For the last half a dozen years, I’ve been mentally living in the world of 1914-18, writing a book about World War I. I’ve haunted battlefields and graveyards, asked a Belgian farmer if I could step inside a wartime concrete bunker that now houses his goats, and walked through an underground tunnel that protected Canadian troops moving ammunition to the front line.
In government archives, I’ve read reports by officers who survived battles in which most of their troops died; I’ve talked to a man whose labor-activist grandfather was court-martialed because he wrote a letter to the Daily Mail complaining that every British officer was assigned a private servant. In a heartbreakingly beautiful tree-shaded cemetery full of British soldiers mowed down by a single German machine gun on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, I found a comment in the visitors’ book: “Never Again.”
If only that were true.
The eerie thing about studying World War I is the way you can’t help but be reminded of today’s headlines. Consider, for example, how the war started. High officials of the rickety Austro-Hungarian Empire, frightened by ethnic nationalism among Serbs within its borders, wanted to dismember neighboring Serbia, whose very existence as an independent state they regarded as a threat. Austro-Hungarian military commanders had even drawn up invasion plans.
When a 20-year-old ethnic Serb fired two fatal shots at Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in the summer of 1914, the commanders had the perfect excuse to put their plans into action — even though the killer was an Austro-Hungarian citizen and there was no evidence Serbia’s cabinet knew of his plot.
The more I learned about the war’s opening, the more I thought about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. President George W. Bush and his key advisors had long hungered to dislodge Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power. Like the archduke’s assassination, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, gave them the excuse they had been waiting for — even though there was no connection between the 9/11 hijackers and Hussein’s regime.
Bush mistakenly assumed a swift victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, as did Kaiser Wilhelm II when he declared war in 1914. “You will be home,” Wilhelm confidently told his troops that August, “before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” The war ultimately claimed the lives of about 20 million people and left parts of Europe in smoldering ruins.
When politicians and generals lead nations into war, they have a remarkably enduring tendency not to foresee problems that, in hindsight, seem obvious. In 1914, both sides sent huge forces of cavalry to the Western Front — the Germans dispatching eight divisions with 40,000 horses. But machine guns and barbed wire were destined to end the days of glorious cavalry charges forever. In addition, the new internal-combustion engines brought their own problems. In the opening weeks of the war, 60% of the invading German army’s trucks broke down. This meant supplies had to be pulled by horses and wagons. For those horses, not to mention all the useless cavalry mounts, the French countryside simply could not supply enough feed. Eating unripe green corn, the German horses sickened and died by the tens of thousands, slowing the advance even more.
Bush and his top officials also miscalculated optimistically, nowhere so gravely as in their certainty that Iraqis would welcome their “liberation.” Because of that assumption, they had given remarkably little thought to what they should do once in Baghdad. In the same way, despite a long, painfully instructive history to guide them, administration officials somehow never managed to consider that, however much most Afghans loathed the Taliban, they might come to despise even more foreign invaders who didn’t go home.
As World War I reminds us, however understandable the motives of those who enter the fight, the definition of “war” is “unplanned consequences.” It’s hard to fault a young Frenchman who marched off to battle in August 1914. After all, Germany had just sent millions of troops to invade France and Belgium. Wasn’t that worth resisting? Yet by the time the Germans were finally forced to surrender and withdraw 4 1/2 years later, half of all Frenchmen ages 20 to 32 in 1914 had been killed. There were similarly horrific casualties among the other combatant nations.
Was it worth it? Of course not. The near-starvation of Germans during the war, their humiliating defeat and the misbegotten Treaty of Versailles virtually ensured the rise of the Nazis, along with a second, even more destructive world war and a still more ruthless German occupation of France.
The same question has to be asked about our current war in Afghanistan. Certainly, at the start, there was an understandable motive for the war; after all, the Afghan government, unlike the one in Iraq, had sheltered the planners of the 9/11 attacks. But nearly 10 years later, dozens of times more Afghan civilians are dead than were killed in the United States on that day — and more than 2,400 American, British, Canadian, German and other allied troops as well.
War has a tendency to produce lofty rhetoric. A French newspaper at the time called World War I a “holy war of civilization against barbarity,” while a German paper insisted the war was necessary to stop Russia from crushing “the culture of all of Western Europe.”
And so it still goes. Today’s high-flown war rhetoric naturally cites only the most noble of goals: stopping terrorists, eliminating weapons of mass destruction, spreading democracy and protecting women from the Taliban. But beneath the flowery words, national self-interest is as powerful as it was almost 100 years ago. Does anyone think that Washington would have gotten quite so righteously worked up in 2003 if, instead of having massive oil reserves, Iraq’s principal export was turnips?
Someday, I have no doubt, the dead from today’s wars will be seen with a similar sense of sorrow at needless loss and folly as those millions of men who lie in the vast military cemeteries that spread along the old front line in France and Belgium — and tens of millions of Americans will feel a similar revulsion for the politicians and generals who were so spendthrift with others’ lives. But here’s the question that haunts me: What will it take to bring us to that point?
Adam Hochschild is a San Francisco-based author of seven books, including “King Leopold’s Ghost.” His latest book is “To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.” A longer version of this piece appears at tomdispatch.com