One hundred years ago today, the guns of Flanders Fields fell silent. Although the messy business of peace remained, the Tommies, Doughboys, Jerries and Poilus gained a reprieve from their march to the slaughterhouse. “The Great War,” it was hoped, would end all others, suppressing what is base in our natures and promoting what is tranquil.
That expectation of peace and coexistence failed, of course; conflict is part of human nature. But as the century-old echoes of artillery and machine-gun fire resonate with us today, they should pressure us to action, as another great-power rivalry returns in a different global theatre.
Each generation assumes that it lives in the most important era. The generation that repulsed Nazism and Japanese imperialism justifiably understood the significance of its task; its descendants held fast against communist totalitarianism and, after 50 years, were rewarded with victory. Any man or woman who came of age before Sept. 11, 2001, understands they now live in a different time.
In the West, at least, history seems to build to a conclusion, its highs more triumphant, its lows more violent. Such teleology is a product of the West’s Christian heritage. The modern Englishman, German, Frenchman, Italian or American may be less religiously observant than his pre-20th century counterpart, but his worldview remains colored by the New Testament’s eschatology.
This understanding feeds into contemporary man’s natural hubris. His self-importance is a contrast to the heroism and challenges of his predecessors. More worryingly, it gives him an unwarranted sense of confidence in his permanence.
Our ancient antecedents possessed their own hubris. But their eschatology lacked the beckoning green light of a luminous future that Jay Gatsby saw. The ancient Greeks saw no such light. They hoped for the triumph of good over evil but saw existence as a brutal power struggle between man and fate. Almost invariably, their greatest heroes — Heracles, Jason, Achilles and Agamemnon, among others — met tragic ends.
For civilizations like ours that expect ever-increasing prosperity and better lives for future generations, the shock of conflict can be debilitating. Before 1914, Britain, France and Germany formed the West’s vibrant core; each provided its citizens with a standard of living previously unknown, produced seminal artistic and cultural works. Four years later, Britain and France were psychologically shattered, while Germany began its slide into Hitlerite tyranny.
Even for societies prepared for cyclical violence, great-power conflict remains traumatic. Thucydides’ “Peloponnesian War” reminds us of polarization’s danger to political systems: For nearly 30 years, oligarch and democrat slaughtered one another throughout Greece’s city-states; friend and neighbor turned on one another. Thucydides would not have been surprised that neither party recovered; just over half a century after Sparta’s ostensibly final triumph, both it and Athens were forced to submit to Macedon’s hegemony.
What, then, can we learn from the past?
While England slept before WWI, its rivals grew in power and ambition. Too proud to accommodate Germany, but too miserly to confront it, Britain and its empire finally were served with a butcher’s bill of one million souls. (While 4,809 coalition soldiers died during the entirety of the Iraq War, France and Britain lost the same number of young men, on average, every three and a half days in WWI — nearly 900 Frenchmen and more than 500 Brits per day.)
Today, Americans risk the same mistake. China’s aggression mirrors Germany’s; its economic expansion has translated into political ambition – Beijing seeks to bend the world to its will. More important, China lacks easily acquirable territory. President Xi Jinping is no longer content with his predecessors’ slow, incremental expansion of Chinese territorial influence. In the final week of October, the South China Morning Post reported that Xi told his military that “it’s necessary to strengthen the mission … concentrate preparations for fighting a war. We have to step up combat readiness exercises, joint exercises and confrontational exercises to enhance … preparations for war.”
China has built an ocean-going navy capable of outclassing nearly all of America’s Pacific allies. Its objective is constructing a force capable of challenging the U.S. Navy for control of the seas. Just as Germany’s kaiser and his allies probed in Africa and the Balkans, China today presses America and its partners throughout the Western Pacific. If American power and global engagement do not meet the challenge, China, like Germany, increasingly will be tempted to act.
Of course, China’s relative power position will not persist indefinitely. More dangerous, and more likely than an American resurgence, is a global anti-Chinese coalition. China’s Central Asian expansion could encourage Russian paranoia; the potential for an encircling alliance between India, Japan and Russia will increase with time.
Germany’s leaders, particularly Moltke the Younger, knew that Russia’s economic and military modernization would tip the European balance of power away from Berlin by the 1920s. Like Germany, China may be tempted to act before it is too late.
China’s leaders are more farsighted than Germany’s. They are creating multiple “windpipes” for crises, allowing them to manipulate future confrontations in their favor. Another round of American tariffs will be much less effective if China can rely on Latin American raw materials, Central Asian and African minerals and energy deposits, and European markets. China is using its wealth and political weight to transcend geographical limits, from Burma to the Suez, the Mediterranean to northern Europe, and throughout Latin America.
If history provides lessons, one is that man frequently ignores the counsel of the past. Whether nations confront their enemies or rationalize their fears, the reckoning comes.
Ironically, the West today may avoid the trap of great-power conflict — by effectively surrendering preemptively. If the generation that led Europe into, and throughout, WWI was incomprehensibly willing to accept slaughter, today’s West is roiled by self-doubt and losing the introspection to understand what is worth fighting for.
Some in the West need no help from China, Russia, Iran or North Korea to list the West’s innumerable crimes, to judge that it no longer deserves to exist. They are more interested in defending ethnic identity than Western values.
Institutions are fragile. Absent men and nations willing to fight for and preserve them, they vanish. But within our countries, particularly our democracies, this is a truth easily forgotten.
The screams of Corcyra’s warring factions are a warning of what happens when a civilization commits suicide; the war that ended a century ago today is a testimony to brutality and stupidity. It also is a witness to the spiritedness of societies that believe in themselves.