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War is Stupid: Remembering Armistice Day Before Veterans Day

Veterans Day
Another year, another Veterans Day.  But November 11 began as Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I.  The day remains a stark reminder of the stupidity of war.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 World War I came to an end.  In succeeding years allied states commemorated the conflict’s end on November 11.

Some 20 million people died in World War I.  The horrific conflict brought down the continent’s established order, loosed the pestilence of totalitarianism, and led to even deadlier World War II.  The Great War, as it was originally called, was stupid beyond measure.

As the 20th century dawned, Europe enjoyed both peace and prosperity.  However, the European landscape was covered in combustible materials.  One match strike set the continent ablaze.

That strike came in Sarajevo, capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia.  On June 28, 1914 the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, and his wife.  A month later war began.

Vienna decided to use Belgrade’s act of state terrorism to break its Serbian antagonist. 

Germany stood by what was its closest, and essentially only, ally.  However, Serbia was backed by Russia, which in turn was allied with France.  The contending blocs, the Central Powers versus the Entente, acted as transmission belts of war.

As conflict erupted other combatants jumped or were drawn in, including Belgium, Britain, Bulgaria, Italy, Romania, the Ottoman Empire.  There really was little to choose from between the two militaristic blocs.  Imperial Germany’s flaws were obvious, but it was no authoritarian state.  Austro-Hungary, inefficient and incompetent, nevertheless included significant democratic and liberal elements. In contrast, Serbia’s military intelligence was implicated in the Archduke’s murder.  The anti-Semitic despotism of Tsarist Russia was an embarrassment to any enlightened democrat.  

Historically France was the most dangerous and militaristic of the powers, and revanchist desires for war with Germany remained strong.  Britain’s opposition to Germany reflected commercial and imperial far more than humanitarian concerns.  Belgium was perhaps the worst colonial power, responsible for the deaths of millions in the Belgian Congo.

Truly the Great War was a stupid war.  Unfortunately, the U.S. was no less stupid than the other nations for entering the Great War. 

The early Americans were determined to avoid getting entangled in imperial European affairs.  However, by World War I the so-called Progressives, led by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, had taken charge.  They were statists, imperialists, and militarists—inveterate social engineers on a global scale.  After President Wilson was reelected in 1916, he hoped to remake the international order. 

The trigger for U.S. involvement was a mix of foolish and fraudulent.  London broke international law by imposing a starvation blockade on Germany, ultimately killing hundreds of thousands of German civilians.  Berlin not unreasonably responded with a new weapon, the submarine. 

Some Americans died after traveling on British vessels, which carried both babies and bullets.

The famous Lusitania was an armed reserve cruiser carrying munitions through a war zone—making it a legitimate military target.  

However, under pressure from the allied-sympathetic Wilson, Germany suspended U-boat attacks until February 1917.  After Berlin resumed unrestricted submarine warfare President Wilson chose war.  Some 200,000 Americans died, the victims of a president suffering from a toxic mix of egotism and myopia. 

Alas, contra the hopes of so many, the conflict did not turn out to be the War to End War. 

Washington’s entry allowed imposition of the Versailles Treaty, a “Diktat” highlighted by the allies’ greedy grab for plunder amid sanctimonious claims of justice.  Adolf Hitler was just one of the conflict’s many ill consequences.

Two decades after the Versailles Treaty was signed, Nazi Germany invaded Poland.  World War II was on, and tens of millions more people died. 

Sometimes wars must be fought, and sometimes even the stupidest wars cannot be avoided.  But most of the time they could be.  Like World War I.

To criticize America’s wars is not to doubt the patriotism and bravery of those who fought. Rather, to criticize the conflicts is to highlight the foolishness, arrogance, and ignorance of those who launched new wars or intervened in old ones.  For centuries young men (and now, increasingly, women) have died in old men’s (and now, increasingly, women’s) wars. 

After this Veterans Day Americans should contemplate how often they have allowed politicians to drag the U.S. into unnecessary and costly wars, filling Arlington Cemetery and so many other final resting places, some isolated, unmarked, and forgotten, with America’s finest.  After this Veterans Day Americans should rededicate themselves to peace.

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War is indeed a stupid endeavor! The loss of life, the maiming, the PTSDs, and the inherent immorality is heart-rending. Given the physical, emotional, and monetary catastrophe, apparently the only thing worse than winning a war is losing one, and unfortunately we have lost far too many! Von Clausewitz theorized that war was simply the search for political goals by other means. If so, then, since we failed to accomplish our goals, we "came up short" in the War of 1812, in the Civil War, in WWI, in Korea, in Vietnam, in the Gulf War, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq. We have only accomplished our goals, hence winning, in the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, and WWII. If those three wars were the only ones we ever entered, I suspect we would be a much happier people today.