In the end, Einstein was wrong. He said he did not know which weapons World War Three would be fought with, but World War Four would be fought with sticks and stones. That was backwards, or perhaps just over-optimistic. Even without catastrophic nuclear war, the human way of war is regressing quite fast enough already.
America is currently fighting its third Mesopotamian war of the past twenty-five years. Even by the standards of violence in the Middle East, it is a conflict of astonishing brutality. ISIS – the Islamic State – has specialized in both televised and untelevised atrocities, with its European and Arab military captives executed on camera and Arab civilian captives murdered in the shadows. It has now reportedly laid hands on a Jordanian pilot, who also faces a presumably ghastly end. In Syria, America’s de facto allies in Assad’s government specialize in dropping explosive barrels of rubble and chlorine bombs on civilian areas. They seem to be effective.
Unspeakable brutality is perhaps the only thing that could have dragged the United States and this President back into Middle East. He was elected largely because the previous occupation was a disaster, and because Hillary voted for it. But in a throwback to 2007, the Army Times reported somewhat nostalgically last week that 1,000 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division would be deploying to Iraq shortly after Christmas. They are not looking to negotiate a conditional surrender.
The totality of what we now call total war – the mobilization of an entire society for warfare, from the factories to the Victory Gardens, is an invention of the twentieth century. The barbarity of such war is a natural extension of the same; for to mobilize an entire society, it must be convinced that the cause is dire, the enemy is inhuman, and nothing short of total victory will do.
This year, we have been commemorating the centennial of the First World War. To the modern eye, WWI has faded in grandeur; it seems like a poor man’s dress rehearsal for the Second, which was in many ways more epic. More people died, the participants behaved more brutally, and it was fought over wider areas for starker causes.
But World War One was so shattering because it was so incongruous. It came at a moment when the world had reached such a level of interconnectedness and liberalism that passports, for example, were not needed to travel on the Continent, and wars were mostly limited to affairs of good taste. That didn’t help the Hereros, of course, or the Boers or the Kabylies or other colonial enemies. But inter-state wars were not yet wars of extinction.
The onset of extinction-level violence was shocking. There were over a million casualties on the Western Front by Christmas 1914, in a display of industrial killing previously unknown on the European Continent. The Germans had marched nearly to Paris, and then been pushed back, before both sides started to dig the trenches in which they would live for the next three years. The old monarchies were already dying, and the future was the bleakest that Europe would ever know. But not yet. On Christmas Eve, silence began to fall, in certain parts of the line, and some singing, English and German, began to be heard. The truce is over-documented by now, and yet still slightly vague. The troops exchanged food, and wore the others’ hats, and played an apocryphal inter-belligerent soccer game. Odds, says history, would have to be on the Germans.
The truce itself changed nothing, of course. The First World War became the bloodiest European war in history and kept its title for only twenty-one years, when the continent outdid itself again in the Second. The truce was never repeated, and would have been inconceivable in WWII. But its memory lingers on both as a sign of hope—the essential commonality of man—and as a eulogy for the norms of a civilization that, for all its faults, had almost come to believe in progress.
It’s inconceivable today that America and the Islamic State would make peace over a holy day. Or ISIS and Assad, for that matter, or Hezbollah and Israel, or Hezbollah and ISIS. Religious holidays in modern war are a time of more violence, not less; of expected offensives and the latest cameo killing. America’s only goal in Iraq and Syria is to eradicate the enemy in the fastest and most efficient way possible, with the fewest casualties. ISIS would probably agree, but with the most. And both have little interest in a truce. So perhaps we could remember the civilization a century ago, which could let well enough alone, for a single day, to still the guns and bury their dead. And perhaps reflect on the ground we’ve lost.
Andrew L. Peek was a strategic advisor to the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewLPeek