The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years.—Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing from ourselves, from our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.—Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.—Otto von Bismarck, 1888
I promise you that this will be the final war—the war to end all wars.—Woodrow Wilson
To everything, there is a season…A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.—Ecclesiastes 3:1,8
It was, as Bismarck had foretold, some damned foolish thing in the Balkans: the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by Gavrilo Princip, a Serb who was a member of a far-right nationalist group, the Black Hand, which was intent on restoring the glorious 14th century Serbian empire.
For three years, Europe was torn asunder by the war, with Britain, France, Italy and Russia, Greece, Serbia and Romania on one side, and Germany, Austro-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria on the other. For years, the United States remained officially neutral, though Wall Street favored the Allies and Main Street the Central Powers. Woodrow Wilson ran his winning 1916 re-election campaign on the slogan: “He kept us out of war.”
All that changed when it turned out that Britain had hacked U.S. telegraph lines and intercepted a telegram from the German government to the Mexican government, offering German assistance should Mexico declare war on the U.S. Back then, Mexico still smarted from the loss of half its territory to the U.S. after the Mexican-American war. The Germans promised to make Mexico great again, by helping them re-take their northern borders. The telegram was the final straw that collapsed the increasingly precarious U.S. neutrality. Germany had been sinking passenger ships for a couple of years, had blown up an arms depot in New Jersey and strafed the Statue of Liberty from a U-boat in the New York harbor. Wilson had to act, he said, or risk losing all credibility.
American Doughboys, ill-equipped and unprepared, went off to the killing fields of France following the declaration of war that the Congress approved 100 years ago this week. More than 100,000 Americans would die in the next 19 months. But that was a tiny fraction of the 9 million combatants and 6.5 million civilians who died from war-related causes in Europe. The world had gone mad, it seemed, and the carnage was beyond all human experience.
One of the challenges of democratic systems is that they derive their power from the will of the people. In order to get the people to offer up their young to the Gods of War, democratically-elected leaders find it necessary to make promises about war: it will end the rule of despots, protect innocent lives, enforce treaties, free captives, end looming threats from weapons of mass destruction, insure national sovereignty. Mostly, those things are not true. But the biggest war-justification lie that has ever been told is the lie that Woodrow Wilson told to the American people in his run-up to the Great War: it would make the world safe for democracy and end all wars forever.
There may indeed be valid reasons for a nation to go to war against another, but every time the drumbeat for war begins, we should pause and remember that none of them include ending war.