For most Americans, World War I (WWI) exists in the realm of myth and distant history. No one who experienced it fully is still alive, and the war did not scar and alter the physical and political landscape of the United States as it did in Europe and the Middle East. Monuments to the war are few in America. In 1918, the “big war” in American memory was the Civil War of the 1860s, our most bloody and costly war to date, and one that still reverberates in current politics. The United States only participated in half of WWI’s four gruesome years, and if anything, this marked not the closing of a chapter for America, but rather, the beginning of the U.S.’s role as a major power to contend with on the world stage.
Watching the Centennial observance of the Armistice in Paris on television on Sunday morning was both moving and disturbing. The solemn ceremony brought home the horrific impact of the 20th century. Two world wars, millions upon millions killed and displaced, empires destroyed, and new nations born. “World War I” is named such because an even worse and wider world war devoured tens of millions more lives across Europe and Asia 20 years later. The Armistice of 1918 was supposed to mark the end of a war to “end all wars,” given the role of technology, new weapon systems, and the horrific civilian death tolls. The results of World War I lingered on, continuing to damage and erode economies, lives, and bodies. The war gave us the first instances of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), known as “shell shock” syndrome a century ago.
The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 arguably kindled the embers that would later erupt into the inferno of World War II. The Allies imposed merciless sanctions and conditions on Germany, seen not only as the war’s loser, but its instigator. A destitute, devastated, and humiliated populace were very vulnerable to the nationalist ravings of Adolph Hitler, perhaps comparable to the ways people in the U.S. south are still particularly apt to follow and support white nationalism and nativist sentiments today, 160 years after the end of the Civil War.
In 1918, Americans were relatively innocent in global affairs, and their role in both the First and Second World Wars was appreciated and lauded throughout the world. For anyone who came of age in the Viet Nam era and later, though, it’s hard to imagine an era in which the US military was considered a force for good rather than a machine of imperialist expansion. At present, the US military is still involved in the longest American war in history in Afghanistan, one that no one really thinks about unless they’ve lost a family member there, and in an era of an all-volunteer Army, most Americans have no personal connection to or concern with Afghanistan. The role of war and the place of the military in US society has changed dramatically over the last 50 years.
Having lived in Palestine and Lebanon for most of the 1990s, I got a very different view of World War I and its impact on the Middle East. The fall of the Ottoman Empire sent seismic waves of change across the region that still reverberate. 1918 marked the Genocide of the Armenians, the beginning of European mandatory rule in the Levant, and the carving up of a vast and complex territory into new, often artificially created, nation states. The Palestinians’ doom was sealed, Lebanon’s independence was ensured, and a new regional economy dominated by oil was about to begin. It’s not hard to argue that World War I generated more war not only in Europe, but in the Middle East as well. The US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the erasure of the border between Syria and Iraq over the last seven years can be seen as just the latest installments in the tragedy of World War I for the Arab people. With the exception of historians and war buffs, few Americans have any grasp of World War I’s impact on the Middle East. Conversely, they do understand the region in the context of World War II, particularly the establishment of Israel after the horrors of the Holocaust, too often ignoring the injustice this imposed on the Palestinian people.
So it was both moving and jarring to hear French President Emmanuel Macron sum up the Armistice ceremony at the Arc du Triomphe in Paris with a condemnation of nationalism. As an American horrified by Donald Trump’s administration, I was glad to see Trump’s grim facial expression as Macron declared that “nationalism is the opposite of patriotism” and warned of its ugly re-emergence throughout the world. This was a clear barb directed at the American president, who recently declared himself a “nationalist” and warned of the dangers of “globalists” such as George Soros, raising valid suspicions that American nationalism is nothing more than white supremacism.
But then the camera panned across the assembled audience to show other leaders, notably Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, smiling smugly throughout the ceremony, unconcerned that Zionism has become a particularly virulent and racist manifestation of nationalism, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, looking arrogant and invincible, and showing no hint of discomfort with Macron’s warnings about the evils of extreme nationalism, which he has done so much to foster in Europe and beyond. Netanyahu left early, presumably to oversee the most recent chapter of carnage in Gaza. The only time Putin smiled or Trump looked happy, was when the two shook hands at the beginning and the end of the ceremony. Both arrived late to the event, and neither marched with other world leaders to the venue in the rain.
Watching the televised ceremony here in Washington, DC, where our embarassing president rails against the free press, threatens the constitution, and fans flames of hatred and fear, I wondered what the world would think of this Armistice commemoration 100 years from now. Assuming that the human race survives the growing ravages of global climate change, will future audiences at a bicentennial of World War I’s end view this centennial ceremony as a prelude to World War III, or as a turning point when the lethal reappearance of nationalism was recognized as a dangerous toxin. The state of the world on this day does not look promising for any of us, and here in the United States, fears of another civil war are growing. Talking with a friend after watching the ceremony, he said that the U.S. is already in a civil war. I responded “No, I’ve lived in Lebanon, and seen the end and after-effects of a civil war. We are not there yet.” He countered that civil wars manifest differently in different places, and noted that a new American Civil War would not follow the contours of the 1860s war, but rather, would manifest as a rapid descent into chaos and random violence.
After the carnage of yet another mass shooting in California, and the recent unprecedented violence of October, which brought us the pipe bomb scare, the murder of African Americans by a white supremacist at a Kentucky supermarket, and the Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, I think he might be right. As Trump threatens the media, stirs up fears among his base, blames California for its terrifyingly destructive fires, hinting that he won’t provide federal aid, and casts doubts on the results of the recent midterm elections in states where the Democrats won, it could well be that we are descending into another war between the states. Nearly a decade ago, the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War came and went without much fanfare, speeches, or national commemorations. Perhaps we did not learn enough from that scarring experience, the way the French and Germans clearly learned from the First and Second World Wars, to recognize the dangerous waters we have now entered.