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World War I

Bad Actors and Big Wars

by Eric Ferguson on April 3, 2017 · 1 comment

coat of arms of Hapsburg empire of AustriaApril 6th marks the 100th anniversary of the United States entering World War I. If there’s one metaphor you’ve read in every history of World War I, it was probably “tinderbox”. That’s how the pre-war world is frequently described: “Europe was a tinderbox”, or “rival alliances were a tinderbox”. If someone had asked me about WWI before recently, I probably would have said “something something tinderbox” too. Not now, in a change Trump has already wrought. I occurred to me that it was in a way something worse: two bad actors started the war. There was nothing unavoidable about it. Two people could have stopped it. Yes, two, and how this relates to Trumpworld will likely be guessed by readers before I spell it out, but let’s spell it out anyway.
That’s not to dispute that the European empires weren’t a metaphorical tinderbox, but when weren’t they? Was a balance of power that could crash down in a major war an invention of the early 20th century? We’ve had balances of power between rival states going back to at least the invention of states, and I suspect it goes back to whenever groups of pre-historic humans noticed there were other groups of humans, and found themselves asking how strong everyone was and who were likely enemies or allies. Point being, it’s wrong to think there was something unique in the early 20th century and it had to result in a big war inevitably. Maybe it was inevitable, no way to know, but it didn’t have to happen right then, the way it did. So why did it? What caused such a massive breakdown of global order and the world’s biggest war (pending the next world war, of course)? What went wrong?
What went wrong was two bad actors: Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.

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Why will members of Veterans for Peace again ring bells 11 times on Armistice /Veterans Day instead of shooting guns into the air?    

As David Swanson, (founder of War Is A and author of War Is A Lie) explains in his piece “Fahrenheit 11-11-11“:

Believe it or not, November 11th was not made a holiday in order to celebrate war, support troops, or cheer the 11th year of occupying Afghanistan.  This day was made a holiday in order to celebrate an armistice that ended what was up until that point, in 1918, one of the worst things our species had thus far done to itself, namely World War I.

World War I, then known simply as the world war or the great war, had been marketed as a war to end war.  Celebrating its end was also understood as celebrating the end of all wars.  A ten-year campaign was launched in 1918 that in 1928 created the Kellogg-Briand Pact, legally banning all wars.  That treaty is still on the books, which is why war making is a criminal act and how Nazis came to be prosecuted for it.

In the words of Thomas Hall Shastid in 1927:

[O]n November 11, 1918, there ended the most unnecessary, the most financially exhausting, and the most terribly fatal of all the wars that the world has ever known. Twenty millions of men and women, in that war, were killed outright, or died later from wounds. The Spanish influenza, admittedly caused by the War and nothing else, killed, in various lands, one hundred million persons more.


Writer Kurt Vonnegut, a WWII POW  later  wrote:  

…November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy all the people of all nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice  Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh  month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.   Armistice Day has become Veteran’s Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veteran’s Day is not…Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.              

Bells worldwide were therefore rung on the 11th month, the 11th day, at 11 a.m.  in  1918 to celebrate and recognize the ending of WWI, ” t he war to end all wars. ” To commemorate that peaceful pledge, bells were rung around the world on November 11 for over 35 years. The U.S. Congress declared November 11 a holiday in 1938, ” …a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be hereafter celebrated and known as “Armistice Day.”   But on June 1, 1954 the bells were silenced.  President Eisenhower signed  the 83rd Congress’ Amendment to the Act of 1938 by deleting the word “Armistice” and inserting in its place the word “Veterans”  thus politicizing the day.  Many Veterans  For Peace (VFP) members feel that the substitution of the word “Armistice” to “Veterans” changes the focus from peace to war.  

It’s too bad Americans, as a whole, unlike Europeans, have forgotten this important history of Armistice Day and in fact have reverted to celebrating war as heroic. Unfortunately most who celebrate “Veterans Day” in the U.S. now largely embrace the “old Lie; Dulce et Dorcum est Pro patria mori” contained in these famous lines by Britain’s greatest war poet, Wilfred Owens (  

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

(WILFRED OWEN, 1893 – 1918: Portrait by James Mitchell from a photograph of Wilfred Owen, then an officer cadet, July 1916. On November 4, 1918, Owens was shot and killed near the village of Ors. The news of his death reached his parents’ home as the Armistice bells were ringing on 11 November 1918.)  

Too often rhetoric and patriotic symbols are used instead of genuine compensation for the extraordinary sacrifices and services of military personnel.   And since 90% of the victims of wars are  now  civilians, by honoring only veterans, the public is distracted from the awful price paid by those other than members of the military.  

The VFP  has therefore resolved to  promote ringing a bell eleven times at its ceremonies on November 11 and at other solemn occasions such as funerals, to remind the public of that Armistice Day peace pledge.  This year over 150 Minnesota churches have also pledged to join in , not only by ringing bells but also by asking their members either in their bulletins or from the pulpit, to work for peace. Ninety three years after the first Armistice Day, and given the special significance of this year, 2011, the commemoration takes on added importance. Let’s ring the bell 11 times at 11 a.m. on the 11th month in 2011 to commemorate the end of the “War to end all wars!”    

Celebrate and recapture peace on  11/11/11!

(co-authored by Bob Heberle, VFP Chapter 27)