Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, July 2, 2018

Ouch, Andrew Bacevich Has a Point About WWI

The retired Army Officer, Professor, and All-Around Contrarian included this nugget in his 2012 George C. Marshall lecture:

Enshrined today as a story of freedom besieged, but ultimately triumphant, the familiar story began back in 1914 and continued until its (apparently) definitive conclusion in 1989. Call this the Short Twentieth Century.

Professor Bacevich
The less familiar alternative recounts a story in which freedom as such has figured only intermittently. It has centered on the question of who will dominate the region that we today call the Greater Middle East. Also kicking into high gear in 1914, this story continues to unfold in the present day, with no end in sight. Call this the story of the Long Twentieth Century.

The Short Twentieth Century, geographically centered on Eurasia, pitted great powers against one another. Although alignments shifted depending on circumstance, the roster of major players remained fairly constant. That roster consisted of Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan, with the United States biding its time before eventually picking up most of the marbles.

From time to time, the Long Twentieth Century has also pitted great powers against one another. Yet that struggle has always had a second element. It has been a contest between outsiders and insiders. Western intruders with large ambitions, preeminently Great Britain until succeeded by the United States, pursued their dreams of empire or hegemony, typically cloaked in professions of “benevolent assimilation,” uplift, or the pursuit of world peace. The beneficiaries of imperial ministrations—from Arabs in North Africa to Moros in the southern Philippines along with sundry groups in between—seldom proved grateful and frequently resisted.

The Short Twentieth Century had a moral and ideological aspect. If not especially evident at first, this became clearer over time.

Viewed in retrospect, President Woodrow Wilson’s effort to portray the cataclysm of 1914–1918 as a struggle of democracy versus militarism appears more than a little strained. The problem is not that Germany was innocent of the charge of militarism. It is, rather, that Western theories of democracy in those days left more than a little to be desired. After all, those who labored under the yoke of British, French, and American rule across large swathes of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East enjoyed precious little freedom. 

Source:  "The Revisionist Imperative: Rethinking Twentieth Century Wars," 2012 George C. Marshall Lecture; photo from Boston University.


  1. Deep down, Wilson believed he could make reality bend before idealism: hence the nobility of some of his "Fourteen Points". Sadly, the world works the other way around, as evidenced by his colony-owning Allies' rejection of the 'self-determination of all peoples' Point. OK to impose on the defeated Central Powers' empires, but don't interfere with ours, thank you very much. So Prof Bacevich has an undeniable point.

  2. You must mean “take over the defeated Central Powers’ empires,” as I’m reminded on warm Sundays when I see ladies in beautiful African dresses leaving a nearby Lutheran (not Episcopal) church.