The Great War is still an embarrassing stain on the Modern West

For discussion of issues relating to that great war
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Val
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Post by Val » Tue Mar 31, 2015 11:41 am

I have a question for the OP.

Is it an "embarassment" because of the fact that it got started or the fact that it turned into such a clusterfuck?

In other words, if it had the intensity of a week-long border skirmish, would it still have been an "embarassment"?

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Post by cape_royds » Wed Apr 01, 2015 9:02 am

Hermit wrote:Mindful of the title of this thread, "The Great War is still an embarrassing stain on the Modern West ", an assertion you have pretty much described as "very vague" in post #14 and that you cannot support it by "showing that a statistically significant sample of self-identified Occidentals exhibit signs of embarrassment when exposed to topics relating to the Great War" in post #20, I am not sure what we are supposed to be discussing at this stage.
Discussion of a massive system of events such as the Great War, and how it might relate to such things as "classes" or "civilzations," is inevitably going to be vague. Many of the arguments employed in such a discussion will not be Popper-pleasers. Someone could burst in on this thread at any time, and accuse us all of coprophilia. You could say that a certain intellectual shamelessness is demanded of those who engage in macro-historical theorizing.

My original intent was to probe the lack of interest in the events of the year 1915, which I have found surprising, since the centennial of major events often raises fresh discussion of them. To use a dated metaphor, the OP on this thread was the "B Side of the single." But it has gotten ten times the airplay.

Over here at SC, we have a dedicated WWI subforum that is moribund. DMB's sticky from last year, upon the subforum's launch, can be regarded as a sort of hypothesis. It was reasonable of DMB to anticipate a high level of interest. However, that interest so far fails to materialize. I think that's not just true on this db, but also in the world-at-large.

I didn't think my OP was all that controversial. No one here has questioned that not only the politicians and the generals in the modern Western world, but also the priests, artists, scientists, journalists, union leaders, etc., all mostly supported the war, even long after its prevailing logic had devolved to the Sunk Costs Fallacy.

Nor was my OP original. It occurred to me yesterday that my argument is maybe a bit reminiscent of David Halberstam's book about the USA in Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest. That book shows how a very popular government, led by that society's cutting-edge thinkers, in a period of that society's dazzling success, could nevertheless contrive a bloody and humiliating disaster, in no small part because of what they were.
Hermit wrote:While flattery and so forth do play into it, I think more negative sentiments, such as fear, resentment and anger figure rather more prominently.
Consider the power of flattery such as the words Thucydides ascribed to Pericles' "Funeral Oration" (putting aside Thucydides' deliberate irony in the phrase, "our city is an education to Greece"). I would say the more serious the conflict, the larger a factor the society's self-flattered self-identity becomes. Looking at the rhetoric employed in the Western world 1914-18, you find latter-day Pericles all over the place.

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Post by cape_royds » Wed Apr 01, 2015 9:37 am

[quote=""R. Soul""]I have a question for the OP.

Is it an "embarassment" because of the fact that it got started or the fact that it turned into such a clusterfuck?

In other words, if it had the intensity of a week-long border skirmish, would it still have been an "embarassment"?[/quote]

What a good question. We can't test a counterfactual, such as one in which Moltke's narrow enveloping manoevre successfully annihilated Joffre's army--i.e. a war with the same origins, but with a rapid and one-sided outcome. Didn't Niall Ferguson argue that things would have been better that way?

Nor can we test the huge counterfactual, in which the Great War simply never took place. I am not aware that anyone ever attempted that alternate history, even though it should be one with enormous appeal for Occidentals.


For my part I would have to say that the, "fact that it turned into such a clusterfuck," is the real embarrassment. The War could not have "clustered" that badly without everyone throughout the modern Western states playing their part. The war not only endured, but spread and intensified. Even the governments that fell in revolutions late in the War did not lose their authority until malnutrition was rife. That's some serious social mobilization and will-to-war.

Hidebound militarists and reactionary aristocrats could not achieve that sort of mobilization by themselves. The worsening war enjoyed the willing service of people from all walks of Western society. A generation of college students fell as officers. German professors composed earnest petitions pleading for more war. Even in free-trading individualist Britain, wealthy rentiers tamely surrendered their foreign-denominated bonds to the government. And the Americans illustrate the thing as well as anyone: even though they had a front-seat view for three years of what was going on, they jumped into the thing with as much gusto as anyone had in 1914.

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Post by Val » Wed Apr 01, 2015 10:19 am

But then it's no embarassment because the tactical conduct of the war and the horrible casualty rates was a result of technological factors first and foremost.

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Post by lpetrich » Wed Apr 01, 2015 11:46 pm

[quote=""cape_royds""]And the Americans illustrate the thing as well as anyone: even though they had a front-seat view for three years of what was going on, they jumped into the thing with as much gusto as anyone had in 1914.[/quote]
Yes, going from being "too proud to fight" to wanting to make the world "safe for democracy".

Wilson's "Too Proud to Fight" Speech - The Lusitania Resource
Making the World "Safe for Democracy": Woodrow Wilson Asks for War

All you people, what do those speeches seem like to you?

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Post by Jobar » Thu Apr 02, 2015 1:38 pm

I would say that WWI, indeed any war, is far more than just an "embarrassing stain on the West"; it is a flaming and horrible indictment of man's willing and aggressive inhumanity to man, that makes all our claims of civilization and enlightenment into nothing but a sick and awful joke.

But if we are to have any hope of removing that stain, we have to look at the horror of it with open eyes and minds, and try to learn what lessons we can from it. And not just the direct military lessons, like 'infantry charges against massed artillery and machine guns are very bad tactics.' We have to recognize the socioeconomic and psychological lessons, and learn how not to repeat the same sort of errors (both as individuals and as societies) which led us to such destruction.

Does anyone think that maybe, just maybe, we have done at least some of that? At least we've gone a lifetime (though not a long one) in the shadow of weapons even more terrible than what were used in 1914, and not used them. If we as a species can continue so to do, then perhaps we did learn the lessons taught in the hard school of the two world wars; only time will tell. But if we have indeed learned, then maybe we ought not to be so ashamed.

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Post by Val » Thu Apr 02, 2015 1:50 pm

Nah, I don't think so tbh.

The fact that nukes haven't been used is more a reflection of the knowledge that using them is like using them on yourself.

Eta, what HAS changed is the fact that governments can't hide their acts from the public anymore nor ignore the protests against those acts.

At least, in theory, but by and large in the developed world it is indeed the case.

ETA2 so that implies that it isn't that we've learned stuff, but that monarchy and imperialism has mostly been supplanted by government by the people, as ineffectual as that can seem sometimes.

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Post by cape_royds » Fri Apr 03, 2015 12:57 am

[quote=""R. Soul""]But then it's no embarassment because the tactical conduct of the war and the horrible casualty rates was a result of technological factors first and foremost.[/quote]

The overall tactical situation (i.e. defensive advantage) was understood reasonably well within a year of the war's outbreak, by many of the military and political leaders on both sides.

But what was the strategic, political, economic, and social response to that tactical situation? It can be summarized in one word: more.

Was that response foreordained by the technology? If it was not foreordained, then the "clusteration" of the war is embarrassing to those concerned.

But if it was indeed foreordained, than that would mean that the technologies were so inextricably interwoven with all other aspects of the greater civilization, that the "clusteration" of the war is hardly less telling.

As the war went on, the driving forces did not come from the outdated backward monarchies. The driving forces came more and more from the most advanced and most liberal states--the states which best exemplified what the modern West is all about.

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Post by Pierrot » Fri Apr 03, 2015 11:38 pm

I agree, the insanity was from 1915 onwards, when it was obvious that it had all bogged down in a bloody stalemate.

A few prescient theorists apart, it was expected in 1914 that any war would be over swiftly - which is what happened in the other wars involving major powers since the Crimea, Russia v Turkey (1877-78), France v Prussia (1870-71), Germany v Austria (1866) and France and Piedmont v Austria (1859). Europe had not known total war for a century. In fact a better precedent would have been the trenches in front of Richmond VA in 1864-5, but who in Europe would have noticed that (William Tecumseh Sherman was an observer with the Prussians in 1870, and was unimpressed).

As for 1918, Foch called it right at the time - not peace, but a twenty year truce.

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Post by MattShizzle » Wed Jun 01, 2016 2:48 am

<This post and the next one moved from this thread. -- DMB>

I've been interested in WWI since I was a pre-teen, which is very unusual in the US. It was such a tragic war as in there were ways it could have been avoided, or a least delayed and so many ways it could have ended earlier. It was probably the worst war ever for the infantrymen involved. And of course it lead to bad results afterwards - mainly the much more destructive WWII, the creation of the USSR and after WWII the nearly 50 year long cold war and the wars related to it (Afghanistan, Korea, Vietnam, South/Central America, S Africa in Namibia, modern mideast, Yugoslavia in the 1990s, etc.) If it hadn't been for the alliances maybe it would have been a short war of Germany and Austria-Hungary vs the Balkans. Maybe even Russia but without the French involved which lead to the UK involved it still would have been one sided. Of course the likelihood of a World War was almost inevitable. Still, had it been shorter and/or the allies not so demanding their pound of flesh maybe Hitler would have never come to power, maybe the Russian Empire could have survived and reformed, maybe the Ottoman Empire could have still existed and there wouldn't be an Israel and hate for the West from the Mideast, etc. There are so many problems to this day that come from 100 years ago in the First World War. Hell, maybe had the aftermath been handled better it would still be "The Great War" as there wouldn't have been a 2nd World War. We certainly need to do whatever we can to ensure there is never a 3rd, as it could wipe out civilization if not humanity, if not life on Earth.
Last edited by DMB on Wed Jun 01, 2016 12:45 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Post by late » Wed Jun 01, 2016 12:37 pm

[quote=""MattShizzle""]

I've been interested in WWI since I was a pre-teen, which is very unusual in the US. It was such a tragic war as in there were ways it could have been avoided, or a least delayed and so many ways it could have ended earlier. It was probably the worst war ever for the infantrymen involved. And of course it lead to bad results afterwards - mainly the much more destructive WWII, the creation of the USSR and after WWII the nearly 50 year long cold war and the wars related to it (Afghanistan, Korea, Vietnam, South/Central America, S Africa in Namibia, modern mideast, Yugoslavia in the 1990s, etc.) If it hadn't been for the alliances maybe it would have been a short war of Germany and Austria-Hungary vs the Balkans. Maybe even Russia but without the French involved which lead to the UK involved it still would have been one sided. Of course the likelihood of a World War was almost inevitable. Still, had it been shorter and/or the allies not so demanding their pound of flesh maybe Hitler would have never come to power, maybe the Russian Empire could have survived and reformed, maybe the Ottoman Empire could have still existed and there wouldn't be an Israel and hate for the West from the Mideast, etc. There are so many problems to this day that come from 100 years ago in the First World War. Hell, maybe had the aftermath been handled better it would still be "The Great War" as there wouldn't have been a 2nd World War. We certainly need to do whatever we can to ensure there is never a 3rd, as it could wipe out civilization if not humanity, if not life on Earth.

[/quote]

It may be unusual now, but as late as the 60s, when I was a teen, it was common. One of the best BBC shows I ever saw was Testament of Youth, from a book by (I think) Britten. That was the 70s.

The war was inevitable.

You had a handful of empires, all under stress, and all afraid of losing. Things were changing, but they could only understand with the tools they had. Which had them trying to protect themselves by locking themselves into alliances. While their underlying weakness was economic.

Empires fall, it's inevitable. If they had managed to dodge that bullet, their fate was still sealed.

Human brains have limits. Creating a political organisation that would preclude a 3rd world war is beyond our ability.

But.... when the technology makes a new level of organisation possible, it tends to happen. What seems to be happening is a handful of superrich slowly taking over the world.

But how they will interact is anybody's guess.

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