The First World War Explains Modern Conflict

We live in the world created by World War I. The seminal event of modern times, the war gave birth to the technology and methods of how we fight and kill. It produced a hard and cynical New European Man, who had lost faith in the structures and institutions of the past, and strove to create a radical new order. But perhaps most profoundly of all, the war transformed the political landscape on a global scale, leaving a vexing array of troubles which haunt and endanger our lives to this day. The current unrest and revolution in the Middle East trace their roots to the Great War.

From air-to-air missiles to submarines, from tanks to chemical weapons, virtually all of the armaments that bristle from today's armies have their origins in the First World War. The result of these "advancements" was mass mechanical killing on a scale never seen before in human history, devouring 10 to 13 million soldiers and civilians with equal monstrosity.

The machinery of the war ravaged our earth from the sodden fields of north-western France to the shattered forests of Russia, from the charred sands of the Middle East to the burning grasslands of Africa. In the mud and gore of these cratered battlefields, smoke twisting around his legs, stood a New European Man, grim, weary and wise, the survivor of global slaughter, scarred by harsh lessons, intent upon teaching them to others. This was a generation that had been ripped away from cozy Edwardian and Wilhelminan certainties and hurled, with little preparation, into the 20th Century; from a slow falling dusk, they were thrust into a new dawn. These men realized that the age of kings and Kaisers had been broken, their societies transmogrified, their faith in religion, schools, parliaments -- all the anchors of their forefathers, their old loyalties -- questioned, uprooted and in many cases destroyed. Some felt that their task, their destiny was to forge a new system to rule "modern" people. From Russia to Italy to Germany, these war-blasted men would build a new order for new times.

They were, after all, merely filling a void. By war's end in 1918, empires and monarchies, from the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires to Czarist Russia and Imperial Germany, had collapsed. In this vacuum, a new worship of the state and the nation would arise, as ex-soldiers and professional revolutionaries created reactionary or revolutionary states, ruled by powerful demigod leaders, their ideas fired by the logic unleashed by the war. These men would build an iron bridge of militarism, ideology, intolerance and hate, eventually linking the Great War to the Second World War, forming one long Twenty Years War.

But perhaps most profoundly of all, WWI's simmering cauldron spat into existence a host of new states. For the most part these were not natural creations but imperial carvings sliced out of nothingness by the victorious Allied colonial powers, notably France and the UK. Drawn with blithe disregard for ethnicity, religion, culture or historic rights, these new states emerged across the Middle East and Africa. Still others appeared in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

The reckless arrogance with which these states where hewed into being resulted in virtually ceaseless conflict and death throughout the 20th Century. This mish-mash of peoples, rammed together within artificial frontiers, fought to break free and form nation-states of their own design. We of the 21st Century are still blighted by these state-building experiments as their victims struggle in conflicts of self-determination to ensure that their peoples may live within natural borders more closely fitting traditional ones. These conflicts, from Bosnia to Palestine, Kurdistan to Kenya, Somalia to Syria, endanger our lives to this day, under the specter of terrorism, ethnic cleansing and nuclear catastrophe. It is one of WWI's most enduring legacies.

We live in the world created by the First World War. Emerging from this cataclysmic event damaged and transformed, we have never wholly recovered. Like severe burn victims, we are alive but disfigured, moving forward but with a slight limp, lifting our eyes up to the sun but with dark pools of wisdom and sadness adding shadow to our gazes, a deepness reaching back a century to 1914, to those dead millions, to a time of beginnings and endings, endings and beginnings on a global scale. The world created by the Great War is wondrous, advanced and beautiful. But it is also dangerous, treacherous and unfinished.