We are today in the shadow of the World War I centennial. This commemoration should be an occasion for sober reflection, for 1914 unleashed a force that threatens our very survival.
World War I can best be understood as part of a Thirty Years War that ended in 1945. The Russian Revolution and Civil War, which the First World War precipitated, continued until 1922. At best, there were nine years of peace, followed by Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in 1931. Then came a cascade of events leading to the Second World War, the most important being the 1936-9 Spanish Civil War and Japan’s 1937 invasion of China proper. In World War I, France was the focal point of destruction. The conflict broke out in early August 1914, and by November there was a line of trenches stretching across France from the North Sea to the Swiss border. The stage was set for four years of trench warfare, described in Leon Wolff’s book In Flanders Fields:
As the British walked forward the classic drama of the Western Front was again enacted … German machine gunners began to play upon the advancing waves of men … some seemed to pause and bow their heads; they sank carefully to their knees … Others yelled when they were hit, and grabbed frantically at limbs or torso, and rolled and tumbled. In their fear of drowning beneath the slime they tried to grip the legs of their comrades, who struggled to break free.
A friend of mine was vacationing in Europe one summer. He rented a car and began driving through the French countryside. He came over a hill and was puzzled by the sight of snow-covered fields. He blinked his eyes: what he had taken for snow was row after row, acre after acre of white tombstones. He had stumbled upon one of the Verdun battlefield cemeteries, mute testimony to a horrific confrontation between Frenchmen and Germans.
An opportunity for a negotiated peace arose in November-December 1916. Woodrow Wilson had just been re-elected president and was perceived by many, both here and abroad, as a man of peace. He was partial toward Britain; nevertheless, he saw that both sides were looking for a way out. An early end to the war might have prevented the Russian Revolution, for which war weariness was a primary cause. But Wilson chose instead to lead his country into Europe’s conflagration. Herbert Butterfield must have been thinking of Wilson when he wrote these words in Christianity and History:
The more human beings are lacking in imagination, the more incapable men are of any profound kind of self-analysis, the more we shall find that their self-righteousness hardens, so that it is just the thick-skinned who are more sure of being right than anybody else. And though conflict might still be inevitable in history even if this particular evil (of self-righteousness) did not exist, there can be no doubt that its presence multiplies the deadlocks and gravely deepens all the tragedies of all the centuries. At its worst it brings us to that mythical messianism—that messianic hoax—of the twentieth century which comes perilously near to the thesis: ‘Just one little war more against the last remaining enemies of righteousness, and then the world will be cleansed, and we can start building Paradise.’
In mid-1917, sections of the French army, sickened by the slaughter, mutinied. After the October Revolution, Russia withdrew from the war, freeing Germany from a two-front war. These two things made the battles of 1918 a desperate climax to the whole war. American men, equipment, and aid now proved decisive. An armistice was signed November 11, 1918.
Two things in particular embittered Germany and helped pave the path to World War II. During the seven month armistice the British navy maintained its blockade. And the notorious war guilt clause of the June 1919 Versailles Treaty ignored the complex origins of the war.
A few things need to be said about China’s 1937-45 war with Japan. Chinese civilian and military casualties were heavy. So ferocious was the onslaught that many Chinese became convinced that Japan intended to destroy China as a nation, and they may have been right. At the very least, the intent was to make her a Japanese protectorate. The struggle turned into a grinding land war that sapped much of Japan’s strength and denied her a decisive victory. Modern Chinese nationalism was forged in the furnace of this war.
In World War II, Poland and Russia were the focal points of destruction. The war broke out in September 1939 when Germany invaded the western half of Poland. Later that month Russia did the same to the eastern half. During the next six years, Poland was trapped in the back-and-forth movement of German and Russian armies.
On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded Russia, possibly the biggest military undertaking in history. During the next four months one Russian army after another was surrounded and either routed or destroyed. Many of the survivors were captured and sent to POW camps, where most of them died of disease, starvation, and exposure. Leningrad was blockaded, leading to famine and death. In early December 1941, the German forces were finally stopped near Moscow. The most dangerous period had been October 10 to 20, when the road to Moscow lay open.
The entire Jewish heartland was now in German hands, and the Final Solution could be implemented.
The same month Moscow was saved, the Pearl Harbor attack brought the U.S. into a Pacific war with Japan. More importantly, it brought the U.S. completely into the European war.
In August 1942, the German 6th Army reached the outskirts of Stalingrad, which became a Verdun on the Volga. During the next six months the city was completely destroyed, much of it by bombing. Germans and Russians killed each other in house-to-house combat and the ruins of factory buildings. This time it was Germans who were captured and then sent off to die in POW camps.
The turning point in World War II came in July 1943 at Kursk, site of a huge tank-infantry-air battle. Kursk was clearly a German defeat, although historians disagree about its extent. Now began the relentless Russian march toward Berlin, which would end in May 1945.
During the war Russia received substantial aid from America and Britain. But the simple truth is that a nation ruled by a brutal communist dictatorship played a decisive role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, at a fearful cost in human life: 27 million Russian soldiers and civilians. (The authoritative general history is now Thunder in the East by Evan Mawdsley.)
The 20th century’s Thirty Years War involved huge civilian and military casualties, destruction of cities, towns, villages, and infrastructure. Unrestricted bombing of civilians was practiced by both sides in Europe from 1942 to 1945, and by Japan in China from 1937 to 1945. In 1945, 60 Japanese cities were destroyed by U.S. bombers.
History is filled with irony, as this Thirty Years War dramatically illustrates. All the decisive battles were waged on the European continent, yet the truly apocalyptic event occurred thousands of miles away, in Japan. Hiroshima, August 6, 1945, is the Black Day in world history, the culmination of 30 years of escalating violence.
This is a subject tailor-made for Augustinian Christianity, with its belief in the ubiquity of moral evil, which seeps through into every aspect and domain of our existence. One of these domains is modern science, in particular nuclear physics.
Consider two examples of the nuclear weapons world bequeathed to us by the Thirty Years War. On January 23, 1961, a B-52 bomber began falling apart over North Carolina. As it began a death spiral it ejected a hydrogen bomb many times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Had it exploded, the fallout would have blanketed the eastern seaboard. This and other such stories are told in a new book, Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser.
In the fall of 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the Presbytery of North Central Iowa was addressed by three missionaries from the Waldensian Church of northern Italy. They spoke of the compassion that people all over the world felt for America in this time of national grief. They shared their own nation’s experience with terrorism, which is considerable. They urged us to follow their example, to treat the attacks as a criminal-justice problem, not as a cause for war.
We all know what happened: America went to war in Afghanistan.
In his seminal book A History of Warfare John Keegan comes to grips with Clausewitz, the German military thinker who in On War famously said that war is a continuation of politics by other means—an argument that Keegan repudiates.
We can apply Keegan’s insight to one of the most dangerous confrontations in the world. India and Pakistan made up British India before its disorderly breakup in 1947. Since then they have fought three wars with each other. Both nations are deeply involved in Afghanistan. Our Afghan War has intensified the already bad feelings between these two nuclear-armed nations, increasing the possibility of a fourth war between them.
Clausewitz was wrong: war is not a continuation of politics by other means. War has a life of its own, and once the shooting starts, all bets are off.
Wesley R. Harker writes from Cedar Falls, Iowa.