Here's What You Need to Know: False lessons of history could beget bad decisions in the here and now.
November 11, 2018—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—marked the centennial of the armistice concluding the First World War. Your humble correspondent traveled to Kansas City, Missouri, to offer remarks as part of “1918: Crucible of Conflict,” the centennial symposium at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. After two days of listening to learned commentators hold forth about sundry dimensions of the war, the armistice, and the interregnum between the world wars, it’s clear the Great War still casts a long cultural shadow.
Bottom line: history matters. A partial or garbled understanding of history means any guidance we distill from it is partial or garbled as well.
Faulty guidance is a real prospect. Ask the man on the street what the war was about, and in all likelihood he’ll reply with something about trench warfare. Soldiers huddled in muddy, miserable trenches under constant artillery bombardment represent the dominant image of World War I. And that comprises a major part of the story for sure. But why does our cultural memory obsess over trench warfare in France? The obvious reason for Americans is because that’s where American doughboys fought from 1917–1918. That was our war.
We tend to stress the combined bomber offensive against Nazi Germany, the landings in North Africa, Italy, and Normandy, and other American spheres of endeavor in World War II while scanting the horrific and arguably decisive fighting between German and Soviet armies. In the same vein it’s natural to remember what our soldiers, sailors, and airmen did in the Great War. These were sons and daughters of America.
It also makes sense to concentrate on France because the West is where the guns of August rang out in 1914 and where the Great War ended in November 1918. The German Army’s “Schlieffen Plan“ sent legions careening through Belgium into France before the offensive stagnated under stiffer-than-expected French and British resistance. The static fighting that constitutes the lore of World War I ensued. During the spring of 1918 the German Army launched a series of titanic offensives in hopes of breaking a French Army that verged on mutiny or driving the British Expeditionary Force into the sea before the United States could intervene in force. And France is where the Allies at last amassed enough combat power to puncture German lines at multiple points at the same time—letting them break through and compel Berlin to consent to the armistice we remember today. Beginnings and endings imprint themselves on the popular mind.
And then there’s the cultural dimension. France witnessed feats of heroism that helped forge the U.S. Army and Marine Corps into what they are today. Legendary figures such as General John J. Pershing made their names on the Western Front. Legendary figures from subsequent U.S. history—Harry S. Truman, George S. Patton, Douglas MacArthur—made their debuts as junior officers. At the Battle of Belleau Wood in May-June 1918, American soldiers and marines blunted a German spearhead aimed at Paris—and helped prepare the ground for the Allied counteroffensive and victory. “Retreat, hell! We just got here,” proclaimed one ornery marine when urged to retreat before the German onslaught. Try not pumping your fist at that show of bravado.
Furthermore, think about all the marvelous cultural artifacts that came out of the Great War. The poetry of British soldiers Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen ranks among the finest war poetry—heck, the finest poetry, full stop—ever written. There’s an elegiac quality to the life stories of Brooke and Owen: both fell in military service, Brooke toward the war’s beginning and Owen near its end. In a sense their stories make literary bookends for the war in France. In 1915 Canadian officer Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae composed “In Flanders Fields,” a poem that remains a staple of Veterans’ Day observances a century hence, after presiding over the funeral of a fallen comrade. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is a testimonial from a German perspective to the horrors seen in France. Such relics convey drama—and drama makes lasting popular memories.
Powerful testaments to trench combat obscure accounts of other theaters. Even contemporary pop culture—think the early seasons of Downton Abbey—reinforces the Western bias in our memories of World War I. Not even the eloquence of Ernest Hemingway, whose A Farewell to Arms is set in Italy rather than France, can fully counteract that bias. There’s something melancholy about hurling men against fire—sending soldiers over the top into murderous machine-gun and artillery fire and barbed wire—that continues to beguile.
Without taking anything away from the monumental literature, visual arts, and music commemorating the fighting in France, though, it’s crucial to remember that entrenched combat in the West is far from the whole story of the Great War. The war of movement that German commanders hoped to stage in France actually happened to the East, for example. Why? Because the sheer physical scale of western Russia rendered heavily armed perimeter defense impractical. In the West the Allies and Central Powers could dig in because France is a relatively compact country bracketed by the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, and Pyrenees Mountains. It was a closed system by contrast to the open system that is Russia. Had armies attempted perimeter defense in the East, their lines would have been so long that no army could field enough troops or weaponry to guard them.
Germany’s defeat of the Russian Army coupled with revolution in Russia prompted that country to conclude an armistice and leave the war via the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Its departure liberated German commanders to transfer troops westward, mounting their spring 1918 offensives with heavy numerical superiority over demoralized French and British armies. (U.S. forces in Europe remained in training until that summer.) The Allies tried opening a southerly maritime route at Gallipoli in 1915, with disastrous results. The Great War saw bitter mountain warfare between Italy and Austria-Hungary. British and French forces campaigned in the Middle East, where the open, flat terrain sometimes permitted cavalry charges to succeed. The desert theater made Englishman T. E. Lawrence “Lawrence of Arabia”—and spurred Lawrence to write one of the great treatises on irregular warfare. Japan scooped up German colonies in the Pacific and China, helping set the stage for the Pacific theater of World War II.
And on and on. Do these non-Western theaters matter today? Yes. Contemporary endeavors lie downstream of culture, and the Great War has become part of the cultural memory for all of the erstwhile combatant states. How they understand their past shapes how they conduct themselves now. For instance, try asking an Australian about the Great War; you’re more likely to find yourself regaled with tales of the “ANZAC”—Australia/New Zealand—expeditionary force at Gallipoli than stories about trenches spanning France. This is Australia’s founding legend. A Russian or Italian would take a different view from an American, Briton, or Frenchman.
Supposed lessons from a conflict are graven on the minds of the generation that fought it, on the children of the combatants, and to lesser extent on their grandchildren. After that they pass into common memory, helping comprise a set of axioms about the world and how the society should help manage it. Historical lessons foreclose certain political and strategic options in future controversies while prodding a society and its leadership toward others. Ergo, it behooves posterity to compile as comprehensive an understanding of bygone events as possible—helping us learn accurate lessons from those events.
False lessons of history could beget bad decisions in the here and now, while wise lessons bolster our chances to excel. History isn’t just of antiquarian interest. It’s essential to executing foreign policy and strategy well.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.
This article first appeared in November 2018.
Image: Imperial War Museum / Wikimedia Commons