Western Civilization and the First World War

Sarah Hoyt has been reading a lot about the 1920s, and–in a post which encompasses both Agatha Christie and Robert Heinlein–she does some thinking about the impact of Word War I on the twenties and on Western civilization generally.

World War I was terrible, and for many reasons, including the prevalence of pictures and news, the fratricide/civil-war quality of it, the massive number of casualties.  It shocked an entire generation into … writing an awful lot about it, and into trying to tear down the pillars of civilization, believing that Western Civilization (and not human nature, itself) was what had brought about the carnage and the waste.

A thought-provoking post, well worth reading, with an interesting comment thread. I very much agree with the comment by William Zeller:

Here’s my quick version of the test I use to determine if a speaker is doing the WesternCiv teardown:
If the argument begins with the phrase: “American…” or “America…” and proceeds to identify a horrifying cultural or political trait.

Absolutely…and this happens all the time…people observing something bad and discrediting it to America (or, less frequently, to Western civilization as a whole) without making the slightest attempt to consider whether the bad thing they are talking about might be something like a cross-cultural human universal rather than something specific to Americans or the West.

There’s no question in my mind that the First World War did do immense harm to Western civilization, as we’ve often discussed here.  Erich Maria Remarque’s excellent and unfortunately-neglected novel The Road Back, which I reviewed in this post, is very helpful for understanding just how powerful and malign that impact was.

Sarah’s post reminded me of a particular passage in Remarque’s book.  Ernst, the protagonist, has returned to Germany after the end of the war that killed most of his classmates and fellow enlistees. He has accepted a job teaching school in a small village:

There sit the little ones with folded arms. In their eyes is still all the shy astonishment of the childish years. They look up at me so trustingly, so believingly–and suddenly I get a spasm over the heart.

Here I stand before you, one of the hundreds of thousands of bankrupt men in whom the war destroyed every belief and almost every strength…What should I teach you? Should I tell you that in twenty years you will be dried-up and crippled, maimed in your freest impulses, all pressed mercilessly into the selfsame mould? Should I tell you that all learning, all culture, all science is nothing but hideous mockery, so long as mankind makes war in the name of God and humanity with gas, iron, explosive, and fire?…Should I take you to the green-and-grey map there, move my finger across it, and tell you that here love was murdered? Should I explain to you that the books you hold in your hands are but nets in which men design to snare your simple souls, to entangle you in the undergrowth of fine phrases, and in the barbed wire of falsified ideas?

…I feel a cramp begin to spread through me, as if I were turning to stone, as if I were crumbling away. I lower myself into the chair, and realize that I cannot stay here any longer.  I try to take hold of something but cannot. Then after a time that has seemed to me endless, the catalepsy relaxes. I stand up. “Children,” I say with difficulty, “you may go now.”

The little ones look at me to make sure I am not joking. I nod once again. “Yes, that is right–go and play today–go and play in the wood–or with your dogs and your cats–you need not come back till tomorrow–“

(emphasis added)

58 thoughts on “Western Civilization and the First World War”

  1. WW I cut such a horrific swath across generations, I am not the least surprised that Europeans (Brits, French, Germans,Russians mainly and others) were horribly traumatized. I recall spending the night in a tiny town (which later formed my image of Albeck in my books)- and seeing their war memorial. This little bitty farming town, of four or five streets which crossed to make three blocks – and the memorial had about twenty names on it for each of the 20th century wars. A number of them were the same surnames, which was even more tragic.

    Still, though – our Civil War cut the same kind of swath across commuities North and South. A single battle, or a campaign – and there went a company or a regiment enlisted from a specific town or county. Brothers, cousins, fathers and sons – all gone in a couple of hours or days of hot combat. It happened over and over again, over four years … and yet it didn’t seem to gut mid-19th century Americans in quite the same way that it gutted Europeans after WWI.

    Interesting to explore the reasons for the difference…

  2. American Civil War vs WWI, in psychological impact…an interesting question, indeed. Perhaps one reason was the *immobility* factor in WWI trench warfare…certainly there were campaigns (Petersburg, for instance) with significant trench-warfare aspects in the Civil War, but didn’t dominate the entire conflict the war trench warfare did in WWI…and the sense of helplessness in the face of overwhelming forces is probability greater in a static than a mobile situation.

    Another factor may the that the feeling that one;s own leaders were incompetent seems to have been stronger in WWI than in the Civil War.

  3. There’s a good article in a recent BBC history magazine on the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand – didn’t realize that both he and his wife were killed and it was a real terrorist sell – about 7-10 people involved.

  4. World War I was the end of the European civilization that had existed since the end of the 30 years war. England was destroyed. It took the Second World War to finish the job and the Labour Party kept away any chance of recovery. France was destroyed although it had been moribund since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The Industrial Revolution had begun in England, created by the Scottish Enlightenment and the French Huguenots who had been expelled from France by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The English industrial development was retarded by the tradition of amateurism in the nobility. Germany developed organic chemistry as a result of the Kaiser’s emphasis on university education.

    Medical progress mirrored this sequence. Antisepsis was discovered by Lister in 1867 but Germany then developed the surgery and then asepsis. Americans learned from the Germans, not the English. The French had revolutionized medicine and much of science with the use of the “numerical method” of Pierre Louis. This foreshadowed John Snow and Florence Nightingale who developed epidemiology and statistics. By the end of the century, bacteriology, begun by Pasteur, was all in Germany.

    Germany went through hell in the 1920s but Hitler was able to harness the German efficiency to create an armed state that was balanced on an economic house of cards. Fascism was no better than communism in running an economy. After the second war, the Germans were able to use their ability again without the economic fantasy of Hitler. We will l;ikely learn the lesson the hard way. We have no Ludwig Ehrhard to overcome the passions of democracy with logic.

    There is a theory, promoted by WEB Griffin in his novels, that there was a lot of German money secreted in Argentina that was repatriated after the war and contributed to the “Wirtschaftswunder”. I wouldn’t ignore Griffin (Butterworth) because he has some odd sources that have been right many times.

    Anyway, Europe destroyed itself and it has taken this long to see the result.

    The American Civil War was earlier and much earlier in our development as a nation. World War I was fought with the tactics of the Civil War. Trench warfare was originated at Petersburg and the tremendous casualties were the result, not of primitive medicine but of the use of the rifle against Napoleonic tactics with infantry. Sherman showed the correct use of modern tactics but the English and Germans studied Grant or Lee. They would have done much better to study Sherman. Liddell Hart considers Sherman the first modern general.

    We could have avoided the calamity that is coming but our Europhile elites disdained American virtues and common sense to emulate the corrupt Europeans. We will pay a heavy price but Europe will become an Islamic waste land in the next century.

  5. I should have added that, by 1864, the Union casualties had as good a chance of recovery as those of World War I. Blood transfusion was not introduced until 1917 and by Americans and Canadians. Before that, wound shock was not recognized as blood loss.

  6. David, you have a jeweler’s eye for picking quotes that make a point one won’t forget. I mean the Remarque quote. Please keep doing this.

  7. Sgt. Mom, the Europeans were not that badly traumatized. They managed to do it again two decades later.

  8. It’s easy to look at WWI from the perspective of today and focus on the elements that are easily understandable across cultural gaps: the geopolitics, the violence, the logistics and so forth. But there is a deeper subtext to the war that we often miss out on because it’s only indirectly related. Prior to WWI a great deal of, I’ll call it stress, built up due to a huge number of factors. Some of that stress was geopolitical, and the European conflict represented the almost unavoidable fractures caused by the need to resolve that stress. But conflict was also occurring on other figurative battlefields at the same time.

    If you look at society around the turn of the 20th century in the western world you will find that in many ways it bears more similarity to society a hundred years earlier than to society 50 or even 30 years later, especially in Europe. Society at the time was highly stratified with strong class divisions. In America these class divisions were somewhat less strong and almost entirely related to wealth, whereas in Europe they were much deeper. In some ways these class divisions were nearly as significant and Jim Crow segregation, to give people a better understanding of their nature. It’s easy to watch a show like Downton Abbey and see a world with a bit of drama but where things aren’t really so terribly bad, but this is an anachronistic portrayal of life back then. The reality was far more brutal and severe. If you were part of the underclass you really were a 2nd class citizen in every way that mattered, and this severely limited your future prospects and life choices. In 1900 the majority of people, even in America, died within a 20 mile radius of where they were born, and they found their wives, their friends, their jobs, their whole life within that 20 mile radius as well.

    But industry and technology was changing everything, erasing limits that used to exist and transforming the balance of economic and social power. The dividends from sanitation, public transit, industrial jobs, electrification, etc. were starting to kick in for the average worker. People were becoming more urban, more literate, wealthier, and more connected. And this led to a huge number of political movements all at the same time, some of them good some of them not. Women’s sufferage and women’s rights became a serious issue and generally came to a head in most of the western world around WWI. Socialism also became a popular political cause at the time as well, leading to socialist uprisings in a few countries around that time. Given the stultifying political power dynamics and class-structure at the time it’s easy to see why socialism was able to gain so much traction.

    And a lot of these struggles had representation on the battlefield as well. Consider, for example, the average British soldier who is part of the underclass and has been forcibly conscripted into the army. He does his best to keep his head down and follow orders, but he is often commanded by officers who have come from the British upper class and who have very little skill in warfare. They sit in rear echelon bunkers and command tens of thousands of soldiers to run across the hellish bombed out moonscape of no man’s land then climb over the enemy’s barbed wire while under a hail of artillery and a fusillade of machine gun fire then attack the enemy. It was insane, and it led to tragic and needless loss of life on a scale that almost demands comparison to gulags or the holocaust. If one group of leaders kills their own people due to malice and another does it through sheer incompetence and hubris in the end the result is still a tremendous butcher’s bill regardless of the intent. This situation was so obvious to most observers that it has since been famously summed up with the descriptive phrase “lions being led by donkeys”.

    Meanwhile, those in power tried to control the narrative both during and after the war, trying to hide the true cost, brutality, and in some cases incompetence of the war. But this proved difficult in an era of radio, cameras and film, and a diversified press. All of these things and more began to manifest as increasingly open and increasingly strident challenges against the status quo, in socio-economic structure and class, in culture, in politics, etc. It’s no coincidence that at the same time you see rapid successions of cycles in art style and cultural trends. Art deco, art nouveau, jazz, flappers, modern art, etc. Society in the west became a lot flatter and a lot more egalitarian rather rapidly, trends that would continue to strengthen throughout the 20th century. Women wore pants, could have careers, and voted. Every man on the street hoped to become a wealthy business man some day, rather than fantasizing he had been born into a different family.

    In many ways the modern world we recognize was created during and in the aftermath of WWI, and the world prior to then would be as unrecognizable and alien to us as visiting a far off foreign country.

    I do not agree with Michael Kennedy’s idea that Europe “destroyed itself” with these changes, I think many of those changes were positive. I think a fairer analysis is that Europe has always been deeply flawed, the 20th century and the 21st proving no exception. And in reality Europe has done more to trade one flaw for another than to either progress or regress in absolute terms (though on the whole, on the whole mind, I’d say Europe has progressed slightly since the turn of the 20th century). But that’s a subject for a different day.

  9. @ R/G – Mr. Goodfellow the post WW2 society was indeed more eglalitarian. And the argument can be made that the generation of 68 was privilege re-asserting itself in the form of brats demanding their inheritance NOW, which they promptly squandered. Losing in the madness the secret of *Rule*. For they do not and never will rule themselves.

    Consider: the 68 generation will usually fallback on racism as the justification for every dirty thing they did and do. Well would anyone seriously contend THEY would have ever overthrown Jim Crow? Which *they* certainly did not. They were in diapers. And are now again…

  10. RobinG…”They sit in rear echelon bunkers and command tens of thousands of soldiers to run across the hellish bombed out moonscape of no man’s land then climb over the enemy’s barbed wire while under a hail of artillery and a fusillade of machine gun fire”

    This points out one significant difference between WWI and the American Civil War: in the CW, the casualty rate among generals, on both sides, was very high. In the First World War, the generals were mostly in the rear, with their maps and telephones.

    Which was probably largely a matter of technology rather than of presence or lack of personal courage, but still must have had an effect on those they commanded.

  11. Peter Drucker in his first book, The End of Economic Man, specifically a chapter titled The Return of the Demons, he discusses the psychological roots of Fascism and the role of the WWI experience:

    ”Modern war appeared to be the denial of all tenets on which the mechanical and rational conception of society is based. This was not because war is amechanical and arational, but because it reduces mechanization and rationalization to absurdity…the war showed the individual suddenly as an isolated, helpless, powerless atom in a world of irrational monsters.”

    Supported by another Remarque quote, this one from All Quiet:

    “From a mockery the tanks have become a terrible weapon. Armoured they come rolling on in long lines, more than anything else embody for us the horror of war. We do not see the guns that bombard us; the attacking lines of the enemy infantry are men like ourselves; but these tanks are machines, their caterpillars run on as endless as the war, they are annihilation, they roll without feeling into the craters, and climb up again without stopping, a fleet of roaring, smoke-belching armour-clads, invulnerable steel beasts squashing the dead and the wounded–we shrivel up in our thin skin before them, against their colossal weight our arms are sticks of straw, and our hand-grenades matches.”

  12. The British invention of tanks would have avoided much of the carnage had it come earlier but technology lagged. Ironically, the Germans invented the auto. Churchill thought of the tank.

    I know I sounded too pessimistic above but that is the way I am lately. If I were younger, I would probably not feel so negative but I would have to.

  13. Michael K…Churchill and the tank….General Edward Spears served as a British liason with French forces during WWI. He records that one day, Churchill came to visit and was expounding on the idea of the tank. After he had left, one of the French soldiers said to Spears:

    “Your politicians are even funnier than our are!”

    A key technology enabling the tank was of course the caterpillar tread…just looked up the history:


    …sounds like this was in only limited commercial use prior to WWI…interesting to note that the British Army had experimented with tracked vehicles for artillery haulers from 1905-1910, but dropped the project.

    I doubt if many people prior to 1914 envisaged the future battlefield as the armaggedonite sea of mud that it actually turned out to be.

  14. David, the German army was largely horse-drawn in World War II. The panzers, at least at first, were a small portion of the army. Americans put the British and Russians on trucks but we still stayed with the Sherman tank long after it had been shown to be under armored and under gunned. World War I tanks were terribly underpowered and that probably had as much to do with the late introduction as the caterpillar tread.

  15. Sgt – I remember reading somewhere – oh – it was this http://www.amazon.com/Out-Nowhere-military-Sharpshooter-Afghanistan/dp/B008SLMG64/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1357487814&sr=8-2&keywords=martin+pegler – there were English towns that lost their entire generation of young men – joining up early in the war under the “buddy system”

    It traumatized Britain and France and one can say – led directly to Hitler’s ascendency – the 2 countries had no stomach for confrontation when it would have been relatively easy up though 1936.

  16. David – Michael – and interesting “good for cocktail party” trivia few know about – like Macy’s getting its start in the Gold Rush and moving to NY – was that Caterpillar actually started in Stockton – there is a Benjamin Holt Drive – then moved to Peoria –

    <I Caterpillar Tractor Company began in 1925 from a forced reorganization of the Holt Manufacturing Company; an early successful manufacturer of crawler tractors. Caterpillar brand continuous tracks have since revolutionized construction vehicles and land warfare. Track systems have been developed and improved during their use on fighting vehicles. During World War I Holt tractors were used by the British and Austro-Hungarian armies to tow heavy artillery and stimulated the development of tanks in several countries. The first tanks to go into action, built by Great Britain, were designed from scratch and were inspired by but not directly based on the Holt. The slightly later French and German tanks were built on modified Holt running gear.

  17. Hi, Bill – yes, they were called the ‘Pals Battalions’, recruited during the early part of the war, either regionally, or in professional associations. It was good from the morale point of view, training and serving with your friends and kin … but horrifying when a ‘pals’ unit was thrown into the thick of it. General explanaition here, with a link to a list of pals battalions.


  18. Class boundaries, I believe, were a significant factor, probably especially for the Brits and the Russians. Among the former, there were thousands of young officers with no military experience and in many cases no particular talent for that field, thrown into command positions and doing their best (for their remaining lifespan, which was generally pretty short), whereas a long-service NCO (from a lower class position) might well have been able to do a better job.

    Also, I’ve read that the British practice of advancing in regular lines, without taking advantage of terrain and any cover that might exist, was driven by the belief of the commanders that their enlisted men lacked either the intelligence or the courage to employ such tactics.

  19. @Mike K-I read somewhere that Patton cast an influential vote that decided the Sherman as the US Army’s MBT. He favored the faster Sherman as opposed to the more powerful Pershing. I think he confused the speed of the vehicle with the speed of the formation. Bad move there, Georgie.
    @David-The Germans figured out that by placing their machine gun nests out in front of their line they could sweep advancing infantry lines with enfilading fire. Took a while for that info to make it back to the chateau.
    Remarque’s war wasn’t every war, or Everyman’s war. Clueless butchery was committed in the cause of ending slavery as well as the knotted panties of the Habsburgs, et al. Clueless butchery is the rule rather than the exception. There have been and are lots of stupid generals. Even then, the smart generals butcher the troops of the clueless ones.
    Hitler Jugend, Jihadis, Crusaders; Right through this door, gentlemen, thank you. The fact that millions of people sorely lacking in self-awareness can all go nuts over some stupid, irrational concept both astounds and horrifies.
    There always seem to be a few people about who are betting that they can make the rest of us turn away from ugly alternatives. If they could be convinced that if they go into the gutter, we’ll go right in after them, things might be different.

  20. One thing tends to get neglected: WWI wasn’t something that reluctant people were pushed into by scheming politicians and generals–a high % of the people were, in every European country, quite enthusiastic. For example, Rupert Brooke:

    Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
    And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
    With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
    To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
    Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
    Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
    And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
    And all the little emptiness of love!

    From the other side, here’s Remarque’s character Georg Rahe remembering his emotions back in 1914:

    “Think of what men we were when we marched away in that storm of enthusiasm! It seemed as if a new age had dawned–all the old things, the rotten, the compromising, the partisan, all swept away. We were young then, as men were never young before!”

    Prior to the war, the international Socialist movement had anticipated that in any attempt by the European powers to engage in war, the working classes would refuse to participate, feeling more solidarity with a fellow worker in another country than with his non-worker fellow citizens and leaders of his own country. That lasted about one millisecond.

  21. Cris, nobody wanted responsibility for the Sherman tank decision but I think you’re right about Patton. They later named the Pershing tank with the 90 mm gun, the Patton I have a book called “Death Trap” about the Shermans in Normandy. The tank units had 600% loss rate. Michael Wittman destroyed 14 Shermans and 15 APCs in 15 minutes in Normandy with a Tiger tank.

  22. In the 60’s I decided to eat at every 3 star restaurant in France – and if a 3 star was not present then I settled for a 2 star. At that time there were10 3 stars, 5 in Paris and one could travel and eat very well for $10/day.

    I rented a Citreon and drove from village to village for 30 days. The villages were small, with a traffic circle in the middle of the village. There were 2 monuments in the center of every traffic circle in every village in France. The first was a plaque listing dead soldiers from World War 1. The lists were always very long and had more names then there were houses in the village.

    The second monumented was a plaque listing the dead soldiers from World War 2. The list was short. Ot seemed that every village had run out of young men.

    Verdun is a sobering site.

    Today the villages are bigger and the lists are not so overwhelming.

    It was the machine gun that changed the nature of war. Men no longer march in long lines across the battle field to attack machine gun nests. WW1 ended that doctrine in Europe. But the Chinese tried it one last time in the Korea police action.

  23. Grey, I have seen the same thing in villages in France. Actually, the rifle showed that the day of walking into fire in battle was nearly gone. The Civil War had the Minie’ ball, which was a cast lead ball with a “skirt” that could be loaded into rifled muskets via the muzzle. When fired, the hot gases expanded the skirt of the Minie’ ball so that it grasped the rifling. Infantry could walk into the fire of smooth bore muskets until 100 feet before they ran a significant risk of being hit other than random chance. The Americans in the revolution showed the British a preview of the rifle.

    Had the Henry Repeating Rifle or the Spencer rifle been adopted by the Union, the war would have been over in less than a year. At Antietam, a Union company was equipped with Henry rifles after the officers paid for the guns with private funds. The Confederates thought they had encountered a division. Both rifles used metal cartridges that the Confederacy could not make. Captured rifles, unlike the muzzle loaders captured, would have been useless to them.

  24. One other thought on Sgt Mom’s point about the very different psychological aftermaths of WWI and the American Civil War…the availability of land on the western frontier probably contributed significantly to a more optimistic national outlook and, on the individual level, the ability to make a new start.

  25. Michael – you know your stuff! I had read this book on the history of snipers – I thought it would be some dry (a bit boring) academic read and it was the opposite – concerning the development of rifles from the 16th century – and scopes as the range became necessary – and the author mentioned Henry rifles – if I recall correctly some Union civilian paid for these rifles out of own his own pocket to outfit a unit – they were much more expensive than what was in general use.


    Incidentally the author, a Brit – made a fascinating point – that during our Revolutionary War a British proponent for equipping an elite sniping unit – had what they think was George Washington in his sights – but could not pull the trigger on a man just sitting on his horse surveying the battle.

    This man was killed later in the war.


  26. }}} There’s no question in my mind that the First World War did do immense harm to Western civilization, as we’ve often discussed here.

    Actually, I noticed this about two decades ago, and personally, I attribute the shift from Classical Liberalism to the downright cancerous Postmodern Liberalism to WWI, without a doubt…

    I believe the following is also a very readable piece on the subject, the main trigger for my own ruminations to this end:

    What We Lost In The Great War

    PML is inarguably cancerous, with, at its heart, the destruction of the entire inheritance of classical Greek thought and reason, along with Christianity, and the Anglo-Saxon traditions that sprung from the confluence of those. America becomes its primary target as the culmination of all those things expressed as a society.

    Because there is no question — America IS exceptional. It may be that another such nation can spring forth, but it is hardly a simple thing that the kind of essential decency, respect for both the individual and tradition, can develop and lie at the heart of everything a nation is, everything its people aspire to. We don’t always live up to our ideals, but those ideals are better than those of almost any other nation, and we strive to match that better than most would.

    P.J. O’Rourke points out one of the unique facets:

    “Our Founding Fathers lacked the special literary skills with which modern writers on the subject of government are so richly endowed. When they wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, they found themselves more or less forced to come to the point. So clumsy of thought and pen were the Founders that even today, seven generations later, we can tell what they were talking about.
    They were talking about having a good time:
    —— We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are
    —— created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with
    —— certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life,
    —— Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…
    ‘This is living!’ ‘I gotta be me!’ ‘Ain’t we got fun!’
    It’s all there in the Declaration of Independence. We are the only nation in the world founded on happiness. Search as you will the sacred creeds of other nations and peoples, read the Magna Carta, the Communist Manifesto, the Ten Commandments, the Analects of Confucius, Plato’s Republic, the New Testament, or the UN Charter, and find me any happiness at all.”
    – P.J. O’Rourke, ‘Parliament of Whores’ –

  27. }}} Another factor may the that the feeling that one;s own leaders were incompetent seems to have been stronger in WWI than in the Civil War.

    This is likely the case. While it took a time for the North to find two really good generals in Grant and Sherman, the South had Lee all along. And it didn’t take the North THAT long, a couple years, tops, and they did win a few battles despite that incompetence.

    The CW also had a lower demand for trench warfare — the machine gun, and the rifle itself, were both very new, and much lower in capability at the time. While it had its stalemate elements, mainly in Virginia, there was still a fair amount of fluidity within that domain. Nothing like ten thousand men dying for 10 feet of ground, only to lose it back the next day.

    The generals WERE incompetent. The inability to see the futility of attacking a fortified position with then-modern weaponry — not BEFOREHAND, but even AFTER the first couple such pointless battles — should have made it clear that frontal assaults could not succeed. And yet they tried, again and again and again.

  28. “Should I tell you that all learning, all culture, all science is nothing but hideous mockery, so long as mankind makes war in the name of God and humanity with gas, iron, explosive, and fire?”

    Really. Darn us for opposing Fascism, Nazism, and Communism and fighting wars to do so. What were we thinking? Don’t we know that fighting in the name of God and humanity against the totalitarian, Socialist, mass-murdering state makes a mockery of our culture? I guess I missed that.

    From whence this belief came? And it is not universal: no wars, no geocodes by Socialists provoke mass doubt in the glorious future of Socialism: the new Civilization (according the Fabian Socialists, anyway).

    Surely people fought wars in the past in which they crushed their enemies and preserved their people, the celebrated their victories. Why can’t we?

  29. “Modern war appeared to be the denial of all tenets on which the mechanical and rational conception of society is based.”

    Not true. ‘Scientific Socialism” went on to triumph across the world. The fought wars against the Whites (the Russian monarchists, not the race; not yet), against the Fascists, against the Capitalists, against the Kulak and not one of those wars lessened the attraction of Socialism to its admirers. To the intellectuals and political leaders, it represents the use of reason to order society. (I regard it as mask for new, corrupt nobility, but apparently that’s just me.)

    Why does modern war undermine some things, but not others?

    I had a conversation with a Socialist denouncing the evil of AmeriKKKa and capitalism in which I pointed out that the brutalities he decried had been practiced on a much large scale by the governments he admired, and he agreed with me. Did he stop being a Socialist? Nope. He justified the atrocities as being necessary to triumph over the bourgeoisie Americans.

  30. Michael Kennedy – The story of the mefo bill is the anti-hitlerian missed opportunity of the 20th century. People still turn to hitlerian economics because they think it somehow worked. It never did. Hitler just figured a way to run up a huge amount of secret debt.

  31. Eris…”Darn us for opposing Fascism, Nazism, and Communism and fighting wars to do so. What were we thinking?”

    And of course this points out one of the effects of WWI…people were so appalled that so many lives had been destroyed, often under the leadership of people of questionable competence or worse and on behalf of causes which in retrospect seemed disproportionately small in relation to the costs….that millions of people concluded that it was NEVER worth engaging in war.

  32. Part of the reason the Civil War affected the US differently was that the impact was not uniform across the country. The South was devastated by the war, as were a lot of the Yankee towns that accounted for a lot of the early volunteers on the Union side, but other parts of the country, particularly a lot of Northern cities were not hit that hard. Immigration continued throughout the war in the North, and while a draft was instituted it never had the reach that conscription had in WW I.

    Colin Woodward’s analysis in “American Nations” is particularly instructive on the Civil War (I have issues with his use of “nations”, which is a stronger term than I think the evidence warrants). Basically his view is that the Civil War was primarily between the Deep South and Yankee states, with Sumter pulling the broader country into the fight. The South in its desparation had to drag its neutral population (Appalachia) into the fight, but the North never really did. As a consequence, while the Civil War left deep scars on the nation there were significant parts of the country that were not affected as deeply, and as a result the US was in better shape afterwards than Europe after WW I.

  33. David. Thanks for the link love.

    I visited the Douaumont Ossuary a couple of years ago. It was very moving.
    At the time, I could not help but think that Europe died there. The ossuary has a tower, and what’s very freaky, is the birds that circle it. The day I was there, the crows were circling it. It really gave the impression of death. When the bells in the tower tolled, I honestly felt that something primeval was mourning. I know it may sound melodramatic, but it’s what I felt.

    I’ve been thinking about WW1 now for a few days and now am of the opinion that the cultural rot was there well before (fin de ciele and all that), what WW1 did was push Europe over the edge.

    A book you absolutely must, and I mean must, read is Diary of a Man in Despair. . I want to do a book review of it but I don’t feel I can do it justice. I felt it should be a companion volume to Whittaker Chambers’, Cold Friday.

    Reck is an old Prussian aristocrat who documents the death of the old pre WW1 world and laments the rising of “mass man” who he feels is leading Europe into an abyss. He lamented not so much the death of the actual aristocracy (he was quite harsh on many German aristocrats” whom he thought were proles) but the death of the aristocratic character of the civilised man. It’s a book that I feel is still relevant for our current age. I think anyone reading it can see quite similar parallels with today’s time. Reck was smart enough to see that the old Europe had its problems but that it’s novel solutions to them were far worse.

  34. Phwest – I would venture to say that the American West was hardly affected by the Civil War. California had Union and Southern Sympathizers (the little town of Strawberry on the Sierra Summit has its origins in this) – but no devastation like the east and south. Primarily the South now that I think of this.

    And, I remember reading some time time ago that a huge percentage of the battles were all fought within a tight radius of Washington.

    Could it be said that WW1 was fought during the close of the Edwardian age – when it was thought that nothing was inevitable or unsolvable – after all, the “unsinkable” Titanic sank just 2 years before the dawn of WW1 – the results of WW1 were a bloody repudiation of this thinking

  35. “And, I remember reading some time time ago that a huge percentage of the battles were all fought within a tight radius of Washington.”

    That’s true of the Army of the Potomac but Grant and Sherman opened the Mississippi, then Sherman took Chattanooga and marched southeast to Atlanta. It’s really worth reading Liddell Hart’s biography of Sherman. He uses original sources, like the telegraph messages. Sherman fought a war of maneuver and kept flanking Joe Johnston, the south’s best general after Lee, until he was relived by Davis and replaced with Hood, who was reckless with men and quickly routed by Sherman and Thomas. Sherman’s tactics resulted in low casualties and he was loved by his men.

    Sherman’s decision to abandon his own supply line on the march to the sea was almost unprecedented since the wars of antiquity. He decided he could live off the land and cut a thirty mile swath through Georgia. His army was supplied by foragers who called themselves “bummers.” Napoleon tried this in Poland and Russia in 1812 and was fiercely opposed by local partisans. In the south of 1864, the men were all in Virginia. There is an anecdote in which the foraging team came upon some Confederate troops and told them, “We’re Uncle Billy’s bummers and you’d better git!” He allowed the foraging but rape and murder of civilians was severely punished. He hung rapists.

    Bill, the book I have relied on for info about weapons is called , Misfire and is full of stories of foolish decisions by the army about small arms. The Henry rifle story is one. Another is the fact that we did not equip our troops in WWI with the BAR because the generals were afraid the Germans would capture one ! They had the Maxim machine gun which was an American invention rejected by our military. Our own troops were equipped with the inferior Chauchat.

    Over time the Mle 1915 Chauchat’s uneven performance in the muddy environment of the trenches has led some modern experts to describe it as the “worst machine gun” ever fielded in the history of warfare.

    The French ignored the lessons of the Civil War, as did the English. The Germans would have won but for Moltke’s variation on the Schlieffen Plan. The tank finally ended the carnage.

  36. Given that wars have devastating consequences, does any nation/tribe/society that suffers a catastrophic loss (and/or defeat) experience a crippling moral loss? Do the South’s defeat and the Entente Cordiale’s victory have a similar effect on the morale of their respective survivors?
    Or is something else involved? I might guess that a comfort level is involved.
    Hardscrabble Rebs carrying on as opposed to the “Lost Generation.”

  37. A couple of things to add to an excellent posting and comments:

    *) The U. S. did not succeed in building tanks before the end of WW I. That was in a sense an “embarrassment”. Ford (a pacifist by the way) was able to build a small tank, and example of which is in the Patton Museum at Fort Knox, but it did not really get overseas. The Tank Corps (including a young Patton and Eisenhower) used French and British tanks. By the way, the same embarrassment happened with airplanes. The U. S. was late to the game, and American flyers were fighting almost entirely in European airplanes.

    *) The REAL impact of WWI to me as an American, was on the homefront. (a useful starting place to read is David Kennedy’s “Over Here”. There are probably more sources). Include: Total control of the economy, full mobilization of the populace, women in the workplace, government-operated propaganda, jailing dissidents without trial, food rationing, raids on “slackers” in cities, closing of the “red light” districts nationwide, neighborhood “watches” turning in defeatists, Germans, and others, and on and on. There are other examples that are not considered these days, such as taking a shower every day (enforced in the Army camps on people who had probably never bathed more often than once a week), and the “clean cut” male standard of appearance (in a way I think the 60’s men were rebelling against that trend….)

    The 20th Century that I grew up in, was “forged” during WWI. Some people may argue that the U. S. “turned the corner” into the 20th Century during that involvement.

  38. Mike K…”He uses original sources, like the telegraph messages.”

    Speaking of the telegraph, some have argued that the Union’s effective use of the telegraph, coupled with Grant’s ability to think in sweeping geographical terms, was a major factor in the Union victory.

    Somewhat ironically, since Samuel Morse was himself a Confederate supporter (also anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic.)

    In a post several years ago, I wrote:

    “And above the level of the battlefield, the telegraph contributed in other ways to the destruction of the social order that Morse preferred. Arguably, the telegraph contributed mightily to the developing perception (in pre-civil-war days) that the United States was truly one country, and that a resident of Maine had a valid reason to be concerned about affairs in Alabama.

    And, at an even higher level, the telegraph and its technological descendents have contributed–and continue to contribute–to the advancement of a universalist world view, as opposed to the particularist worldview (race-geography-religion) which was evidently favored by Morse. Even today, the network known as the Internet–a lineal descendent of telegraphy–continues to drive this process.”

  39. The great war was not so much an action over which anyone had control as a symptom of a culture in collapse. It is no accident that three great empires collapsed in the event and the other two soon thereafter in the second half of the war, what we call world war II. The incompetence displayed, not only on the battlefield but in the embassies and chancelleries leading up to the war indicate that the culture’s institutions were simply incapable of dealing with the crisis at hand. The world had changed too much and they too little.

    When we were young, the great war got short shrift because we had won the second. But it now seems far more important as a self inflicted wound from which western civilization may not recover. And the great wound was all the lieutenants who led the charges from the trenches. They would have become the leaders, great and small, local teachers and preachers as well as prime ministers of future Europe, had they lived. But they did not and Europe was left without direction.

    Good bye, Mr. Chips.

    What the CW and GW have in common is that they were charges by cultures in decline. The victor in each was a Yankee culture that could adapt and prevailed. When it is over, I suspect the GWOT will be seen the same way. That makes me optimistic. What makes one pessimistic is the watching the adaptation. Adaptation is for the young.

  40. I was referring to Dr. Kennedy’s comment:

    <em<I know I sounded too pessimistic above but that is the way I am lately. If I were younger, I would probably not feel so negative but I would have to.

    Adaptation is our culture boldly going where no culture has gone before. It is the necessary condition to avoiding the calcification of Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. Adapting has been the American genius for our 225 years. Only 225 years. We have created tremendous progress in those years. Certainly some of it would have occurred had Gen. Washington failed. But an interesting hypothetical is to consider how much might not have occurred in our absence. I believe we have been the most revolutionary culture in history. And I think that a good thing.

    Being of roughly the same vintage as Dr. Kennedy I agree with most of his statement. As we get older, we go boldly less often as we have seen its consequences. But the young have not. And it is they who must live in the future and with the consequences, not us. Nonetheless, I am not enthusiastic about how we are adapting even though I have faith that we will end up at a better place. In my opinion we have strayed far from the foundations that underlay the success of those 225 years. We shall see.

  41. It does seem like a society with a higher average age is likely to be a less-adaptive one. Also, as discussed in the comments on an earlier post here, the nature of immigration today seems to select for risk-takers to a lesser extent than immigration in previous eras.

    Also, I’m afraid that the conveyor-belt nature of much American education tends to encourage timid and standardized behavior and a failure to really see and think for oneself. I’ve often observed people with advanced degrees in fields ranging from business to computer science who seem much more eager to apply whatever tool or “paradigm” they learned in school than to actually consider the realities of the the situation they are in and do something sensible and useful.

  42. Discussions at this level are the reason C-boyz is such a treasure.

    WW1 was a major element of an extended period of social and political transformation. One of the comments above mentioned the fall of the empires, but neglected to take the longer view that started with the collapse of the Spanish Empire, and involved not only the European empires, but also the Chinese and Ottoman regimes as well.

    The aristocratic order, which had been a world-wide ruling elite, was swept away or de-legitimized, and much of the history of the last century has been the repercussions of that cultural vacuum.

    All of the ideologies of the 20th century were formulated in the 19th century in opposition to the world order of the time, and each posited a different organizing principle for society, from class, to race, to the state itself. (Many of these formulations were also a reaction to the dangerous concept of individualism, which undermined a great part of the rationale for utopian visions by collectivist theorists.)

    The US has been fighting along the major fault lines of these collapsed empires for most of the last century, either actively or coldly, and these faults have shown no sign of quieting, as the continuing upheaval in the mid-east, or the evolving power shifts in Asia currently show.

  43. Many of the Sherman tank’s shortcomings were due to transportation logistics. The Shermans crossed the Atlantic in transport ships, and some came ashore in landing crafts. The dimensions and weights of the Sherman were tailored to these limitations.

    The larger size of the German tanks was not without drawbacks. They were too large for some roads and bridges and muddy terrain. They were often transported on trains, making them attractive targets from the air.

  44. Most of the doctrine that led to the Sherman as the MBT was that of the “tank destroyer” which was shown to be fallacious. The Soviet T 34 was lighter than the M4 Sherman.

    A loss rate of 600% would intimidate me as a potential crew member. The Sherman was a failure as a MBT after 1943 and should have been replaced by the M 26. After McNair was killed in 1944, the M 26 finally was deployed but too late.

  45. “.that millions of people concluded that it was NEVER worth engaging in war.”

    No war wasted life so freely as a Socialist campaign or revolution, whether a campaign directed at Jews or Kulaks, or Cultural Revolution.

    Unfortunately, none of people opposed to war were opposed to Socialist wars. They were more than happy to engage in wars to extend their realm: again, why does war discredit some things and not others?

    If only Socialists would believe Socialism was completely discredited by its wars, campaigns against the three olds, genocides, etc., but they don’t.

    The appeal of the rational intellectual and his allies the bureaucrat and the demagogue to order society has not been undermined by war and worse than war.

    The catastrophe was not the war; it was the foolish belief that the West was not worth fighting for, and its enemies have prospered since.

    * * *

    Socialism was supposed to have been discredited by the war. Millions of socialists believed the brotherhood of the working class, who instead signed up for their national armies. In this obvious and complete failure of Socialism was born Communism, Fascism, Nazism and their successors, all of which emphasize an international elite instead of workers, who today are occasionally called transnazis, an entirely accurate coinage.

  46. Adaptation is our culture boldly going where no culture has gone before.

    With all due respect Mrs Davis, I’m not sure American culture adapted as much as “filled the void” left by the collapse of the traditional order. Thoughtful people for different poles of the political spectrum view the current expression of American culture with serious concern. It seems to be a culture most suited for the “mass man” and thus, as it advances, it further distances the New World from the Old.

  47. In WW1 the European officers were drawn from the aristocracy. If a man had a title he was expected to lead troops into batttle. In those days they led on the battle field from in front, not from behind crouching in a hole dug under the White House some 11,000 miles from the battle field.

    There is no honor in leading from behind.

    After WWI ended most of the European male aristocracy had died with honor leading charges against enemy lines fortified with machine guns. The dead nobles passed their estates to their heirs, but their offices in government were taken over by peasants and tradesmen. That is why the nobility claimed civilization (or at least good conversation) had died in WWI.

  48. correction: All would have been well in Europe had the peasants and tradesmen taken over the government positions left vacant by nobles who died with honor on the field of battle. After all, peasants and tradesmen ran the USA and built the wealthiest, most powerful and most honest country in the history after WWI.

    When the nobles died in WWI it was the community organizers who took over – men skilled at leading from behind, who fought wars but were never under enemy fire. The community organizers had a different title in the 20s, but their philosophy is unchanged which is why the remaining nobility said they killed civilization and good conversation.

  49. Thomas Sowell brought up interesting points about the effect of WWI in “Intellectuals and Society”.

    After the war, intellectuals in France started to classify soldiers as victims of “War”, rather than willing participants in a military conflict between France and her enemies. The subtle shift in thinking that “War” was the real enemy spread from the intellectual class into French schools via the teachers unions. The resulting generation was brought up on pacifism and was poorly prepared to take actions to defend their country against aggressors.

    Additionally, the stance of the teachers union (which also spread to other unions)led to increased support for political leaders who shared their ideological pacifism. Once these leaders were in positions of power, budgets shifted from defense to welfare, and foreign policy shifted from confrontation and defense to appeasement.

    While German raised its WWII generation on a belief of revenge for WWI, France raised its WWII generation not to believe in “War”.

  50. Grey Eagle…”most of the European male aristocracy had died with honor leading charges against enemy lines fortified with machine guns”

    Reminded me of a quote…here it is:

    “It was the end of the world, it was total revolution (though not quite in the way Walter Rathenau had announced): every day thousands of the aristocracy new and old, still haloed in their ideas of right and wrong, went to the loud guillotine of Flanders”

    Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

  51. Well, some clarification is appearing here. And a good thing, too. This thread is going off in more directions that an Italian infantry division ordered to attack.
    Odd that the notion that “nothing is worth fighting for” is advocated by those only one or two degrees away from people we are or will be fighting.
    And where does this leave us on the SecDef nom? Hagel? Maybe, if the alternative is Michelle Flournoy.

  52. Leaving aside the effect it had on European civilization, I think there are a lot of truisms about WWI that aren’t wholly true, such as the trope that the generals kept stupidly sending walking-pace line-formation attacks straight at machine gun emplacements. That was true – until, for the most part, they stopped doing it because it didn’t work.

    For instance, the British did learn a thing or two after the first day of the Somme. General Rawlinson, British commander in the sector with the worst losses that day, went on to put together one of the first successful combined-arms offensives in military history at Amiens in August 1918, which got the fighting out of the trenches and turned it to a mobile repulse of the Germans, ending with the Armistice in November.

    What both sides experienced in the West was that, given the tactics and weapons, the combatants’ defensive capabilities were much superior to their offensive capacity. They had trained for a short mobile war, not static trench warfare. And once they got bogged down both sides tried hard to win, and they did learn and adapt, but both sides could only make incremental improvements that didn’t really amount to enough for a breakthrough. So whatever they tried it turned out as murderous attrition.

    That’s not to say that inexcusable incompetence and stupidity weren’t present, but that alone isn’t enough to account for the length of the stalemate in the West.

    There’s a lot about that war that we overlook; such as the war in the East. Probably equally murderous but a very different kind of war, played out over thousands and thousands of miles of front where trenches were not a permanent factor. I think we tend to forget about the East in both World Wars because for the most part we didn’t fight there.

    Today in the West the trenches are the remembered fact of the War, deservedly so. Even so, for the most part they were, day-to-day, a slow grinding incremental death-trap more than an intensely contested, explosive catastrophe. We remember the big offensives and contested areas – the Somme, Verdun, Ypres and the like. But the Western front was hundreds of miles long; in some places it was quiet for most of the War. And overall the per-day casualty rate was highest in the first month and last four months of the War, when the fighting was out of trenches and soldiers did not have trenches to protect them from artillery and machine-gun fire.

    Again – it’s not that the result of the War was any different, I just think a lot of what’s conventional wisdom about the fighting of the War itself isn’t really accurate. And there seems to be a lot of history about that War that is barely considered today.

  53. }}} Could it be said that WW1 was fought during the close of the Edwardian age – when it was thought that nothing was inevitable or unsolvable – after all, the “unsinkable” Titanic sank just 2 years before the dawn of WW1 – the results of WW1 were a bloody repudiation of this thinking

    As noted in What We Lost In The Great War, there is no question that WWI destroyed the general social snobbery that Western Civ was humanity on the way to its perfection. After that, like a person jilted by a lover, certain swathes of people turned on it and set upon it with furious anger and vengeance. Que the cancerous meme that is PostModern Liberalism.

    And unfortunately they are winning.

  54. }}} That’s true of the Army of the Potomac but Grant and Sherman opened the Mississippi, then Sherman took Chattanooga and marched southeast to Atlanta. It’s really worth reading Liddell Hart’s biography of Sherman.

    I would also recommend

    The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny by Victor Davis Hanson

    One third of the book devotes itself to Sherman’s march of liberation, and how it exposed the corruption at the very heart of The South. He also shows how it closely echoed the destruction of Sparta’s very similarly martial slave society by the Theban general Epaminondas. While The South professed all manner of martial virtues, by the time of the battles, the internal rot of slavery had actually left both Sparta and The South with none.

  55. The national interest has a very good posting at its site. It’s about Oswald Spengler’s 1919 book “The Decline of the West”. The book and article relate very well to the topic(s) here.

    An excerpt from the article:

    Recall that Spengler wrote nearly a century ago, when the Western avant-garde movement was merely a tiny knot of artists bent on assaulting the conventional sensibilities of the prevailing culture. As author and critic Lionel Trilling once explained, in Spengler’s time these people weren’t interested in talking to the masses. Their art was rarefied and special, designed exclusively for the avant-garde itself, those inclined to look down on the masses and on conventional thought and culture. Few at that time predicted that this avant-garde cynicism and cultural nihilism eventually would be absorbed into the popular culture itself and be accepted, even embraced, by large numbers of people within the so-called masses—the same masses under assault by the avant-garde. But Spengler saw it coming, as merely the inevitable consequence of any civilization’s transition from its cultural to its civilizational phase.

    Find it at


  56. Smock puppet, I didn’t know that about Hanson’s book. I have several of his books but not that one. The other great feature of Sherman’s campaign was that his army advanced in two great wings, almost like Cannae, but each wing would swing forward in turn and outflank the Confederates. Johnston kept being outflanked and retreated. They fought only one major battle. That was at Kenesaw, in front of Marietta, Georgia. Otherwise, Sherman’s entire campaign was one of maneuver.

    It is significant that Johnston, his opponent in most of this campaign, was a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral. One of his men was critical as Johnston, who was older than Sherman, was in poor health. Johnston replied, “Sherman would have done it for me.” Johnston died a month later.

Comments are closed.