Thursday, May 7, 2015

A World of Endless War

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War is over, but the centennial of "the Great War" (as World War I was once known) continues. In that era of big conscript armies, World War I was largely an affair of citizen soldiers. But it was also waged against civilians. Contrary to the then operative norms governing war at sea, civilian passenger liners were sometimes targeted by submarines. The most famous case, of course, was the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania by a German U-boat off the Irish coast 100 years ago today.

When Lusitania left New York for Liverpool May 1, 1915, Germany had already declared the area around the United Kingdom a war zone. In fact, a German newspaper advertisement had warned neutral Americans of the dangers of sailing on the British ship. A week later, on May 7, the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat, some 11 miles off the southern coast of Ireland (then, of course, a part of the UK). She sank in 18 minutes. In what was one of the greatest maritime tragedies ever, 1,198 passengers and crew were lost – among them 128 Americans. The sinking unleashed wide-ranging protests and helped move public opinion in the US in a more anti-German direction, which contributed to the 1917 American declaration of war against Germany.

Whether it was wise or just for the US to enter World War I is a legitimate, but separate question. Whether it was wise or prudent for neutral American civilians to trust in the then operative norms of war at sea is also a good question. That they did so suggests that people were as yet unprepared to contemplate the full fury of modern warfare and its distinctive toll on civilians. However one assesses culpability for the tragedy of the Lusitania, the event defined the new era of 20th-century warfare against civilians.

That era would reveal itself most fully in the Second World War, the European experience of which concluded with Germany's unconditional surrender exactly 70 years ago today. As the late Tony Judt wrote: "Indeed, in those countries occupied by Nazi Germany, from france to the Ukraine, from Norway to greece, World War Two was primarily a civilian experience. ... It was in the Second World War, then, that the full force of the modern European state was mobilized for the first time, for the primary purpose of conquering and exploiting other Europeans." (Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Penguin, 2005, pp. 13-14.)

That second war ended 70 years ago today. But post-war complacency has ill served Europe or the world generally. As the 20th-century ended, the old fissures reappeared in - appropriately enough the region that had started World War I with Serbia again as the main culprit. At Srebernica in 1995, for example, some 7,400 Muslims were murdered by Serbian troops, while the UN looked on - what Judt termed "the worse mass murder in Europe since world War Two" (p. 678). Since then, of course, the modern orgy of ethnic and religious war, mayhem, and terrorism has found fertile fields in the Middle East and Africa. 

We've come a long way from the naive pre-Lusitania notion that it might still be safe to be a civilian in a world of endless war.

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