Today is Veterans Day, but it’s no ordinary Veterans Day. Today marks the centenary of the great armistice that ended what everyone hoped in 1918 would be the war to end all wars.
They were wrong, of course.
World War I was a conflict that the U.S. would have done well to avoid, and nearly did. It was also the war that taught everyone war was going to be even more hellish and unpalatable in the modern world than it had been previously.
World War I was a wake-up call — the first truly modern conflict and one that changed the game of war. No longer would armies square off across fields, standing in lines and firing volleys at one another. That had been bad enough, but thanks to advances in technology, the destructive power of modern ammunition and ordnance was just too great to allow for even a moment’s exposure to the enemy. A mass charge at any enemy, already a dodgy strategy as early as the the U.S. Civil War, was now nothing short of suicide. And unfortunately, a lot of senior officers didn’t figure this out until it was too late.
War is sometimes the only answer to the world’s problems. There is no way around that fact. There are very few people who would argue today, for example, that World War II was an unnecessary conflict — that Europe should have been left at Nazi Germany’s mercy.
Of all the reasons for avoiding war — the loss of life and wealth, the disruptions to normal life, the inevitable atrocities and civilian casualties — one that is mightily underrated is the way it wounds the souls of the nations and of the individuals that participate.
The Great War had devastating and long-lasting consequences for all of the nations in it. One-fifth of France’s male population between ages 20 and 50 was wiped out. In Germany, the humiliating defeat created an anarchic political arena in which political extremism and paranoia thrived, ultimately leading to the rise of the Nazis and another war. In Russia, the Great War brought victory for socialism, leading to mass murder and the worldwide spread of the cancer of communism.
That doesn’t even touch on the appalling casualty rates suffered by other countries, including Britain and Italy but many of the smaller ones as well. The U.S., fortunate to have gotten involved very late in the war, nonetheless suffered over 100,000 military deaths.
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