This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. It was called the war to end all wars; but, sadly, it turned out to be the war that heralded in a century of increasingly bloody armed conflicts that has resulted in tens of millions of casualties. It began in 1914 almost by accident; but in a certain sense it’s still on-going 100 years later. And it best illustrates the ultimate failure of the human condition.
WWI was fought between 1914-1919, and was incredibly bloody with huge losses of life, and precious little ground gained or lost. It came to be known for its trench warfare, as both sides become bogged down for years in filthy, disease-ridden trenches. At least 10 million military lives were lost and an estimated 20 million more were wounded. And in the end, Europe looked almost exactly the same as it did previous to 1914. The war was sparked by the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie while they were visiting Sarajevo in what is now known as Bosnia. The assassination was carried out by a Serbian anarchist, who today, would probably be called a terrorist. Austria then demanded apologies and reparations from Serbia which in the end, never materialized.
It’s important to note that both Austria and Serbia were two-bit players at that time, in the European scheme of things. If the hard feelings resulting from the assassination had been confined to just Austria and Serbia, WWI would likely never have occurred. However, Austria, getting nowhere in the demands it placed on Serbia, then called on its much more powerful ally, Germany, to come to its aid. After all, they were both German speaking nations. Serbia, realizing that the German Army could conquer them in days, called on its more powerful ally, Russia, to protect its borders. The trouble was, that Russia also had treaties with both France and England, who were also major players, so the festivities were on. It became a shooting war, essentially between Germany and the allies of Russia, France and England.
Germany realized it probably couldn’t win a 2 front war (Russia to the East, and France and Britain to the West) so its plan was to destroy France and drive the British off the continent in the 2 months or so it would take Russia to mobilize enough troops and armaments to engage in the fighting. It didn’t quite turn out that way, however. The French were able to stop the German invasion before it reached Paris, and both sides became mired down in deeply dug trenches, shooting at each other across a patch of ground known as no-mans land. Each side fired long-range artillery or lobbed grenades at one another, but any significant territorial advancement seemed impossible. The trenches were muddy and filthy beyond description, and soldiers on both sides contracted and died from disease by the tens of thousands. Never had the futility of war been so clearly demonstrated.
Finally the Allies were able to persuade the United States to come to their assistance. The U.S. up to that point had been highly isolationist, but President Woodrow Wilson finally agreed to aid the Allied cause, and the first U.S. troops entered WWI in 1917. At about the same time, Russia became swept up in its Communist revolution and decided to withdraw from the fighting arena. Germany then could concentrate its war efforts on only one front. The fighting then continued on for another year with millions of more casualties; but the infusion of fresh American troops made all the difference, and Germany was finally beaten in 1918. On a personal note, my father fought in WWI, and was wounded by mustard gas in the Argonne Forest in France. Both sides, at the time, started using chemical warfare, but the results were so horrific, that this type of weapon was rather quickly banned from use. It seemed so much more humane to kill people with bullets and bombs, rather than chemicals.
The war finally concluded with an armistice at the end of 1918, and then was followed by the infamous Treaty of Versailles in 1919. That treaty’s provisions were so harshly written against German interests that it allowed a little man with a funny mustache, but with powerful demagoguery instincts, named Adolph Hitler, to rise to power and set the stage for WWII. That war, again initiated by Germany as well as Japanese militarism in the Pacific, was estimated to account for the loss of a mere 60 million lives before it concluded in 1945. Once again the U.S. retreated to isolationism after peace was declared. Surely, after seeing the horrors of WWII, the concentration camps, the holocaust, the starvations, people would never again engage in such despicable adventurism, would they? Well, it didn’t take long thereafter for the U.S. to be engaged once again in a shooting war, this time on the Korean peninsula, which started around 1950, a mere 5 years after the end of WWII. President Harry Truman called it a police action at the time, instead of war. Like sweetening the cough syrup, it goes down much easier that way. In that fracas, the U.S. had to settle for half a loaf, as South Korea was freed to become a democracy, but North Korea, to this day, is dominated by a brutal despot.
And as we all know, it was a hardly a few years after the end of the Korean War that we once again became burdened with a shooting conflict, this time in the hellhole jungles of Viet-Nam. About 58,500 Americans lost their lives in that fiasco, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Viet-Namese deaths. And the beat went on. Hardly a decade later, the first Iraqi war was thrust upon us, although with far less casualties. Not too long after that came the Afghan war followed by the second Iraqi war from which we’ve finally disengaged. But it’s not just the U.S. Today war rages on in the Mid-East, in the Ukraine, and in Africa. It’s as if the human condition has degenerated to the point where the only way to settle our differences is by killing one another. The last man or woman standing gets to have their philosophy of life prevail on the planet. As it was in the dark ages, welcome to the new era of unbridled barbarism.