On this Armistice Day, which brought the senseless slaughter of World War One to a long overdue end, I am
thinking especially of my great grandmother’s brother, Lawson, who left high school early in order to fight in that war. After returning home seemingly unscathed, he would graduate high school (from the same one I did) and then college (Ohio State). But he would not survive medical school. Five years after making it out of the trenches of Western Europe, he would die from the delayed effects of chemical warfare.
I post his high school yearbook picture as a way to remember all of the young people that we have asked and allowed to kill and die for us and to remind the not so young among us that our support for war comes at the expense of the hopes and dreams and innocence of our young ones.
I also write to remind us that there are Lawsons on the other side, too.
I just finished reading the historian Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, and I thought about Lawson the whole way through. And today, two paragraphs in this nearly four hundred page tome keeping bouncing around in my head:
To those who claim the First World War both necessary and successful because “Germany had violated Belgian neutrality and, without resistance, an aggressive, militaristic Germany and its allies would have overrun Europe,” Hochschild responds:
“the Second World War, which grew so inevitably out of the First, did result in Germany’s overrunning almost all of Europe–and the Nazis carried out an immeasurably more murderous agenda than Kaiser Wilhelm II ever would have. The war that prevented a German conquest of Europe in 1914 virtually guaranteed the one that would begin in 1939.”
Drawing upon the arguments of conservative British historian Niall Ferguson, Hochschild “points out that one of the Kaiser’s principal war aims was to establish a pan-European customs union, a ‘United States of Europe,’ which Germany, by its size, would dominate. How different is that [Ferguson asks] from today’s European Union?”
Russia’s disastrous participation in the First World War also helped foment revolutionary outrage against the tsar. In setting in motion the events that led to the rise of the Soviet Union, the First World War enabled Stalin’s inter-bellum reign of terror against tens of millions of women and men he deemed political enemies.
World War One, he continues, also made the previously unimaginable routine.
“In the frenzy for military advantage, international agreements and the longstanding distinction between soldiers and civilians went up in smoke: chemical warfare by both sides, German torpedoing of neutral ships, the British attempt to blockade Germany into starvation–the list could go on. And these barriers, once broken, were forever.”
They called World War One “the war to end all wars.” In actuality, it was the war that made the next war possible.
We prefer to remember the Second World War because we believe it “the good war.” We have made more movies about, offer more political references to, and tell more stories about this war than all the other wars combined. It appears heroic even in retrospect for the evil it clearly extinguished. In its wake, military inaction qualifies as the ultimate moral folly: Neville Chamberlain’s purported capitulation to the Nazi war machine serves as a universal proverb.
We are not quite as good at commemorating the war that argues for its own abolition. We are not quite as adept at responding to the war that made the world worse, not better.
Is the world really better off since Lawson died?