I recently saw Sam Mendes’ World War I epic, “1917.” The film graphically portrayed the horror of that war to younger generations for whom it is ancient history. Like any epic of that war, it detailed the unromantic realities of trench warfare, the bonds of comrades in arms, the nearly universal dedication to duty, and the brutality of death by bayonets, bolt action rifles, machine guns, and then-newer weapons like airplanes.
While it was an enjoyable and well-crafted film, the major premise defied belief: that the leaders of the British Army, or any army of the time, would have considered it a disaster to send several battalions to their certain deaths. Such callous disregard for young European men was the chief feature of that war.
World War I Was Brutal
When the Battle of the Somme began on July 1, 1916, more than 20,000 British soldiers died on the first day. An average of 3,600 would become casualties every day until November of that year. In the infamous French battles over Verdun, day after day, thousands of men were killed, wounded, and maimed to the tune of over 400,000 by the time the battle was over.
The allied generals were unable to learn from their costly failures and unwilling to accept the decisive advantages of entrenched defenders employing machine guns. The war rightly has been described as a situation of “lions led by donkeys.” By the time the war was over, 40 million were dead, about half consisting of the young men of both sides who had been drafted into enormous conscript armies.
While World War II has been framed as a great moral contest between democracies—a framing made possible only by ignoring the brutal reality of our Soviet ally—today, no one seriously views World War I that way. At the time, however, it was grandiloquently declared by the idealistic President Woodrow Wilson as a war to “make the world safe for democracy.” In reality, prosaic questions like the British fear of a large German navy, the recovery of the Alsace Lorraine for France, and the automatic nature of alliances had much to do with its outbreak and continuation.
This important historical episode has mostly been memory-holed. The “1917” film, by portraying the allies as parsimonious with the lives of their soldiers, is unlikely to do much to encourage serious study of the inhumanity and cold indifference to young men’s lives by the putative “good guys.”
The Costs of Inaction
World War I has also been eclipsed, both morally and strategically, by the standard narrative of World War II. This view, common among the political class, treats America’s reluctance to enter that war not as a rational response to disillusionment from the Great War and the cruelties of the Versailles settlement, but as a selfish and inexplicable “isolationism.” Like Americans today soured on their Mideast wars, Europeans and Americans in the 1930s took a pretty dim view of war in general and wanted to avoid it at all costs. Our policymakers learn from World War II only that we are supposed to exercise leadership and vindicate wrongdoing where it is found, using American power aggressively to shape the world order and stop genocide.
There is no doubt some truth to this takeaway. But equating every subsequent evil with Hitler and ignoring the evils of war itself, this account of recent history is completely loosened from all context and cut off from the importance of prudence in examining circumstances. History did not start in 1939 or end in 1945. Before World War II, there was the tragedy of World War I. After it, we have endured the more ambiguous campaigns in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq.
The chief lesson of World War I that is obscured by the gauzy patriotism of the “1917” film is that war itself is a bad and costly thing. Even World War II, whose lessons supposedly are clear and unambiguous, resulted in the deaths of 70-85 million people, including 21-25 million deaths among combatants.
Among Americans in particular, war is always sold and justified as necessary to prevent a greater evil. And sometimes it absolutely is. But, as both world wars showed, war itself is also a great evil. Wars against figures far less dangerous and capable than Nazi Germany, such as Iraq and Libya, show us that the “humanitarian” rationale of war is often a dubious one that fails to account for the evils of war itself, as well as for the unpredictability of war.
At best, any particular war may be said to be the lesser of two evils. There is a reason that under the traditional Christian theology of just war “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated” and that war should be a “last resort.”
Consider the comparatively successful case of the Cold War. America engaged in a containment strategy against the Soviet Union, while deliberately avoiding total war. In furtherance of that strategy, America participated in two relatively big regional wars—Korea and Vietnam—as well as numerous smaller-scale interventions, but the total loss of life in these conflicts was a fraction of that lost in the four years spent in World War II, and fewer also than lives lost in the one year America spent in World War I.
Undeniably, the Soviet Union did much evil in the meantime, including killing and imprisoning millions of its own people. Even so, these crimes against their own people would have been eclipsed by the alternative evil of annihilating the planet and killing millions of innocents in a nuclear war. A “never again” war to liberate the Soviet people easily could have killed upwards of the tens of millions, a pyrrhic victory at best, and one which very few would have been left standing to celebrate.
A New Great Power Struggle
While our political class remains obsessed with Russia, it is a declining power. The more salient threat is our potential conflict with China. It is a large country, growing stronger, and we may stumble into a war if we are not careful.
Like Great Britain and Germany in the early 20th century, we are the legacy power, while China is the rising power. The United States looks at China much the way Britain once looked at Germany: as an illiberal upstart, whose claims to an equal place on the global stage are dismissed ipso facto as illegitimate and a threat. China’s rise would upset the worldwide balance of power, which is lopsidedly tilted in favor of American hegemony.
Also, like Britain and Germany prior to World War I, the two powers have substantial commercial ties, which supposedly vouchsafe peace. China, like Germany in the early 1900s, no doubt feels insulted and deprived of its “rightful place in the sun” by America’s efforts to retain its status as the sole superpower.
During a two-decade slumber, the hope was that trade would enlighten and liberalize the Chinese regime. Instead, trade simply has helped the authoritarian communist regime to become wealthier, the prerequisite to modern military power. Today, confronting China is a consensus item.
Trump, the neoconservatives, and even neoliberals like Hillary Clinton counsel a fairly aggressive form of brinksmanship regarding China. This is rarely explained to the American people, and never analyzed as a possible catalyst for a long and bloody war. After all, what if there is a miscalculation?
Standing up to aggression in 1914 led to a chain reaction among the various combatants. The Austro-Hungarian Empire went to war with Serbia after its heir to the throne was killed by terrorists and various punitive demands were unmet by the Serbs. In response, Serbia’s ally Russia mobilized, then Germany, then France. Mobilization was expensive and hard to reverse. Britain lingered. Soon, war broke out. The system of competing alliances and armies proceeded on autopilot.
Matters of foreign policy, and particularly matters of war and peace, are simply too serious to be decided with formulae that counsel automatic escalation, lest we lose “credibility.” The experts insist that our alliance system is the source of peace—and it certainly contributed to peace during the Cold War—but we should not forget that it can also be an accelerant for war. When a smallish number of troops are in Poland or South Korea or Japan, they are not there to act as a deterrent force, but as a tripwire, creating the foundations of a casus belli when combined with our treaty obligations.
As in the decades before and after World War I, America has an option to stay out. Our sovereignty is fully guaranteed by our nuclear umbrella, and we retain the benefit of two large oceans and a strong military to deter any conventional threats. We should remain strong and devoted to preserving our own sovereignty, but instead the logic of retaining the status of “sole superpower” confuses our fate with those of Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and India. Instead of aggressively confronting China, it would defuse tensions and cost less if America strategically disengaged, leaving each of China’s neighbors to find a modus vivendi with their larger and more powerful neighbor.
Even the worst-case scenario—an authoritarian China that dominated its neighbors at home and challenged America abroad—is a less dire outcome than a war between China and the United States. Our national independence is not clearly harmed if these countries are drawn into China’s orbit. This possibility certainly would be less damaging than our current economic dependence on this hostile regime. In this regard, Trump’s controversial efforts to rebalance our trading arrangements with China deserves much praise.
America First means forgetting the false history lessons recited by the foreign policy establishment, who are fixated on World War II as a fairytale of American diffidence, redeemed by the reluctant embrace of American leadership. Such didactic lessons are not history at all, but rather the misreading of one very unique historical episode. While the lessons of 1939 should not be forgotten, neither should we forget the real lessons of 1917. At that time, a callous and unimaginative ruling class mistook intermediate goods like “the balance of powers” as counting more than the lives of tens of millions of European boys. Their bloody mistake should be a cautionary tale.