This November 11th at 11 a.m. will mark 95 years since World War I ended. Next July 28th will mark 100 years since it started. The world war, the great war, the war for no good reason, the war of poison gas, the war to end all wars, the war of mass stupidity, the war that went on for days after the Germans agreed to end it, the war that continued until 11 a.m. as that time had been set to end it, the war whose last man killed in action was a suicidal American who ran at the Germans at 10:59, the war that in fact was intentionally not ended but extended into mass-punishment of the German people until World War II could be commenced, this century-old piece of historical stupidity that shames our species is about to be commemorated on a serious scale — so dust off your gas masks and get ready.
A hundred years. A hundred ever-loving years, and we’ve neither learned that wars don’t end wars nor ever really ended World War II, ever brought the troops home from Japan and Germany, ever scaled back the taxation and military spending and foreign basing and war profiteering.
The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten War by Richard Rubin is 500 pages of excellent history of World War I but without the appropriate rejection of the decision to go to war or the embarrassment one should feel for those who thought they could find glory or goodness by joining in that mass murdering madness. We tend to look down on all sorts of aspects of early 20th century morality. Colonialism, sexism, racism, corporal punishment in schools, creationism — you name it, we’ve moved on. Yet writers still recount wars as if the decision to take part in them were neutral or admirable.
In a way this makes sense, given what we’re all taught about history. The Khan Academy is a wonderful website for kids (or anyone) to use in learning math. But if you click over to the section on history it’s literally nothing but wars. Perhaps they plan to add in a few unimportant things that happened during the pauses in between wars, but they haven’t done so yet. It’s nothing but war after war after war. That’s history. President Kennedy supposedly said Lincoln would have been nothing without the Civil War — it takes war to make greatness. It takes war to be in the history books.
Richard Rubin found and interviewed the last remaining U.S. veterans of World War I before they died. As he spoke with them their average age was 107. Everything he learned and recorded is of great interest, but much of it is simply about what it’s like to become 107. Such a study could have been done of non-veterans. A comparison could have been made of veterans and non-veterans. Or a study like this one could have looked at World War I resisters. That there’s not a similar book about them, and now can never be, says little about them and a great deal about all of us. A comparison of the lifespans of veterans and refuseniks would have been an interesting test of the author’s theory that going along to get along increases your life.
It is perhaps not too late to track down and interview the last remaining survivors of the strongest peace movement the United States has known — that of the 1920s and 1930s — but somebody would have to do it and do it soon.
Perhaps Richard Rubin will take up that idea, but I tend to doubt it. His fascination is with war, not wisdom. And not just his fascination, but most people’s. The sad fact is that, in Rubin’s telling, these World War I veterans didn’t tend to develop an appropriate sense of regret over a period of 85 years. There are, no doubt, cases of slave owners who by 1950 were able to express some regret over slavery. But slavery was on its way out. War is ever on its way in.
Despite my lengthy caveat, The Last of the Doughboys really is an excellent book, for what it is. The discussions of World War I songs and World War I books, and so forth, are quite wonderful. And Doughboys is not blatantly dishonest war hype. It includes the facts about the Lusitania (that Germany had warned Americans not to get on a ship with arms and troops as it would be sunk). It doesn’t look closely at the war propaganda, but it is straightforward enough on the clampdown on speech and civil liberties, and the vicious demonization of Germans and the Kaiser. It doesn’t mention the Wall Street coup or the name Smedley Butler, but its coverage of the Bonus Army is otherwise good. It doesn’t focus on opposition or alternatives, but it does convey the pointlessness of the horror, and it does recount the badly misguided way in which the war was ended.
Yet, ultimately, Rubin is striving to give more credit and honor to warriors unfairly overshadowed by the glorification of World War II. The heroes of the original world war saved the world in the snow and shoeless and uphill both ways. Rubin wants World War I to get its due — unlike some wars. The war on the Philippines, for example, he calls “not much of” a war, despite the fact that it cost the population involved a greater percentage of its lives than any other U.S. war has inflicted on any other population, including the population of the U.S. — including in the U.S. Civil War. Go to the Philippines and say it wasn’t much of a war, I dare you. It was the model for the costly, pointless, racist, one-sided slaughters of the 21st century. World War I was a model only for its expansion into World War II. Otherwise it’s obsolete.
My friend Sandy Davies, who knows this stuff, recently looked up what the costs have been of the ongoing warmaking by the United States since the pair of World Wars. I think it’s relevant because every single time I speak about ending war and take questions on the topic I’m asked “What about Hitler?” In the days since Hitler’s been gone, as the world has moved on from Hitler-like expansionism, as a great portion of the world has moved away from war, the United States, according to Davies, has spent $37-40 trillion (in 2013 dollars) on war and preparations for war.
There’s $32 trillion since 1948 in Department of So-Called-Defense spending (documented here pdf link) plus $780 billion to the War Department in 1946-7 before it was rebranded. Extra funding to the Energy Department, the V.A. and other departments is harder to find, but can be estimated at: Nuclear weapons (DOE): $1.7 – 3 trillion V.A.: $1.3 to 2.5 trillion Other departments: $1 to 2 trillion
Then there’s the real cost: 10 to 20 million dead in wars the U.S. has been directly involved in, or 15 to 30 million if you count the DRC, Cambodia, the French War in Indochina, and the Iran-Iraq War. “These numbers are very conservative,” says Davies, “based on publicly available estimates, generally ignoring Les Roberts’ findings in Rwanda and the DRC that passive reporting methods generally only count 5-20% of deaths in war zones.” These figures include:
Korea: 2.5 to 3.5 million Vietnam: 2 to 4 million Iraq: 400,000 to 1.5 million Afghanistan (total): 1 to 2 million China: 1.75 million Indonesia: 500,000 to 2 million Angola: 500,000 to 1 million Somalia: 300,000 to 500,000 Guatemala: 200,000 to 300,000 Greece: 200,000 East Timor: 100,000 to 220,000 El Salvador: 100,000 to 120,000 Syria: 90,000 to 130,000 Operation Condor: 60,000 to 100,000 Peru: 70,000 Colombia: 50,000 – 200,000 Laos: 40,000 to 100,000 Nicaragua: 30,000 to 55,000 Libya: 25,000 to 50,000 plus smaller numbers in many other countries.
Either we’re on a record streak of greatest generations after greatest generations, or we’ve caught a war addiction so badly that we’ve come to imagine it’s normal, and that — in fact — it’s all that ever has happened in the world.