What if, from the beginning, everyone killed in the Iraq and Afghan wars had been buried in a single large cemetery easily accessible to the American public? Would it bring the fighting to a halt more quickly if we could see hundreds of thousands of tombstones, military and civilian, spreading hill after hill, field after field, across our landscape?
I found myself thinking about this recently while visiting the narrow strip of northern France and Belgium that has the densest concentration of young men’s graves in the world. This is the old Western Front of the First World War. Today, it is the final resting place for several million soldiers. Nearly half their bodies, blown into unrecognizable fragments by some 700 million artillery and mortar shells fired here between 1914 and 1918, lie in unmarked graves; the remainder are in hundreds upon hundreds of military cemeteries, still carefully groomed and weeded, the orderly rows of headstones or crosses covering hillsides and meadows.
Stand on a hilltop in one of the sites of greatest slaughter—Ypres, the Somme, Verdun—and you can see up to half-a-dozen cemeteries, large and small, surrounding you. In just one, Tyn Cot in Belgium, there are nearly 12,000 British, Canadian, South African, Australian, New Zealander, and West Indian graves.
Every year, millions of people visit the Western Front’s cemeteries and memorials, leaving behind flowers and photographs of long-dead relatives. The plaques and monuments are often subdued and remarkably unmartial. At least two of those memorials celebrate soldiers from both sides who emerged from the trenches and, without the permission of their top commanders, took part in the famous informal Christmas Truce of 1914, marked by soccer games in no-man’s-land.
In a curious way, the death toll of that war almost a century gone, in which more than 100,000 Americans died, has become so much more visible than the deaths in our wars today. Is that why the First World War is almost always seen, unlike our present wars, not just as tragic, but as a murderous folly that swept away part of a generation and in every way remade the world for the worse?
To Paris—or Baghdad
For the last half-dozen years, I’ve been mentally living in that 1914-1918 world, writing a book about the war that killed some 20 million people, military and civilian, and left large parts of Europe in smoldering ruins. 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 reconstructed trenches and an underground tunnel which protected Canadian troops moving their ammunition to the front line.
In government archives, I’ve looked at laconic reports by officers who survived battles in which most of their troops died; I’ve listened to recordings of veterans and 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 with their commanding officer (as he had predicted they would be) 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.”
The eerie thing about studying the First World War is the way you can’t help but be reminded of today’s headlines. Consider, for example, how it 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 at Sarajevo in the summer of 1914, those 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. Although the war quickly drew in many other countries, its first shots were fired by Austro-Hungarian gunboats on the Danube shelling Serbia.
The more I learned about the war’s opening, the more I thought about the US 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 September 11, 2001, gave them the excuse they had been waiting for—even though there was no connection whatsoever between the hijackers, mainly Saudis, and Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Other parallels between World War I and today’s wars abound. You can see photographs from 1914 of German soldiers climbing into railway cars with “To Paris” jauntily chalked on their sides, and French soldiers boarding similar cars labeled “To Berlin.”
“You will be home,” Kaiser Wilhelm II confidently told his troops that August, “before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” Doesn’t that bring to mind Bush landing on an aircraft carrier in 2003 to declare, in front of a White House-produced banner reading “Mission Accomplished,” that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended”? A trillion dollars and tens of thousands of lives later, whatever mission there may have been remains anything but accomplished. Similarly, in Afghanistan, where Washington expected (and thought it had achieved) the most rapid and decisive of victories, the US military remains mired in one of the longest wars in American history.
The Flowery Words of War
As the First World War made painfully clear, when politicians and generals lead nations into war, they almost invariably assume swift victory, and have a remarkably enduring tendency not to foresee problems that, in hindsight, seem obvious. In 1914, for instance, no country planned for the other side’s machine guns, a weapon which Europe’s colonial powers had used for decades mainly as a tool for suppressing uppity natives.
Both sides sent huge forces of cavalry to the Western Front—the Germans eight divisions with 40,000 horses. But the machine gun and barbed wire were destined to end the days of glorious cavalry charges forever. As for plans like the famous German one to defeat the French in exactly 42 days, they were full of holes. Internal combustion engines were in their infancy, and 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 horse and wagon. For those horses, not to mention all the useless cavalry chargers, the French countryside simply could not supply enough feed. Eating unripe green corn, they sickened and died by the tens of thousands, slowing the advance yet more.
Similarly, Bush and his top officials were so sure of success and of Iraqis welcoming their “liberation” that they gave remarkably little thought to what they should do once in Baghdad. They took over a country with an enormous army, which they promptly and thoughtlessly dissolved with disastrous results. 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 foreign invaders who didn’t go home even more.
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, where they rapidly proved to be quite brutal occupiers. Wasn’t that worth resisting? Yet by the time the Germans were finally forced to surrender and withdraw four and a half years later, half of all French men aged 20 to 32 in 1914 had been killed. There were similarly horrific casualties among the other combatant nations. The war also left 21 million wounded, many of them missing hands, arms, legs, eyes, genitals.
Was it worth it? Of course not. Germany’s near-starvation during the war, its 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 ten 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. As for unplanned consequences, it’s now a commonplace even for figures high in our country’s establishment to point out that the Afghan and Iraq wars have created a new generation of jihadists.
If you need a final resemblance between the First World War and ours of the present moment, consider the soaring rhetoric. The cataclysm of 1914-1918 is sometimes called the first modern war which, among other things, meant that gone forever was the era when “manifest destiny” or “the white man’s burden” would be satisfactory justifications for going into battle. In an age of conscription and increasing democracy, war could only be waged—officially—for higher, less self-interested motives.
As a result, once the conflict broke out, lofty ideals filled the air: a “holy war of civilization against barbarity,” as one leading French newspaper put it; a war to stop Russia from crushing “the culture of all of Western Europe,” claimed a German paper; a war to resist “the Germanic yoke,” insisted a manifesto by Russian writers, including leftists. Kaiser Wilhelm II avowed that he was fighting for “Right, Freedom, Honor, Morality” (and in those days, they were capitalized) and against a British victory which would enthrone “the worship of gold.” For English Prime Minster Herbert Asquith, Britain was fighting not for “the advancement of its own interests, but for principles whose maintenance is vital to the civilized world.” And so it went.
So it still goes. Today’s high-flown war rhetoric naturally cites only the most noble of goals: stopping terrorists for humanity’s sake, finding weapons of mass destruction (remember them?), spreading a “democracy agenda,” protecting women from the Taliban. But beneath the flowery words, national self-interest is as powerful as it was almost a hundred years ago.
From 1914 to 1918, nowhere was this more naked than in competition for protectorates and colonies. In Africa, for instance, Germany dreamed of establishing Mittelafrika, a grand, unbroken belt of territory stretching across the continent. And the British cabinet set up the Territorial Desiderata Committee, charged with choosing the most lucrative of the other side’s possessions to acquire in the postwar division of spoils. Near the top of the list of desiderata: the oil-rich provinces of Ottoman Turkey that, after the war, would be fatefully cobbled together into the British protectorate of Iraq.
When it comes to that territory, does anyone think that Washington would have gotten quite so righteously worked up in 2003 if, instead of massive amounts of oil, its 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 cemeteries of 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 the San Francisco-based author of seven books, including King Leopold’s Ghost. His new book To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), has just been published. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Hochschild discusses the folly of war, his latest book, and why no one attends to the lessons of history, click here, or download it to your iPod here.