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The Great War 

This week is the 100th anniversary of the start of that senseless, eminently avoidable explosion of violence, World War I – the Great War that was to end war.

Plus ca change. Winged spirits must be gathered together above us, watching, heads bowed in grief.

Gaza, Israel, Ukraine, Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Iraq, Libya: armed conflicts are spreading violence and carnage everywhere we look. Read the news, and you pull your hair in anguish.

As the anniversary approached, I've been morbidly fascinated by the human devastation in World War I, and by the maddening mistakes, mistrust, and misunderstandings that led to it. You can't read any book on the war without wondering why this keeps happening, everywhere in the world. Are violence and war simply in our genes?

Look at this quote from Modris Eckstein's 1989 book, "The Rites of Spring":

"In August 1914, most Germans regarded the armed conflict they were entering in spiritual terms. The war was above all an idea, not a conspiracy aimed at German territorial aggrandizement...."

And this:

"Despite sufficient evidence from the Crimean War, the American Civil War, and the Boer War that a major conflagration would involve long, drawn-out, and bitter fighting, few strategists, tacticians, or planners, German or any other, foresaw anything but a quick resolution to a future conflict."

And this: "...war was regarded, especially in Germany, as the supreme test of spirit, and as such, a test of vitality, culture, and life.... It was an expression of a superior culture.... an essential part of a nation's self-esteem and image."

As I was reading that section of "Rites of Spring" earlier this summer, the conflict in Iraq was heating up, and Dick and Liz Cheney were taunting President Obama in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, charging that his foreign policy was the cause, and announcing the formation of an organization that will "advocate for a restoration of American strength and power."

The Cheneys aren't alone in that attitude; military might is the default solution to conflict, tension, threats, and perceived threats. That mindset is what got us into Iraq. It's why the possibility of US military engagement continues to lurk in the shadows as we watch the carnage unfold around the world.

It's how much of that carnage got started, and why it continues. Gershom Gorenberg, writing last week in The American Prospect about the tragedy in Israel and Gaza, noted the other paths that could have been taken. Why, he asked, have both sides in that conflict made such irrational decisions?

As a partial answer, he cited a 2007 article in Foreign Policy, "Why Hawks Win," by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon. Human beings, Kahneman and Renshon wrote, exaggerate their strengths. We're overly optimistic about our chances. We misread the behavior and intentions of others. We're convinced that our own behavior is simply a response to someone else's behavior.

"In fact," they wrote, "a bias toward hawkish beliefs and preferences is built into the fabric of the human mind."

World War I claimed an estimated 16 million lives – soldiers and civilians, young and old, French, German, Russian, Belgian, British, Serbian, Austrian, American.... The countryside of Europe is dotted with the cemeteries holding them. Village after village has monuments memorializing them.

The Great War didn't end war. In times of conflict, threat, or perceived threat, the use of military force still seems safer and surer. Caution and diplomacy are dismissed as signs of weakness.

Maybe we should think about how we define "strength."

And maybe this anniversary is the time to do it.

The focus of a war commemoration is usually heroism, the bravery of those who fought the battles, the innocents who were sacrificed, the civilians who resisted. And in World War I, as in other wars, there was an abundance of all of that. This particular war, though, should serve principally as a monument to the cost and the futility of war. And to other paths we can take.

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