The Guns of August

This month marks the centenary, the hundredth anniversary, of the beginning of the First World War, which erupted in Europe in August, 1914. Called the "Great War" and "The War to End All Wars," it was the most destructive war in history up to that point, with military deaths of about 9 to 10 million and combined military and civilian deaths of about 16 to 17 million. The war also facilitated the rapid spread of an influenza epidemic in 1918 that killed an estimated 50 million people.

“Fearful tests and trials await the people of God. The spirit of war is stirring the nations from one end of the earth to the other.”-- Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 17. (1909)

 WWI machine gun crew wearing gas masks

WWI machine gun crew wearing gas masks

The war seems to have had no rationale, other than that the European powers had been expecting it, arming for it, and meticulously planning for it for a generation. It had to happen eventually, because the European powers had entered into systems of alliances that could convert any crisis into a general war. The spark that lit the fuse was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by underground Serbian nationalists known as “the Black Hand.” In response, the Austrians, who were backed by the Germans, made demands on the Serbs, who were backed by the Russians, who were backed by the French. No one would back down. When Germany violated Belgian neutrality, Britain backed France and Russia.

It is hard to believe that the great powers of Europe should all have gone to war, and eventually bled themselves white, over the death of one corset-wearing Austrian prince. Perhaps the war's causes appeared sufficient to those who started it because their conception of war was formed by the relatively short and limited wars of the 19th Century. (The French and the Germans were thinking back to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which lasted less than ten months and resulted in 168,000 deaths.) But in light of the millions killed and the civilizational catastrophe it grew into, the Great War's causes appear absurdly trivial, such that historians continue to look, without success, for some justifying rationale. I believe Ellen White correctly named the war's real cause: The spirit of war stirring the nations from one end of the earth to the other.

 Royal Irish Rifles at the Battle of the Somme, July 1916

Royal Irish Rifles at the Battle of the Somme, July 1916

The war was so much more deadly than 19th Century conflicts because of advances in military technology: the machine gun, modern artillery with high explosive shells, and poison gas. Defensive technology and techniques had outpaced offensive ones, such that, once the war on the Western Front had settled down into trench warfare in the autumn of 1914, the lines never moved more than a few miles in any direction until the autumn of 1918, near the war's end. Defenses included fortified entrenchments with concrete pillboxes, the machine gun, barbed wire deployed in front of the trenches, and underground dugouts to shelter troops during artillery barrages. Assaulting these positions without effective artillery barrages sustained for days—and tunneling forward to mine and destroy the enemy's dugouts—was suicide. Even when such assaults succeeded in carrying the first trench line, there was usually a secondary trench and dugout system a mile or two behind the front line. The rare successful assault would soon out-distance its relatively immobile artillery, and the lack of covering fire would leave it vulnerable to counter-attack by enemy reserves, such that some or even all of the gains of a costly attack could quickly be rolled back.

 An early tank, a new weapon of the Great War

An early tank, a new weapon of the Great War

The technologies that would allow the Second World War to be far more mobile—tanks, self-propelled artillery, effective bombing and strafing aircraft—were all conceived or invented during WWI, but were not sufficiently developed to break the murderous stalemate. Casualties were far higher during WWII, but that war raged back and forth across continents, whereas WWI was largely contested over a few thousand yards of nightmarish terrain. Hence, there was a sense of utter futility about the Great War that lingers to this day, and defines the war in popular imagination.

 Trench warfare

Trench warfare

The United States did not enter the war until April, 1917, more than two and a half years after it began, and because we had only a small standing army, we did not send large numbers of troops to the battlefield until the summer of 1918, about five months before the war ended. By that time, we were sending 10,000 troops a day to Europe, eventually deploying 2 million men to the theater. It is a measure of the destructiveness of the war that, although the U.S. fought it on terms equal to the other powers for only a few months, we incurred about 110,000 killed, more than all of our post WWII conflicts combined, including Korea (37,000), Vietnam (58,500), the Iraq War (4,500) and Afghanistan (2,300).

The Great War had profound results. Four world empires passed away: The German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, and the Ottoman. The German Empire with its Kaiser (Caesar) was replaced by a weak republic that debased the currency, creating a hyperinflation; the chaos of the Wiemar Republic paved the way for Hitler and the Nazis, and another world war within a generation. The Austro-Hungarian Empire gave way to several states, including Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and a sizable expansion of Romania (which had joined the war on the winning side). Russia was badly mauled in the war, a military disaster that thoroughly discredited the regime of the Czar (Caesar, again), leading to a successful revolution. As in Germany, Caesarism in Russia was replaced by a weak republic, then by a totalitarian regime: the Kerensky government and then the Bolsheviks. Communism and the struggle against it was to shape much of the rest of the 20th Century; at its height communism prevailed from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, east all the way across Europe and Asia to the 38th parallel dividing Korea. This atheistic totalitarian ideology made it very difficult for Christians to spread the gospel.

Most pertinent today are the consequences of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Why the Turks joined the Central Powers is itself a fascinating tale, but it boils down to (1) British diplomatic and naval failures, (2) the Turks' strong ties to Germany—German officers had modernized and re-organized the Turkish military—and (3) the Turks' historic enemy, Russia, was aligned with France and Great Britain. The Ottomans inflicted heavy losses on the British, Australian and New Zealand forces at Gallipoli, but eventually were defeated by British offensives in Mesopotamia and Palestine. The war reduced the Turks to a homeland in Asia Minor/Anatolia and a small segment of Europe surrounding Istanbul. Britain and France assumed control of the rest of the pre-war Ottoman Empire, which sooner or later became Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel.

 The Somme: Over 19,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day of this offensive, July 1, 1916

The Somme: Over 19,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day of this offensive, July 1, 1916

In November, 1917, Britain's foreign secretary and former Tory prime minister, Arthur James Balfour, sent a letter to Baron Rothschild for transmission to the Zionist community, stating that Britain was favorably disposed toward the creation of Jewish homeland in Palestine. This letter, which became known as the Balfour Declaration, was motivated by a desire to secure Jewish cooperation in Britain's ongoing fight with the Turks in Palestine, as well as to motivate world Jewry in favor of the allies and against the Central Powers. It would be another 31 years before Israel came into existence, and when it finally did, its enraged Arab neighbors simultaneously attacked it. Jews throughout the Arab world were persecuted, and most chose to flee to Israel. For example, Baghdad had a large Jewish community, but between 1948 and 1951 over 121,000 Jews left Iraq for Israel.

The slow death and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire has proven a catastrophe for Christians. The Ottomans had long practiced the Millet System, in which religious minorities were largely autonomous and self-governing. The sultans, although never questioning the framework of Islamic supremacism, were cosmopolitan and generally tolerant of the religious minorities within their realm. Moreover, by the later 19th Century, the Ottoman sultans were so dependent upon British and French protection that they had agreed to outlaw the Jizya, a special poll tax levied by Muslims upon Christians and Jews, and relieve other disabilities imposed upon non-Muslims.

The Great War, and the accession to power of the “Young Turks,” ended that period of relative tolerance. The Young Turks, led by Enver Pasha, rejected the cosmopolitan, imperial model in favor of a unitary nation-state; they implemented a policy of “demographic reorganization” to favor ethnic Turks and liquidate or disperse non-Turks. Their mass “deportation” of the Armenians in 1915 killed over one million Armenian Christians. The Kurds were next: during the winter of 1916-17, the Young Turks deported and effectively caused the death of about 350,000 of them.  (In the 1980s, the Kurds would have to endure Saddam's attempted genocide, the Al-Anful campaign, and today are facing extinction at the hands of ISIL.)  Assyrian Christians also suffered considerable ethnic cleansing at Turkish hands.

After the Armistice of November 1918, which ended the First World War, fighting continued in Turkey, as the Turks struggled to expel French, British, Greek, and other forces, and retain control of the peninsula of Asia Minor/Anatolia. The Turks, under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, won a 1919-1922 war with Greece, after which they liquidated, in an act of ethnic cleansing, the Greek Christian areas of Asia Minor, such as Smyrna.

The new Arab nations created after the war varied widely in terms of their toleration of Christians. From its inception, Saudi Arabia was a Wahhabi, ultra-Muslim kingdom, allowing no Christians in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and no Bibles into the kingdom. By contrast, Lebanon was religiously diverse, Francophone, and highly Westernized; Maronite Christians were constitutionally guaranteed the presidency of Lebanon. For much of their history, Iraq and Syria followed an ideology of Arab secular socialism—Baathism.

In recent years, the status of religious minorities in the Arab world has rapidly deteriorated. American blundering in Iraq has been catastrophic for Christians; in 2003, Iraq had around 1.1 million Christians; today, an estimated 400,000 remain. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/the Levant (ISIS/ISIL), the new Jihadists on the block, who want to restore the caliphate that Kemal abolished in 1924, seem determined to drive out the remaining Christians and other non-Muslims. Ancient communities of Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, as well as Yazidis, communities that pre-date the founding of Islam in the 7th Century, are being exterminated in this latest round of Islamic conquest. The threat of genocide is so extreme that GC President Ted Wilson has taken the unusual step of calling for international cooperation to address the problem.  So the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire has been at times a slow-motion disaster for Christians; at other times—like now—a cataclysm.

Another lingering result of the Great War is a loss of civilizational self-confidence. The Great War stands as a permanent indictment of the civilization that somnambulated into it, then stubbornly prosecuted it despite epic loss of life and manifest futility. At least that's what our college professors taught us; I've never been sure whether this was really sensed, or just an academic's convenient excuse for rejecting the pillars of pre-war European civilization. And yet it is obvious that Western elites have, for whatever reason, lost confidence in our civilization. In 1914, almost all Westerners, including the ruling elites, accepted that Western, Christian civilization was superior, obligating us to colonize and rule the rest of the world, or at least to non-violently evangelize Western religion, law, commerce, and culture. Today, by contrast, multiculturalism—the idea that all cultures are of equal value, with none better than any other—has become a guiding ideology accepted by all Western governments and influencing a range of policy issues.

A century on, the guns of August still echo.

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