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

Monday, January 14, 2019

Did the Great War Permanently Change Attitudes About War?

This was a #1 hit in 1970.

War, huh, good god.
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing,
Edwin Starr

Decapitated  Scottish Soldier, Western Front

From: "War Has Almost Ceased to Exist: An Assessment," Political Science QuarterlyProfessor John Mueller, 2009

As military historian Michael Howard has observed, “Before 1914 war was almost universally considered to be an acceptable, perhaps an inevitable and for many people a desirable way of settling international differences.”

Thus, five years before writing his treatise Perpetual Peace, Immanuel Kant held that “a prolonged peace favors the predominance of a mere commercial spirit, and with it a debasing self-interest, cowardice, and effeminacy, and tends to degrade the character of the nation.” Somewhat later Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that “war almost always enlarges the mind of a people and raises their character,” and Frederick the Great observed, “War opens the most fruitful field to all virtues, for at every moment constancy, pity, magnanimity, heroism, and mercy shine forth in it.” In 1895, the distinguished American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., told the Harvard graduating class that a world without the “divine folly of honor” would not be endurable, and the one thing he found to be “true and adorable” was “the faith… which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.”

For some, it followed that periodic wars were necessary to cleanse the nation from the decadence of peace. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, “It is mere illusion and pretty sentiment to expect much (even anything at all) from mankind if it forgets how to make war,” and J.A. Cramb, a British professor of history, proclaimed that universal peace would be “a world sunk in bovine content.”

In 1871, a French intellectual, Ernest Renan, called war “one of the conditions of progress, the cut of the whip which prevents a country from going to sleep, forcing satisfied mediocrity itself to leave its apathy.” In 1891, novelist Émile Zola found war to be “life itself. . . We must eat and be eaten so that the world might live. It is only warlike nations which have prospered: a nation dies as soon as it disarms.” Or, as Russian composer Igor Stravinsky put it simply, war is “necessary for human progress.”

European attitudes toward war changed profoundly at the time of World War I. There is no way to quantify this change except perhaps through a rough sort of content analysis. Before that war, it was very easy, as suggested above, to find serious writers, analysts, and politicians in Europe and the United States exalting war as desirable, inevitable, natural, progressive, and necessary.  After the war, however, such people become extremely rare, though the excitement of the combat experience continued (and continues) to have its fascination for some.

This abrupt and remarkable change has often been noted by historians and political scientists. In his impressive study of wars since 1400, Evan Luard observes that “the First World War transformed traditional attitudes toward war. For the first time there was an almost universal sense that the deliberate launching of a war could now no longer be justified.” Bernard Brodie points out that “a basic historical change had taken place in the attitudes of the European (and American) peoples toward war.” Arnold Toynbee called it the end of a “span of five thousand years during which war had been one of mankindʼs master institutions.”

British Mass Burial, Mesopotamia

Obviously, this change of attitude was not enough to keep developed countries out of all wars altogether. Most disastrously, it did not prevent the war of 1939–45—although the European half of that conflagration might not have been in the cards in any sense, and was mostly the product of the machinations of a single man—or atavism—Adolf Hitler. In addition, developed countries, while avoiding war with each other since that cataclysm, have engaged in three other types of war: colonial wars, wars generated in peripheral areas by the Cold War of 1945–1989, and what I call “policing wars” in the post-Cold War era. These three kinds of wars are discussed separately below.

However, the existence of these wars should not be allowed to cloud an appreciation for the shift of opinion that occurred at the time of the First World War, one that was dramatically reinforced by the Second. In the process, a standard, indeed classic, variety of war—war among developed countries—has become so rare and unlikely that it could well be considered to be obsolescent, if not obsolete. Reflecting on this phenomenon, Howard mused in 1991 that it had become “quite possible that war in the sense of major, organized armed conflict between highly developed societies may not recur, and that a stable framework for international order will become firmly established.” Two years later, the military historian and analyst John Keegan concluded, in his A History of Warfare, that the kind of war he was principally considering could well be in terminal demise: “War, it seems to me, after a lifetime of reading about the subject, mingling with men of war, visiting the sites of war and observing its effects, may well be ceasing to commend itself to human beings as a desirable or productive, let alone rational, means of reconciling their discontents.” By the end of the century, Mary Kaldor was suggesting that “the barbarity of war between states may have become a thing of the past,” and by the beginning of the new one, Robert Jervis had concluded that war among the leading states “will not occur in the future” or, in the words of Jeffrey Record, may have “disappeared altogether.

Editor's Comment:  Personally, I don't at all discount the possibility of wars between developed countries or between the developed world and border-less ideological alliances, but such struggles will not look anything like the two World Wars.  Read Professor Mueller's thoughts on the matter in his full article here:


  1. Yes, peoples attitude toward war has changed, but it has ceased to exist, and I fear will always exist, but not on the scale of the two world wars.

  2. “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Senior Chinese military officers writing in government publications (so we’re not talking about loose cannons) have been quite frank that they plan to dominate the Pacific by destroying all American aircraft carriers. The only thing that World War I accomplished was to convince some countries that it’s easier to surrender than to fight aggressors. I’m worried that we’re in the same position as the world was in the 19th Century: a lull between two conflagrations.

  3. Good summary of some observations about war's status and likelihood.
    I would complicate things, though, by arguing that this picture of interwar peace is flawed by the extensive amount of interwar fighting, from Ireland to the USSR.

  4. The Great War did not change attitudes to war among the young - especially among those just too young to have fought in that war. The forerunners of todays "politically correct" young people - the socialists, communists and anarchists - flocked to fight in the Spanish Civil War. It was the older generation who were accused of appeasement in the 1930s - Neville Chamberlain had been too old to fight in the Great War, but he was very aware of the awesome responsibility of leading his country into another, far more than Asquith had been in 1914.

    It was the threat of a nuclear holocaust that led young people to pacifism and an anti-war consensus, after WW2.

  5. I’m not sure that the protesters of the 60s were “anti-war” per se. Joe Margolies in his book “”1964” notes that the original draft card burners were all for the war in Vietnam; they just didn’t want to go themselves. And anyone who was at a university in 1972, as I was, saw first hand how, as soon as the draft ended, the anti-war demonstrations fell from participants numbering in the thousands to a couple of dozen. For most, it was never about war, it was only about themselves.