Commentary Magazine


Topic: World War I

In Flanders Fields the Poppies Blow …

An extraordinary sight is building in the drained moat that surrounds the Tower of London, a sea of ceramic poppies as a memorial to those who fought and died for Britain in World War I. The war began a hundred years ago this week and lasted for four long, agonizing years, until Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. By that time, no fewer than 888,246 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines had given their lives for king and country. A whole generation of young men had been wiped out. By Armistice Day this year, there will be a poppy for each and every one of them, filling the sixteen acres of the moat.

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An extraordinary sight is building in the drained moat that surrounds the Tower of London, a sea of ceramic poppies as a memorial to those who fought and died for Britain in World War I. The war began a hundred years ago this week and lasted for four long, agonizing years, until Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. By that time, no fewer than 888,246 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines had given their lives for king and country. A whole generation of young men had been wiped out. By Armistice Day this year, there will be a poppy for each and every one of them, filling the sixteen acres of the moat.

The poppy became the symbol of the war dead thanks to Colonel John McCrae’s magnificent poem, “In Flanders Fields,” perhaps the most famous work of literature ever written by a Canadian. McCrae, a doctor, was worn out by overwork in the hospitals that treated the wounded. In January, 1918, he contracted pneumonia and died. He, too, lies today in Flanders fields.

Although the war started a century ago, we still live deep in its shadow, for it was, in George Kennan’s phrase, “the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century.” For the 75th anniversary of this country’s entrance into that war, I wrote an article for American Heritage magazine about the consequences of that war for Western civilization. Although written 22 years ago, I think it holds up well and I commend it to your attention.

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The Great War at 100

The 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, has come and gone, prompting a lot of reflections on the significance and implications of World War I. Even if Gavrilo Princip’s shots were only the excuse, not the real cause, of the Great War, it is hard to exaggerate their significance.

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The 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, has come and gone, prompting a lot of reflections on the significance and implications of World War I. Even if Gavrilo Princip’s shots were only the excuse, not the real cause, of the Great War, it is hard to exaggerate their significance.

The conflict swept away the entire Ottoman and Habsburg empires along with the governments of Germany, Austria, Turkey, Russia, and other states. It led to the creation of the modern Balkans and the modern Middle East. Nazism, fascism, and Communism–all the great ideological ills of the 20th century–would never have become as virulent as they did absent the devastation wrought by the 1914-1918 conflict. There would have been no Stalin in power, no Hitler, and there would have been no World War II–and hence no Korean War or Vietnam War. It is impossible to imagine how history would have gone otherwise but it would have been incomparably different–and probably for the better.

Even now, with those terrible “isms” having all but disappeared (mercifully!) and with some of the post-World War I states either gone (Yugoslavia) or on the verge of extinction (Syria, Iraq), the legacy of the war lives on. It can be seen not just in the long, depressing rows of crosses to be found in military cemeteries from the Somme to Verdun, nor in the statues of Franz Ferdinand and Gavrilo Pricip now to be found in Sarajevo. It can be found, still, in the map of Europe and the Middle East which, for all of the recent turmoil, largely reflects the legacy of World War I. And it can be found in the way that warfare is waged, running the spectrum from terrorism (of the kind perpetrated by Princip and his comrades in the Black Hand) to the use of tanks and airplanes and fast-moving mechanized infantry maneuvered by radio–all technologies introduced during the First World War.

How did this cataclysm come about? The most popular interpretation, advanced by the most popular account of the war’s origins (The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman) claims it was an accident that no one wanted. That outlook, while still held by some, has been convincingly refuted by a host of historians including many influential German scholars who refused to accept a whitewash of their country’s responsibility for starting the First World War as well as the Second. The excellent British historian Max Hastings marshaled much of the evidence in his recent book “Catastrophe 1914″ (which I reviewed here).

He writes: “The case still seems overwhelmingly strong that Germany bore principal blame. Even if it did not conspire to bring war about, it declined to exercise its power to prevent the outbreak by restraining Austria. Even if Berlin did not seek to contrive a general European conflagration, it was willing for one, because it believed that it could win.”

There is an important implication to this conclusion: namely that wars are not generally the result of “arms races” or “misunderstandings” that can be prevented with international mediation. Rather they are usually the result of deliberate policies by capricious regimes which may not want to fight but are willing to risk conflict in order to achieve their power-hungry aims. It stands to reason that the best bet for preventing future conflict is not in sponsoring more diplomatic negotiations but rather in the forces of freedom keeping their powder dry.

That is something that Great Britain, the guardian of international order in the pre-1914 world, singularly failed to do: London was willing to maintain the greatest fleet in the world but its army was so small that it was not reckoned to be a serious factor in continental calculations and its willingness to stand up to German aggression was in doubt. This hesitancy and unpreparedness on the part of London gave Imperial Germany the opening it was seeking to launch a preemptive campaign of conquest against both France and Russia–something that even the German General Staff, arrogant as they were, might not have dared had they been certain of massive and timely British intervention.

Alas, today, the enemies of freedom, from Moscow to Tehran to Pyongyang, can no longer be certain in the readiness and resolve of the greatest champion of freedom in today’s world–the United States. Our president has allowed red lines to be crossed with impunity and our defense capabilities are deteriorating because of mindless budget cuts. That is a dangerous situation. We are unlikely, thank goodness, to see another conflict on the scale of World War I, but we are courting lesser conflicts that can still prove deadly and dangerous–like the wars now engulfing Iraq and Syria, those progeny of World War I.

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The Debate We Should Be Having About Rand Paul and Sanctions

Rand Paul was put on the defensive this week over criticism stemming from comments he made last year, posted on Jennifer Rubin’s Washington Post blog, on Iran sanctions: “There are times when sanctions have made it worse. There are times–leading up to World War II, we cut off trade with Japan. That probably caused Japan to react angrily. We also had a blockade on Germany after World War I, which may have encouraged some of their anger.”

As with a great many conversations involving Hitler, the debate went off course almost immediately in ways that were unfair to Paul. The senator’s senior advisor told the Post in response: “World War II was a necessary war, a just war, a fully declared war, and an entirely victorious war; the megalomaniac Hitler was to blame for the war and the Holocaust.” So some of the sympathy for Paul is warranted: his recorded statements didn’t suggest that the United States was at fault for Hitler’s rise and the subsequent consequences.

“There’s a debate to be had on foreign policy,” David Harsanyi argues, reasonably. “This isn’t it.” Harsanyi goes on to make the following point:

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Rand Paul was put on the defensive this week over criticism stemming from comments he made last year, posted on Jennifer Rubin’s Washington Post blog, on Iran sanctions: “There are times when sanctions have made it worse. There are times–leading up to World War II, we cut off trade with Japan. That probably caused Japan to react angrily. We also had a blockade on Germany after World War I, which may have encouraged some of their anger.”

As with a great many conversations involving Hitler, the debate went off course almost immediately in ways that were unfair to Paul. The senator’s senior advisor told the Post in response: “World War II was a necessary war, a just war, a fully declared war, and an entirely victorious war; the megalomaniac Hitler was to blame for the war and the Holocaust.” So some of the sympathy for Paul is warranted: his recorded statements didn’t suggest that the United States was at fault for Hitler’s rise and the subsequent consequences.

“There’s a debate to be had on foreign policy,” David Harsanyi argues, reasonably. “This isn’t it.” Harsanyi goes on to make the following point:

What Paul never contends is that Hitler’s ideology hinged on the idea of opposing Versailles. He was talking about Germany and Germans. In front of me is Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, where the author basically makes the same case and Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, in which she writes that though Versailles’ impact had likely been exaggerated by German governments, it allowed political parties like the Nazis to tap into widespread “anger” and resentment. Sounds like that’s what Rand was saying.

True enough, though it’s worth noting that in Modern Times, Johnson has much more to say about the grievances unleashed by Versailles, and they center on the ethnic strife sparked by transferring Europe to the individual nation-state model from the age of empires–“self-determination,” in Johnson’s writing, which created more restive minority populations because there were more states. Where economic factors played a role, Johnson seems to put emphasis on the fact that more states also meant more poor states, especially in the immediate postwar period, and he notes that Germany was considered to have defaulted on its postwar obligations as well. If any aspect of Versailles encouraged German expansionism, Johnson appears to blame the fact that “under the Treaty it was forbidden to seek union with Germany, which made the Anschluss seem more attractive than it actually was.”

But I think Paul’s defenders here are on less steady ground in dismissing Paul’s comments as they relate to Pearl Harbor. He prefaced his sanctions comments–at least on Pearl Harbor–by saying sometimes sanctions “have made it worse.” Taken individually, sanctions on a nation can be treated this way. But it doesn’t always apply, and it applies perhaps less to Japan than almost any other scenario (Germany, Iraq, Iran, etc.).

As some have said since Paul’s comments, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was a sort of preemptive strike to at least temporarily avert an American response to simultaneous Japanese aggression throughout the region, including on Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. But another important facet of this is that the sanctions weren’t a surprise to Japan, because they were in response to Japanese action. As the historian Ian Toll writes, Japan took action its leaders–reminded by Admiral Yamamoto, who initially wanted to avoid an unwinnable war–knew would precipitate sanctions, and the whole process would bring them toward war:

From his flagship, Nagato, usually anchored in Hiroshima Bay, Yamamoto continued to warn against joining with the Nazis. He reminded his government that Japan imported around four-fifths of its oil and steel from areas controlled by the Allies. To risk conflict, he wrote, was foolhardy, because “there is no chance of winning a war with the United States for some time to come.”

But Japan’s confused and divided government drifted toward war while refusing to face the strategic problems it posed. It signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in Berlin in September 1940. As Yamamoto had predicted, the American government quickly restricted and finally cut off exports of oil and other vital materials. The sanctions brought events to a head, because Japan had no domestic oil production to speak of, and would exhaust its stockpiles in about a year.

Yamamoto realized he had lost the fight to keep Japan out of war, and he fell in line with the planning process.

Yamamoto warned against the process because he wrongly thought his leaders wanted to avoid war, when in fact they provoked it. This doesn’t mean Paul is “blaming” the U.S. for the attack on Pearl Harbor (and by extension, American entry into World War II). But it raises questions about Paul’s selective use of history–and bad history does not usually inform good policy.

I have raised this issue with Paul before. When he made his major foreign-policy address a year ago, he advocated a greater emphasis on containment. But he conflated the Kennanite version of containment with the strategy that ultimately won the Cold War, which was far from the truth. In reality, Kennan’s ideas were central to the Truman administration’s decision to embrace containment, but his version of containment was so different that Kennan adamantly refused to take credit for it.

It is far from clear that a nuclear Iran would be containable the way the Soviet Union was–in fact, it’s unlikely. But Paul’s version of containment would not have even contained the Soviet Union. Paul’s habit of cherry-picking history to create precedents for his own preferred strategy seems to be present with his comments on Japanese sanctions and Pearl Harbor as well. It certainly doesn’t make him a blame-America-firster. But it does suggest unsound strategic judgment.

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Year of the (War) Horse?

Given that this is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, comparisons to pre-conflict Europe in 1914 are abounding. Most have little historical value and less predictive worth. However, when even foreign leaders start to repeat them, then we might start to worry about self-fulfilling prophecies.

The most notable comes from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who used his speech at the World Economic Forum meeting to claim that today, China and Japan resemble Britain and Germany in 1914. Despite their close economic ties, Abe noted, Berlin’s military buildup caused instability leading to war. Other reports out of Davos indicate the Chinese noted the same thing, with a confidence that they could achieve their immediate goal of taking over a group of contested islands located near Taiwan, the Senkakus, that Japan has controlled since 1894 (except for a period of American control from 1945 to 1972). Even Henry Kissinger has got into the act, warning that the two are close to war.

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Given that this is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, comparisons to pre-conflict Europe in 1914 are abounding. Most have little historical value and less predictive worth. However, when even foreign leaders start to repeat them, then we might start to worry about self-fulfilling prophecies.

The most notable comes from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who used his speech at the World Economic Forum meeting to claim that today, China and Japan resemble Britain and Germany in 1914. Despite their close economic ties, Abe noted, Berlin’s military buildup caused instability leading to war. Other reports out of Davos indicate the Chinese noted the same thing, with a confidence that they could achieve their immediate goal of taking over a group of contested islands located near Taiwan, the Senkakus, that Japan has controlled since 1894 (except for a period of American control from 1945 to 1972). Even Henry Kissinger has got into the act, warning that the two are close to war.

Following close on these Davos disturbances were Chinese newspapers noting that this year, the Year of the Horse, is the same zodiacal year in which China and Japan fought their first war. The 1894 Sino-Japanese War broke out over Imperial Japan’s desire to control the Korean peninsula and end Chinese influence there. Of course, Japan defeated China by the following year and upended centuries of East Asian geopolitics.

There are major historical problems with both these analogies. With respect to 1914, Japan is no Britain, which was the de facto defender of the balance of power and open trading system. Instead, Japan has but slowly developed its military potential, while keeping both its capacity limited and being hamstrung by constitutional restrictions on the use of force. The 1914-style clash between reigning hegemon and rising challenger could only be between the United States and China, and there is as yet little reason to believe either is contemplating such a fight.

Further, no matter how much economic interplay there was between Britain and Germany back then, it is nothing like the interdependence of China and Japan, which are each other’s second-largest trading partners, where 10 million Chinese are employed by Japanese firms on the mainland, and where Chinese firms assemble billions of dollars worth of products using Japanese components or designed in Japan. There is no reason to expect that economic ties always trump political/military ones, but the bar has undoubtedly been raised particularly high in the Asian case.

As for 1894, again to use the Lloyd Bentsen analogy, the Senkaku Islands are no Korea. While the Senkakus are strategically useful to China, they are uninhabitable and largely derive their importance from nationalistic feelings that any territory once claimed by a state must be recovered. Korea, by comparison, was the crossroads of Northeast Asia, a fertile land to be controlled and used for further expansion. From that perspective, Korea may indeed have been worth fighting a war over, but no such claim could be made for the Senkakus.

The real danger is not a “guns of August” scenario whereby highly regulated mobilization timetables drag unprepared participants into conflict that spreads to halfhearted alliances. The danger rather falls into two distinct scenarios. The first is that years of war talk by both sides hardens diplomatic positions and inhibits any type of peaceful solution to the problem of a handful of uninhabited islands. Yes, Japan is deeply concerned about China’s seemingly inexorable rise once again to great-power status in Asia. It fears the future and feels its national honor is at stake in the Senkakus issue. As for Beijing, it appears to have adopted a position of pushing as far as it can and waiting to see what the response is; little opposition encourages more probing, while a firm response usually causes it to back down.

The second danger scenario is much more likely: accident or miscalculation leading to conflict. One would think that an accident, say two naval ships colliding, could be contained and prevented from escalating into full war. But here is where years of nationalism, distrust, and ambition could combine into a deadly brew. Neither side may want a real conflict, but each may feel they have drawn their lines too strongly to back down. The Year of the (War) Horse may come to haunt Asia.

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