Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Yawns of August

I’m old enough to remember the 50th anniversaries of the beginning and end of WW1. In the 1960s there were still plenty of veterans walking around, of course, so in a way it was natural that the commemorations at the time would be highly visible. I can’t help but be struck, though, by the sleepy response to the 100th. True, not just the participants but all of the witnesses (save a few who were infants or toddlers) of the war are gone now, but we are still living with its effects today.

Arguably, the bulk of global history from 1918 to the present has been the clean-up of the unfinished business of the 1914-18 calamity. The line to WW2 in Europe and then to the Cold War was a direct one. Japanese actions against the German naval base at Tsingtao and German-held Pacific islands set the stage for further Sino-Japanese conflict and for tensions with the US. Colonial overreach at the end of the war doomed the colonial system. The trouble in the Balkans in the 90s stemmed from an unsatisfactory resolution of national issues in 1918. Some of the current boundary and ethnic issues involving Russia and neighboring former Soviet republics have their roots in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of 1918. The ongoing strife in the Middle East is heavily shaped by the 1917 Balfour Declaration and by the post-war carve-up of the Ottoman Empire by the victorious powers. Yet, by and large, responses to the centenary are limited to weary shrugs and the odd documentary on cable TV History channels – and not just in the US, which entered the war late and suffered a “mere” 117,000 killed. Only in the UK does there appear to be much more than perfunctory acknowledgement. Even in Russia, which had more casualties than any other single combatant and was radically reshaped by the war, the commemoration, though not absent (a Putin speech is on youtube), is comparatively modest.

I think the reason for the widespread ignoration is precisely that the results were such a muddle. What is there to say about a blood-soaked event that appeared to accomplish nothing useful? That the whole enterprise was a futile waste was an opinion already widely shared by the 1920s even among the winners. Public reaction led to two decades of pacifism in the Western democracies and (curiously) militarism elsewhere. Who wants to remember that? Perhaps, though, that is the best reason to do so. It is a warning to pick one’s fights carefully; it is also a reminder that good intentions and great sacrifices are no guarantee of good or great results. It would be best if we didn't have to keep relearning this the hard way.

By the way, this month is the 50th anniversary of another widely ignored harsh memory, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964. If the US phase of the Vietnam war has an official beginning, that would be it. However, there already were 21,000 US troops in South Vietnam at the time due to mission creep – arguably since 1950 with supply deliveries to French forces, but especially since 1961 with the first 100 US Special Forces – so any date after 1950 is a bit arbitrary. The same lessons as for the other war apply.


  1. You make a good point. It was one of the things that really surprised me in London on both visits. There were WWI memorials all over the place. It is just something that you never see in the US. In fact, I run into people who think of WWI as a resounding victory for the US, I can't even imagine how they came to that conclusion.

    The whole thing was really brought home on our last trip to London, we were leaving on Remembrance Day. We saw so many people with paper poppies on their lapels, we saw so many flowers and wreaths on all the churches, there were parades that our taxi driver had to navigate around. And yes it is for the memory of all the British war dead, but the poppy in particular goes back to WWI. It was really something that made me realize what a terrific cost that war was. As you said, the results are less then the effort put in. Not surprised people don't want to remember, or choose to remember it differently.

    1. The Economist made the point at the beginning of the year that there are some parallels to 1914, with the US in the UK's role as fading superpower and China in Germany's. (Are Russia and Ukraine the Austria and Serbia? The magazine didn't say.) It's not a perfect analogy of course. As Mark Twain said, "history doesn't repeat but it sometimes rhymes."