When I was a kid, Veterans day was called Armistice day. It marked the end of WWI. As many people died on all sides (there were many shifting alliances), it’s worthwhile asking what we’ve learned. The main thing, I think, is that aristocrats suck, both hereditary aristocrats, and the aristocrats of thought. Europe entered a world war for no big reason: small gains of land and status gains for a few aristocrats, generals, and thinkers at the top of society. These saw an opportunity to get medals and prove they could lead men in battle. The mass of Europeans cheered for war (see photo below, right) and followed them in battle. Millions were sent running at machine guns and poison gas. Most died, Those who survived returned home feeling less enthused about the ignorant, arrogant hereditary aristocrats, but still honored the generals and thinkers. They executed Tzar Nicolas of Russia and greatly reduce the power of the kings of England, Belgium, Turkey, Holland, and Austria. The thinkers inherited that power, but dropped the monarch’s face hair.
Before WWI, virtually all of Europe was ruled by king; generally bearded kings who were believed to rule by divine right, as the will of God. The king generally had aid of a republican congress, a large aristocracy — counts, dukes, marchese, and earls, and the academic élite — professors and generals. All of these avoided association with the masses, except for show, all spent lavishly, and all maneuvered for power. By the end of WWI, no king in Europe retained real power, and the hereditary aristocrats discredited, power went to the intellectual aristocrats, where it resides today: generals, professors, newspapermen, novelists, generally mustached and modern. In 20 years or so, the new aristocrats would bring on WWII, in part because of a fear of war. Their wisdom proved to be little better than the old, but it is hard to say it was worse. The main lessons learned: avoid beards and aristocrats.
In his book, “Diplomacy”, Henry Kissinger draws a few more lessons from the Great War. A major one is that balance of power works: it worked for the 100 years until WWI. Another lesson he draws: don’t let mutual defense treaties kick in until an actual invasion has begun: until troops actually cross the border. He blames hair trigger treaties for much of the trouble of WWI. His book is a good read, though, if only as a background his diplomatic approaches.
I write about WWI because of today is Veterans day, and also because two days ago we elected Donald Trump president of the US in a bitterly divisive election. Trump claims he wants “to drain the swamp,” a claim I take to mean that he intends to diminish the power of the intellectual aristocracy, the generals, writers, professors and politicians who think together, vacation together, club together, and control what it means to be educated. The Washington Post calls this removal a threat to western civilization; it removes the intelligentsia, and replaces it with racist boobs, or so they see Trump’s crew. There were anti election demonstrations in Boston, New York, Oakland, Austin, and Detroit. Upon election news a movement was started to impeach Trump, or get him to step down on claims that he stole the election. Officials of Hampshire college lowered the flag to half mast as a sign of mourning for our democracy. These acts of dissent are as heartfelt a reaction as the widespread approval that greeted WWI. I can hope the outcome is better.
For what it’s worth, I do not believe the supporters of Trump are as angry, or as stupid as portrayed: half a basketball of deplorables and irredeemables, the other half needing re-education (to borrow from Ms Clinton). These are the people who fight our wars, and I suspect we’ll be somewhat better off for giving them a voice. As for veterans day, honor the poor blokes who fought for our folly.
Robert E. Buxbaum, November 10, 2016.