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National Security: All Quiet on the Western Front

Joe Boyles Guest Columnist

This coming weekend, many nations around the world will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The Great War as it was known then was not given the commonly known name until twenty years later when another, even more cataclysmic war, exploded in Europe. World War I was unprecedented and many called it "the war to end all wars." Of course, this was optimistic thinking that did not pay off.

The war began in early August of 1914 and was the result of treaties, alliance, jealousies and misunderstandings. A political assassination of the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire caused a half dozen nations to align against each other. It was as if they were spoiling for a fight, waiting for a spark (the assassination of Archduke Franz-Joseph and his wife) to set war in motion.

Once each nation began to mobilize, the momentum couldn't be stopped. There were some rational minds that attempted to halt the rush to war at the 11th hour, but they were overcome by events.

The war raged on three fronts in Europe and others in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and in Africa as the empires built largely in the 19th Century rushed into the fight. It was history's first global conflict and involved millions of men. Economies were wrecked as they fed armaments into the conflict to be frivolously expended and create the demand for even more.

Almost immediately, stalemates were established on every front and belligerents began to dig into the earth for protection from bombardment. A key factor in this war is that the means for defense were far superior to the offense. Artillery, barbed wire, machine guns and fortifications were defensive in nature. The two means of offense or mobile warfare, the tank and airplane, were in their infancy and wouldn't be perfected until years later.

To make matters even more hellish, poison gas or chemical weapons, notably chlorine and mustard, were employed on a scale never seen before or since.

The result was carnage on an unimaginable scale with very few results to show for the enormous cost. Whole generations of young men were cut down by the millions. About thirty years ago, I visited Verdun in northeastern France. In 1916, the Germans and French slogged it out over a ten-month campaign and never moved the lines at all. Nearly one million men perished in that battle. I've walked a lot of battlefields in my life trying to understand the tactics and terrain, but I've never witnessed anything as sobering as Verdun.

America stayed out of the war for the first three years. When our nation did enter the fray, it tipped the scales in the favor of the Allies, principally France and England. In 1917, most of the French Army mutinied, fed up with the feckless leadership of their generals whose only answer was to feed more manpower into the meat-grinder. The influx of two million "doughboys" from America rallied the dispirited French soldiers.

When Germany's last gasp in the summer of 1918 failed and the Allies began to break through in counterattack, an armistice was signed to stop the blood-letting. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the big guns finally fell silent signaling the end of the war. And then, something even uglier happened: a virulent virus of Spanish-Flu was carried back to their homelands by surviving soldiers to unleash the worst pandemic in recorded medical history. It would kill many more than the war did over the next two years.

Many historians believe that World War I was the single most significant event in earth's second millennia. Why would they conclude that? Four empires that represented the old order which had existed for centuries were shattered as a result of the war. The empires of Germany, Russia, Austria and Turkey were rotten and the war exposed their weakness. In the ensuing peace negotiations, the maps of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa were redrawn as the victors sought the spoils of war. The Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 to finalize the terms of the armistice was badly botched and created the resentment that led to an even more cataclysmic war a generation later. We are reminded that it is even more important to win the peace, which is man's natural state, than the war.

Events this weekend will commemorate this important anniversary. Bagpipers from around the world will play "The Battle is Over" to signal the end of hostilities. World War I concluded a hundred years ago, but its reverberations are still felt, particularly when you study the tensions in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.

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