The Great War shaped today's broken world


National Post, 9 November 2018

We have been relearning painfully ever since that technological mastery enables us to do more, both for good and for evil

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month is our moment to remember. The “war to end all wars” was the beginning of the world that we live in today.

Nov. 11th, 1918, was the end of the folly and futility, the sheer bloody brutality of the Great War into which Europe had fallen and from which it could not get up. Even after the armistice was signed early that morning, but before it came into effect six hours later, the pointless fighting continued, literally until the last minute. The last American was killed in battle at the 10th hour and 59th minute of the 11th day of the 11th month in the year of our Lord 1918.

The Great War gave us border controls and passports, income taxes and women in the industrial labour force, daylight savings time and blood transfusions.

It also accustomed us to governments apparently unconstrained by the moral order or common sense, which could prosecute war on a hitherto unimaginable scale for no purpose remotely proportionate to the bloodletting. That lesson was learned well, and the rise of the totalitarians — communists first and fascists soon after — would make the rest of the 20th century subject to even more far-reaching war, both hot and cold.

A century after the Great War’s end, why it was fought remains perplexing. Why, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asked, did Europe, “bursting with health and abundance (fall into) a rage of self-mutilation that could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever?’ ”

Why indeed? And more to the point, once it began, why could it not be stopped? Consider Winston Churchill on the depredations of this new total war:

“All the horrors of all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the middle of them. Neither peoples nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them to win. … Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific Christian states had been able to deny themselves; and they were of doubtful utility.”

The obvious answer is that “civilized, scientific and Christian” Europe was rather less civilized, scientific and Christian than it boasted it was. Nineteenth-century Europe prided itself on a march of progress in which technological advance — locomotives and telegraphs and factories — was producing societies that could do more of everything good. The Great War confirmed what we have been relearning painfully ever since, that technological mastery enables us to do more, both for good and for evil.

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