One Hundred Years On, Reflections on the Great War: Memory, Meaning and a World in the Making – Part II

On the surface, much has changed since the beginning of “the war that ended peace”.

Today, various social media, the most contemporary expression of the continuing revolution in information and communications technologies, have become a popular pre-occupation. Twitter-expedited rebellions and a string of sensational WikiLeaks and state surveillance revelations have changed the game and served as a kind of ‘Napster moment” for governments everywhere. In the digital age, control and secrecy, like privacy and confidentiality will never be the same again.

The industrial revolution of the mid to late 19th century, on the other hand, ensured that early in the 20th century, mechanized, assembly-line killing could be undertaken on an epic scale. For the individual soldiers whose names, according to the monuments, “ liveth for evermore,” or for the hundreds of thousands whose identity is “known only unto God,” this meant going up and over, with a high likelihood of being shot, or gassed, blown to bits, or vaporized.

Then as now, military and security thinking had not caught up. In 1914, policy makers embraced the conventions of the pre-industrial past, certain that deploying large formations to take and hold additional physical territory would favourably tip the balance of power. Similarly, those responsible for framing today’s strategic calculus are busy trying to engineer a transition from the Global War on Terror to a new Cold War. Whether that involves estimating the order of battle and the throw-weights of ballistic missiles, or the complexity of counterinsurgency and how best to defend against suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, war planners have little difficulty finding threats to arm against.

Whether conventional or asymmetrical, from Ukraine to Iraq and beyond, conflict is with us still.

So, too, is the inviolability of received wisdom.

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Although civilians were not targeted and casualties among non-combatants were comparatively low, in World War I use of the most technologically sophisticated and lethal armaments that the world had ever manufactured brought state-sponsored death and destruction to new levels. The onset of war on a mass-produced scale ensured that the military toll, at over three million, was staggering.

The “Guns of August” were fired for Kaiser, king and country. Armed conflict was profoundly state-centric and territorial, up-close and personal. Across opposing lines often only a few hundred yards apart you could sometimes see your enemy’s face. Fixed positions and trenches that barely moved over the course of years of attacks and counter-attacks ensured the loss of countless young lives. But yesterday’s bayonet charges on blood-drenched bunkers have been supplanted by a kind of carnage more random, impersonal, and disconnected – predator drones, cruise missiles, precision-guided munitions.

For most audiences in today’s world, war has taken on the qualities of a remote-control video game. Death has become more anonymous.

The lines between soldiers and non-combatants have blurred. Now anyone, anywhere can become a target – or collateral damage.

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Immediately after the war, from 1918 to 1920, the world was ravaged by a flu pandemic, against which it its exhausted population had few natural defences, and for which the response was hindered by the damage caused by the conflict. Total casualty numbers, estimated at about fifty million, far exceeded those incurred in the fighting.

There is undoubtedly a lesson there, too, especially a propos the grave risks associated with the failure to prepare for unanticipated or unconventional threats, not least those rooted in science and driven by technology.

And there’s the rub. This summer, as we mark both Canada Day and the 100th anniversary of the Great War, security remains a martial art, associated more with defence than with meeting human needs. As long as military establishments most everywhere continue to be accorded the lion’s share of international policy resources, competing priorities – public health, inequality, the environment, urbanization – are unlikely to receive the attention they require.

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One hundred years on, has our thinking kept pace?

Are our doctrines sound, our institutions and forms of governance capable of managing?

Likely not.

Looking back on this freighted anniversary, it is worth reflecting upon how we might best be able to make more of the next century than we did of the last.