An Ominous Centennial: The First World War
Image Credit: Wikicommons

An Ominous Centennial: The First World War


We're rapidly closing in on the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. The Great War is like an ugly bug. You want to look away but are too fascinated to. It appears as though all of the European belligerents underwent a kind of inversion experience that turned the rational calculus of war on its head. The more lives and treasure armies spent in battle, the more commanders, pressure groups, and rank-and-file citizens wanted out of the effort. The more they demanded, the greater resistance they provoked from the enemy, and the more the bloodletting on the Western Front dragged on. No one appeared willing to abandon the sunk costs of war, as economics would mandate. Political leaders who might have done so proved too weak-willed to resist popular and military sentiments. Buffeted by passions and bereft of strong leadership, Europe stepped through the looking glass.

Carl von Clausewitz opines that the value a society assigns its political goals governs how much effort it expends to obtain those goals. That is, it determines the rate at which the combatant invests lives and resources in the endeavor, and how long it will keep up that rate of expenditure. Makes sense, doesn't it? Rational actors decide what price they're prepared to pay for something, and they cancel the sale if the seller raises the price above that level. But again, Clausewitzian cost/benefit logic presupposes a kind of sobriety that was conspicuously absent from European capitals until late in the day, when statesmen like Georges Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson restored some semblance of rationality to the Allied cause.

In a real sense, then, the mounting "magnitude" and ever-longer "duration" of the war effort — how much the belligerents spent and for how long — drove the value European decisionmakers assigned their cause. If so, this mental reversal also negated the corollary to Clausewitz's rational calculus, namely that leaders should look for a graceful way out of an enterprise whose costs have grown unbearable. If there's no upper bound on the expenditure of national resources, whence do you summon the discipline to cut your losses?

The baneful effects of flouting cost/benefit logic were felt well beyond the battlefield. I think the decoupling of costs from benefits helps account for the surreal feeling you get from reading about the Great War. It may also help explain the black, apocalyptic mood that gripped European populaces during the interwar years, as deftly recounted by Richard Overy in The Twilight Years. Doomsaying was commonplace in that age. It was the era when the dystopian novels of Aldous Huxley appeared, when George Orwell chronicled the failings of British imperialism in Burma and his life as a bum on the streets of London and Paris, and when radical ideologies took hold among the resentful and dispossessed.

Such is the cultural and social backsplash of abandoning the rational calculus of war. That potential for malign consequences is worth remembering.

sumit baruah
May 4, 2013 at 04:01

i think the next war will invollve china, india, north korea, and europe….

April 15, 2013 at 23:35

" The PLAN will ignite it by attacking a US Navy vessel."

What is the U.S. vessel doing there? U.S. has no business there.

April 15, 2013 at 04:08

@leonard R.

why do you figure this?

my own suspicion is that it'll be something stupid that the North Koreans do; the PRC still upholds that defense treaty due to NK's usefulness as a buffer, and the NK government just rejected any notion of talks until "south korea ends its belligerent and hostile position." Despite the fact that it is North Korea that has been doing all the screaming, tantrum throwing and shelling over the last two years or so.

Leonard R.
April 14, 2013 at 18:57

@Ed April 14, 2013 at 2:10 am
The only question now is, where is the powder keg located and what will ignite the powder keg?

1. Just west of Palawan.

2. The PLAN will ignite it by attacking a US Navy vessel.

April 14, 2013 at 02:10

The only question now is, where is the powder keg located and what will ignite the powder keg?

April 12, 2013 at 18:56

Ed, I have spent many years reading history and wtaching it and I have the feeling in my bones that you are right. I hope that we are both wrong and though I have never met you, I am sure that you feel the same Sir. Nine of my family name went down in WW1 and it is only these last ten years I have seen the name other than mine in telephone books Australia wide.

April 12, 2013 at 06:23

It has most certainly been a while since we had a major global conflict. I fear that war is indeed coming…

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