British strategy was a disaster in terms of human life and financial expenditure.

They had to wait almost four years before generals got anything right, and that is what the British public were and still are correctly very indignant about

More importantly, nobody won WW1. Some benefited from it, such Finland and Lithuania, and arguably the USA, but there was no victor

Most of them lost outright


J Thomas 06.03.08 at 5:25 pm

“Relieving pressure”. That’s an interesting concept.

We’re afraid the enemy will attack some place important and win something important while slaughtering lots of our troops. So instead we’ll attack over here, where the enemy has little to gain. And he’ll use up his munitions slaughtering *us* and so he won’t have it to spare to attack the important target.

It makes a peculiar nightmare sort of sense.


PersonFromPorlock 06.03.08 at 9:36 pm

Chris, look at the British victory in WW1 this way: two eBay bidders who don’t know what the thing’s worth get caught up in a bidding war for a very ordinary Radio Shack Cassette player: the final price is $250. One of the bidders can be said to have ‘won’ the auction, but….


Chris Williams 06.03.08 at 10:55 pm

I am not arguing that the conduct of WW1 was in any way rational in the wider scheme of things. I note, nordic, that you’ve not answered my question in any definite terms. BEF tactics got better. BEF strategy was condemned to be appalling, for the simple reason that they had very little choice in the matter. It was a coalition war – and that coalition had Russia and Romania in it as well as France.

‘Relieving pressure’ was not about fear that the enemy might attack, it was about the fact that the enemy was attacking. Let’s take the example of the first battle of the Somme. At the time, the German army was inflicting horrendous casualties on the French (and to a lesser extent itself) at Verdun. The BEF could either sit there and wait for their ally to get knocked out of the war (see: 1940), or attack, even though everyone with a brain thought that they weren’t ready.

I have _absolutely no problem_ in asserting that WW1 was a giant zero-sum cock-up. As far as I’m concerned, humanity went to hell on August 4th 1914 and is still there. But the British general staff were not idiots. They may have been evil, but they were not stupid, and anyone who thinks that they were is that much less likely to ever help getting us out of hell.

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