- - Thursday, July 31, 2014

This week marks the 100-year anniversary of the issuance of several declarations of war in Europe, signaling the beginning of World War I. Historians are quick to point out the horrific aspects of what is known as “the Great War”; namely, the loss of more than 9 million men, with double that number wounded. It led to an emphasis on “armistice” — as opposed to a definitive delineation of the victorious and defeated, and a peace treaty founded on two conflicting views — punishment of the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary and establishment of a new, certain-to-work world order undergirded by American President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations.

To be sure, in the midst of these sordid frameworks, emphasis is sure to focus on the devastating aspects of trench warfare, best illustrated by the Battle of Verdun in 1916, which had no rhyme or reason, only an example of holding the same tiny French territory month after month, with more than 40 million artillery shells expended on both sides to give vent to national honor rather than military achievement. In the prophetic words of Winston Churchill during the crisis: “The war will be ended by the exhaustion of nations rather than the victory of armies.”

However, the most significant, and unheralded, lesson of World War I for contemporary Americans is that men and materiel were expendable, but not the infrastructures and real property of the villains. The Germans, for example, never thought they lost the war. Their country had not been invaded by the Allied powers. Indeed, when the war came to an end, their armies were in enemy territories. Their remaining soldiers marched home to their loved ones. Their houses and businesses were all intact. There were no war-crime indictments and trials. Although territory was taken from Germany and redistributed, there was no “unconditional surrender.” Instead of rubble, there was only resentment that could be readily translated into a military revival by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.

Of course, the United States recognized in World War II the folly of such military and diplomatic strategies of the Great War. Instead, there would be devastation of the Axis powers’ homelands so as to ensure “unconditional surrender.” When one atomic bomb didn’t bring that about in Japan, a second was employed as a result of the willingness of the Japanese military to fight on. Only the intervention of the emperor after the second bomb was dropped did “unconditional surrender” come about.

The relevance — and the tragedy — is that, for the most part, the armed villains who oppose the United States today have no home territory to devastate and destroy their will to fight. Terrorists, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, are wedded to no country. The United States simply declaring that the wars have been successful and are or will soon be over in these two nations is as naive as the combatants in World War I designating Verdun as an unqualified victory ground. Instead of being treated as military combatants, too many of the captured terrorists are released or given humane status through the American legal system.

Worse, nations such as Israel, which has attempted to defeat terrorist incursions into its homeland by returning fire from Gaza, are criticized by the media and characterized as being ruthless and inattentive to civilians.

In short, the legacy of World War I, with artless military propriety extended to enemies, has come to haunt the United States and the world a century later.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.