World War I began 100 years ago. It resulted in approximately 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded. The war demolished the international system existing prior to 1914 and unleashed a phalanx of horrors, many of which are still with us. In the words of military historian John Keegan: "The First World War was an unnecessary and tragic conflict."
This ghastly 1914-18 bloodletting has important lessons for the present. World War I totally contradicted the expectations of the politicians and generals who launched it. Virtually all leaders anticipated a short war in which offensive action was decisive. They got a long, static war completely dominated by machine guns and defensive fortifications. Many soldiers thought they were fighting a war to end all wars. Instead, their own suffering laid the foundations for even more catastrophic conflicts in the future, not to mention genocides and perpetual militarization of the entire globe. The victors in World War I believed that, by punishing the losers severely, they could forestall future aggression. But these punitive victors only managed to foster a burning (and eventually fulfilled) desire for revenge among the losers.
The onset of World War I illustrates the power of war hysteria and the difficulty of opposing militarism in the face of nationalist passions. Thousands of intelligent people who, prior to July 1914, believed that war was irrational and that peace should be permanent were nevertheless swept away by the tidal wave of jingoistic patriotism. Virtually all socialist parties, supposedly dedicated to international workers solidarity, capitulated to xenophobic nationalism and endorsed the war effort.
Despite the grim lessons of World War I, opposing militarism and armed aggression still remains difficult. Nationalist ideologies and patriotic narratives frequently appear to justify, or even necessitate, military action. Consider the case of Israel. The people of Israel are socialized to believe that their country is a democratic island in an ocean of brutal and implacable foes. Only by being tough and aggressive can their country survive. Despite such militaristic indoctrination, a vital peace and justice movement does exist in Israel. Eran Efrati and Maya Wind are two genuine heroes of the Israeli peace and justice movement. They will tell their inspiring stories on Feb 26 at 7 p.m. at the Friends Meeting House, 1825 Upland Ave., in north Boulder.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center's "Peace Train" column runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.