Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

Opinion | Today’s armies are still fighting World War I

A century ago, millions died, but the strategic, technological and medical breakthroughs live on

A hundred years ago, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the First World War in Europe ended. It had cost tens of millions of lives, utterly destroyed the existing political order, and paved the way for the rise of fascism and a repeat performance of global conflict in the form of World War II.

Barbara Tuchman, in her peerless book on the outbreak of the war The Guns of August, said, “Nothing so comforts the military mind as the maxim of a great but dead general." In the end, those long-dead generals passed along not only a few comforting maxims, but also a new way of war. Over the course of four years, warfare fundamentally shifted—the echoes of that conflict continue to resonate for today’s warriors.

What changed following the “Great War?" How do the lessons of that conflict continue to influence the way today’s armies fight?

First, World War I produced stunning technological improvements that remain the foundations of modern combat operations in the air, on the sea, and on the ground. The most obvious is the development of air forces. The war saw the use of aviation not just for simple scouting but for bombardment and attack missions, as well as communications and the beginning of logistic activities. Today’s massive “shock and awe" campaigns began with lessons learned a century ago in the skies over Europe.

Another crucial advance was came under the sea. German U-boats, allied anti-submarine technology (primitive but increasingly effective), and attack torpedoes were the beginnings of technological improvements that continue to this day in the advanced acoustic and propulsion systems (now including nuclear power, of course) in our subsurface world.

On land, World War I saw the first use of tanks: motorized, armoured cannon and troop transports capable of “crawling" through the destroyed terrain of the central European battlefields. They were often accompanied by the use of poison gas, a terrible “advancement" that was subsequently banned and remains an extreme violation of international law.

And while air, sea and land saw the fundamental advances, there were remarkable improvements in medicine (blood banks, antiseptics, plastic surgery); communications (radio signals for combat movements); sensors (ultrasound and primitive sonar); and materials (synthetic rubber). All of these innovations are a fundamental part of modern warfare today.

In addition to all these technological marvels, the aftermath of the war saw a proliferation of new theories of combat operations. The frustrations of the extensive trench systems and static, defensive positions gave rise to manoeuvre warfare, which the Nazis unleashed with devastating effect just over two decades later. While many of the dictums of Clausewitz broadly held (i.e. the principles of war), the outcome of the war spurred militaries around to world to place a greater focus on speed, agility, high-speed manoeuvre, rapid logistics and resupply, and envelopment.

Germany and Japan, in particular, were able to take lessons from the First World War and apply them as the century unfolded. But they are also a major part of how the US military fights to this day—look at the Desert Storm campaign, or the initial lightning invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The third significant change resulting from World War I was the process that led to the adoption of various Geneva treaties and conventions. These included rules and regulations on holding prisoners of war; the treatment of the sick and wounded; interactions between uniformed military and civilian populations; and prohibitions on the use of chemical and biological agents in warfare. And while these have not always been enforced or observed in conflicts over the last century—see Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities in Syria—they are still very much a part of how active-duty militaries conduct combat operations today.

As the commander of US Southern Command, I was in charge of Guantanamo Bay detention centre—and counter to many of the criticisms the military has received, we ran it in strict compliance with the Geneva treaties and permitted inspections by the International Committee of the Red Cross. That behaviour came directly out of the international community’s efforts to improve the conduct of war after 1918.

Finally, it is worth noting that the First World War was a fundamental shifting point in how states have tragically become willing to conduct “full national war." This means that war has become a contest not strictly between uniformed, trained and appropriately equipped militaries, but rather conflict that encompasses entire societies fighting each other. Wars following it—especially World War II, of course—had devastating effects on civilian populations, despite the Geneva Accords. That trend has sadly continued—brutal wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and Africa have all inflicted broad societal harm.

The long, distant echoes of the Great War continue to this day. Despite enormous political changes in the global landscape (in 1918 there were fewer than 60 sovereign nations, while today there are nearly 200), the maxims of those World War I generals and admirals have not only comforted military minds to this day, but also created modern war as we know it.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

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