What are the real lessons of the First World War?

Nov 6, 2018

The Centenary of the Armistice of 1918 is almost upon us. There will be sincere and solemn events. But prepare also for a hurricane of media puffery, a cascade of clichés, narrow nationalism, the familiar medley of cheers and tears – and little serious attention to the real lessons of the First World War. 

Back in 2011, the official report of the National Commission on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary stressed this: The most bitter disappointment for the original Anzacs was that their war was not, in fact, the “war to end all wars”. The best way we can honour their memory is to focus our thoughts on how we might reduce the risk that future Australians will have to endure what they endured.’

Has a national focus on this issue been achieved? The focus has been unremittingly on military experience and achievement. All the hardest issues have been evaded. For what precisely did Australians fight and die? Why was the war so prolonged? Did our government cautiously husband Australian life and treasure, and ensure our lives were not lost in order to realise dreams of imperial expansion and economic aggression?

Australians believe in war – for self-defence, as a last resort. Did our governments of 1914-1918 ensure that our war was incontrovertibly for self-defence, and that our war was undertaken and prolonged only as a last resort? Not a bit of it. Recklessness prevailed.

Let us put aside the pseudo-patriotic platitudes, the holy water sprinkled over the cataclysm, and the sacrificial fantasy of the nation reborn in blood. The real lessons of the First World War are these:

  • That deterrents – then and now – can fail to deter.
  • That accidents, mendacity and rapaciousness can combine to produce catastrophe, as they did in 1914, when the Old Diplomacy sought to manage the New Imperialism through a ‘balance of power’, and it can happen today, no matter what ‘nuclear balance’ we think we shelter under.
  • That matchless regional superiority in weaponry, anywhere, is ultimately no guarantee of peace, for the sense of superiority on one side is matched by a sense of vulnerability on the other, tempting it to pre-emptive action.
  • That a world with weak international institutions and law, in which all nations are armed to the teeth against each other, and all jealously guard their rights to take unilateral or pre-emptive action, is a hellishly dangerous world.
  • That slavish loyalty to alliances can mean slavish loyalty to the misjudgements, gambles and recklessness of others.
  • That competition for empire and commercial supremacy across the world, by powerful people representing only a fragment of the economy, can land us all in a bloodbath.
  • That great corporate vested interests, with an eye on commercial opportunity and the money to be made in armaments and even war itself, can cloak their corporate interests in the false garb of the national interest.
  • That sordid causes can be easily smuggled into noble causes once wars are under way – for there is always a constant inflation of war aims, something we may call ‘mission creep’ today.
  • That the resort to war always follows a series of failures in diplomacy and international law – and great powers that denigrate diplomacy and international law and institutions are part of the problem.
  • That the inner executive in any nation going to war can triumph over parliament and people when the ‘war powers’ are left unreformed, with no requirement to appeal to parliament before forces are deployed abroad.
  • That the passing generation, with its property and careers established, is always tempted to betray the interests of the rising generation – with its little property and careers in infancy – and to place the chief burdens of war upon that generation.
  • That war is the pasture of bigots, so that war almost always serves to dissolve civil liberties as governments feed the fear, peddle the peril and rouse racial anxieties.
  • That nations going to war are very like each other – fearful, reckless, high-handed, undemocratic, easily spooked.
  • That nations immersed in war are also very like each other – intolerant, cruel, authoritarian.
  • That in war, almost always, nations are at their worst, not their best. Fearing the enemy at the gate, they search frantically for the enemy within, demonize newcomers and repress those with principled opposition to war.
  • That wartime governments prefer their people to fight on, in the dark, with the real purposes of war hidden in secret diplomacy.
  • That war-makers prefer to call for more and more sacrifice, that is, to gamble still more lives in a desperate effort to chase earlier losses, rather than to face the people without wearing the ‘fire-suit’ of victory.
  • That those who choose to sacrifice the young often hypocritically create a ‘cult of the fallen’ – and then heap praise upon those young men and women whom they have chosen to sacrifice, misrepresenting their loss as self-sacrifice.
  • That grieving people in every war are told that wars must go on, and on, lest the dead have died in vain. Is it not the truth that wars should end, so that more soldiers shall not die for vanity?

On this Armistice Day, we could do well to turn off the TV and listen to the men who were there. There are scores of interviews with elderly veterans of the First World War available on-line at the Australian War Memorial. These veterans frequently see through the Anzac hucksters, and reject bitterly those insisting the war was worth it. For example, Sergeant Jack Lockett, interviewed by the indispensable Peter Rubinstein in 1997, spat out his contempt for the phrase a ‘war to end all wars’. It made more war. And what was it all for? ‘Only money,’ he lamented. He explained he had changed his mind about days like Anzac Day, because it was all ‘overdone’. It no longer honoured the fallen – because too many people caught up in Anzac were only interested in honouring themselves. There is a challenge for us.

Assoc. Prof. Douglas Newton is a retired academic. He is the author of a number of studies of war and peace, including, most recently, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (London, Verso: 2014) and Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014). He is currently writing a book on the history of diplomatic efforts to end the Great War.

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