- Historic Sites
What War Destroys
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
These empires were, as Mr. Falls insists, ably served by their military servants. But look at what happened. The Austro-Hungarian empire vanished in thin smoke, literally obliterated, its bits and pieces surviving quite separately—more happily, perhaps, than they were before, but not seeking and getting that happiness in any way which a servant of the empire could have countenanced. The Russian empire-well, no comment that could be made here would do justice to the upheaval that came about. The German empire broke, passed into the hideous tetanic spasm that brought about Hitler and a second war, and exists today in divided fragments which disturb the peace of all mankind by their separate existence. Italy got Mussolini, humiliation, and an existence as a vacation spot. France fell into the position of a second-class power, alive today by sufferance and the aid of many non-Frenchmen. And the British empire, which Sir Douglas Haig fought so hard to maintain? Sir Douglas assuredly would not recognize it, and would not want to recognize it, as it is today.
In plain language, these professional soldiers, trained to the hilt and given their heads, managed to bring on wholesale revolution, overturn, and permanent change more rapidly and decisively than anything that could have been accomplished by what they believed they were fighting against. They won battles and campaigns and lost everything they were fighting for. In his own way, each man was trying to preserve what we can now call the pre-1914 way of life, and precisely because they fought so long and so hard they made the pre-1914 way of life one with the dodo and the great auk.
Great technicians these men may have been; great captains they assuredly were not. They could see nothing but victory, and they were willing to buy victory at the most inconceivable price. They made unendurably excessive demands on their people; they tried to buy military triumph at prices that left all of Europe bankrupt. Knowing all that could be known about the military arts, they knew nothing whatever about the human societies that had to pay for the exercise of those arts. They gave mankind a Somme and a Verdun, a Masurian Lakes, a Passchendaele, and a Caporetto—and looking back at this distance we can only say that something essential had been left out of their training. Never were learned men so ignorant.
It appears that once or twice the generals themselves sensed this. Falkenhayn apparently wanted the war to end in “a good peace,” and he dimly felt, as Mr. Falls remarks, that this would involve “a correct calculation of the extent of the victory needed to obtain it.” But this was beyond most of them. Thinking only of victory, they could not think of what victory might cost. So the war went on and on, destroying lives, the accumulated riches of the past, habits of thought, social organizations—and in the end the soldiers, who imagined that they were defending the established order, fought mankind’s way into a situation where a new order had to be built from scratch.
Today’s world contains many frightening things; among them, a superweapon whose mere existence gives all of us a bad case of nerves. But it may be that a much more frightening thing than the weapon itself is the narrow professional who looks only at the weapon and who has never been taught to think about what may happen after the weapon has been used.