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Where Have All the Graveyards Gone?

The war that didn’t end war and its unending successors.

| Tue May 3, 2011 2:27 PM EDT

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.

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