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Civilization Watch
First appeared in print in The The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card May 1, 2014

Witnessing the Great War

Nobody called it Die Hard I until there was a Die Hard II. Nobody ever called him Martin Luther King, Sr., until he named his son after himself.

Things only start getting numbered when the sequels show up.

So World War I was called The Great War until World War II came along with, roughly, the same set of players and dead bodies spread more widely across the continents and oceans of the world.

But you can make a serious case for keeping the name The Great War and applying it to both world wars at once, because it is closer to the truth to say that they were the same war, three decades in duration, with a twenty-year armistice from 1919 to 1939 providing time for a new generation of cannon fodder to come of age.

This summer marks the centennial of the start of open hostilities on the "Western Front," when Germany's armies entered neutral Luxembourg and Belgium in order to pass through the small countries and invade France.

Everyone expected the German campaign to be quick and victorious, because only thirty years before Bismarck's Germany had thoroughly whipped the France of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War. Everyone had learned the (false) lessons of that war: That victory comes to the side that remains on the offense all the time.

They had all forgotten the true lessons learned through the brutal experience of the American Civil War: Attacks against a well-armed entrenched enemy have an obscene cost in death and injury, and rarely succeed. While our Civil War did not have widespread use of automatic weapons, it did use easily reloaded rifles and mobile artillery that fired anti-personnel grapeshot and canister charges.

The battle of Fredericksburg, in which Union General Ambrose Burnside sent repeated waves of attackers up a slope against a thin Confederate line hiding behind a stone wall, was the first clear indication that the Napoleonic doctrine of staying on the Offensive no longer applied. Later, in the siege of Richmond, Union General Grant, having learned that lesson, did not waste his soldiers' lives in repeated pointless large-scale assaults against Lee's formidable entrenchments.

Tragically, European generals did not learn from the American experience. The Franco-Prussian war was more recent and it happened in their own front yards. So when Britain entered the war against Germany in defense of neutral Belgium, and managed to join the French in stopping the German onslaught, the war quickly settled into two vast armies facing each other from deeply entrenched positions.

For four years, stupid generals on both sides kept sending their brave, obedient soldiers "over the top" through the "no-man's-land" of barbed wire, mines, and falling artillery shells, to march into the machine guns and rifle fire that mowed them down like tall grass. Millions of men died in these "offensive" campaigns that rarely gained any ground -- and then only a few miles at most.

So repugnant was the loss of life and the vile experience of living in the trenches that anti-war movements spread during the years after the Great War. Collective "wisdom" decreed that the Great War had been caused by the accelerating arms race between Britain and Germany, so disarmament was widely seen as a way to stave off future wars.

Unfortunately, Germany's response was very different. Because all the fighting on the Western Front took place in France and Belgium, and Germany won a decisive victory against Russia in the east, the German people never actually experienced their own defeat.

When the arrival of American troops -- and the British invention of the tank -- made it clear that Germany could not win, the Germans wisely surrendered in November 1919, saving millions of lives. But within Germany itself, it was possible for demagogues to claim that Germany was not beaten, but rather had been stabbed in the back by traitorous leaders who surrendered when victory was still possible.

Add to that belief the absurdly harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty, which carved away long-held lands from Germany and reinstated long-swallowed-up Poland while creating new cobbled-together "nations" like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and it was inevitable that a resurgent Germany would yearn to restore its old imperial borders -- and win the victory they had been "cheated of" in 1919.

Thus British disarmament after the Great War was seen -- correctly -- as weakness, as a lack of will to fight, which emboldened Hitler once he took control of the German government in 1933. The Fascist powers, Germany and Italy, fought a surrogate war against the Communist-backed Republicans in Spain during the 1930s -- and won.

Britain and France did not lift a finger. They continued a policy of appeasement and empty protests until Germany was ready to renew the war. This time there would be no trench warfare, because France would fall as quickly in 1939 as it had in the Franco-Prussian War six decades earlier.

It's tragic that people keep learning all the wrong lessons from previous wars. And nowhere is this clearer than in the doubly valuable audio presentation NPR American Chronicles: World War I. Available for download from sites like Audible.com and Downpour.com, this three-and-a-half-hour program is a collection of NPR reports over the past thirty or so years.

The heart of the production is the voices of World War I veterans. Now they are all dead, but in the 1980s some intrepid reporters located American veterans who were still able to speak lucidly about their vivid memories of the war. It is painful yet illuminating to listen to them now. I had read many books that included clear, detailed accounts of the things they describe, but nothing can replace the sound of their voices telling what they experienced.

The NPR World War I program also includes other reports -- including the clear evidence that the Lusitania, a passenger ship that a German U-boat sank in 1915, had been illegally loaded by the British with munitions, making it a legitimate wartime target.

The main value of NPR American Chronicles: World War I is the vivid way it reminds us, a century after its beginning, of the first fully modern war, which reshaped national boundaries in ways that we still struggle with today.

But it is also valuable to hear the slant in the reporting, the way that NPR's uniformly leftwing reporting tries to bend its reporting against the Bush administration, and to reach a completely anti-war, anti-military conclusion. It is most explicit near the very end, when we hear aging veterans declare that the war was stupid and pointless and there was no good reason for it to be fought at all.

This is a semi-true statement -- there were no real issues at stake, especially between Germany on the one hand and Britain and France on the other. They were all part of the same civilization; indeed, Germany at the time enjoyed a reputation as the highest expression of Western Civilization. (Anyone entering into the sciences needed to learn German if they were going to keep up with the latest findings in every field.)

But this generic "there's no good reason for war" statement is not universally applicable. In 1914 there was no good reason to have a war between Germany and France, but once Germany decided to invade not only France but two neutral nations as well, then there was an excellent reason for Britain to enter the war on the side of France, Belgium, and Luxembourg.

Naked aggression, if it is not resisted, will be repeated. Learning the wrong lesson from World War I, Britain tried to give in to Hitler's "legitimate" claims -- which are strangely identical to Putin's claim to be protecting Russian nationals in Ukraine and the Baltic states. But this did not avert war, it merely led Hitler to believe that he would easily win his war against a cowardly, unprepared West.

Which he did. He overwhelmed and occupied France, and left Britain to huddle on its island, incapable of mounting any serious offensive against German-held territory for four years.

Today, Putin is obviously playing from Hitler's playbook. Hitler got his agents to create faked-up "incidents" in which pro-German citizens of Austria and Czechoslovakia provoked their governments to act against them, thus allowing Hitler to claim that he needed to seize German-majority territories in order to "protect" German nationals.

Putin is doing exactly the same thing in Ukraine, and is prepared to play the tape again in Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. And, like Hitler, Putin is facing a west led by stupid "peace-loving" leaders who think that by disarming themselves, they will somehow encourage imperialists like Putin to do likewise.

Our only hope is that Putin, though playing Hitler's game, might be wielding Mussolini's army. That is, as with Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s, Putin's inevitable invasion of Ukraine may meet with surprising resistance that his army is not able to overcome.

Meanwhile, though, Putin's bullying has won him 80% approval ratings inside Russia, where a demoralized people long for the glory days when Russia's huge empire was the terror and envy of the world. Imperialism is alive and well in Russia, and the West is currently led by puppies who love to roll over and play dead, so there is no credible force to stand against the Russian Empire.

So the NPR report on World War I is valuable in its reminder of that terrible, world-changing war, and valuable again as an example of the kind of propaganda that leads nations to weaken themselves until they invite aggressors to attack their weak or weak-willed neighbors.

It's worth remembering that peace-loving Switzerland has remained free of invasion and occupation, not because it disarmed and forswore warfare, but because it armed and trained its citizens relentlessly, so that would-be invaders calculated what invading a land of well-defended mountain passes would cost them, and decided it wasn't worth the defeats that they would suffer.

History does not repeat itself, not exactly, and not even in broad strokes. But, as in economics, there are regularities that amount to laws of human behavior that shape history. Perceived weakness invites bullying or attack. Putin was happy to refrain from invading Ukraine as long as there was a pro-Russian government running it. But when the people ousted that government, Putin had to teach them to obey his will. His message: You are part of the Russian Empire, whether you like it or not.

And America, despite promises to protect Ukraine if they gave up their nuclear weapons (which they did), has neither the will nor the ability to keep those promises. Obama does not regard promises made by his predecessors as binding -- he doesn't even regard his own promises as binding.

Those who complained that America shouldn't be "policeman of the world" are now going to find out how much worse off the world is when there is no policeman -- just imperialist thug states like Russia, China, and Iran.

And, while our eyes are turned toward Russia, it would be wise for us to remember that while Russia's military might turn out to be more like Mussolini's than Hitler's, China's military is far more powerful.

The U.S. entered World War II, not because of Germany's conquest of Europe, but because of Japan's aggression in the Pacific. We may find ourselves involved in our next world war, not because of Russia, but because China knows now that Obama is not likely to show any spine at all if China reaches out to seize Taiwan.

Weakness, of military or of will, invites attack. Strength, and a demonstrated will to use that strength, usually forestalls it. Far more soldiers and civilians around the world will die because of Obama's "peace-loving" weakness than because of the demonstrated strength of both presidents Bush.

Meanwhile, let's keep ourselves awake to history. Our schools barely teach it anymore; we have to educate ourselves. NPR American Chronicles: World War I is an excellent place to start.


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