Time is a strange thing. This coming April 6, World War I and the United States turn 100. 100 years since Congress declared war on the German Empire. 100 years since U.S. Doughboys, carrying automatic weapons and wearing steel helmets, marched off to war in France, in Belgium, in Italy, and in Siberia. These troops talked to each other over telephones, communicating in real time from the front lines to command posts in the rear. For the first time, video recording of war was (and is, still) available. Trucks and tanks entered the battlefield in massive numbers. It was, for all intents and purposes, a very modern war. Indeed, the last U.S. World War I veteran only passed away in 2011; the last British vet died in 2012. Thousands are still alive who were small children at the time of the war.
And yet, when the U.S. was debating entrance into World War I, one state representative rose in his legislature and gave an impassioned speech that, “I was old enough to fight for this Union at 15, and I am young enough to fight again.”
That’s right, when you do the math, if one was, say, 18 in 1863, they would only be 72 in 1917. Hell, the last general officer who fought in the Civil War, Aaron S. Daggett, died in 1938 at the age of one hundred. My own father was born in 1937, so it’s really not that long ago. Civil War veterans themselves marched off to war in 1861 being cheered on by shaky War of 1812 veterans. And for Union soldiers, were commanded by one. Yeah, War of 1812 – Battle of the Thames, New Orleans, White House burnt – that War of 1812, with a no-kidding Founding Father as President of the United States. Yeah, 1776 seems like a long time ago. But it’s not so long when I realize that my dad was a contemporary of Civil War veterans who fought under the command of a War of 1812 veteran who fought under the eye of President Madison, who helped draft the Constitution. In degrees from Kevin Bacon formulas, I’m four degrees from 1776. And that’s not even counting centenarians.
When we talk about World War I as a modern war, we often forget that the Civil War was closer in time to World War I than we are to World War I. Which is kind of hard to wrap one’s head around. And it comes with a few hard truths. We’re really not that far away in time from when the nation lost all ability to compromise and we began killing each other by the thousands. Nor are we all that far in time from when the world went insane and massacred each other because of a few alliances and “a place in the sun” – a speech that Kaiser Wilhem II gave to a regatta club, incidentally, in case you were wondering if talks to innocuous clubs were important. And we’re even closer to that other time when the world went even crazier and started methodically exterminating itself from 1939-1945, when we said, “Never again.”
And then we’ve got to look ourselves in our collective faces and realize that the progression of time does little to guarantee that we’re not just around the corner from another massive world conflict – nor the causes that inspired their belligerents. Right now we’re enjoying the longest European (relative) peace since…well, a very long time. 1945 to now is 72 years. They only made it 21 years from the end of World War I until they got it going again in 1939. Prior to World War I, Europe had been relatively chill between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 – with little flare ups in Crimea in the 1850s and one nasty spat from 1870-1871 between France and Prussia. But damn, the 18th century was just one round after another of wars between the great powers, and the 17th century…well, when you have a war called, “The Thirty Years War” that kills about 8 million people, things may not be what you’d call quiet.
There’s another thing to bear in mind: most of these conflicts did not happen with everyone reaching a given date, checking the calendar, clapping their hands and saying, “Well chaps, it’s that time, best get out there and make some war.” No, most happened with people saying, “Surely this can’t happen in our time, we’re so modern, we have the printing press/telegraph/telephone/radio/television/internet to enable communication that will prevent such a terrible thing from happening!” And then it happened anyways, because human beings, being human, choose to believe what is the most convenient for their own particular view of the world. Oddly enough, people often don’t see eye-to-eye, and so you get world wars, genocides, and other such disasters.
So as we commemorate the United State’s entrance into World War I this April, bear this in the back – or front – of your mind: it is incumbent on people to work incessantly towards keeping that next giant conflict at bay. Because it is out there, waiting for everyone to be just afraid of each other enough, just paranoid enough, just “my country right or wrong” enough, just “it’s all their fault” enough, just “we deserve a bigger seat at the table” enough, or any of the multitude of excuses that give evil people the control over populations needed to create another massive conflict.
Enjoy what you just read? Please share on social media or email utilizing the buttons below.
About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.