It’s Not the Guns of August — It’s the Trenches of October

100 years later, we still spend too much time talking about how World War I started. The real lessons are in why it lasted so long. 


Assuming you’re not living in a cave or completely off the grid (in which case you won’t be reading this), you’re probably aware that this week marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. The war was arguably the greatest man-made disaster of modern times: it bankrupted the European powers, killed or wounded some 37 million people, allowed communists to seize power in Russia, and sowed the seeds for an even more destructive world war two decades later.

Not surprisingly, the process by which the war broke out — the so-called July Crisis — has fascinated historians and political scientists for decades. How could European leaders –some of whom were quite worldly, experienced, and sophisticated — not realize where they were headed and take timely steps to prevent the looming catastrophe? If the conflict was essentially a preventive war launched by Germany (which feared Russia’s growing power) why didn’t the Germans realize their fears were overblown and why didn’t the rest of Europe recognize the danger the Balkan crisis posed? Alternatively, if the war was mostly due to miscalculations and misunderstandings — as Barbara Tuchman famously argued in The Guns of August and Christopher Clark’s recent book The Sleepwalkers suggests — how could smart and experienced leaders commit such a tragic series of blunders? 

These are important questions for students of war, and it’s not surprising this conflict looms large in more recent discussions of crisis management, escalation, nuclear stability, and hegemonic war. But the outbreak of the war isn’t the only important question to consider on its centennial. 

An equally important question and one with considerable contemporary relevance is: why did the war last so long? After all, if World War I had ended quickly — either with a decisive German victory or with a rapid negotiated settlement — the event we now call "World War I" might be seen today as a minor great power skirmish instead of a world-shattering event. So instead of focusing solely on why the war broke out, we should also ask why it was so difficult to end. 

Why, indeed? The first reason is obvious, and nearly a tautology: the war lasted over four years because neither the Triple Alliance nor the Triple Entente was able to deliver a decisive blow against the other side, despite unprecedented carnage. Offensive warfare proved to be much harder than the pre-war "cult of the offensive" had assumed, and when Germany’s initial drive westward failed to reach Paris, fighting on the Western Front soon devolved into mostly static trench warfare. Even on the Eastern Front, where the geographic scope and mobility was greater, it proved impossible for Germany to strike a rapid and decisive blow against their less capable Russian foes.

The war also dragged on because the main antagonists were industrial powers with large populations and diverse economies. They could lose many battles, suffer many killed and wounded men, fire tons of ammunition at each other, endure blockades, and still have the resources to continue fighting. Consider that Russia lost virtually every battle it fought against Germany from 1914 onward, but it took nearly three years to drive Russia out of the war. In the end, the Allies won because they had superior overall resources, and in a war of attrition like this, sheer material resources count for a lot. Before the United States entered, the Triple Entente had a 3:2 advantage in raw power potential; after the United States joined the war, its advantage increased to 2.5 to 1 in population and overall industrial strength. Even so, it took a very long time and millions dead before Germany and Austria-Hungary were bled white and finished off. 

Ending the war was difficult because each side’s territorial ambitions and other war aims kept increasing, which made it harder for them to even consider some sort of negotiated settlement. War aims continued to expand in part because each side kept recruiting new allies by promising them territorial gains after the war, which both increased the total number of combatants and widened the geographical scope of the war. Germany promised the Ottoman Empire slices of Russian territory to get it to join the Dual Alliance; in response, London promised several Arab leaders independent kingdoms if they revolted against the Ottomans. The British also bribed Italy to realign by offering it territory along the Adriatic Sea. But all these war-time promises required each side to try to win an even bigger victory, which in turn just spurred their enemies to fight even harder to prevent it.

Each side’s ambitions also grew because politicians had to justify the enormous sacrifices their countrymen were making. The tyranny of "sunk costs" quickly sank in: the more each side lost, the more it had to promise to deliver once victory was achieved. By 1916, therefore, German war aims included annexing Luxemburg, substantial portions of France, making Belgium a vassal state, gaining new colonies in Africa, and carving out a vast new empire in Eastern Europe. For their part, allied war aims included a complete German withdrawal from the territory it had conquered, plus "national self-determination" and the establishment of democratic rule, which implied the dismemberment of the Austrian empire and the reshaping of Germany’s political order, something neither country would agree to until it was totally defeated.  

A negotiated settlement was never seriously attempted, in part because censorship and wartime propaganda convinced citizens on both sides that victory was just around the corner. Tight military censorship ensured that populations back home got an overly upbeat picture of how the fighting was going, with reports from the front tending to omit bad news, portray defeats as victories, and offer upbeat assessments of future progress. As Prime Minister Lloyd George told a friend in 1916, "If the people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know." 

Furthermore, wartime propaganda portrayed the enemy as brutal monsters guilty of vast atrocities, and these malign images of the enemy hardened as the number of dead and wounded increased. How could politicians seriously entertain negotiating peace with the vicious opponents who were busily killing off the nation’s youth?  Meanwhile, governments boosted public support by portraying the war as a noble crusade; in England, for instance, thousands of copies of poems like John McCrae’s "In Flanders Fields" were distributed to encourage the population not to "break faith with us who die."  In this atmosphere, anyone who seriously proposed negotiating an end to the fighting — as Lord Lansdowne in England or historian Hans Delbrück in Germany did — was quickly denounced as a traitor who was undermining morale at home.             

Lastly, World War I was hard to stop because the militaries themselves proved difficult for civilians to control — especially in Germany — and they continued to believe the war was winnable and that there was "no substitute for victory."

Generals Ludendorff and Hindenberg were running Germany by 1917; Kaiser Wilhelm II was by that time largely a figurehead and any civilians who tried to oppose military policy were removed from office. Ironically, German military decisions played a key role in their ultimate defeat: the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 finally brought the United States into the war and tipped the balance decisively against them, and a final German offensive on the Western Front failed in part because the expansionist aims of Germany’s military commanders had kept dozens of German divisions in the east long after Russia had left the war. 

The tragic experience of World War I carries obvious lessons for political leaders today. 

First, and most obviously, it is much easier to get into a war than it is to get out of one. Even the much smaller wars the United States has fought since 1992 lasted much longer and cost far more than politicians originally forecast. This is not to say that wars should never be fought, but wise leaders must always remember that military force is a crude instrument whose effects are difficult to forecast. Once the dogs of war are loose, there is no telling where they will drag a country, whatever its initial intentions may have been.

Second, the long and bitter experience of World War I reminds that truth is the "first casualty" in war, and gleaning accurate information about how a war is going is extremely difficult. Soldiers have a natural tendency to tell superiors what the latter want to hear, commanders will spin upbeat stories to maintain popular support so that they have time to deliver a victory, and the media are easily co-opted by their own feelings of patriotism and by sophisticated media management strategies (such as "embedding").  

This problem continues to bedevil us today: just look at all the upbeat reports of progress that we heard about Iraq or Afghanistan since 2002, and look at where both countries are now. Or ask yourself whether the "war on terror" is going well or not, and whether the vast sums spent on "dirty wars" in Yemen, Somalia, South Asia, or the Middle East been worth it. Today, as in World War I, the people paying for these wars, and providing the sons and daughters to fight them, are kept mostly in the dark about whether we are winning or losing.

Third, the tendency to demonize and dehumanize the enemy remains a central feature of modern warfare, just as it was during the Great War. Today, Hamas offers up anti-Semitic and conspiratorial depictions of its Israeli oppressors, while Israelis increasingly embrace racist depictions of Palestinians. Sunni and Shia continue to kill each other over a doctrinal dispute dating back to the seventh century. Muslims and Hindus attack each other in India and elsewhere. If you believe you might have to kill a large number of foreigners, it helps to convince yourself that they aren’t fully human. But World War I warns that treating enemies as if they are subhuman beasts only makes the conflict last longer, because politicians cannot compromise with a hated foe and many will think it is foolhardy even to try. And the longer a war lasts, the less likely it is that any of the warring parties will end up better off.

And remember this too: the only country that emerged from World War I in a stronger position than in 1914 was the United States of America. Why? Because it was the last country to enter the war, it fought far from its own territory, and its losses were extremely light compared to the other major combatants. As the world reflects on the carnage that began one hundred years ago, those pundits and policymakers who always want U.S. forces to take the lead might give some careful thought to that lesson as well.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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