What others pray for

Pre-World War I, a good slugfest was always an option

British 55th Division gas casualties are photographed on April 10, 1918. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
British 55th Division gas casualties are photographed on April 10, 1918.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, is the endlessly quoted and misquoted dictum of the philosopher George Santayana.
Santayana was wrong.
Those who remember the past, repeat it. Those who cannot, or choose not to, are condemned to be surprised when it happens.
The reason why is simple. Those who remember pick and choose their lessons, then simplify and distort them to meet their needs and prejudices and aspirations. Those who do not remember, when they’re finally forced to get around to it, find themselves surprised because... oh my God, here we go again. Don’t we ever learn? We don’t. The human catalogue of furor, vice and folly remains essentially unchanged. Still, there is a partial palliative. Whenever you find yourself falling in love with some “lesson of the past,” consider others that tell you less of what you want to hear.
On that note, welcome to 2014: centennial of the start of the Great War, later repackaged as World War I.
Israel looks to the Second World War, especially its run-up and aftermath, for lessons. But the first go-around might still have a few things to tell us.
This is not the place for partisan political discussion. But as we approach the anniversaries of that epoch, three general items might be worth consideration.
Call them “Life Lessons.”
First, lots of people wanted war.
Nearly everyone expected it – someday.
There were, of course, a few exceptions who chirped that general war couldn’t happen because nations had grown too interdependent economically and/or that science had made war too terrible to fight. But the vast majority thought otherwise.
Reasons for wanting war included the vindictive, from French resentment over their 1871 loss to Germany, to Germany’s assorted fears and grievances. Austrian anti-Russian pique over the Balkans had been festering for decades; so had English fed-up-ness with German global ambitions. Russia had its own Slavic and anti-Turkish ambitions. And everybody believed in the regenerative aspects of a good slugfest. War will make us virile again. The unifying, i.e. anti-Social Democratic/Marxist/ revolutionary aspects, also garnered a general “like.” And then there was simple boredom, the “Come, desired storms!” motif.
Life Lesson: Beware what other people pray for. They might get it.
Second, few among the military doubted that the war would be nasty. Very nasty. It wasn’t just the deadliness of the high explosives and machine guns and gas. It wasn’t just that both sides of a sclerotic alliance system had become the prisoners of plans that made mobilization the de facto declaration of war. Once begun, mobilization could not be halted or paused until completed. Trains don’t run backwards very well, and a couple million guys stranded between home and their assigned positions doth not an effective army constitute. The side that got its armies into position fastest had the “first strike advantage.”
Germany had no choice, save to use it.
Nor was it just that Germany’s Schlieffen Plan (which may or may not have existed as a single coherent document) represented an insanely desperate multi-tiered gamble: to knock France out in a few weeks, then take on Russia, while Britain either stayed out or mucked around ineffectually. It wasn’t just the common knowledge that, unless it ended quickly, the war would degenerate into protracted trench stalemate.
It was that the various militaries knew that they didn’t know how to avoid it. Read the professional literature of the prewar and postwar periods. These were the writings of men who could not realistically conceive of how to win, but could not conceive of losing. And they were honest about it.
Life Lesson: When the military admits that they’re clueless, believe them.
Third, as early as 1915, there arose a phenomenon that might be called “slaughter looking for reasons.” At first, the quest for a Higher Moral Purpose was confined to the academic and chattering classes. Then came Woodrow Wilson, casting about for ways to liven up an otherwise mediocre presidency.
He decided to redeem the world. Not everyone was impressed. “Fourteen points?” the French premier Georges Clemenceau is alleged to have quipped.
“God only had 10.”
Wilson’s doomed attempt to impose a burned-out American Progressive morality on a Europe that now defined the higher purpose of the war as national security, territory and reparation, has received ample attention from the historians. Suffice it to say: Once he’d appointed himself messiah, he made every mistake in the strategic and diplomatic manuals.
That his brain was deteriorating as he approached his crippling stroke says less about his impaired abilities than the precise nature of the impairment.
He chose to fail.
Life Lesson: When your reach exceeds your grasp, Heaven may approve. Your fellow humans tend to be less amenable to your delusions.
So it happened 100 years ago.
And we’re paying for it still.
Back in the Old Country, Philip Gold taught history at Georgetown University for over a decade. He has also written some stuff.