On the Centennial of WWI, America Has Learned Little

Today, June 28, 2014, marks the centennial anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by anarchist Gavrilo Princip—an act that truly lived up to its title of the ‘shot heard round the world’ when it spurred the nations of Europe into conflict and brought about World War I. Striking the flint of existent European tensions, it would result in over 16 million deaths, set the stage for the ensuing clashes of the 20th century, and replace the popular illusion of progress rendering war obsolete with the realization that technological advances had only raised the stakes of victory and defeat.

The United States would not enter the fray until April of 1917, but would lose 116,516 men—a small number compared to those of Great Britain (908,371) and France (1,375,800), but nonetheless tragic for all. Sadly, on the one hundredth anniversary of that day, headlines suggest that the key lessons to be drawn from America’s experience in WWI have fallen on deaf ears in today’s world. Chief among them: the importance of a self-interested approach to war and the necessity of total, unconditional victory once it is entered into.

Understanding the Past

America’s entry into World War I remains today a debatable issue. The loss of American lives aboard British ships like the Lusitania and the indiscriminate torpedoing by the Germans of every ship on the high seas, regardless of nationality, provided ample grounds for conflict with Germany, though the eagerness of some Americans to enter the conflict well before that certainly tattered the legitimacy of the pro-war contingent. Regardless, once several hundred Americans had lost their lives to German attacks, the necessity of action was made apparent. Whether that action should have been to enter the fray or to increase support for Great Britain and France and—considering that the American lives lost were aboard European ships—further limit non-military travel to and trade with Europe by US citizens offers still more room for debate.

Whatever one’s beliefs as to the wisdom and propriety of the United States’ entry into WWI, the rationale behind Wilson’s approach to it was condemnable. While the formal declaration of war presented for Congress’ approval did cite the “repeated acts of war against the Government and the people of the United States of America,” Wilson quickly proceeded to make clear that the United States had “no selfish ends to serve” in entering the war, which he rebranded as a war to make the world “safe for democracy.” Thus, what began as a self-interested act to answer the deaths of hundreds of Americans soon became an altruistic endeavor in democracy promotion. What followed was an important lesson on the dangers of pursuing irrational values in war.

A conflict is fought according to the intentions of its leaders. Though some may win while others lose and little may go to the belligerents’ plans, the result will usually in some way reflect the values of the participants—especially those of the victors. When the victorious party assumes the altruistic approaches prescribed by Augustinian doctrines and “just war theory”, the result is likely to be messy, to be irresolute, and to pave the way for further turmoil. True to form, Wilson’s prioritization of democracy promotion over self-interested motives shaped the way that the war was resolved, leaving the defeated parties intact, vindicated, and primed for World War II.

Though some have attempted to characterize the rise of Nazism and the resumed belligerence of Germany as the result of harsh terms and conditions after World War I, careful analysis reveals the opposite to be true. Defenders of that view present a narrative in which Germany was so economically and psychologically devastated after World War I as a result of reparations payments that its people sought a new source of national pride and gravitated towards the most nationalistic elements in German politics and culture. In essence, they argue, the terms were too harsh; the victors of World War I should have let sleeping dogs lie instead of pursuing a vindictive set of terms that only salted Europe’s postwar wounds.

As the Cato Institute’s Jim Powell writes,

“The vindictive surrender terms, made possible by American entry in the war and enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles, triggered a dangerous nationalist reaction. Hitler was able to recruit several thousand Nazis. Allied demands for reparations gave Germans incentives to inflate their currency and pay the Allies with worthless marks. The runaway inflation wiped out Germany’s middle class, and Hitler recruited tens of thousands more Nazis by appealing to those bitter people whom he referred to as “starving billionaires” — they might have had billions of paper marks, but they couldn’t afford a loaf of bread.”

In part, Powell is right: the surrender terms did trigger a dangerous nationalist reaction—but not by virtue of the terms’ “vindictive[ness].” Rather, for a war of that scale and tenacity, the terms were, in the end, dangerously soft. Over the objections of the French and those such as US General John Pershing, Woodrow Wilson and British political leaders ensured that Germany’s surrender was only a conditional one. Unlike the Confederacy at the end of the US Civil War or the Japanese at the end of WWII (neither of which ever presented a threat again), Germany was allowed to set the terms of its surrender. In the process, after a war that had been stalemated for most of three years until US entry, Germany retained a sense of vindication and a belief that it had never really been defeated but was rather sold out by elites interested in preserving their own well being at the expense of the German nation.

Germany’s nationalistic claims to certain foreign territories were never opposed on a fundamental level. As John David Lewis writes in Nothing Less Than Victory, “[m]any British leaders accepted the basic legitimacy of German claims to territory and national resurgence and were thus unwilling to oppose those claims in a principled way.” Some of those same leaders would later stand by as Hitler took power, unable to wholly reject Germany’s territorial ambitions or its right to rearm. Wilson’s doctrine of national self-determination, established in the League of Nation, also ensured that American sentiments embraced a subjectivist view of German expansionism and ethnocentricity.

What of the allegations often levied that reparations led to German hyperinflation and economic hardship, providing fertile grounds for German resentment? Again, Powell and others who take this line are correct in part, stating that “runaway inflation wiped out Germany’s middle class, and Hitler recruited tens of thousands more Nazis by appealing to those bitter people,” but wrong in blaming reparation payments for that outcome. As first revealed by historian Sally Marks and further discussed by Lewis, American and British leaders quietly sided with Germany against France in the settlement process, orchestrating bonds that ensured that Germany would only wind up paying fifty billion marks, a mere 37% of the one hundred and thirty two billion marks mandated by the official terms.

Both sides would misrepresent this to their own people, the British and Americans presenting a tough image to satisfy domestic calls for restitution and the Germans exaggerating their payments to scapegoat the Allies for their own disastrous monetary policies. Thus, the truth was not that, as Powell writes, “Allied demands for reparations gave Germans incentives to inflate their currency and pay the Allies with worthless marks” but rather that Allied failure to enforce reparations and deceptive collusion with the Germans gave Germans political cover to inflate their currency and cite cruelty and vindictiveness where there was scarcely even strength. The results speak for themselves.

Defining the Future

“U.S. Role Deepens in Syria and Iraq.” “President Obama Calls for $500m Pledge to Syrian Rebels.” “Taliban Mount Major Assault in Afghanistan.” “President Obama Sends Military Advisers to Iraq.” These are the sorts of headlines that pervade the news on the centennial of World War I—news of protracted, aimless conflicts in which the US has refused to identify the enemy, failed to set objective goals or standards for victory, lost sight of its purpose, and yet continued to expend lives and resources in order to preserve the appearance that the war is not lost. America today no longer fights to win. Tragically, helmed by political leaders without the clarity or conviction to achieve victory, it entered one war in Afghanistan with the intention to avenge the loss of American lives but, in an eerie parallel, soon drifted in its purpose, entering another conflict in Iraq and declaring its intention to democratize both countries, prioritizing the freedom of their peoples over the defense of American lives.

Today, almost thirteen years into the war in Afghanistan and nearly eleven years into the war in Iraq—conflicts directly or indirectly spurred by Islamist militants attacking the United States—both the Bush and Obama administrations have accepted and even promoted the establishment of new Islamist governments in both countries. After two incomplete and conditional victories, US leaders were adamant in insisting that we had no right to dictate the terms of the new governments there, hailing both countries’ rights to ‘self-determination.’ As Bush said in 2004, if instituting Iraqi democracy brings on the rise of an Islamist government there, “democracy is democracy… If that’s what the people choose, that’s what the people choose.”

Ten years later, as Sunni ISIS wages a conflict against the Shiite-held government there, the people are choosing—not rationally and intellectually as is possible in a secular state, but with bullets and bombs. They are choosing not who to vote for but who to kill, and the result is to the benefit and safety of neither the American people nor Iraqis. Meanwhile, across vast and porous borders long ago drawn by imperialist occupants, with little significance to those who beset them on either side, a conflict still wages between US forces and an undefeated Taliban that is diplomatically stronger and more deeply entrenched than it was on September 11th, 2001, and a Syrian civil war in which the US has no demonstrable interest despite the Obama administration’s tireless attempts to involve us there.

The American approach to the war against Islamic totalitarianism has been as weak and unprincipled as its handling of the Treaty of Versailles and the aftermath of WWI. The Obama administration has consented to the establishment of a diplomatic office in Qatar by the same Taliban that we entered Afghanistan to destroy thirteen years ago. Meanwhile, more lives were lost in Afghanistan under the first five years of this administration than were lost in seven years under George W. Bush. What’s more: the administration has offered no exit strategy and has flirted with the idea of sending withdrawn troops back into Iraq.

In what is the most tragic and irrational part of this scene, America is coming to the slow realization that there is no finish line; a clearly defined victory is not achievable by the terms on which this war has been fought. Afghans and Iraqis got the vote, they chose Islamism, and the US cannot fight the Taliban to destruction while simultaneously entering negotiations with it in low-profile meetings in Qatar. As Iraq destabilizes, borders are collapsing, conflicts are deterritorializing, and parties such as Iran and ISIS are struggling to define the region’s future—any result of which is likely to wipe out what positive effects remain of America’s impact there. And with conflicts in Iraq and Syria now becoming largely inextricable, the regions borders will likely come to mean less and less in years to come.

We are in much the same place as the Allies after World War I. The only question is whether we will be vigilant in assessing the impacts of our failures in Afghanistan and Iraq on potential threats in years to come. To look back on the tectonic geopolitical shifts of the 20th century is to see the interconnectedness of events—how World War I led to World War II; how World War II brought on the Cold War, complete with the tragic and miserably handled conflicts in Korea and Vietnam; and how the Cold War incited the rise of an unforeseen threat in Islamic militancy in the Middle East. Our century is a young one. The greatest honor that we can pay to our history, our country, and the lives that were lost in its defense is to observe the lessons laid out before us and to choose a different path, a bolder path that recognizes the value of diplomacy, the unspeakable horror of war, and the importance of acknowledging, when circumstances mandate a conflict, the importance of fighting it with clarity of purpose and the courage of conviction.

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