Armistice Day

by John Quiggin on November 11, 2009

91 years ago, the world marked the end of the Great War that had consumed tens of millions of lives, mostly those of young men sent to die far from home in a cause that few could explain, then or now. It was a false dawn. The chaos unleashed by the Great War spawned more and greater wars, revolutions and genocides that continued through most of the 20th century and still continue, in places, even to this day.

I’ve written in the past about the futility of war, and that is the most important thought for this day of remembrance. But there is something else that demands more attention than it has received. The cataclysm of the Great War brought forth monsters like Hitler and Stalin, who killed millions. But the War itself, with the millions and tens of millions of lives it took, directly and indirectly, was loosed on the world by political leaders more notable for mediocrity than for monstrous greatness. 

The names of Asquith,  Bethmann-Hollweg, Berchtold and Poincare are barely remembered, yet on any reasonable accounting they belong among the great criminals of history. Not only did they create the conditions for war, and rush (eagerly in most cases) into it, they carried on even as the death toll mounted into the hundreds of thousands and beyond. Even as the original grounds for war became utterly irrelevant, they continued to intrigue for trivial postwar benefits, carving up imagined conquests among themselves. Eventually, most were displaced by leaders who were marginally less mediocre, and more determined to win at all costs (Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Ludendorff, Hindenburg and others).

How could such ordinary, seemingly decent, men pursue such an evil and self-destructive course, and yet, in most cases, attract and retain the support of their people? I find it hard to understand. 

{ 96 comments }

1

Gareth Rees 11.11.09 at 12:20 pm

The leaders were able to start and run the war because their people were largely militarist nationalists. It’s obvious to us that militarism and nationalism are purely destructive forces, but that’s because we can look back at the history of the twentieth century. In 1914 these philosophies had not yet been discredited: millions of Europeans genuinely believed in the manifest destiny of their nations, and that the benefits of war (in terms of territorial gains, reparations, and the simple glory of dying for one’s country) would outweigh the costs. The popular jubilation in the belligerent nations on the outbreak of war was genuine.

2

Zamfir 11.11.09 at 12:24 pm

To me, the problem seems more that is all too easy to see how it happened, and how it could easily happen again. Starting a war because the downsides seem acceptable happens all the time, and sometimes the downsides really are more or less acceptable.

And once you are in the war, it just isn’t easy to stop. Every dead body on your side makes the war more important and every death on the other side means that you can’t lose from people you harmed so much.

3

chris y 11.11.09 at 12:30 pm

Such a good question it’s worth asking twice.

I suspect we’d be deceiving ourselves if we looked for a single overarching reason, or for a set of reasons which remained consistent from start to finish. Factors involved certainly included the inability to cut their losses under circumstances where they had by the middle of the war invested more deeply in the effort than they were capable of understanding; that is a common enough human weakness in all conscience.

But that wouldn’t have been sufficient on its own. I suspect that the deep rooted fear of a single country dominating Europe, which dated from the Napoleonic wars (which were popularly referred to as “The Great War” before the Great War) may still have been more influential than we can understand. That conflict was in 1914 only as remote as 1914 is to us, and probably loomed large in people’s imagination. Moreover, German imperial ambitions would have appeared seriously threatening to French and British interests, if the French and British political class believed that their interests lay in monopolising a large part of global trade to themselves through imperial domination. As far as I know, they did so believe, and within that belief, there wasn’t much world left for a German colonial empire. It may have been nonsense, but it was sincerely held nonsense.

I really doubt anybody in 1914 would have predicted the scale of devastation to come. By analogy with what, after all? To both sides, the coming war probably appeared little more than realpolitik. By the time they were drowning in blood, they could see no way out.

4

marcel 11.11.09 at 12:32 pm

How could such ordinary, seemingly decent, men pursue such an evil and self-destructive course, and yet, in most cases, attract and retain the support of their people? I find it hard to understand.

Surely any answer has to include their reliance on military advisors — experts — who told them that if they took steps A & B, then … profit.

5

JoB 11.11.09 at 12:43 pm

John, if you didn’t do it yet you really should read Karl Kraus’ Letzte Tage. They didn’t need support; the question did not arise enough yet (imho).

6

Ceri B. 11.11.09 at 1:33 pm

Chris Y: I really doubt anybody in 1914 would have predicted the scale of devastation to come. By analogy with what, after all? The American Civil War, the Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War. The evidence was there in large quantity, but every case had stock dismissals prepared for it.

7

Zamfir 11.11.09 at 1:50 pm

Ceri, the boer wars and the Russian-Japanese war had their casualties in the 10,000s per side. The American Civil War was larger, with I think around 200,000 people on both sides actually killed in the fighting. I guess the people starting the war were willing to accept a number in between those without any moral trouble.

In other words, the Battle of the Somme alone dwarfed the American civil war in casualties.

8

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.11.09 at 1:55 pm

They were strong, resolute, patriotic leaders; people love those.

9

bob mcmanus 11.11.09 at 2:05 pm

“which dated from the Napoleonic wars”

“Fear of soc1alism” can cover a lot of ground: the end of nationalism and aristocracy and imperialism, for three. The immediate post-war period should show how powerful the movement was.

10

bob mcmanus 11.11.09 at 2:14 pm

Yeah, I think I’ll stick with that:”The only war is class war.” I have a book somewhere around here (Wallerstein?) that interprets 1914-1946 as a long war between state capitalism and democratic soc1alism. The good guys lost.

11

Andrew 11.11.09 at 2:23 pm

Odd question. God was on our side: the enemy was the most potent threat to civilization, decency and the fair flower of our womanhood evah. Defeat would have condemned us to subjugation, to bow the head to tyranny, to shame and ignominy, to the betrayal of everything our forefathers stood for. There Was No Alternative.

Thinking is dithering, anyway.

12

chris y 11.11.09 at 2:24 pm

Bob,

I agree with your general premise that “Fear of soc1alism” can cover a lot of ground, but I’ll take a bit of convincing that the leaders of the five most prominent imperialist states in 1914 thought that smashing themselves to pieces was a good way of avoiding socialist revolution.

Even the idea that war would be an opportunity to co-opt the socialist parties is unconvincing: Germany, France and Britain had already bought out the right wing of the Second International years before 1914.

13

chris y 11.11.09 at 2:26 pm

Bob,

I agree with your general premise that “Fear of soc1alism” can cover a lot of ground, but I’ll take a bit of convincing that the leaders of the five most prominent imperialist states in 1914 thought that smashing themselves to pieces was a good way of avoiding soc1alist revolution.

Even the idea that war would be an opportunity to co-opt the soc1alist parties is unconvincing: Germany, France and Britain had already bought out the right wing of the Second International years before 1914.

Bugger, forgot about C/i/a/l/i/s. Moderator please delete other version.

14

JK 11.11.09 at 2:29 pm

“But there is something else that demands more attention than it has received. “

I guess diminishing numbers of people read Lenin nowadays. He was not so much shocked by the behaviour of the bourgeosie – “The European war, which the governments and the bourgeois parties of all countries have been preparing for decades, has broken out” he wrote in October 1914 – as by the transformation of socialists into pro-war nationalists.

Lenin’s attempt to make sense of it was summed up in his book Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism.

There were not many who consistently opposed the war. The Boleshevik revolution and Kiel mutiny certainly helped shorten it. The publication of secret treaties from the tsarist archives (e.g. the Sykes-Picot agreement) showed that much of what the Bolesheviks had claimed was correct. It also helped discredit the practice of secret diplomacy. Without Lenin’s Decree on Peace, Wilson would have been unlikely to embrace open diplomacy and self-determination (see e.g. Arno Mayer, Wilson vs. Lenin. Political Origins of the New Diplomacy, 1917-1918).

Lenin may have been wrong in his analysis, but I think they deserve serious study and criticism.

15

Joe S. 11.11.09 at 2:44 pm

“How could such ordinary, seemingly decent, men pursue such an evil and self-destructive course, and yet, in most cases, attract and retain the support of their people? I find it hard to understand. “

Ya never worked in a large bureaucratic organization, didja?

16

bob mcmanus 11.11.09 at 2:55 pm

12:Well, I know more about Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary than about England, France, or Italy. To go over, for instance, the Prussian desire to hold onto their privileged position in the face of a strong social democratic party and a very weak economy, well, books have been written. And not just Luxemburg and Lenin. But whatever…

That Robert Kaplan quote has been floating around this week:

“What does the European Union truly stand for besides a cradle-to-grave social welfare system? For without something to struggle for, there can be no civil society—only decadence.”

The causes of WWI persist. Romantics are stubborn.

17

Uncle Kvetch 11.11.09 at 2:55 pm

It’s obvious to us that militarism and nationalism are purely destructive forces, but that’s because we can look back at the history of the twentieth century. In 1914 these philosophies had not yet been discredited

You’re clearly not in the US. Over here it’s Veteran’s Day, not Armistice Day, and militarist nationalism is the plat du jour.

I work one block away from where the parade will kick off, in little over an hour. Lots of nifty weaponry arrayed along the side streets, not to mention machine-gun-armed security.

On Radio France this morning they said the message of 11.11 is “Never again.” Over here I’d have to say it’s “More, please.”

18

xj 11.11.09 at 2:57 pm

From what I’ve read on the topic, the european workers and their International movement were fairly united against war, but when “national honor, prestige, economics, etc” was invoked, it was all over but the killing. Its the curse of nationalism. As late as Christmas 1914 there was well documented holiday fraternization along the western front. However, the governments, with the help of the press, demonized the opposition and whipped up public opinion – sound familiar? There are just way to many threads for a simple explanation, but I do believe that the national leaders were living in the past and just couldn’t conceive what they were unleashing – they could only picture the future on what they knew or believed of the past. In our time, Viet Nam and Iraq are good examples of this type of thinking.

19

HNT 11.11.09 at 2:58 pm

How could such ordinary, seemingly decent, men pursue such an evil and self-destructive course, and yet, in most cases, attract and retain the support of their people?

pride

20

Glen Tomkins 11.11.09 at 3:05 pm

That positive feedback loop

“How could such ordinary, seemingly decent, men pursue such an evil and self-destructive course, and yet, in most cases, attract and retain the support of their people? I find it hard to understand.”

You’re looking in the wrong place, and in the wrong direction. It’s not that Poincare, et al, were such skilled and popular politicians that they could survive the disasters they created. These disasters, the very monumental scale of the death and destruction involved, made it necessary for people to find a villain to demonize, and it was far eaiser to make the enemy in arms, the folks actually doing the killing, out to be that villain, and to get people to rally around their own countries’ leadership, however much the calm and sober view of matters that people were incapable of in the moment might have pointed the finger at those leaders.

To take a step back, the sort of negative feedback that we expect to work to discipline leadership in a democracy, whereby policy failure leads to unpopularity, which leads to ouster from office, only works for issues that don’t provoke national or tribal loyalties. But once an enemy starts shooting at “our boys” in uniform, positive feedback kicks in, and political leaders get a boost in popularity that depends not at all on their competence in directing the war, and entirely on how much damage is being done by the enemy to our side. Nothing succeeds like failure, if failure comes in the shape of violence committed against our side. Of course, one can overachieve on the failure front, and restore the negative feedback of failure, and with a vengeance. But, especially in wartime, the press can be counted on to be even more easily manipulated than their usual low standards in that regard, and governments can get away with much greater “security” measures allowing them to control the flow of information, to the point that you have to be really incompetent to be seen by your own electorate as a failure in war leadership, no matter how bad your actual failures in that respect.

I suspect that Europeans in particular, and non-‘Merkins in general, can’t see this as clearly, because you folks have drawn back from the brink of this positive feedback loop since 1945, while it still works amazingly well here in the US, which has actually gotten deeper into it since 1945. Over in Europe there seems to have grown up a certain instinctive, automatic distrust of plays on national and tribal loyalty against an “enemy”, but that bar is still wide open in the US dispensing its fire-water, and you’re not going to go broke underestimating the susceptibility of the US electorate to bloodthirsty jingoism of the most blatant variety. We have only Dubya’s poor work ethic and lack of imagination, and perhaps the refusal of the bureaucracy to permit him a fresh disaster in Iran to keep the cycle going, to thank for his not establishing a permanent regime of ever-failing, never-ending, self-justifying war. But the problem is so systemic that we may yet end up with the same result, on a “bipartisan” basis.

21

tom s. 11.11.09 at 3:29 pm

As part of that loop, it doesn’t help to call November 11th “Veterans’ Day” or, as is currently being pushed in Canada, “Veterans’ Week”. It also doesn’t help when your official poet of the day is not Owen but the guy who wrote this:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

There are basically no mainstream expressions of anti-war sentiment on November 11 in North America.

22

Billikin 11.11.09 at 3:29 pm

Before the U. S. Civil War, war was glorious, in the view of most people. Sherman said, “War is hell,” but it took a long time before that view became predominant. Even today, Hollywood and video games exploit the glory of war. But the news is grittier. So much so, that actual pictures of war are censored, replaced by animation. WWI made a big difference in the view of war as glorious. “Im Westen nichts Neues”. Nothing glorious there.

23

bob mcmanus 11.11.09 at 3:35 pm

“a permanent regime of ever-failing, never-ending, self-justifying war. But the problem is so systemic that we may yet end up with the same result, on a “bipartisan” basis.”

40k troops to be slowly introduced into Afghanistan, for a war that will apparently last thru both Obama’s terms? We are already there.

I decided in 2001 that we can’t fight war qua war. What, half a million in the streets of London? It doesn’t work. Kaplan laid it out for us in the quote 16 above. War beats socialism, socialism beats war. War is the health of state capitalism. You have to starve that beast of the money and privilege war selectively bestows. Only when war means the people lose their healthcare, pensions, and will go hungry, only when it really is “guns or butter,” will we see the end of war.

21:”though poppies grow In Flanders fields.”

Hmm, the liberals at EotAW put up some poppies this week.

I’m thru here.

24

bob mcmanus 11.11.09 at 3:38 pm

(sorry, forgot the ‘1’s…delete previous)

“a permanent regime of ever-failing, never-ending, self-justifying war. But the problem is so systemic that we may yet end up with the same result, on a “bipartisan” basis.”

40k troops to be slowly introduced into Afghanistan, for a war that will apparently last thru both Obama’s terms? We are already there.

I decided in 2001 that we can’t fight war qua war. What, half a million in the streets of London? It doesn’t work. Kaplan laid it out for us in the quote 16 above. War beats soc1alism, soc1alism beats war. And I mean DS, not SD. War is the health of state capitalism. You have to starve that beast of the money and privilege war selectively bestows. Only when war means the people lose their healthcare, pensions, and will go hungry, only when it really is “guns or butter,” will we see the end of war.

21:”though poppies grow In Flanders fields.”

Hmm, the liberals at EotAW put up some poppies this week.

I’m thru here.

25

Anderson 11.11.09 at 4:30 pm

Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Napoleon, Lenin, Idi Amin, Stalin, Hitler, … Asquith?

I’m having a hard time buying into that one.

26

AB 11.11.09 at 6:30 pm

@3 and @6
Only the Russo-Japanese war really provided evidence of the obsolescence of old-fashioned offensive movements (cavalry charges and infantry advances) against the vastly improved modern defences of fixed machine gun posts and barbed wire, and you’re dead right that the western observers present discounted it, saying the cavalry charges had been done all wrong. The offensive technologies that would dominate WW2 (tanks and warplanes) had barely been developed even by 1918.

Censorship of newspapers and official propaganda were another vastly important reason that opinion took so long to turn: most people in Britain had only the sketchiest idea (and that usually from returning soldiers) of just how badly the thing was going.

27

James Kroeger 11.11.09 at 6:47 pm

John Quiggin

“How could such ordinary, seemingly decent, men pursue such an evil and self-destructive course, and yet, in most cases, attract and retain the support of their people? I find it hard to understand.”

I can assure you that the men you cited did not perceive themselves to be pursuing an evil and self-destructive course. It is quite certain that they saw themselves as men of virtue pursuing a supremely noble cause. And that is precisely the problem.

Almost every example of Great Evil in history that you can cite (The Inquisition, Thirty Years War, Hitler, Stalin, Rwanda, etc.) was carried out by individuals who believed they were The Good Guys who were striking out against A Great Evil that was threatening their nation/tribe/people. It never occurred to the people of England, Germany, Austria, or France that their own leaders might actually be the greatest enemy that they faced.

But people like to listen to patriotic speeches. With every denunciation of a foreign enemy, the patriotic speech makers praise [indirectly] the members of their audiences for being “one of the good guys.” This indirect praise—which is expressed while pointing a finger in the other direction—can feel so good, many people will point to it to as the primary source of happiness in their lives.

That is why Asquith, Bethmann-Hollweg, Berchtold and Poincare were able to retain the support of their people. Group identity. Indirect praise through group comparisons. Fear of being identifies with ‘our enemies.’ The day may come when we are finally able to put catastrophic wars behind us forever, but it will only happen if/when the members of the world’s intellectual elite make it clear to the educated members of their countries that Patriotism is really no different from Racism.

28

vanya 11.11.09 at 6:52 pm

What is even more shocking is that the name Sasonov don’t appear on your list. Arguably World War I (just like World War II) was at its core the struggle between Germany and Russia contesting for the leadership of Eastern Europe. The War in the West was a means to that end for Germany, not the actual goal. Germany saw its future in the East not in occupying Paris.

Enver Pasha may belong on your list too, since the Ottomans also played a considerable role in the war, and caused immense destruction to their own peoples as a result. You could argue, I suppose, that Enver is perhaps too colorful a figure to fit in with the mediocrities you’ve listed.

29

John Quiggin 11.11.09 at 7:22 pm

Vanya, I omitted Enver Pasha for the reason you suggest.

My ignorance of Russian history is such that I didn’t know who in Russia I should have on the list. And it’s widely shared – Sasonov doesn’t even have a Wikipedia article.

30

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.11.09 at 7:25 pm

Sazonov?

31

Omega Centauri 11.11.09 at 7:49 pm

Pretty much all of the above, but also a kind of tribal myopia. Our boys are so much better than the other guys boys, that it will be an easy pushover. Also our cause if so self-evidently right, that the other side will be motivated to quit and welcome us as liberators. This leads to massive overoptimism about the results. Then you get into a sort of patriotic cheerleading mode which features punishment against those who aren’t true believers in the cause and capability of the nation. Doubt is interpreted as a deliberate undermining of your groups needs. Hence all analysis gets skewed in the direction that we will succeed.

I’ve also observed that in a lot of ethnic style struggles when things get desperate both sides believe ” The reason we haven’t got our way, is because we haven’t made them suffer enough. Just one more nasty brutish operation against the enemy and he will capitulate”.

32

John Quiggin 11.11.09 at 8:06 pm

Sazonov works, though Wikipedia presents him as a moderate and blames Nicholas Hartwig, the leading pan-Slavist for Russia’s aggressive policy against Austria.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_Hartwig

33

alex 11.11.09 at 8:13 pm

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night, ch 13:

“See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rags. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.”

“Why, they’ve only just quit over in Turkey,” said Abe. “And in Morocco—”

“That’s different. This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.”

“General Grant invented this kind of battle at Petersburg in sixty- five.”

“No, he didn’t—he just invented mass butchery. This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.”

34

vanya 11.11.09 at 9:13 pm

Sazonov is correct, thanks. Sergei Sazonov. He was a moderate by most accounts but he did help persuade the Tsar to go ahead with mobilization at a time the Tsar was wavering. Hartwig was just one of many hawkish voices, such as you will find in any country. The Russian John Bolton of his time. Sazonov pulled the trigger.

35

matt mckeon 11.11.09 at 9:19 pm

European military officers looked at the American Civil War as a example of what they would avoid. The mass armies of hastily trained volunteers, then conscripts, the battles that turn into bloody stalemates, the gradual grinding down of the smaller by the larger force…the American Civil War is really the template for the Great War. “Armed mobs chasing each other around the countryside” I think one Prussian officer put it.

The experience of the German military was the three wars it fought against Denmark, Austria and France. War of rapid offensive against weaker, diplomatically isolated opponents, all within acceptable limits of time, blood and treasure, and all with tangible benefits for the victor. They probably expected the same in 1914.

36

matt mckeon 11.11.09 at 9:23 pm

Dr. Isodore Bloch wrote a book in 1899 titled “The Future of War” in which he argues that large scale war is economically impossible. The evidence is carefully marshalled(graphs!). The mass armies would collide, stalemate would ensue, since continuing the fighting would economically disastrous, a peace settlement would be quickly reached without settling the issues that sparked the war.

37

John Quiggin 11.11.09 at 9:56 pm

And of course, Norman Angell wrote The Great Illusion to prove that the idea that a victorious war would yield economic benefits to the winner was nonsense.

But Angell and Bloch were too sane to realise that these obvious facts would not prevent war or even bring it to an end once begun.

Perhaps we have begun to learn these lessons now, but then again, perhaps not.

38

sg 11.11.09 at 10:18 pm

Watching the various furores and armistice-day silliness this week, I’m more given to ponder why ordinary people so slavishly follow these warmongers to their own doom. The feeling of power and superiority for the leaders is perhaps understandable – but marching to your own inglorious, muddy death for someone else’s profit…

39

matt mckeon 11.11.09 at 10:21 pm

Of course, the war was not economically disastrous for everybody. Besides the various merchants of death, even farmers and working class people were making good money. Sassoon wrote with barely suppressed rage about the contrast between prosperous civilians and the misery of the trenches.

40

Bill Phillips 11.11.09 at 10:59 pm

“Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Churchill
“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier” Samuel Johnson

It’s a problem of masculinity. Are you really, really sure you wouldn’t like to be Rambo? Just for a bit, to see what it’s like. To feel the power. The sublime power of life and death, and your masculine invulnerability. Tell me you wouldn’t. Tell me you wouldn’t be tempted.

41

Chris A. Williams 11.11.09 at 11:25 pm

alex, ta for that FSF quote.

42

matt mckeon 11.11.09 at 11:41 pm

The mass wars of the 20th century, the armies of conscripts, are, for a while anyway, a thing of the past. Our wars(US/UK), are fought by long service professionals, volunteers, and relatively small numbers of them. The casuality rate is low, the fighting is far away, and the nastiness isn’t shown on TV.

43

Currence 11.11.09 at 11:52 pm

“Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”

lol. An LSD/drug cocktail, autoerotic asphyxia, base jumping, embracing a romantic partner after enduring a long separation, etc.

re: masculinity. Ya, isn’t there something we could put in the water along with fluoride that would naturally depress testosterone levels or something like that, as a matter of public health?

44

Britta 11.11.09 at 11:54 pm

Matt Mckeon@35

One missing ingredient that made WWI different from Germany’s earlier wars of consolidation was Bismarck. The Iron Chancellor had indeed looked at the US Civil war and had no illusions about a similarly large scale war in Europe, which is why he took great pains to maintain alliances with France, Russia, and GB and avoid getting involved in an Austro-Russian power struggle for Eastern Europe. I believe he said something along the lines of “a war in the Balkans is not worth the bones of one Pomeranian soldier.” It was not long after Bismarck was “resigned” that Germany let its alliances slide and formally aligned itself with Austria against Russia.

45

Bloix 11.11.09 at 11:56 pm

Nobody could have expected 1914 because 1914 wasn’t possible until 1911 or so, when Fritz Haber synthesized ammonia and BASF made his process commercially viable. With the Haber-Bosch process, it became possible for the first time to synthesize explosives. Before then, gunpowder and explosives were made from naturally mined saltpeter. Germany had no ready access to saltpeter and couldn’t have fought a long war, but by 1913 the Haber-Bosch process provided Germany with an inexhaustible supply of high explosives. No one really understood what limitless bombardments would mean until they learned first-hand.

The thing I don’t understand is why the war went on after 1916 or so. How did it happen that Britain approved conscription? By then I cannot imagine what people thought they were fighting for, unless, as Tom S suggests at #21, they were fighting for nothing more than the honor of those already dead.

46

LFC 11.11.09 at 11:57 pm

@3: “I really doubt anybody in 1914 would have predicted the scale of devastation to come.”
Perhaps not, but there is some evidence and recent historical work indicating that German army planners understood that the war was not going to be short and relatively costless; some of this is cited and discussed in Keir Lieber, “The New History of World War I and What It Means for International Relations Theory,” International Security 32:2 (Fall 2007); and see also the subsequent exchange about this article in a later number of the same journal.

47

LFC 11.12.09 at 12:07 am

@44: the Bismarck quote, IIRC, refers to “the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier.” (Grenadier/soldier=the same thing, but “grenadier” gives the line something more, at least in English.)

48

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 11.12.09 at 12:26 am

John Quiggin: I believe Vanya is referring to Alexander Samsonov – the man who lost the Battle of Tannenberg (and the Russian Second Army) in 1914. His defeat helped prolong WWI – German morale got an immense boost from destroying an opposing army mere weeks into the conflict.

49

Glen Tomkins 11.12.09 at 1:16 am

“40k troops to be slowly introduced into Afghanistan, for a war that will apparently last thru both Obama’s terms? We are already there.”

I wouldn’t disagree with you about the Obama administration taking a powder on putting up even the feeblest resistance to the prevailing jingoism of US foreign policy. But there is a huge difference between an adminstration that sees these imperialist projects as bugs, things they’re stuck with and can’t or won’t actively reverse, and an administration like Dubya’s, that sees them as features to be exploited for domestic political gain.

The difference is that keeping that positive feedback loop going indefnitiely, so that we end up in the world Orwell projected in 1984, would take active cultivation and management of the political dynamic involved, not just the sort of acquiescence ion the flow of events we see in the Dems. The problem with dirty little wars against feeble third world non-powers, or even non-state actors like al Qaeda, is that they don’t, on their own, keep the terror coming, keep the US electorate in a constant state of fear in which they will continually rally around jingoisitc leadership. The terror wears off after it is appealed to overly often over the same old incident, if there is not a continuing supply of fresh threat events. Dubya and his posse definitiely perceived and freely exploited the political benefits of terror tactically — they staged an invasion to help the 2002 midterms, they continued to milk the color-coded sytem of terror alerts, etc. — but they either lacked the imagination and scrupular deficit needed to arrange for fresh disasters, or they were blocked by the bureaucracies involved from the stupid acts that would have been needed to provoke more terrorist attacks on US soil. They were perhaps aiming for such a strategic use of terror with their (apparent) desire to invade Iran, but we’ll probably never know how serious they were, and what or who, if anything, stopped them if they were intent on that madness. Invading Iran would not only have involved us in a much bigger and more difficult occupation attempt, but Iran, unlike Iraq, actually does have an international network capable of terrorist strikes on US soil, which they probably would have activated, providing a fresh new round of disasters to feed the terror. It was even possible that an Iran under attack would have been able to close off the supply of the US forces in Iraq, and actually bag US main force elements. Another Bataan, another Alamo, would have been very useful for its positive feedback potential, perhaps even more so than another 9/11.

Say what you will against Democratic spinelessness, and I won’t contradict you, but at least they lack the spine for this sort of ploy.

50

Ken Lovell 11.12.09 at 2:18 am

‘ The casuality rate is low …’

Amongst invading troops using high-tech weaponry and armour, yes. Amongst the masses of nameless sub-human enemy, not so much. It’s fascinating that most concern about Iraqi deaths for example focuses on civilians. Enemy combatants? Hell who cares how many thousands of them got blown away?

Even some US Marines in the first war against Saddam were sickened by the slaughter of helpless Iraqi soldiers. It didn’t seem to bother the politicians. The poor bastards should of known better than to take up arms against the Empire I guess.

51

vanya 11.12.09 at 2:21 am

No, Down and Out, I am referring to Sergei Dmitrievich Sazonov ( Сергей Дмитриевич Сазонов) who was Russian Foreign Minister from 1910 to June 1916

52

Doctor Science 11.12.09 at 2:51 am

When did the custom of saying “thank you for serving” to veterans on November 11th arise? Am I the only fogey who finds it too much like what you say to the waitron?

I find the idea of thanking those who fought in WWI (including my grandfather, wounded near Chateau-Thierry) for their “service and sacrifice” obscene.

November 11th should be a fast day, not a feast.

53

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 11.12.09 at 3:04 am

Vanya – you are right, of course; you know who you meant (Sazonov, not Samzonov, that is). I should have read your post at #34 before commenting. If it is any worth: sorry.

54

matt mckeon 11.12.09 at 4:24 am

Dr. Science,
Yes you are too old. It isn’t obscene or condescending. It may not be eloquent enough, but the encounter isn’t a writers’ workshop.

Ken Lovell,
Iraqi, or other foreign soldiers don’t vote in American elections, obviously, so really why should we care? What’s bothersome is that the US as a whole tolerates the death rate of US servicemen, deploring it, sure, like we do highway fatalities. War is something someone else does. Someone else’s family mourns.

Hell, the only reason we stumbled into Iraq and bumbled around for years there is because it wasn’t vital and we thought it would be cheap. Nothing was really at stake, for the US.

55

matt mckeon 11.12.09 at 4:26 am

deaths of servicemen and women, of course.

56

Ragout 11.12.09 at 4:38 am

Since Quiggin finds Poincare’s and Asquith’s actions hard to understand, let me try to explain. France was invaded and Poincare mobilized the military to defend his country. Asquith led Britain into the war to fight the aggressors; aggressors who were pursuing a naval armament policy that seemed aimed squarely at his country. Hardly the actions of the “great criminals of history.” Truly, to blame Britain and especially France is carrying moral relativism to new heights.

57

ChrisB 11.12.09 at 5:16 am

Explaining WW1 involves taking into account factors that never go away;
1) Nationalist overconfidence
No nation really believes that its army isn’t good enough to win, until it’s demonstrated.
2) Sunk costs fallacy
After the first year, settling for a draw (let alone losing) involved having traded a million or so dead for something that wasn’t worth a million or so dead.
3) Party politics
Settling for a draw (let alone losing) involved, all the governments involved thought, not only the certainty of losing office (which politicians do have a tendency to conflate with disaster for the nation) but a high risk of bloody revolution and the overthrow of the whole society they knew. In which belief history shows they were more or less correct.

If the trenches had been on the French/German border it would have been a lot easier to stop. As it was, peace would have involved either Germany giving up an advantage when she hadn’t lost or France accepting a loss when she hadn’t lost.

And it’s all very well talking as if we moderns would simply have done the rational thing and saved all those lives. My grandfather fought at Gallipoli, and was in the charge of the Light Horse at the Nek, that most idiotic of doomed battles, four successive waves shot down instantly as they went over the top. At that point, the only way to stop the death of four hundred men would have been to for him bayonet a couple of officers on the startline, but if I’d been there instead of him I wouldn’t have had the guts to do it and I rather doubt if JQ would have either. That’s an extreme case, but it scales.

58

Jason McCullough 11.12.09 at 5:20 am

Ragout, it must have been rough on the leaders of Britain and France when suddenly Germany invaded for no reason whatsoever and they had to grudgingly defend themselves.

59

John Quiggin 11.12.09 at 5:31 am

Ragout is demonstrating the ignorance that has made him so popular here. France mobilised before Germany invaded, not after. Nothing more from you, please, Ragout.

More seriously, I think ChrisB is about right in explaining the way such things happen, and I suspect that I would indeed have gone over the top rather than bayoneting the officers.

The one good outcome, and the reason I always post on Armistice Day, is that in countries that remember the Great War, there is far less enthusiasm for any new war, and far less willingness to accept continuing deaths if peace is a feasible alternative.

60

Britta 11.12.09 at 6:29 am

John Quiggin,

Yes, that’s what makes “Veterans Day” so disturbing in America. Instead of remembering peace gained after wanton destruction and futile loss of life on a mind boggling scale, Americans have made it a day about patriotism and doing one’s duty to one’s country. I don’t think honoring service men is wrong per se, but it seems a bit off from what we (IMO) should take away from WWI, and conversations on this day about justified warfare or military glory are about as wrongheaded as you can get.

61

Brett Dunbar 11.12.09 at 1:51 pm

France mobilising doesn’t make France the aggressor. Germany had mobilised ready to attack France so it would have been absurd for France not to also mobilise once they faced a serious risk of invasion all failing to mobilise would have achieved is that France would not have been prepared to defend itself. Germany occupied Luxembourg and invaded Belgium and France. French mobilisation plans stayed of French territory German mobilisation plans involved occupying Luxembourg. Germany building a navy that was designed for attacking Britain was a problem (the battleships were rather short ranged and of little use for anything else) and Britain had come to view Anglo-French interests as closely aligned.

62

JoB 11.12.09 at 2:25 pm

Yup, there is logic even to war. Now try the other side.

63

Kurt 11.12.09 at 2:35 pm

How could such ordinary, seemingly decent, men pursue such an evil and self-destructive course, and yet, in most cases, attract and retain the support of their people?

The blind belief in authority and the cunning propaganda of statism which removes personal, moral responsibility and collectivizes it in the name of something else.

64

Ceri B. 11.12.09 at 2:48 pm

People attempting to explain why nation X, or all nations except nations Y and Z, are basically blameless for the war need to account for all the stuff that happened in the years before the war, and show why absolutely none of it actually matters. Wars don’t happen in a void. There’s a background of diplomacy, tension, aggression, all that stuff, and it matters what people did that made their neighbors and rivals inclined to do this rather than that. Britain, France, and the rest did things that they shouldn’t have in the decades before 1914 to make their 1914 decisions more likely and more wrong.

65

Anderson 11.12.09 at 3:01 pm

The thing I don’t understand is why the war went on after 1916 or so. How did it happen that Britain approved conscription? By then I cannot imagine what people thought they were fighting for, unless, as Tom S suggests at #21, they were fighting for nothing more than the honor of those already dead.

Throwing good lives after bad.

Prior & Wilson’s book on the Somme is quite scathing about the politicians’ refusal to rein in the generals, but it was a political problem of genuine difficulty. The “great criminals” were ultimately the *public* that demanded victory at any price.

Still, given that Austria-Hungary started the war, Russia made it a great-power war, and Germany made it a general European war, I find it difficult to attribute anything like comparable blame to France or Britain.

66

Nick L 11.12.09 at 3:37 pm

Some rational choice analyses by people like James Fearon seem to demonstrate that countries will not willingly enter into a war unless both sides overestimate their actual chances of victory, otherwise they would reach an agreement over the division of the good that they are contesting (this assumes that the good in question is divisible of course) as war is an inherently negative sum process. This supports the arguments of international relations theorists such as Stephen van Evera have sought to establish that war is frequently unnecessary and caused by the ‘Cult of the Offensive’ – the jingoistic belief that one’s own army can acheive a rapid knock-out blow against the enemy and that it will all be over by Christmas. So a sober appreciation of the real costs of war and the chances of victory on the part of leaders should help to promote peace. Sadly, jingoistic nationalism dies hard.

67

Salient 11.12.09 at 3:51 pm

When I was very young (I am still very young) and in middle school, someone gave me a story to read in which a militant sniper-soldier who is nearly killed when he gives his top-of-building position away lighting a cigarette; he then snipes and annihilates somebody else, walks down to street level while reminiscing about how much he loves his family, and then on a whim (you can see where this is going) turns over the body of the guy he shot, to see the face of his brother.

I remember it being very important to people (such as the teacher) that it must have literally been his brother and feeling empty, because a potential epiphany was replaced with cheap coincidence and some kind of bizarre family solidarity message: “they are us and we are them” was transmuted into some kind of “make sure you and yours are all on the righteous side” or even a “confirm before you shoot” message. The teacher compared this with “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” Go America.

What racist bitterness. I spent nontrivial amount of time wishing the writer of whatever story it was had explicitly made the sniper white and the sniped victim brown-skinned. (It was already absurdly heavy-handed, so why not? But then I’d misunderstood “We have met the enemy and he is us” to be an insight into universal brotherhood and the destructiveness of nationalism.

When it’s Armistice day I think of that story and of that man who saw a stranger as his brother walking back to his troops to tell them so, and getting arrested for sedition and tried and jailed, for a long time, wondering, staring out at the world, and eventually no longer wondering. Just… sad. A quiet, searching sad.

Since it was middle school, this sentiment has gotten inextricably mixed up with Ender’s Game in my mind: “And always Ender carried with him a dry white cocoon, looking for the world where the hive-queen could awaken and thrive in peace. He looked a long time.”

91 years, and counting.

68

vanya 11.12.09 at 4:02 pm

I agree that primary blame for the war should probably be Austria then Germany then Russia. I agree with the theory that Germany consciously provoked the war to attack Russia before it was too late, people forget that Russia’s economic growth from 1890 to 1913 was very rapid, Russia was poised at that point to dominate Europe for the 20th century and the country was modernizing rapidly. 1914 was Germany’s last chance in some minds. But if there had been a will on the part of the French and British they probably could have found a way to stay out of the war and let Eastern Europe sort itself out. Neither Asquith nor Poincare demonstrated much imagination. And of course no mention of futile gestures would be complete without mentioning the incredible stupidity of the Italians joining the war for no good reason at all.

69

James Kroeger 11.12.09 at 4:08 pm

ChrisB:

If the trenches had been on the French/German border it would have been a lot easier to stop. As it was, peace would have involved either Germany giving up an advantage when she hadn’t lost or France accepting a loss when she hadn’t lost.

Actually, after the Brest-Litovsk Treaty was hammered out, the Germans would probably have been more than happy to settle for a return to status quo ante bellum. In fact, might have even been willing to give Alsace-Lorraine back to France, since they would still have ended up tripling the size of the German state, anyway. But by then, the Americans had already joined the mess on the other side of the pond.

70

Matt 11.12.09 at 4:31 pm

I agree that primary blame for the war should probably be Austria then Germany then Russia…
While casting blame, let’s not forget crazy Serb nationalists. Not even so much the stupid-crazy students who assassinated Franz Ferdinand, but the evil-crazy military and political leaders who set that up and who explicitly wanted war with Austria-Hungary.

71

Anderson 11.12.09 at 5:55 pm

Actually, after the Brest-Litovsk Treaty was hammered out, the Germans would probably have been more than happy to settle for a return to status quo ante bellum.

I would like to see a scrap of evidence for this apparently fictional proposition.

While casting blame, let’s not forget crazy Serb nationalists

Point taken, but Austria could’ve refused the provocation, and would’ve done so under saner leadership. It’s not like anyone at court was actually sad to see Franz Ferdinand and that low-class wife of his bite the dust.

Big-picture, it seems that Austria and Germany wanted war, and that Serbia and Russia were dumb enough to give it to them. Had it not been Sarajevo, it would’ve been some other damn fool thing, in the Balkans or elsewhere.

72

Doctor Science 11.12.09 at 6:00 pm

Wow, I really wonder where you “primary blame for the war should be on X” people are getting your information.

*Everyone* — meaning all the governments of all the European powers, and the majority of their populations — wanted war. *Everyone* thought their side would win, and win quickly. Everyone knew Europe was bound into a set of interlocking treaties that were not stable to perturbation, but was constructed so that almost any conflict within the continent would become a continent-wide war literally overnight. But that was OK, because they all knew that all *their* country’s children were above average.

See: A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914 to 1918, by G. J. Meyer; The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman (and other works).

I’m really curious where you “it was really their fault!” guys are getting your information. Is this coming from strictly military historians? The History Channel? The BBC? High school or equivalent history classes? Some particular set of universities?

73

Anderson 11.12.09 at 6:09 pm

Wow, I really wonder where you “primary blame for the war should be on X” people are getting your information.

Well, it’s kinda like Aristotle — there are causes, and there are causes. Sure, European diplomacy was at a nadir.

And yet, given that everyone knew this, what the hell was Austria doing issuing an ultimatum to Serbia that could only mean war? What the hell was Russia doing going to war for Serbia — and mobilizing against Austria *and* Germany? What the hell was Germany doing mobilizing for war vs. Russia *and* France?

At that point, I don’t think France actually had a choice, and they were rather careful not to be the first over the border. Britain could theoretically have sat out, but Germany had practically devoted itself for 20 years to making damn sure that, in any general European war, Britain would oppose it: a self-fulfilling paranoia, if you will.

So I don’t think it works to blame Society without pointing to the specific people who kicked the chessboard over.

74

JoB 11.12.09 at 6:46 pm

Maybe we can start it all over again? After all, we’re not going to let the Germans get to choose who gets to be first President of Europe, now do we?

75

Ralph Hitchens 11.12.09 at 8:17 pm

Alex beat us all to the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote from _Tender is the Night_, which says it best. Outside the literary domain, I subscribe to Fritz Fischer’s theories, and agree that the German political/military leadership was the most delusional, the men of influence most strongly committed to war as the solution to the multitude of geopolitical problems they imagined for their country. Clear-sighted realism died with Bismarck.

76

Anderson 11.12.09 at 8:49 pm

Clear-sighted realism died with Bismarck.

I’m not sure it was “realism” to grab Alsace-Lorraine and then expect his successors to keep balancing things indefinitely.

77

roger 11.13.09 at 12:55 am

Yes, history is often written by the sycophants of power, so that we celebrate the Lloyd Georges. Meanwhile the one Russian who advised the czar strongly against the war was Rasputin – who of course is slimed in history as a sort of Charles Manson character. How funny.

Today we had our exposure of one of our own little men – Peter Galbraith, who, apparently, made 100 million trying to set up a civil war between the Kurds and the rest of Iraq. The amazing Times story contains no remorse or questions about the numerous times Galbraith appeared on the Op Ed pages offering “advice” about Iraq. Plus, he wrote long, much admired articles in the New York Review of Books. It is sort of nice to see that intellectual corruption is still motivated by the eternal thing: money. It would have been sad if the hawks were just motivated by sadism.

78

Britta 11.13.09 at 12:56 am

Anderson

Bismarck did not actually plan on or believe it in the best interests of Germany to keep Alsace-Lorraine, that was more forced on him by the Kaiser and other politicians of the day. Whatever else you might want to say about the man, you cannot deny he was clear-sighted about the far ranging implications of his military and diplomatic actions.

79

John Quiggin 11.13.09 at 1:25 am

@Roger #77

I never knew that Rasputin was anti-war, or anything much about him beyond the standard caricature and the story that he was very hard to kill. Of course Wikipedia and Google could have told me, but I never would have thought to look if it weren’t for your comment. Thanks v much!

And the Galbraith story reminded me instantly of Basil Zaharoff, who appears to have been every bit as monstrous as his critics suggested.

80

Batocchio 11.13.09 at 1:33 am

I’m glad to see other people in the U.S. still call it Armistice Day, too. I wrote a few posts for the day this year, but I really wish that WWI was studied and understood more here in the U.S. It’s astounding how eager some of them were for war before it started, and the furor for continuing it, even after staggering losses, remains alarming.

81

roger 11.13.09 at 4:05 am

John, I notice that the NYT just put up an editorial note claiming that Galbraith violated hhis contract with them by not disclosing his financial interests when writing his op eds. And what a beautiful story those op eds tell! Apparently, after helping write the Iraqi constitution in such a way that his oil contracts in Kurdistan would be gold, he became worried – and thus came up with the very helpful idea that American soldiers should concentrate on protecting his interests!

In 2006 he ventured this suggestion:

“Seeing as we cannot maintain the peace in Iraq, we have but one overriding interest there today — to keep Al Qaeda from creating a base from which it can plot attacks on the United States. Thus we need to have troops nearby prepared to re-engage in case the Sunni Arabs prove unable to provide for their own security against the foreign jihadists.

This would be best accomplished by placing a small “over the horizon” force in Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan is among the most pro-American societies in the world and its government would welcome our military presence, not the least because it would help protect Kurds from Arab Iraqis who resent their close cooperation with the United States during the 2003 war. American soldiers on the ground might also ease the escalating tension between the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey, which is threatening to send its troops across the border in search of Turkish Kurd terrorists using Iraq as a haven.”

I’m almost sure that he is convinced American soldiers dying in Kurdistan would have nothing to do with him making 100 million dollars from Kurdish oil fields. Such is life in the gate community of the elite, left or right. After all, Galbraith was Kerry’s advisor on Iraq.

82

ChrisB 11.13.09 at 5:46 am

On the Peter Galbraith thing, he hasn’t actually got the money in his hand – he’s suing for it.

Doesn’t make much difference to the non-disclosure thing, but just in case anybody was thinking of sending him begging letters.

And Zaharoff was probably most influential as the origin of the interwar notion of blaming the prevalence of wars on the Merchants of Death at Vickers and Krupp, which I always thought was a pointless distraction from the actual forces explored in the posts above.

83

John Quiggin 11.13.09 at 6:12 am

I think the Galbraith-Zaharoff analogy works pretty well. No-one would see Galbraith as the mastermind behind the Iraq war, but he makes an apt symbol of those who promote and profit from wars, and a reminder to the populace at large that they will do the dying while others cash in.

84

Anderson 11.13.09 at 12:25 pm

Bismarck did not actually plan on or believe it in the best interests of Germany to keep Alsace-Lorraine, that was more forced on him by the Kaiser and other politicians of the day.

“He wept, but he took,” as Frederick said of Maria Theresa.

I seem to recall that Bismarck’s supposed opposition is largely a creation of his memoirs, but I will have to check on that.

Re: Galbraith: wowzers.

85

LFC 11.13.09 at 2:07 pm

I think it’s fair to say that historians and others are still arguing about causes of and relative blame for WWI (see eg the Lieber article I cited above @46), but I’m quite sure that Dr. Science’s assertion @72 that everyone thought the war would be over quickly is incorrect.

86

Doctor Science 11.13.09 at 5:37 pm

LFC:

By “everyone” I meant “everyone in power” — do you know of exceptions? I also have the impression that the bulk of the various populations were pro-war in August 1914, though I’m much less certain about this.

Primary sources for the summer of 1939 have a mood of slipping toward a horrible cliff-edge. Primary sources for the summer of 1914 emphasize the exceptionally lovely weather — indeed, I have seen it suggested (… somewhere) that the beautiful weather was one of the contributing factors for the war, because it made people more willing to gather in large crowds, and more optimistic about their own abilities.

87

Anderson 11.13.09 at 5:59 pm

By “everyone” I meant “everyone in power”—do you know of exceptions?

Kitchener is the only exception who comes to mind, and he wasn’t “in power” in August 1914.

Against cabinet opinion, Kitchener correctly predicted a long war that would last at least three years, require huge new armies to defeat Germany, and suffer huge casualties before the end would come. Kitchener stated that the conflict would plumb the depths of manpower “to the last million.”

88

roger 11.13.09 at 7:09 pm

Surely there should be a link to one of the greatest Monty Python sketches ever: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1X2x5H8GPoo
The famous Basingstoke in Westphalia offensive.

89

LFC 11.13.09 at 10:46 pm

Dr. Science @85:
If by “in power” you meant only civilian leaders, that’s one thing. If you meant military leaders, that may be another thing. There is apparently a serious argument — whether right or wrong I don’t know — that German military leaders thought the war would probably not be short.
From the article I referenced earlier:
“Newly available and previously overlooked evidence indicates that German [military] leaders sent their forces into battle aware that the coming war would likely be protracted. This…has been referred to as the ‘Förster thesis’…after the Swiss-based German historian Stig Förster…. [He] argues that German generals were remarkably uniform in their view that the next European war would likely be a costly struggle.”
If you google “the new history of world war I” you will quickly get links (paywalled and Project Muse) to the K. Lieber article and the subsequent exchange with J. Snyder and others.
I am not a historian of WWI and I have no interest in getting into a debate on the merits of this. I am not saying it is right. I am just saying the argument is out there and being made by non-cranks. I will let others debate it if they’re so inclined.

90

Shawn Crowley 11.14.09 at 9:05 am

The final episode of “Black Adder” has the characters going “over the top” to certain, pointless death. After all the ribald humor of the series, this ending brought me to tears. It showed that trench warfare could grind on and on in part because the lives of ordinary men were held in such low regard.

It seems to be an enduring character of many militarists to see the world as their movie with them as the stars. A movie in which the death of “extras” is of no concern. Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney come to mind as contemporary examples. Tangentially, I’ve never quite managed to assess the factor of so many heads of state in WWI being related by blood or marriage. Family feud?

91

Doctor Science 11.14.09 at 5:11 pm

LFC:

Thanks for the refs, I’ll look into it. If I can.

May I take a moment to say how extremely annoying, self-defeating, and contrary to the spirit of the scholarly enterprise I find the paywalls around academic publication? Thank you.

Back to your argument. Accepting for the moment that it is true (which is not implausible on the face of it, IMHO), the question becomes why did it do no good?

That is, it strikes me as plausible that in 1914 the German General Staff had a better grasp of the coming realities than either (a) their equivalents in other countries, or (b) their political leaders. Why did their understanding have no effect on what Germany actually did? Was this process similar to what the US military has done for the past 8 years, including e.g. Powell’s work to undermine the Powell Doctrine.

It seems to be an enduring character of many militarists to see the world as their movie with them as the stars. A movie in which the death of “extras” is of no concern.

Agreed, though this attitude is much, much older than the movies.

92

Wrye 11.16.09 at 11:15 pm

I think it’s pretty clear that we can all agree, at least, that Belgium started the war with it’s insistence on occupying the Congo, and then being blatantly smaller and weaker than its neighbours, then luring an innocent and naive German army across its border into what amounts to a sex-sting operation with the pure-of-heart British, who completely bewildered, stumbled into a destructive war they had no interest in fighting, in the heart of their pacifist Empire that had somehow accidentally grown to cover about a third of the world.

Let us hear no more about “Innocent Belgians”, bah, it makes me sick.

93

roy belmont 11.17.09 at 2:01 am

This is modern warfare.

94

EWI 11.17.09 at 11:41 pm

When I was very young (I am still very young) and in middle school, someone gave me a story to read in which a militant sniper-soldier who is nearly killed when he gives his top-of-building position away lighting a cigarette; he then snipes and annihilates somebody else, walks down to street level while reminiscing about how much he loves his family, and then on a whim (you can see where this is going) turns over the body of the guy he shot, to see the face of his brother.

It wasn’t a story set in the Irish civil war, was it? Sounds very familiar to me.

95

virgil xenophon 11.20.09 at 3:25 am

Doctor Science/LFC:

I could be very wrong, but if memory serves, the views on the possibility of protracted bloody warfare held by the German military was based on the fact that they had sent more military observers to the American Civil War than any other nation and covered it pretty much top to bottom.

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Salient 11.20.09 at 3:49 am

It wasn’t a story set in the Irish civil war, was it?

It… might be, but if I recall correctly it was a short enough story to ensure the setting was barely mentioned.

I really wish I could recall the title or author, but every time I try to the brain thinks “Ray Bradbury! Orson Scott Card!” and can’t get past those two folks. Also mixed in the muddled memory: a science fiction story “________ for Thunder” and a story about people who get an extra year of life if they kill someone with a blue-painted hand. (Sigh.)

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