Last Friday, people across America remembered the sacrifices of all those who have fought and died in America’s wars. What we might forget is that Veterans Day was created to commemorate one particularly horrible war: World War I, which ended at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
I never learned much about the Great War, as it used to be called, in my high school history classes. My teachers were busy teaching us about the greatest war — by which, of course, I mean World War II. But as we leave another Veterans Day behind us, the lessons of World War I have lost none of their power — or their urgency.
For instance, one thing I never learned in high school was that WWI was probably the most breathtakingly, mind-bogglingly pointless conflict in human history.
As many as 17 million people were slaughtered between 1914 and 1918, suffocated by clouds of poisonous gas or deployed in human waves against machine gun bunkers. And why? I was taught that Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was what caused WWI, but there were deeper reasons, though that doesn’t mean they make any more sense.
During the decades preceding the war’s outbreak, the great powers of Europe — Great Britain, France, Germany, etc. — had found their home markets were insufficient to satisfy the greed of the captains of industry.
So they had expanded into Africa and Asia in search of new resources to exploit and new markets to dominate. But in order to occupy all that territory and protect its ill-gotten gains from imperial rivals, a great power required a strong military. And in order to support a strong military, it required ever more sophisticated weapon technologies and a nationalistic ideology that could convince large numbers of poor young men to sacrifice their lives for the interests of a few rich old men.
By June 1914, the great powers had already carved up most of the world into colonial territories — it was only a matter of time before they turned all that new technology and nationalistic hatred on one another.
Four years later, 17 million human beings lay dead in the trenches of Verdun and the Somme, all because a handful of Kaisers and steel magnates needed a space to try out their new toys.
All this talk of trench warfare and colonialism might sound like ancient history. But even today, the U.S. is still wrestling with the aftermath of WWI, such as when President Obama recently moved to withdraw all American troops from Iraq by the end of this year.
After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WWI, Great Britain carved up the Sultan’s former territories, herding Shia, Sunni, and Kurd alike into what was then called the Mandate of Mesopotamia, but we now know as Iraq.
Today, the lines Great Britain drew on a map continue to shape U.S. foreign policy. Likewise, at least some of the turmoil in Afghanistan can be blamed on WWI-era colonial games: Afghanistan was a longtime battleground between the British and
Afghanistan teaches another important lesson in post-war justice. After all, it was the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, combined with the raging nationalism, militarism and anti-Semitism left over from the first war, that allowed the Nazis to seize power in Germany.
The U.S. already had one Versailles moment in Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s, when we withdrew our support of the Mujahedeen who had fought against the Soviets — and left the country to spiral into civil war and brutal theocracy. We would do well to avoid another.
Ultimately, WWI teaches us the pitfalls of empire. It teaches us what can happen when the wealthy and the few are permitted to rule over the poor and the many, when so-called national security becomes more important than human security, and when the slaughter of one’s fellows is elevated to the highest virtue.
As America faces soaring levels of economic inequality and pours hundreds of billions of dollars into “defending” us abroad rather than defending us at home with things like education, healthcare, and programs of social uplift, perhaps 1918 and 2011 aren’t so far apart as we might like to think.
“Why all this talk about nationalism and imperialism?” you may ask. “That’s so 20th century!”
Wrong. History never goes away. It’s always hovering in the background, shaping events in the present. And the better we learn its lessons, the less likely we are to repeat its mistakes.
Reach Columnist Thomas Emanuel at Thomas.Emanuel@usd.edu