Exactly 100 years ago today, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, of Austria, and his wife were shot to death by a Serbian nationalist. And the Great War began.
The lesson we can learn from World War I is clear. It’s possible to win a war but “lose the peace.”
“The cold numbers capture much of the war’s horror: more than 9 million men dead and twice as many again wounded — a loss of sons, husbands and fathers but also of skills and talents,” writes Margaret MacMillan for the Wall Street Journal. “Graves in the north of France and Belgium and war memorials across the U.S. bear witness to the 53,000 American soldiers who died. Thousands of civilians died, too, during the war itself, whether of hunger, disease or violence. And then, as the guns were falling silent, a new pestilence struck humanity in the shape of a virulent influenza.”
Maps of Europe were rendered obsolete as old empires died and new nations were born from conflict. Communists killed the czar in Russia and replaced his tyranny with their own. There, and in many other places, new democracies were killed in their cradles by territorial and tribal wars.
“The armistice of 1918 ended one gigantic conflict, but it left the door open for a whole host of smaller ones,” MacMillan writes. “Competing national groups tried to establish their own independence and to push their borders out at the expense of their neighbors. Poles fought Russians, Lithuanians and Czechs, while Romania invaded Hungary. And within their borders, Europeans fought each other.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Armistice was badly bungled.
“The end of hostilities in 1918 also brought the challenge, one we still face, of how to end wars in ways that don’t produce fresh conflict,” MacMillan notes. “The first World War didn’t directly cause the second, but it created the conditions in which it became possible.”
In Germany, the National Socialists thrived on post-war resentments. Much the same was seen in Japan.
“Nationalists in Japan, which had been on the Allied side, felt their country had been used and then contemptuously scorned by the ‘white’ powers who refused to write a clause on racial equality into the Covenant of the League of Nations,” she explains. “That helped to propel Japan down the road of militarism and imperialism, and eventually to confrontation with the U.S. at Pearl Harbor.”
That’s the most important lesson we should remember today — fashioning a workable peace is every bit as important as winning a war. As Iraq crumbles under the weight of sectarian conflict, it seems we haven’t learned the lesson well.
As columnist Charles Krauthammer notes, Obama pulled all U.S. forces out of the country.
“And with it disappeared U.S. influence in curbing sectarianism, mediating among factions and providing both intelligence and tactical advice to Iraqi forces now operating on their own,” Krauthammer adds. “The result was predictable.”
There’s still time to learn the lesson of World War I and recognize that winning the peace is as vital as winning the war.