Commentary: In an Electoral Defeat – Echoes of the ‘Great War’

November 10, 2006

As the Republican Neo-Con Light Brigade charged into the Democratic Valley of Death on Tuesday Nov. 7th, echoes of another far off war could be heard. It will be 88 years on Saturday that the guns finally fell silent, bringing to a close the First World War, or as it’s called in France “La Grande Guerre” (The Great War).

All wars are horrible – the current ones in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere included. But no war caused as much carnage among the men and women who fought it than World War I. No war – before or since – even the Second World War – altered the fundamental political, economic and social structure of the world more profoundly. In its aftermath lay the shattered empires of the losers – Germany, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey. The winners were no less shattered. The decline and eventual fall of the British and French Empires also dates from the end of the Great War.

By 1918 the European “Great Powers” were drained of young men, physically exhausted and financially ruined. Never again would they be in fact “Great.” The rise of the Soviet State in Russia, and all the misery it inflicted on that country’s people and on the rest of the world might not have happened, but for that War. The Balfour Declaration, issued in 1917, set in motion the creation of the State of Israel. The rise of what would become the 20th century’s only remaining “Great Power,” the United States, dates from World War I.

The hatreds and rivalries that tore Europe apart, however, were not quenched in the War’s flames. They smoldered on for another twenty years until they exploded into the most murderous conflict the world has ever experienced. Centuries from now our descendants will look on the two wars as one, much in the way we now speak of “The Hundred Years War” or the “Crusades.” Only one good thing came out of those wars. Europe realized it couldn’t fight any more of them.

The region’s present consolidation in the form of the European Union might have been achieved without the carnage, but the losses made it all the more necessary. The seeds of the EU were planted in World War I. Some 80 years later Europe is finally learning to live with its past. A film released last Christmas tells the story of French and German soldiers, who put up their guns on Christmas Eve, 1914 to celebrate their common holiday. A series of graphic novels has been released in France that features much the same message. If it hadn’t been for the presence of one particularly vile Austrian corporal and his friends, Europe’s wounds might have been healed far sooner. But such was not to be.

The U.S. inherited the legacy of that broken continent, and to some extent it’s been trying to patch things up ever since. But the problems World War I left unsolved, haven’t made the made the job an easy one. As T.E. Lawrence recounts in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” his memoir of the first World War in the Middle East, Great Britain reneged on its promises of sovereignty for the Arab Nations of the region. Instead the British and French established protectorates and puppet states.

Britain patched together several provinces of the Ottoman Empire, including the site of the ancient Mesopotamian civilization, and called it Iraq. The country was then, and is now, an artificial creation. Its warring tribes, clans, and religious cults united only under a ruthless dictator, or by their even greater common resistance to people from outside their region trying to tell them what to do – a legacy of centuries of foreign domination.

Despite its meddling in Latin America, the U.S. does have a genuine history of resistance to empires, dating back to the Monroe Doctrine and exemplified in President Wilson’s 14 points and his call for national self-determination. This anti-imperialist tradition has, however, been somewhat eclipsed by the rather farfetched notion that the U.S. should act as the world’s policeman. That too dates to the U.S. entry into World War I.

“Lafayette, Nous Voila!” (Lafayette, we are here) may have been a great rallying cry in 1917, but its application is somewhat limited. Europeans in general, and the French and the British in particular, are well aware of the debt(s) they owe the U.S. for that intervention. But, like an unsavory family story, they don’t like to be reminded of it. In Europe the too often repeated refrain from a number of Americans about how “We pulled your chestnuts out of the fire” resonates more like a political sack dance than anything else. That at least partially explains why most European governments, and a majority of their citizens, were less than enthusiastic when the U.S. invaded Iraq. The circumstances under which the war was launched and the way it’s been conducted certainly didn’t improve the situation.

Now that a reckoning seems to be at hand, perhaps all those involved could back off a bit and consider some of the lessons the Great War should have taught us: Violence begets violence; endemic conflicts, quashed by violent means, will smolder until they break out again; from Winston Churchill: “Jaw, jaw, is better than war, war.” And finally – the oldest rule of them all – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

World War I began on a sunny day in August 1914. Before it was over, more than 8.5 million men died, another 21 million were wounded. An entire generation ceased to exist. In France 76.3 percent of those who fought the Grand Guerre were killed or wounded. 126,000 U.S. servicemen died in the 18 months that the U.S. fought on the side of the Allies. World War I ended on a cold gray day in 1918 on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11:11 a.m. Its aftermath is with us still – lest we forget.

Ed. Note: The above is a personal view and does not reflect any official position on the part of the Insurance Journal.

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