Wednesday, November 09, 2005

On War

This coming November 11th we will remember the dead of the two world wars of the twentieth century. Stern-faced men will place wreaths of flowers at shrines throughout Europe and North America, and will declare that wars like those of 1914-18 and 1939-45, must never happen again. Then we'll forget all about it until November 11th comes around again.

November 11th is that day in 1918 when Germany - on its last legs - decided it was best to sign the armistice – unconditional surrender, really - offered by Britain, France, and the US. Thus we associate November 11th more with World War 1 (The Great War) than with any other war. But The Great War has, in our collective memory, largely disappeared into the mists of time, being shoved there prematurely by the subsequent horrific wars that have displaced it. However, The Great War was arguably the most sanguinary of wars, at least from the viewpoint of the soldiers who were slaughtered in their many millions in the trenches of the Western Front.

The Great War doesn’t figure much in the American imagination because the US, only entering the war in 1917, was a minor player, compared to Germany, France and Britain. However the US’s intervention was the straw that broke the back of the Germans. Absent the US, the war would probably have ended in stalemate. Both sides were losing too many men to go on much longer, and would have found a face saving pretext to stop fighting. Because Germany would have escaped defeat, Hitler wouldn’t have happened, and so subsequent history would have been much different. However, a Hitlerless world may be an actuality in another otherwise identical world out there somewhere – assuming an infinite universe.

In the matter of the ending of World War 1 it isn’t generally known that there was an agreed-upon elapsed time of six hours between the signing of the armistice agreement to end the fighting, and the time the guns were to stop firing. Despite the allied generals knowing they had won the war six hours before it was due to end, they kept ordering their men out of their fortified trenches to storm the German positions, simply to win some extra ground that might bring the generals last minute glory. The result was that in the last six hours of the war, 10,000 men were killed who needn’t have been. Who said that truth is stranger than fiction?

But has anything changed? Think about the two thousand American soldiers who have died so far in Iraq in a war cooked-up by George Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and others, so they could pose as heroic warriors, the better to banish to a corner of their minds that they, none of them, had not only never fought in a war, but had found ingenious ways, when young, to avoid the draft at the time of Vietnam. It’s not for nothing that the only person in the Bush inner circle who urged caution about going into Iraq was Colin Powell, a general who had actually fought in a war – in Vietnam.

When we consider the major wars of history, we think the side that won, did so, because its soldiers were braver, or its generals were smarter, or its peoples more resilient, than those of the side that lost. However, Paul Kennedy, in his book, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” found that in all the major wars over the last 500 years, the victors had bigger economies and greater industrial productive capacities than those of the vanquished. Therefore, because of these non-military factors, it could have been predicted that for instance, in the American Civil War, the north would prevail, and that in both the world wars of the twentieth century, the allied powers would win. It follows that had the Soviet Union gone to war with the US, the Soviets, having the smaller economy and industrial capacity, would certainly have lost.

Think of all the hundreds of millions of people around the word who were killed and maimed, or whose lives were otherwise destroyed, who needn’t have been, if only their leaders had known that the outcomes of the wars they were planning were fore-ordained because of the decisive non-military factors that Paul Kennedy later discovered.

Do I hear the sounds of sobbing?