The Dormancy of War

There are a number of alternate histories that place the beginnings of globalization much earlier than our current 1970s era pop-sociology conception.1 In these alternate conceptions, rather than a twentieth century phenomenon, a result of air travel or information technology, globalization is a continuous process stretching back hundreds of years, or perhaps running throughout all human history. Or perhaps it is something cyclical, proceeding in fits and starts, but the current bout only the latest in a long series.2

Another indicator here might be found in military history. We are blind to it because of a certain misnomer: only in the twentieth century are wars declared ‘world wars’ right in their titles. Ergo prior wars must have been parochial. But consider an alternate military history, more cyclical than linear. The trend in warfare towards globalization in scope (globalization as a continuation into the strategic of the tactical logic of flanking) and totalization in intensity is also long and runs a number of centuries prior to the twentieth.

Though only a European war, the Thirty Years War is often construed as the first time totalization comes clearly into view. There is a growing recognition that the Seven Years War / French and Indian War is “the first global war”.3

Battle of the Pyramids, 21 July 1798

Battle of the Pyramids, part of France’s Egyptian campaign, fought 21 July 1798, portrayed by François-Louis-Joseph Watteau

There is similarly growing recognition that the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were also total and if not global, at least on the way to global. They were the impetus for Clausewitz’s idea of absolute war. David Bell has called them “the first total war.” They were fought from Spain to Moscow, in north Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, Syria and the Caribbean. Napoleon briefly considered marching the French army overland to attack the British in India. It was first in 1795 at the Battle of Muizenberg during the French Revolutionary Wars, then again in 1806 at the Battle of Blaauwberg during the Napoleonic Wars that the British acquired the Cape Colony from the Netherlands (at the time a vassal of France). The Mauritius Campaign was a series of naval and marine operations fought between the British and the French in the Indian Ocean from 1809-1811. In the midst of the penultimate example of first-generation warfare, France simultaneously fought a counterinsurgency war in Spain. On a brief hiatus from fighting Napoleon, Britain took on the United States in the War of 1812. The French Revolutionary War entailed the Levée en masse, the sort of mass conscription that would not be seen again until the First World War. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was comprised of 600,000 multi-national soldiers. The British naval blockade of France caused Napoleon to create the Continental System, a continent-wide embargo of Britain.

Imagine what the nineteenth century would have looked like had the Crimean War, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, the Boer War or the Spanish-American War continued the trend from the Thirty Years War to the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars to the First World War. But that’s not what happened. Instead, total war, global war went dormant from 1815 until 1914. What transpired during this period were classical wars as a continuation of politics, wars fought for limited objectives, not wars of survival and annihilation. And then, after a century of dormancy, global total war returned.

One theory is progressive. That the wars of the twentieth century were so destructive that humanity looked over the precipice and took a step back, that great power wars came to an end in the cataclysms of the twentieth century, that this is the end of history. After the end of history, there may still be limited wars as a continuation of normal politics, wars of the type of the nineteenth century, but there will never again be the absolute war that we have seen in the past.4

But perhaps war is like solar cycles, with periodic minima and maxima. There does seem to be an alteration between twenty to thirty years of great wars followed by centuries of peace (see graph below). There was the bellum phase of The Thirty Years War from 1618 until 1648, followed by a pax phase of 144 years from 1648 until 1792. The bellum phase of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars lasted the 23 years of 1792 to 1815 followed by the Pax Britannica of 1815-1914.

Pax-Bella Cycle, 1618-2013

This was followed by the thirty year bellum phase of 1914-1945. Some historians — taking as inspiration Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s assessment of the Treaty of Versailles that “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years” — have begun to unify this period under the title of the “Second Thirty Years War.” This is not an unreasonable thing to do. The first Thirty Years war wasn’t as unified as its modern title would suggest. It had its lulls and different phases involving different constellations of combatants as well.

Since 1945 we have lived in the logic of pax phase named “The American Century,” and rather than seeing it as but the latest iteration of a cycle, under our comfortable conception of progress, we imagine it as eternal: it is the end of history (Francis Fukuyama is but this iteration’s Norman Angell).

How could there be such cycles? Perhaps a century is how long it takes society to unburden itself from a particularly painfully ingrained ‘lesson of history.’ A century is the timeframe of historical forgetting. By the time the July Crisis came around, the peoples of Europe had forgotten the cataclysm of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and once more longed for war. Similarly today the United States is in the process of unlearning the meaninglessness of modern total warfare. Or perhaps a century is the durability of institutions. The Concert of Europe lasted that long. America’s international liberalism (the UN, GATT / WTO, IMF and IBRD, the EEC, NATO) will have a similar life expectancy. Or perhaps there is a relationship (that perhaps we might theorize via a Marxist- Leninist dialectical materialist mechanism) between state power shifts and economic Kondratiev supercycles.

This is perhaps preposterous. A grand narrative positing this level of law-adherence was the sort of thing that a historian of three or four generations ago could expound. But today we recognize that the phenomena under consideration are too complicated to be treated like physics, to be modeled as a variant of a sine wave. With only two and a half cycles — and a little cobbling and fudging to get even that — we certainly don’t have large enough of a sample size to induce any sound laws. Can the First and Second World Wars so easily be considered a continuity? What about the Seven Years War about which so much was made above? What about the American Civil War, often considered a preview of the totalization of war that was to come. In this regard, postmodernism, with its rejection of grand narratives is an attempt to become more scientific, more empirically grounded, is a rejection of grandiose abstractions. Today we are more prone to write off such a periodization of war and peace as merely an artifact of the evolutionary happenstance that primates have ten fingers (hence a base ten number system) rather than anything real.

But my real point here is not this particular theory, but that in our everyday thinking about this matter we’ve already taken a law and chalked it up as a safe operating assumption. Every bit as absurd as a simple cyclical theory of global war is the similarly simplistic theory of progress. I think there is a more limited point to be taken, compatible with modern sensibilities concerning the limits of historical enquiry — namely that rather than progress having safely transported us to the far shore of war, progress is as much a scientifically unsound derivation as is cyclicality and that absent human vigilance, total, global war stands ever ready to make its return.

Why does this matter? Because, again, the progressive, end of history theory is one in which many of us place a great deal of confidence. Uncontrolled escalation is a thing about which politicians no longer trouble themselves. That U.S. involvement in Syria might result in a larger conflict of the United States with Russia, or that a U.S. strike on Iranian nuclear facilities might produce a war engulfing all of Central Asia are scenarios that are beyond consideration owing to our confident, but implicit, knowledge of the laws of history.

But it should be noted how often the logic of history has covertly altered. The inflection points between the pax and bellum phases are subterranean. Its changed circumstances are only uncovered by us creatures of limited perception in out-of-control moments of shock and surprise.

Notes

  1. World Systems Theory, Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (1989), Andre Gunder Frank’s The World System: Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand? (1993), Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson’s Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy (1999).

  2. Harold James’s The End of Globalization: Lessons from the Great Depression (2001)

  3. Daniel Baugh’s The Global Seven Years War 1754-1763: Britain and France in a Great Power Contest (2011); William Nester’s The First Global War: Britain, France, and the Fate of North America, 1756-1775 (2000); Tom Pocock’s Battle for Empire: The Very First World War, 1756-1763 (1998).

  4. Another, perhaps less grandiose expression of a similar sentiment would be James J. Sheehan’s Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe (2008).

International Finance and the First World War in the East

The two things I’m working on right now are:

  1. Non-state actors and the First World War contest over areas of the near eastern empires — Hapsburg, Ottoman and Russian competition over the Balkans, Galicia, the Caucasus, Central Asia (“the Great Game”), the Adriatic Sea, the Black Sea and the Turkish Straits; and
  2. International financial and monetary economics in the late Long Nineteenth Century, namely from the late 1880s to the turn of the century. Specifically I am researching on a Master’s thesis on the classical gold standard, the Goschen Conversion, British international investment, “the economic taproot of imperialism”, the Long Depression of 1873-1896, the Baring Crisis, the U.S. Panic of 1893, the depression of the 1890s and the Morgan-Belmont Syndicate of 1895.

Do these have anything to do with one another beyond chronological adjacency? My interests here have been partly inspired by a few observations made by Samuel R. Williamson, Jr. at a Wilson Center discussion (July 1914: Revisited and Revised—or The End of the German Paradigm, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C., 19 March 2012). In an answer (to a question posed by one of my advisors) during the question and answer period, he said, “The financial thing is one of those subtexts that needs to be studied” (at 1:09:31). Then in his concluding remarks he spent some time looking ahead, assessing what about the origin of the First World War remained understudied, returning to the issue of finance:

As we were talking about the financial thing, I was thinking about an injunction I was given in 1962 on the way to England by Ernest May, Sam Wells and my mentor, which was, “Look for the finance papers. You’ll find that’s what you need to be looking for. Look for the finance papers.” Well, I didn’t find the finance papers, but I found a lot of other good stuff. But the finance papers, there’s some real loads of stuff that are going to change the way people look at this and about the interaction. What’s interesting is, is whether many of the banks will not have destroyed this simply over the course of passage of time. The banks, just like about everybody else, prunes papers. And so this may be one of the things we will never know as much as we want to know about, but it’s an important subtext for the future. (at 1:22:10)

In this regard there are two research projects in progress that I can hardly wait to get my hands on:

  1. The first is that of Jennifer Siegel, an Associate Professor of modern European diplomatic and military history in the Department of History at Ohio State University. Her dissertation, completed at Yale University under the guidance of Paul Kennedy was published as Endgame: Britain, Russia and the Final Struggle for Central Asia (I.B. Tauris, 2002). She is currently working on a book to be titled For Peace and Money: International Finance and the Making and Unmaking of the Triple Entente, which will be “…an exploration of British and French private and government bank loans to Russia in the late imperial period up to the Genoa Conference of 1922…”
  2. The second is history doctoral candidate Hassan Malik’s dissertation, Bankers and Bolsheviks: International Finance and the Russian Revolution, 1880-1930, to be completed this year at Harvard under the supervision of Niall Ferguson. A longer description of what his dissertation will deal with can be found at the Social Science Research Council Dissertation Development Fellow page for his project. His twitter feed is here.

From these two projects, it seems that Professor Williamson’s assessment that finance remains one of the fecund future areas of research on the First World War era is an astute one (presumably it’s based on his finger on the pulse of research underway, not just proscription or surmise).

As long as I’m on the topic, I may also mention a third, related work that I am on watch for. In the new Preface to the 2010 reissue of Feroz Ahmad’s The Young Turks: The Committee of Union and Progress in Turkish Politics, 1908-1914 he writes that he is working on a sequel to cover the war years. His faculty page at T.C. Yeditepe Üniversitesi also lists a work, Turkey and the First World War, 1914-1918 as forthcoming. There have been a few recent books on the role of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, but one by Feroz Ahmad could be the most significant of the crop.

For a student such as myself, the next few years are on a course to be promising ones.

Update, 19 May 2013: And Sean McMeekin’s forthcoming book on the Russian Revolution of 1917 will focus heavily on financial aspects as well.

Update, 26 March 2015: Jennifer Siegel’s For Peace and Money: French and British Finance in the Service of Tsars and Commissars was published by Oxford University Press in December of 2014. According to his page at Harvard, Hassan Malik’s Bankers and Bolsheviks: International Finance and the Russian Revolution, 1892-1922 is under contract to be published by Princeton University Press in 2016.

Inflation on the Gold Standard

Oh, hey, look, the U.S. post war gold bullion standard did not prevent inflation. It just meant that gold and the currency inflated together at the fixed rate. In fact, it was in part the high inflation of the late 1960s and early 1970s that forced the U.S. off the gold standard in 1971.

"Inflation's Stubborn Resistance," Time, Vol. 96, No. 24, 14 December 1970

Inflation’s Stubborn Resistance,” Time, Vol. 96, No. 24, 14 December 1970, pp. 102-112.

Via Neil Irwin, The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire (New York: Penguin Press, 2013), p. 65.

The Russian Origin of the First World War

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov

I am currently reading Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2011), Michael Reynolds’s Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Barbara Jelavich’s Russia’s Balkan Entanglements (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991) for a comparative empires seminar focused on the European land-based empires (Habsburg, Ottoman, Russian).

These books about the Russian and Near Eastern origins of the War have me recollecting some of my previous conclusions about the origin of the First World War. In August of 2003 I read John Keegan’s The First World War (New York: Knopf, 1999) and at that time I composed some incomplete notes of my takeaway from Mr. Keegan’s description of the events and deliberations of the July Crisis. My conclusion then was that greater emphasis on Russia as an instigator of the First World War was warranted. I also thought, along with these historians listed above, that there needed to be a strategic motive more plausible than mobilization timetables and Slavic solidarity for Russia’s involvement. Here is a lightly edited excerpt from what I wrote then:

*  *  *

Having read thus far, there are a few things that puzzle me:

One of the necessary conditions of the war was Russian resistance to Austria-Hungary’s plan to punish Serbia. Keegan shows how the crisis was nearly avoided before gaining any momentum:

By the following morning, Saturday 25 July, both the British and French delegations in Belgrade reported home that Belgrade would agree to the Austrian demands, excepting the condition that imperial officials be admitted on to Serbian territory to supervise the investigations.

Even on that sticking point, however, the Serbians had not yet made up their minds. (56)

Keegan here establishes a check-point (or perhaps tries to make more painful the sense that all this could all have been avoided — baby, guess my name [I had been using the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy For The Devil” as a foil for the tone of Keegan’s narrative —ed.]): “Even at noon on Saturday 25 July, therefore, five hours before the time limit attached to the Austrian note would expire, the crime of Sarajevo remained a matter between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, diplomatically no more than that” (57). What was it that transformed this local squabble into the war that would draw in nearly all of Europe?

Then, during the afternoon, word was received from their [Serbia’s] ambassador at the Tsar’s country palace that the mood there was fiercely pro-Serbian. The Tsar, though not yet ready to proclaim mobilization, had announced the preliminary “Period Preparatory to War” at eleven o’clock. The news reversed everything the Serbian ministers had decided. In the morning they had agreed to accept all ten Austrian demands, with the slightest reservations. Now they were emboldened to attach conditions to six and to reject absolutely the most important, that Austrian officials be allowed to take part in the investigation of the assassination on Serbian territory. (57-58)

It was these Russian actions preliminary to mobilization ordered by the Tsar that prompted the German Prime Minister to instruct his ambassador to issue the next day, Sunday 26 July, his first warning that mobilization “would mean war.”

Later, Keegan will quote L.C.F. Turner (“The Significance of the Schlieffen Plan” in Paul Kennedy, The War Plans of the Great Powers [London: Allen & Unwin, 1979]) in his assessment that the Russian decision to mobilize was “perhaps the most important …taken in the history of Imperial Russia and it effectively shattered any prospect of averting a great European war” (62). The Germans believed that every day of Russian mobilization not matched by Germany brought the Schlieffen plan closer to failure, for the premise of the plan was the France could be knocked out of a war in the time that it took Russia to mobilize. Each day’s lead Russia acquired was one fewer day in which to defeat the French.

I am going to tentatively advance the thesis here that the First World War was primarily a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Russia with the entire Western Front being fought merely for reasons structural to the European concert (e.g. the Schlieffen Plan, the Triple Entente). In support of this thesis, I would offer that the main locus of negotiation in the July Crisis was Germany, Britain and France trying to convince Austria-Hungary to accept mediation with Serbia and Germany trying to convince Russia to leave Austria-Hungary to destroy Serbia unharried by outsiders.

The question that needs more attention in this analysis is why were the Russian so “fiercely pro-Serbian.” There are a few passing remarks in Keegan. His suggestion that, “Russia, a great Slav brother, had tender feelings towards the Serbs…” is thankfully quickly qualified, “…but feelings are different from vital interests and certainly no motive for war” (53). Later he offers a more realistic reason, that Foreign Minister Sazonov “possessed in an acute form the Russian neurosis over control of the Balkans, with which went fears of a hostile power dominating the Bosphorus, Russia’s Black Sea exit to the Mediterranean and the wider world” (65). This is better, but still the emphasis is on feelings — neurosis and fears — and the reasons are confined to one man. If it is true that, as Keegan quotes approvingly, Russia’s decision to mobilize was “the most important …taken” and if the thesis that I am drawing from his presentation is correct — and he does come down on it pretty hard — then he is woefully short on its analysis. We get Sazonov’s fears, but what were the arguments employed by him and the rest of the Russian command on that 30 July afternoon at the Tsar’s summer residence? The Tsar was waffling. He issued and then rescinded a mobilization order, rescinded it owing to dire warnings received from the Kaiser. After the 30 July meeting with Sazonov he reissued the mobilization order. What did the Tsar believe? What strategic considerations overruled the Kaiser’s warnings of war?

*  *  *

Undoubtedly my assessments of the origin of the War are going to change considerably in the coming months and years. I saw Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., author of Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991), this week at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars talking on “July 1914: Revisited and Revised—or The End of the German Paradigm“. He closed his remarks joking that the theory that he favors varies from one day to the next. Hopefully I will follow this post up once I complete these books and this course. My 2003 thoughts serve as a benchmark for subsequent assessments of the situation.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Squelch ‘Em

There are two major points — one lesser, one greater — to Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning … was the Command Line (Wikipedia | Amazon). The lesser point serves to feed the superiority complex of computer geeks, namely that people who work closer to the machine are more awesome than people who work with their machines through layers of mediation. The greater point is that maintaining a high degree of control of the devices that shape our lives is a critical element of freedom in the information age.

It’s not about turning your nose up at GUIs and other user-friendly efforts in favor of arcane monochrome text interfaces. The point is that when you cede control of the devices that comprise your environment — that serve as the basis of your personal capabilities — when you cede these to manufacturers, marketers, designers, content providers, legislators, then the limits they seek to impose become your limits as well.

It is as extending and impacting this point that I think Cory Doctorow’s talk, “The Coming War on General Computation” is so important (28th Chaos Communication Congress, Berliner Congress Center, Berlin, Germany, 27 December 2011).

You should definitely watch the whole thing: it’s entertaining as well as one of the most cogent talks I’ve heard in some time. To me his outstanding points are two:

1. The never-ending desire for a certain kind of ease of use that comes through circumscribed functionality is an invitation to, a kind of lazy collusion with, the likes of Apple who are more than happy to sell you a device hobbled in a way that maximizes corporate returns (the walled garden):

So today we have marketing departments who say things like “we don’t need computers, we need … appliances. Make me a computer that doesn’t run every program, just a program that does this specialized task, like streaming audio, or routing packets, or playing Xbox games, and make sure it doesn’t run programs that I haven’t authorized that might undermine our profits”. And on the surface, this seems like a reasonable idea — just a program that does one specialized task — after all, we can put an electric motor in a blender, and we can install a motor in a dishwasher, and we don’t worry if it’s still possible to run a dishwashing program in a blender. But that’s not what we do when we turn a computer into an appliance. We’re not making a computer that runs only the “appliance” app; we’re making a computer that can run every program, but which uses some combination of rootkits, spyware, and code-signing to prevent the user from knowing which processes are running, from installing her own software, and from terminating processes that she doesn’t want. In other words, an appliance is not a stripped-down computer — it is a fully functional computer with spyware on it out of the box.

2. Media copyright is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the incentive of corporations to turn to political-legislative attempts to prevent the disruptions to their business models that result from technological change:

And even this is a shadow of what is to come. After all, this was the year in which we saw the debut of open sourced shape files for converting AR-15s to full automatic. This was the year of crowd-funded open-sourced hardware for gene sequencing. And while 3D printing will give rise to plenty of trivial complaints, there will be judges in the American South and Mullahs in Iran who will lose their minds over people in their jurisdiction printing out sex toys. The trajectory of 3D printing will most certainly raise real grievances, from solid state meth labs, to ceramic knives.

And it doesn’t take a science fiction writer to understand why regulators might be nervous about the user-modifiable firmware on self-driving cars, or limiting interoperability for aviation controllers, or the kind of thing you could do with bio-scale assemblers and sequencers. Imagine what will happen the day that Monsanto determines that it’s really… really… important to make sure that computers can’t execute programs that cause specialized peripherals to output organisms that eat their lunch… literally. Regardless of whether you think these are real problems or merely hysterical fears, they are nevertheless the province of lobbies and interest groups that are far more influential than Hollywood and big content are on their best days, and every one of them will arrive at the same place — “can’t you just make us a general purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can’t you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?”

The way to think of all of this is as akin to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. There’s no reason to think that an information economy will be just more capitalism (to think so is a contribution to capitalism as the end of history). That a growing list of industries face disruption on a scale where it’s hard to see their business model surviving in absence of ever escalating state measures to construct markets that otherwise would fail (a point well made by Mr. Doctorow with his wheels analogy) suggests significant incompatibility between capitalism and the information economy.

The retort of the defender of capitalism here would be that the information economy is a creature of capitalism — without chip fabricators and integraters and intellectual property and venture capital and server farms, the information economy doesn’t happen. But of course the feudal baron would have said the same of the capitalist upstart. History is a realm of contingency. It is not a logical system. Contradictions — and the deleterious eddies that result — are perfectly possible. That the information economy might end up destroying the very basis for its existence is within the realm of possibility.

Or perhaps this is perfectly compatible with capitalism and effected sectors are merely the cracks through which we can see the lie of laissez-faire throughout the rest of the economy. The government takes a heavy hand in constructing markets everywhere they exist.

But the point is that previous economic transformations weren’t tranquil evolutions, didn’t happen in a discrete moment. The social transformations that we today package under the rubric “capitalism” benefitted some, but came at terrible consequence to others. Those who stood to lose prestige, revenue, power, opposed these changes, frequently by violence. For them, capitalism wasn’t just social change, it was immoral. Ownership of property by those who did not directly fight for it, property as a transferable abstraction, rootlessness, equality among the classes, attacks upon the ancient privileges of nobility, the undermining of seigniorial obligation, the money economy, the violations of guild oaths, the codification of techne (craft), the insolence of entrepreneurs: these were violations of the moral order of society.

The practices that have grown up around the frictionlessness of the information economy’s core commodities are called piracy by the partisans of our present order. It is immoral. It is theft of property (property is here an analogy growing threadbare at the margins from being stretched too much). It is the collapse of the basis of prosperity. But how is a system of constant content theft to be harnessed to our system of material progress? I haven’t the foggiest notion. But capitalism too was a post hoc ideological construct. At the time it seemed like the end of the world. Remember that by the time Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, such processes were already far along. Smith wasn’t envisioning future pin factories: he was describing existent ones that he had recently visited.

Besides, if it is not within the scope of power to achieve these things, it does not matter the machinations of ideology. Ideology adapts. Moral and immoral will be renamed to accommodate the new arrangement of factors.

The Other Forgotten War

D.C. World War Memorial, Armistice Day, 11 November 2009

One could be forgiven for not knowing that there is a memorial to the First World War in Washington, D.C. (Wikipedia | Google Maps). The first time I stumbled across it, it was as an exploration of a curiosity. I wanted to figure out what that unknown building was, barely visible through the trees along Independence Avenue. To approach the memorial is to get a sense of what it must have been like for a Renaissance-era scholar on grand tour of the continent to come to Rome for the first time, when the ruins of Rome were still that: ruins — mysterious, forgotten, pillaged, unkempt, crumbling, ignored. The First World War Memorial is lost in a grove of trees on the south side of the Mall. It’s like coming across an abandoned temple in a forest. The flagstone paving stones of the walk up to the memorial are lose, scattered, broken and on their way to gravel. The memorial itself is blackened with mildew, its marble cracked and stained. It is like a mushroom that popped up in a forest clearing after a rain. Completed in 1931, its archaic inscription simply reads “The World War.”

Our wars aren’t merely matters of fact, narratives or parables from which we are to take the vaunted historical lesson. Our wars are tropes: they represent certain touchstones of the American consciousness. The Second World War was the good war: the forces of good arrayed against the forces of evil, proving the directionality of history. The Vietnam War is central figure in the right wing Dolchstoßlegende. They are all morality plays. The First World War is a forgotten war because it does not signify anything that fits easily into the American mythos. It is an amorality play. Its obvious meta-narratives of miscalculation, system effects, the amorality of state interest, the fleetingness of progress, the shabbiness of war, the divisions of class interest and the meaninglessness of our social conventions around war don’t figure in U.S. discourse on war. So the event is simply excised from the national consciousness, not a part of the pantheon of nostalgia writ in Neoclassical white marble in the nation’s capitol.