The last known World War I veteran died Tuesday in London, England at the care home where she lived at the age of 110.
It’s a sad day when one of the most pivotal moments in history passes from living memory.
WWI, known at the time as the “Great War” and “The War to End all Wars,” was perhaps neither. Certainly it was not the last war, and it did little but set the stage for the still greater conflagration which was to engulf the world just a generation later.
It, was however, a turning point.
The nation-state, already on the rise, became ascendant, and it was the death-knell of monarchy in Europe as World War II would be the death-knell of empire world wide. It was a conflict which saw the first use of the airplane in combat and the invention of the tank and the rise of modern armored warfare, as well as the horrors of chemical weapons the world community wisely locked away.
World War I was, in many ways, the death of the world’s innocence. We realized, all too well, that everything was becoming interconnected. That what happened in one nation affected others.
The aftermath was the first attempt at a world government as well — the ill-fated League of Nations, which Woodrow Wilson, in about the only decent move of his presidency, wisely kept us out of. One only wishes Harry Truman had realized the dangers when he allowed us to join the League’s more dangerous cousin the United Nations.
WWI is, in many ways, a forgotten war. Swallowed by it’s larger sibling World War II and lost to the seething tensions of the Cold War, Korea and Viet Nam.
Still there are lessons to be learned from that conflict which ring true today.
We must remember, as we try to bring some sort of order to the chaos of Afghanistan that it is not enough to defeat an enemy. If you are not prepared to destroy him utterly, as we were not prepared to do in Germany in 1919, you must leave him his pride. If you do not, you create a more dangerous enemy in the future.
Wilson, in about the only other decent thing he did, argued strongly against the Versailles Treaty, knowing that the humbling of the proud German people would lead to trouble down the road.
And so it did. Adolf Hitler used the humiliation of Versailles to fan the nationalism which swept him to power. Indeed, he made French leaders sign their capitulation in the same rail car in which the Armistice had been signed decades before. And then blew it up.
The ultimate lesson of WWI seems to be “never do an enemy a small injury.”
As I’m reading reports coming out of Afghanistan these days, in particular by Lieutenant Colonel Daniel L. Davis which seem to indicate there is little to no progress in that country I fear that is exactly what we have done.
We may find that, as Viet Nam, we have won all the battles and yet lost the war. And in the process made ourselves a yet more dangerous enemy in a resurgent Taliban, which now knows we are not unbeatable. As this war between the West and radical Islam continues, this clash of civilizations, losing that aura of invincibility could be the most catastrophic loss of all.