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.
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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.
9 Replies to “Not in our Time: A Warning”
Great thought provoking piece. It’s said that there was only one year in 20th century, British armed forces only had one year without a fatal combat casualty, and that doesn’t include officers and men on transfers to foreign friendly forces.
My point is that in some ways, we have become used to war, that despite what we see on our TVs every day, most of us are inured to the true horror of modern day munitions and weapons systems. After all, Aleppo looks like Grozny which looked like Dresden which looked like London which looked like Gerunica.
Society needs to rediscover its horror of war.
This article reminds me of a recent Washington Post article describing the similarities of the current geopolitical situation with the pre-WWI time frame. I found your analysis of the passage of time in US history especially poignant. We are a very young country when compared with other parts of the world.
Also, I think you may have made typo in the first paragraph, second sentence when you say “World War I and the United Stated turn 100.” I think it should be “States.”
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One of the great things about going through college later in life is that you have the maturity to see the similarities between the past and the present a bit more when your focus isn’t driven by youthful distractions.
You succinctly phrased identical thoughts and questions that have come to mind during my classes… Excellent post!
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The second sentence in the first paragraph is awkwardly worded; I had to read it three times before I understood what it was you were trying to convey. Otherwise, a fine post, thank you.
Paul L. Quandt
I think in generational terms more than is healthy (I’m 42 and my mother’s father was born in 1899) so I appreciate where you’re coming from. Because his wife (my grandmother) was a White Russian emigre who’s Microbiologist father was purged by Stalin,I get how societies tear themselves apart. I believe that this country is special because it gives us physical, mental, and emotional distance from the sins of the Old World.
However, I wonder if it is the striving to keep all conflict at bay that might be detrimental to our society. That we seem to have lost the ability to disagree without being disagreeable (I’ve heard that somewhere but can’t recall where…) is the greatest challenge to our modern society. We seem to be unnecessarily fragile and recognize that fragility, and will go to extremes to protect against any harm…
Another article, which I think sums up WWI quite succinctly is that “WWI was at first impossible, then inevitable”…which I think how most of geopolitics is today. We tend to think certain scenarios can’t happen (9/11, BREXIT, Trump) and then they do. We digest it, move on, and then forget. 100 years isn’t that long a time, but it’s an eternity to the instant gratification generation. Brush, Rinse, Repeat.
Makes me nervous and unhappy when I hear things like “The USA and China will never go to war — we need each other too much! It wouldn’t be rational.” Or who has heard this one lately: “Russia won’t invade NATO countries — they know the United States would step in.”
It’s like everyone has forgotten that states are not necessarily rational actors.
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Something different about WWI. There were a number of near peer powers. Germany, Russia, England, America, and France were almost equal in terms of economy and military power. Now we have America, a much reduced Russia with an economy the size of Italy, a China that is only now starting to mechanize and build a navy, and Iran who can only use asymmetric methods and is otherwise confined to a defensive war.
All events, historical and mundane, occur in “modern times.” There is nothing that can happen in any other time.
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