Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lessons from the Great War

I have finally finished the major draft of my dissertation chapter on World War I. I shall have to revise it extensively (and shorten's an unwieldy 112 pages), but the hard work of getting the story straight and putting virtual ink to virtual paper is over. The rest is honing my argument, fitting it within historiographical traditions, correcting certain errors of fact and interpretation, supplementing what I have with additional sources, and integrating the chapter in my larger project. But all that is relatively easy.

Now, I can reflect on what I've learned about the First World War. For what it's worth, I don't claim expertise on the war. If anything, the only "expertise" I can claim, involves only anti-monopoly and antitrust agitation against coal dealers in Toronto and Chicago and what the city, state/provincial, and federal governments did about it. The lessons I have taken, however, are both general to the war and specific to my topic:
  • Woodrow Wilson should not have gotten the country into that war. War is, I believe, sometimes justified, but U.S. entry into that conflict was avoidable and, with some qualifications, did the U.S. no good.
  • War is a big waste, and war is disruptive.
  • Government management of the fuel and food supply in what was arguably a command-economy system is wasteful and can last, if at all, only during a short amount of time. Even Canada, which entered the war in August 1914 shortly after Great Britain did, did not really tighten its national control on the economy until after the 1916-1917 winter when it now had to coordinate its war activities with the U.S., which entered in April 1917.
  • For most intents and purposes, coal merchants in the United States considered the Canadian market for coal as an adjunct to American market. When they talked about using the war to expand into "foreign markets," they meant Latin America and Europe (and sometimes Asia), but not Canada.
  • Going through my notes on the war and doing research on it, there is a sense of the perpetuity of war, the sense that "this is all there is and nothing else can be imagined." The U.S. was in the war for "only" 20 months (at least the fighting part of it....peace was not formally declared until 1921 or so), but it seemed to drag on. I as a researcher (who has, by the way, never served in the armed forces, let alone in an armed conflict) knew the war would end in November 1918, and still, I had the sense that it would never cease. I'm not referring to the amount of time it took to write the chapter; but the overall sense of weariness I saw from reading the governmental and newspaper sources. The weariness, perhaps not surprisingly, was more evident in my Canadian sources, for that country had been at war for a much longer amount of time.

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