World War I Continues to Haunt Us
Though it may seem anciently irrelevant, the war’s consequences remain very much alive.

A British soldier with a wounded German near the front, c. 1916.


Jonah Goldberg

World War I started one century ago. Wait! Don’t stop reading.

For most Americans, the war is like algebra or frog anatomy — something you have to study briefly in school but then never have to think about again. Unlike World War II, with its unambiguous villains, epic battles, and clear victory, World War I is a hot mess. Countries and forgotten empires declared war on each other in no small part because a bunch of aristocrats in funny clothes said they had to.

Everything about World War I — from the seemingly ridiculous fighting techniques (who hasn’t watched a movie with trench warfare and thought, “Man, that’s a dumb way to die”?) to the clothes and music — seems anciently irrelevant.

But the truth is that almost no modern event can hold a candle to it. George Kennan observed that when studying the maladies of the 20th century, “all the lines of inquiry lead back to World War I.” A century from now, people might say the same thing of the past two centuries.

Let’s start with the obvious. The staggering loss of military lives: 650,000 Italians, 325,000 Turks, nearly a million from the British empire, over a million from Austro-Hungarian lands, 1.4 million from France, 1.7 million Russians, 1.8 million Germans and 116,516 Americans — not to mention 8.9 million civilian casualties worldwide. None of that counts the 50 million fatalities resulting from the influenza pandemic largely unleashed by the war.

Without the First World War, you don’t get the Second — a poignant irony given that the former was sold as the “war to end all wars.” The terms imposed on Germany, described as a “Carthaginian peace” by John Maynard Keynes, made another war virtually inevitable. Much as Adolf Hitler found his life’s mission while fighting in World War I, Benito Mussolini’s Fascism was a direct adaptation of what he called “the socialism of the trenches.”

Without the first war, the Bolsheviks almost surely would never have come to power in Russia. That led to the Soviet Union’s mass murder, Eastern Europe’s enslavement, the Cold War, and, of course, Vladimir Putin’s career.

The Middle East’s travails can be traced in no small part to the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution at the end of WWI. Dividing their spoils, the British and French drew most of the contours of the Arab world to their benefit. According to a surely false legend, the line between Jordan and Saudi Arabia takes a crooked turn because someone bumped Winston Churchill’s elbow while he was drawing it. (Churchill himself blamed his errant pen on a liquid lunch.) What’s not disputed is that the resulting maps have fed countless conflicts and resentments ever since.

In the West, the war opened a Pandora’s box, unleashing innumerable cultural and intellectual demons that we have decided to make peace with rather than defeat.

And then there’s America. Some good was hastened by the war, though it’s hard to believe women’s suffrage wasn’t inevitable. But it’s also hard to ignore the harm, at least from a libertarian perspective.

“I believe it is no exaggeration,” wrote sociologist Robert Nisbet, “to say that the West’s first real experience with totalitarianism — political absolutism extended into every possible area of culture and society, education, religion, industry, the arts, local community and family included, with a kind of terror always waiting in the wings — came with the American war state under Woodrow Wilson.”

Wilson introduced domestic spying, censorship, violent political intimidation of opponents,  and economic statism into the American DNA. Pro-Wilson intellectuals celebrated the “social possibilities of war,” in the words of John Dewey. By that they meant the ability to force Americans to, as Frederick Lewis Allen put it, “lay by our good-natured individualism and march in step.” The enduring notion that experts could plan the economy from Washington was largely born in Wilson’s “war socialism.”

David Adesnik, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, has an essay in The Weekly Standard arguing America had no choice but to join World War I because Germany had resolved to fight us. Maybe so, but America joined that stupid and calamitous war very late in the game and by doing so abetted the Carthaginian peace. The correctness of that choice is an academic question. The consequences of it remain very much alive.

— Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. You can write to him by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2014 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

World War I
THE "GREAT WAR": This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities in World War I, a massive conflagration that would rage across Europe and far-flung battlefields for more than four years. Here’s a look back at the conflict through the faces of the soldiers who fought on all sides. Pictured, British troops climb out from a trench on the Western front.
World War I saw most of the nations of Europe as well as Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States, embroiled in a conflict that would cause the fall of four imperial dynasties and alter the political landscape of the world. Pictured, Prussian guard infantry mobilize in Berlin, August 1914.
Though largely fought between European powers, the war spread to battlefields in Africa, the Middle East, and as far away as Asia. Pictured, a Turkish machine gun corps holds a position on the Gaza Line at Tel Esh Sheria, 1917.
The war brought unprecedented destruction and loss of life as modern weapons changed the landscape of the battlefield. But even after all the carnage, the groundwork was laid for an even more horrific world war two decades later. Pictured, a British soldier stands amid housands of spent artillery shells.
World War I saw the introduction of numerous new technologies on the battlefield and put established weapons to use on a whole new and murderous scale. The modern tank was among the innovations that changed the face of battle. Pictured, British armor on the move.
Powerful machine guns brought unprecedented carnage to vulnerable infantry, driving them into the protective trenches that would come to define the fighting across the Western front. Pictured, a Belgian soldier mans a machine gun during fighting in Belgium, 1914.
Airplanes were also used by numerous combatant nations for reconnaissance and bombing, and occasionally in aerial dogfights to determine air superiority for the first time in modern war. Pictured, British Handley-Page bombers in the skies over the Western front.
The war also saw the first widespread use of poison gas, a ghastly new weapon that so horrified the world that its use was later banned by international treaty. Pictured, German soldiers run from a poison gas attack near Flanders, September 1917.
The scope of the war made a final accounting of the human toll hard to measure, but an estimated nine to ten million soldiers were killed and more than 22 million injured. At least seven million civilians also perished during the conflict. Pictured, British soldiers carry a stretcher in Flanders, August 1917.
THE FRONT LINES: French soldiers stage a bayonet charge up a steep slope in the Argonne Forest, 1915.
British artillery pound German forces on the Western front.
A German soldier throws a hand grenade.
An artillery shell lands near a trench at Fort de la Pompelle, France.
American soldiers prepare their 37mm machine gun during fighting at Meuse-Argonne, France, September 1918.
U.S. soldiers in action: Battery C, Sixth Field Artillery Regiment, First Division, fire artillery at Beaumont, France, September 1918.
A German machine-gun position on the Vistula River, 1916.
A British machine-gun team preps their weapon.
U.S. soldiers with Company A, Ninth Machine Gun Battalion, man an emplacement in Chateau Thierry, France, June 1918.
Serbian soldiers man a hilltop trench.
Infantry man a position north of Jerusalem, 1917.
A gang of soldiers pull a heavy field artillery piece through the mud along a railroad track.
A German soldier and his horses wear gas masks as they move through a contaminated area, June 1918.
Soldiers unload 1,400-pound “pill box destroyers” on the Western front. These artillery shells would blow a hole 15 feet deep and 45 feet across.
German soldiers celebrate Christmas at the front, December 1914.
British soldiers enjoy a Christmas dinner in a shell crater and alongside a grave, 1916.
ON THE MOVE: French cavalry ride through the streets, c. 1914
British soldiers on the march at Vimy Ridge, 1917.
German troops on the march c. 1918.
Australian light-horse troops on the march in East Jerusalem, 1918.
Highlander soldiers carry sandbags to the front, 1916.
British soldiers on the beach at Gallipoli, with part of the invasion fleet in the harbor, prior to pivotal and bloody battle.
Russian troops on the run after the Russian Revolution, 1917.
British soldiers march into Lille, France, near the war's end in October 1918.
Going Home: American soldiers of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment arrive in New York City c. 1919.
IN THE TRENCHES: Facing powerful machine gun and the ever-present threat of artillery, armies on both sides dug in for a long and protracted war fought from sprawling trenches. Pictured, a British soldier crouches in a flooded trench near the front line in France.
American soldiers with the Maryland 117th Trench Mortar Battery, load a trench mortar near Badonviller, France, 1918.
French soldiers man an anti-aircraft machine gun in a trench near Perthes les Hurlus.
French soldiers wear gas masks in a trench, 1917.
British soldiers in knee-deep mud at the front lines, c. 1917.
A British soldier cleans his rifle on the Western front.
An exhausted Scottish soldier asleep in a trench near Thievpal, France.
A Dutch soldier writes a letter home while sheltered in a trench.
A posed shot of German soldiers in a trench near the British line, showing their large machine gun and one soldier (at right) using a periscope to observe enemy forces.
The view from inside an ANZAC pillbox near Ypres, 1917.
BUTCHER'S BILL: A British soldier helps a wounded German prisoner, c. 1916
German soldiers support a wounded British soldier, 1917.
German medics tend to soldiers injured in a gas attack.
An American soldier with Company K, 110th Regiment Infantry, is tended by a medic at Varennes-enArgonne, France, September 1918.
German POWs are pressed into service helping push a cart loaded with wounded Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge, 1917
THE AFTERMATH: Soldiers stand in a massive artillery crater in Ypres, Belgium, October 1917.
Austrian Fourth Division field artillery soldiers in Chateau Wood near Hooge, Belgium, October 1917
A shattered British MkIV tank near Inverness Copse, August 1917.
Two tanks lie broken on the battlefield at Ypres, Belgium, October 1917.
A bridge snakes through the shattered landscape at Flanders, 1918.
Dead horses litter a battlefield near Ypres, Belgium, 1917.
Lens France
The pulverized ruins of Gommecourt Chateau in France.
Updated: Aug. 06, 2014



Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review