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Column: ‘Guns of August’ message resonates


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I hope humanity has learned a lesson from World War I. The war started when a small regional squabble exploded into a prolonged and bloody conflict. In 1914, millions of people paid with their lives for the failings of diplomats, emperors and generals.

The current crises in the Ukraine and the Middle East certainly have the potential to grow into much larger and bloodier confrontations.

One hundred years ago this summer, European leaders failed to find a peaceful solution after the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip, a teenage Yugoslav nationalist. If there is one constant in history, it is that wars have unforeseen consequences.

World War I put into motion the bloodiest century the world had ever seen. Over 16 million people died in that war alone. The United States lost over 116,000 people with another 200,000 wounded or missing. Considering our active involvement lasted less than two years, those are some staggering figures.

The conflict saw widespread use of new weapons that became the hallmarks of 20th-century warfare. These weapons included machine guns, poison gas, tanks and the airplane. But soldiers were not the only ones who suffered. For example, Turkey began a program of genocide against its Armenian population.

The Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans has 32 names from the war carved into its strong and silent columns. I think that our memorial is quite powerful, especially at night. The words of some of those men and women are particularly poignant.

I recently came across a document produced by the Indiana Historical Commission in 1921. It lists a short biography along with a photograph of every known Hoosier who died in World War I. Unfortunately, death would not stop at the end of the war.

The war created hunger, injuries and terrible living conditions. These factors contributed to a frightening influenza pandemic that caused an additional 50 million to 100 million fatalities worldwide, including the death of 650,000 Americans.

The conclusion of the war ignited more conflicts. Clumsy, selfish and unimaginative peace negotiations were a contributing factor to the outbreak of World War II. Of course, the end of World War II led to a protracted Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West. Then the end of the Cold War combined with the fallout from collapsing empires to create much of the global instability and security threats that confront us today.

During the war, the Allies decided to carve up the Middle East in a secret treaty known as the Sykes–Picot Agreement. Negotiations for the treaty broke promises made to native Arabs who had helped the Allies fight the Ottoman Empire. Of course, the world is still paying for the problems created by the treaty.

Our historical memory seems somewhat disconnected from this war. In contrast, on Aug. 4 the British dimmed lights across their country in commemoration of the start of the war. The battles of Verdun, Ypres and the Marne do not carry the same historical weight to us as Bull Run, Gettysburg or Normandy. There are many more movies made about World War II than World War I.

I think our memory of the war is complicated by the causes, as well as the outcomes of the war. Most of the countries fighting in World War I were trying to increase the size and power of their empires. It was a grisly conflict that accomplished little after

four years of fighting.

One of the best books I have read about the war is “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman, published in 1962. The book describes how inept diplomats, trigger-

happy generals and foolish monarchs failed to stop a regional crisis from becoming a world war. Allegedly, John F. Kennedy was so impressed by the book that he gave copies to his advisers so they could help him navigate the treacherous waters of the Cold War. Given the emergencies taking place around the globe today, I wish all world leaders would read it.

Aaron Miller has a doctorate in history and is an assistant professor of history at Ivy Tech Community College–Columbus.

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