America’s Forgotten War

December 21, 1998 • Commentary

The war that did the most to transform the world for the worst ended 80 years ago. Not World War II, which employed greater destructiveness, exhibited greater cruelty, and slaughtered greater numbers of people. But World War I, which birthed World War II, along with the great totalitarian delusions communism, fascism and Nazism. Yet the Great War, as it was first called, is largely forgotten in America.

The United States originally celebrated Armistice Day instead of Veterans Day. But when Americans think of veterans today, they think of Vietnam, Korea and World War II. Not so in Europe, where World War I continues to loom large.

In early November, for instance, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin suggested rehabilitating army mutineers who were shot during a massive army revolt in 1917. President Jacques Chirac sharply rejected Jospin’s idea. Yet the British government decided to allow relatives of World War I soldiers executed for cowardice and desertion to hold a ceremony at Whitehall’s war dead monument.

To the extent that Americans know anything about the war, they probably think of supposed idealist Woodrow Wilson leading the fight to make the world ”safe for democracy.” This was pure cant, however. Wilson desired to reform the entire globe and could do so only by allying the United States with one of the contending militaristic blocs.

Even today the effects of World War I linger. The Balkans’ civil wars represent a bit more of the unfinished business of November 1918.

Indeed, while Germany helped bring on the conflict by isolating itself and adopting a hair‐​trigger mobilization plan, it was not bent on war. France, in contrast, was an aggressively revisionist power, hoping to recover the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, lost in 1871 to Germany in the Franco‐​Prussian War (started by France).

Even worse was the bloodstained Serbian regime, built on the brutal 1903 murder of the king and queen of the previous dynasty, which wanted to break apart Germany’s ally, Austria‐​Hungary, in order to build a greater Serbia. It was the Serbian‐​supported assassination of Austria-Hungary’s heir apparent on June 28, 1914, that lit the fuse of the war. The contending alliance systems brought every major European power into the conflict.

The contending nations’ goals look downright frivolous compared to the resulting 10 million dead. Washington’s formal justification for war was the desire to protect the right of Americans to travel on armed British merchantmen carrying munitions through a war zone. The celebrated Lusitania, sunk by a German U‐​boat in 1915, carried just such a mixed cargo of babies and bullets, making it a legitimate military target.

The conflict offers many ugly precedents. There was, for instance, the unrivaled British propaganda, which convinced the world that the ”Huns” were ravaging Europe.

There was the war against civilians. London imposed a ”hunger blockade” contrary to international law, denying foodstuffs to civilians in belligerent and neutral nations alike. Britain maintained the blockade even after Germany had surrendered. Hundreds of thousands died from starvation.

Finally, there was the treatment of soldiers as cannon fodder. Trenches turned the Western Front into a static ”sausage machine” in late 1914. From then through the spring of 1918, no attack moved the lines more than 10 miles.

The French mutineers about whom Chirac and Jospin quarreled were tired of being slaughtered uselessly. Gen. Robert Nivelle’s offensive of April 1917 gained 600 yards at a cost of nearly 200,000 casualties. Angry soldiers began refusing to attack; others left the line. Revolt spread to 54 divisions. Who could blame the soldiers?

Especially since the politicians knew what was going on. British Prime Minister Lloyd George admitted that people could not be told the truth or they would end the war the next day. He eventually limited troop replacements because of what he termed the generals’ ”reckless wastage of the manpower so lavishly placed at their disposal.”

No one was immune from the effects of the carnage. The conflict sparked revolution in Russia, breakup in Austria‐​Hungary, dissatisfaction with democratic politics in Italy, and, most important, collapse in Germany.

Thus, the Entente, with which America was allied, triumphed when the guns fell silent on Nov. 11, 1918. But in the succeeding weeks, the Western powers lost the peace as they prepared for the Versailles conference. The allies blamed Germany for causing the war, plundered the defeated nations, and mixed ethnic groups in a host of unstable new states. French Marshal Ferdinand Foch presciently called the treaty ”an armistice for 20 years.”

Rather than either ruthlessly enforce the treaty to contain Germany or voluntarily revise Versailles to conciliate Germany, the allies vacillated. Then came Adolf Hitler, World War II and the Cold War. Even today the effects of World War I linger. The Balkans’ civil wars represent a bit more of the unfinished business of November 1918.

This holiday season we should remember the disastrous mistakes Western governments were making 80 years ago. It is the kind of history that we cannot afford to repeat.

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