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Posted by on Aug 2, 2014 in War | 5 comments

Weekend History – World War One Edition

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I think most now realize that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a tragic blunder but wars frequently are.  I’m 68 but I think I learned more about WWI watching Downton Abbey than I ever did in school.  The Iraq war is a minor blunder when compared to WWI, another war, another quagmire and once you get into a quagmire it’s really hard to get out and it was also a war that didn’t have to happen as Stephen M. Walt explains over at FP.

[A]ssuming you’re not living in a cave or completely off the grid (in which case you won’t be reading this), you’re probably aware that this week marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. The war was arguably the greatest man-made disaster of modern times: it bankrupted the European powers, killed or wounded some 37 million people, allowed communists to seize power in Russia, and sowed the seeds for an even more destructive world war two decades later.

So how did it really start?

Not surprisingly, the process by which the war broke out — the so-called July Crisis — has fascinated historians and political scientists for decades. How could European leaders –some of whom were quite worldly, experienced, and sophisticated — not realize where they were headed and take timely steps to prevent the looming catastrophe? If the conflict was essentially a preventive war launched by Germany (which feared Russia’s growing power) why didn’t the Germans realize their fears were overblown and why didn’t the rest of Europe recognize the danger the Balkan crisis posed? Alternatively, if the war was mostly due to miscalculations and misunderstandings — as Barbara Tuchman famously argued in The Guns of August and Christopher Clark’s recent book The Sleepwalkers suggests — how could smart and experienced leaders commit such a tragic series of blunders?

Another question is why did the war last so long?  As I noted above once you get into a quagmire it’s hard to get out.  Both sides in the war had made terrotorial promises to potential allies that required them to win the war.  In addition the German government had basically been taken over by the German military who didn’t believe they could lose.  There was also the propaganda  factor:

A negotiated settlement was never seriously attempted, in part because censorship and wartime propaganda convinced citizens on both sides that victory was just around the corner. Tight military censorship ensured that populations back home got an overly upbeat picture of how the fighting was going, with reports from the front tending to omit bad news, portray defeats as victories, and offer upbeat assessments of future progress. As Prime Minister Lloyd George told a friend in 1916, “If the people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”

We should be familiar with this.  We saw it in Vietnam and more recently have seen it in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Remember the “Friedman Unit,” give us another 6 months to turn things around.  All leaders who are in a position to take us to war should become familiar with what led up to WWI and what caused it to drag on for 4 long years.

There is much more at the link and I suggest you read the entire article.

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  • JSpencer

    So many lessons from history… so many deaf ears. Humans…

  • dduck

    The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 [Margaret MacMillan]
    A good book, about the war, but the peace was almost as bad since it paved the way to WWII and many problems in the middle east.
    Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (9780375760525): Margaret MacMillan,
    So I would call it WW1.5.

  • I agree with all of that dduck. The French and British carving up the middle east in 1919 is responsible for much of the problems in the middle east today. And of course the draconian reparations inflicted on Germany is what led to Hitler and WWII. At least the US learned something from that bit of history, rare, and hence the Marshall Plan following WWII.

  • dduck

    And for me, reading
    Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East Hardcover – August 6, 2013
    by Scott Anderson

    between the other books, really helped me understand the world and the middle east a little better

  • dduck: thank you for the book recommendations.

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