WWI: A not so “great” war

April 2, 2017

One hundred years ago today, President Thomas Woodrow Wilson,a man that had won re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war”, was standing before a joint session of Congress asking them to do just the opposite and declare war against Germany. Four days later Congress granted the President’s request and issued a formal declaration of war against the German Empire.

It wasn’t that Germany hadn’t brought it on itself.  The sinking of the Lusitania two years earlier, the resumption of unrestricted submarine attacks against all ships found in war zone waters, and the revelation of the Zimmermann telegraph disclosing that Germany was secretly courting Mexico to join the fight against the United States by promising military and financial aide for it to “reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.” had left America no choice but to fight.

American pop culture remembers the era through the Hollywood lens of James Cagney and his Yankee Doodle Dandy tribute to George M. Cohen, famed aviation ace and Medal of Honor recipient Eddie Rickenbacker and from the largest of cities to the smallest of towns, parade after parade of flag waving patriots cheering their men in uniform so smartly marching off on President Wilson’s call to make the world “safe for democracy”.

The cold facts of history record a time quite different.

On the battle field was the modern technology of the day cutting down men as wheat through a combine, lungs blistering from mustard gas, and the filth and inhumanity of trench warfare. By the time the guns at last fell silent, the historical tables would include more than 300,000 American casualties with over a third listed in the killed in action column. Now just numbers on a page, collected in far away places with strange sounding names: Bellau Wood, Chateau-Thierry, Meuse-Argonne

On the political front it brought forth the Espionage Act of 1917 followed by it’s more brutal brother the Sedition Act of 1918 which put a punishment of “a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both “ upon anyone who among other things “shall willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States…..or shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any language intended to incite, provoke, or encourage resistance to the United States,…”

For a President that was shouting to the world the importance of democracy and freedom, on the home front Wilson pushed through some of the most restrictive legislation in U.S. history. Thankfully it was repealed in 1921 and hopefully nothing like it is ever to be seen in the halls of Congress again.

The “Great War” as it is now called would turn out to leave behind anything but greatness. In spite of the millions of graves that had just been created in the previous four years, the shortsightedness and vindictiveness of the victors ensured that future generations would dig millions more.

The Treaty of Versailles imposed reparations on Germany so severe that its economy was thrown into depression, its government into turmoil and opened the door for an obscure Austrian corporal of that war to walk right though and start the second one just twenty years later.

But the greatest failure to emerge from that “Great War” is one we still live with, and are still dying from, today. The result of arrogant aristocrats taking pen to paper and redrawing Middle East boundary lines and expecting thousands of years of human history and tribal conflict to willfully submit to their European order.

A legacy that as of this writing has over 5,000 American men and women in uniform back in harms way just trying to stay alive in a man made mess now a century old.

History is far more than dates on a calendar, it is a constant reminder that decisions we make in this present, will last long into the future of those we shall never know.

So let us never forget that just as we today are bound by the history of those now a century past, so too will future generations be bound by ours. Let that be our guide to their future.

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