Steve Haycox: War easy to romanticize away from heat of battle

As the centenary of World War I approaches, which can be dated from the assassination of the Hapsburg Austrian empire heir Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on July 28, 1914, the expected rasher of books has rekindled discussion on the war's cause, about which there has never been a consensus among historians.

Was it, as Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty ending the war maintained, a matter of aggressive German imperialism, of Kaiser Wilhlem II making ruthless war on hapless and sometime helpless European neighbors? Or was it, as nationalist historians during and after World War II asserted, the combined stupidity of such European leaders as the Kaiser, England's Sir Edward Grey, France's Raymond Poincarre, Russia's foreign minister Sergei Sozonov and the Austrian Francis Joseph, none of whom seemed to appreciate the implications of their honoring the various mutual defense alliances their nations were party to, and none of whom can be seen as the principal antagonist?

Some modern historians have reverted to the German guilt thesis, while at least one other blames Russia, arguing that the tsar dreamed of finally conquering the Ottoman vestige Turkey, and securing Russia's access to world commerce through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.

In its aftermath it was called "The Great War," for in its worldwide sweep, it enveloped all the major nations one way or another, and brought 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded; 7 million of the deaths were civilian. It settled nothing among nations, and created conditions in Germany that led to World War II. When the Armistice took effect, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, no one expected another, still more costly global conflagration a mere two decades later.

What does it matter that no one quite knows why the Great War began, that historians and other analysts continue to search the documentary record for clues and explanations?

Because if for no other reason, the questioning and the discussion confirm the point that war is too easy to slide into without anyone quite understanding what is happening until it has happened. One might imagine that the American habit of stumbling into war -- in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan -- would have made this amply clear to everyone, but it hasn't.

It is also too easy to romanticize war. The beginning of Eric Maria Remarque's classic 1929 novel "All Quiet on the Western Front" opens with a high school teacher haranguing his students to join the Army and fight for glory and honor, seeking to inspire them all. In the aristocratic tradition, young men of better families sought to prove their manhood by riding off to order bunches of peasant soldiers into battle, and often to their deaths, the betters all to be home by Christmas to see the "comings out" of the season's debutantes. The generation of maimed and gassed, the survivors of the needless slaughter in the hills of Gallipoli, those caught in the muddy trenches, all could testify to the sordidness and despair of real war, captured in James McCrae's poem "Flanders Field," Siegfried Sassoon's lyrics and Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That."

When the U.S. was finally drawn in, George M. Cohan's confident 1917 upbeat song "Over There" made it sound like a lark: "We won't come back 'til it's over, over there." Yet to guarantee support for the war, President Wilson and his advisors effectively nationalized the economy and established a highly effective propaganda machine. James Montgomery Flagg's "Uncle Sam Wants You" poster was created to generate guilt among American youth who hesitated.

In Alaska, so many of the thousand men working construction on the Alaska Railroad rushed off to join up that managers had to scrape the docks in Seattle to come up with a work force for the 1917 season.

The original German title of Remarque's novel is "Im Westen Nichts Neues," ("In the West Nothing New") are the words of the situation report on the day of the death of the main character. They signify, the author said, the insignificance of any one soldier's endeavor. What World War I actually inspired was the existential emptiness of life, as in Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms."

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.