War Is Stupid: Remembering Armistice Day Before Veterans Day

Another year, another Veterans Day. But November 11 began as Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I.  The day remains a stark reminder of the stupidity of war.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 World War I came to an end.  In succeeding years allied states commemorated the conflict’s end on November 11.

Some 20 million people died in World War I.  The horrific conflict brought down the continent’s established order, loosed the pestilence of totalitarianism, and led to even deadlier World War II.  The Great War, as it was originally called, was stupid beyond measure.

As the 20th century dawned, Europe enjoyed both peace and prosperity.  However, Europe’s environment was combustible.  One match strike set the continent ablaze.

On June 28, 1914 the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, in Sarajevo, capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia.

Vienna decided to use this act of state terrorism to break its Serbian antagonist.  Germany stood by its ally.  However, Serbia was backed by Russia, which in turn was allied with France.  As conflict erupted other combatants jumped or were drawn in.  The contending blocs, the Central Powers versus the Entente, acted as transmission belts of war.

There really was little to choose from between the two militaristic blocs.  The sins of the Central Powers are well-known, but the Entente’s members were no angels.

Serbia’s military intelligence was implicated in the Archduke’s murder.  Tsarist Russia was an anti-Semitic despotism.  Historically France was dangerous and militaristic, and its revanchist desire for war with Germany was strong.  Britain opposed Germany more for commercial and imperial than humanitarian reasons.  Belgium was perhaps the worst colonial power, responsible for the deaths of millions in the Belgian Congo.

The early Americans were determined to avoid getting entangled in imperial European affairs.  However, as I point out in my latest Forbes online column, by World War I the U.S. had changed:

The so-called Progressives, led by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, had taken charge.  They were statists, imperialists, and militarists—inveterate social engineers on a global scale.  After President Wilson was reelected in 1916, he hoped to remake the international order.  That required America to be a belligerent, even though it had no significant interest in the conflict.

The trigger for U.S. involvement was both foolish and fraudulent.  London broke international law by imposing a starvation blockade on Germany, ultimately killing hundreds of thousands of German civilians.  Berlin responded with a new weapon, the submarine. 

Some Americans died after traveling on British vessels, which carried bullets as well as babies.  The famous Lusitania was an armed reserve cruiser carrying munitions through a war zone—making it a legitimate military target.  

However, under pressure from the allied-sympathetic Wilson, Germany suspended U-boat attacks until February 1917.  After Berlin resumed unrestricted submarine warfare President Wilson chose war.  Some 200,000 Americans died, the victims of a president suffering from a toxic mix of egotism and myopia. 

Alas, contra people’s hopes, the conflict did not turn out to be the War to End War.  Washington’s entry allowed imposition of the Versailles Treaty, a “Diktat” highlighted by the allies’ greedy grab for plunder amid sanctimonious claims of justice.  Adolf Hitler and World War II were the conflict’s most disastrous consequences.

Sometimes wars must be fought, and sometimes even the stupidest wars cannot be avoided.  But often they could and should be.  Like World War I.

To criticize America’s wars is not to doubt the patriotism and bravery of those who fought.  Rather, to criticize the conflicts is to highlight the foolishness, arrogance, and ignorance of those who launched new wars or intervened in old ones. 

After this Veterans Day Americans should contemplate how they have allowed politicians to drag the U.S. into unnecessary and costly wars, filling Arlington Cemetery and so many other final resting places with America’s finest.  After this Veterans Day Americans should rededicate themselves to peace.