by John Zmirak
Students of history will always find the month of August a little ominous. In August 1920, the Red Army invading Poland (led by neoconservative hero Leon Trotsky) nearly captured Warsaw and spilled into central Europe, whence it might well have conquered a prostrate Germany, Austria, and Hungary — just for starters. The heroic Polish defeat of the Soviet forces will always be known in that land as the “Miracle of the Vistula,” since the battle raged in the octave of the Feast of the Assumption, and many Polish soldiers claimed that they saw Our Lady appear over the battlefield, which spurred them on to fight.
It was on August 25, 1939, that Adolph Hitler sealed an alliance with Joseph Stalin to jointly invade the very same Poland — a country that had relied on empty promises of protection from faraway England and France, and defied his demands for territory.
On August 6 and August 9, 1945, our country became the only nation in history to use atomic weapons — on cities, not on armies — to end the war begun six Augusts before.
It’s easy to forget that all these appalling Augusts have their origin in August 1914, when a series of diplomatic blunders, crossed signals, and bureaucratic mechanisms (such as interlocking alliances and automatic mobilizations) set loose the monsters that would rage for the rest of our history’s bloodiest century — when more civilians were murdered by governments, the numbers suggest, than in every other century of recorded history combined. Unlike the Second World War, whose brutality can be blamed on the sociopathic hatreds of a single man, the First began in a welter of confusing claims and counterclaims over disputed territory, demands by ethnic minorities for autonomy, and crackdowns by central governments. Then followed appeals by those minorities to neighboring Great Powers, which set off a chain reaction as other Great Powers stepped in to “safeguard their interests” and “contain aggression” on the part of rival nations.
In other words, the First World War started in the same way that the Russian-American War of 2008 might well begin. It ended with the destruction of three of the regimes that had entered it, 40 million casualties, a bankrupt continent, and the replacement of fairly benevolent monarchies with ideological dictatorships. (For instance, almost every square inch of the Habsburg monarchy would be ruled in turn by Hitler, then Stalin.)
The Europe of July 1914 was a place much like America today: Despite rapid social change and intellectual ferment (Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx had recently made their marks), the Continent had seen 60 years of nearly uninterrupted peace and economic expansion. New technologies made it possible to build things faster and cheaper than ever, while improved communications and transport knit together distant lands as never before. I don’t think they used the word “globalization,” but that was certainly what was happening, as foreign trade linked Asia to Europe and America, and a web of global investment broke down historic barriers. It was an age of “progress” that inspired utopian visions of a future without drudgery, social classes, or widespread poverty. It was thought that the sufferings that had led men to seek in Faith an “opiate” were gradually disappearing, as would the churches.
The Europe that waltzed its way up to and over the brink in the 1914 was the world you read about in the stories of Sherlock Holmes, and the novels of Edith Wharton — where the worst monsters prowling the earth were petty criminals and gold-digging bachelors. But once it passed the brink, as if crossing the unmarked border separating Earth from Hell, it would find itself in the blood-soaked mud of No Man’s Land, huddled behind barbed wire under clouds of poison gas. Both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien would slog through those trenches, along with millions of others, and see their closest friends mowed down.
What led the men of 1914 to throw it all away? How did Christians in so many nations convince themselves that this conflict over petty, squalid stakes — the competing claims of Serbia and Austria Hungary over godforsaken Bosnia — met the high threshold set by the Christian churches for what constitutes a just war? Just as men had fooled themselves in every preceding century, I suppose. And their bishops duly lined up behind their governments, eager to avoid accusations that they were “unpatriotic,” and essentially in defiance of the pope. Pope Pius X died just after war broke out — of heartbreak, it is said — and Pope Benedict XV renewed his peace offensive, which gained the support of only a single ruler, the Habsburg Emperor Karl I.
One difference comes to mind. In previous centuries, most wars had been declared by rulers with more or less arbitrary power to make war or not. No popular assembly had to approve Louis XIV’s vicious campaigns of conquest, much less Napoleon’s wars. But in 1914, nearly every nation in Europe (except Tsarist Russia) had some form of representative government. Had popular opinion been strongly against the outbreak of conflict, even Tsar Nicholas would have thought twice about mobilizing to stand behind “brave little Serbia.” But popular opinion offered no such barrier. In every nation, the crowds who thronged the streets in August 1914 were cheering the prospect of standing up to the “bullies” in the neighborhood (to the Germans, the Russians, the Austrians, the French). They decked the streets with flowers and cheered the bumbling bureaucrats and hapless kings as they sent their nation’s young men into the meat grinder.
And in each nation, a strong case could be made that this was the time for war. Each country had deep historic grievances that negotiations had never rectified. Every government could offer evidence of abuses by its enemies, and warn of the grave consequences that would ensue if they didn’t draw a line in the sand right here, right now — to halt the advance of (respectively):
- Germanic militarism
- the Russian hordes
- the bloodthirsty and bigoted Serbs
- the scheming, haughty Austrians
- the anti-clerical Third Republic (still engaged in a persecution of the Church)
- perfidious and hypocritical England
And so on and on until by November 1918, some 20 million men lay dead in the muck.
And for what? In the end, when all the propaganda was exposed and the hidden agendas held up wriggling in the light, the war was the product of short-sighted and unimaginative leaders who wished to seem strong and resolute in the eyes of the public, their kings, and sometimes their women. (One highly placed Austrian warmonger, we have learned, pushed for war to impress his mistress.) With the distance of history, we can see that World War I was not a crusade for democracy or anything else — but rather a snuff version of Seinfeld: a War about Nothing.
Each nation, it seems, was largely lied into war, with incomplete or false information and self-serving accounts of the issues at stake. As this fact sank in with the war-weary, shell-shocked populations of Britain and France, those nations lost the taste for self-defense, and allowed their military establishments to dwindle. They elected even more short-sighted leaders — but instead of jingoistic land pirates, they voted in time-servers keen on keeping peace at any price. The power vacuum created was quickly filled by Hitler, and then (for some 40 years) by Stalin.
I hope that Americans making policy in the face of a Russian state dominating its neighbors will remember that other August, so many years and millions of lives ago. When we’re urged to indignation by one-sided news reports, when a nation most of us have never heard of is magically transformed into a “vital security interest,” when a politician whose closest aide has worked as a flak for that country calls on us to intervene on its behalf, and his opponent competes to prove he’s every bit as “tough,” even though he’s a Democrat, I hope . . . that we’re a little skeptical.
As we would be in other circumstances where life and death were at stake — say, if a doctor told us that a pregnancy was ectopic and needed to be removed to save the mother’s life. Even if it proved necessary to commit an act that indirectly ended an innocent life, which was justified by the principle of double effect, we would undertake it with grim reluctance, perhaps with tears. Starting a war deserves the same grave consideration. It is nothing to cheer about.
I hope that we will exercise the prudent, solemn judgment demanded of us as Christians when we nudge up to the brink of that horrible abyss we call modern war — in which whole cities can be obliterated in minutes, in which we are told no one is innocent and every target is a legitimate military objective, in which the whole of morality is tossed over the side in the first few hours of conflict. I hope we’re a little smarter than those crowds that thronged the streets in London, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin and St. Petersburg on those hot summer days in 1914. That we sift the words of our own rulers, and resist the temptation to paint the leaders of rival nations as rising Hitlers, and raise the assertion of our power to the status of a principle. That for every time we read something on Fox News or in The Weekly Standard banging the drums for war, we would fact-check it at Antiwar.com, a first-rate resource run by Old Right, small-government activists who constantly cite Catholic just war teaching.
I hoped for the same things in November 2002, and paid no price for being contrary. Of course, the warmongers paid no price for being dead wrong: They still dominate leading wings of both political parties. Apart from the enormous Iraq-shaped hole in our country’s budget, most of us have paid rather lightly for our callous willingness to “trust the president — he’s pro-life!”
Except, of course, for those veterans at Walter Reed being fitted for artificial limbs, those children who’ll grow up fatherless or motherless, those bodies decaying in neat little rows at Arlington. They trusted their government, they signed up to fight for their country. They believed that its civilian leaders would only send them on missions vital to its survival, that we would ask of them the ultimate sacrifice only in the last emergency. That is what Christ demands of us. If we wage war recklessly, we are no better than the pagans. We’re worse, since we should have known better.
And on the Day of Judgment, those men we sent to kill and die in the worst circumstances imaginable — to end their lives not in quiet contemplation of the Cross but in a frenzy of bullets and screams and burning flesh — will rise, restored to wholeness, bright with glory. They will gather beside the “awesome judgment seat of Christ.” And they will accuse us.
John Zmirak is author of, among other books, the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor. He is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire.