Reflections on the Great War
When I was a young man I carried my pack,
And I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murray’s green banks to the dusty Outback,
I waltzed my Matilda all over.
Then in 1915, my country said, “Son,
There’s no time for rovin’.
There’s work to be done.”
And they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun,
And they sent me away to the war.
One hundred years ago this week, Austria-Hungary fired the first shots in their conflict with Serbia, and so began what contemporaries called the Great War, and which we know as World War One. The crisis that led to the war had been going on for exactly one month, ever since Gavrilo Prinzip, a Bosnian Serb, had assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. This triggered a cascade of diplomatic and military activity that brought all the major European powers in against each other in two alliances: Germany and Austria-Hungary on one side; Russia, France, and Britain on the other. Eventually, most of the other European nations were drawn in, as well as other powers such as the Ottoman Empire, Japan, Australia, and the US. Some 16 million people died in or from the war, 9 million of them in uniform.
We here in America have paid little attention to WW I, perhaps because WW II looms so large in our collective memory; and perhaps because, for us, WW I was just an adventure that happened “over there.” We came in toward the end of the conflict and we were on the winning side and helped to dictate terms; the war didn’t tear up our society as it did that of so many other peoples'. But consider, if you will, the results of the war, and how profoundly they shaped subsequent events in the world. Four great empires were destroyed by the war, with results that have troubled us ever since:
The Russian Empire collapsed and was taken over by revolutionaries led by Vladimir Lenin, leading to the miseries of international communism and the Cold War and the Gulag and all the rest of it.As for the two victorious European powers – England and France -- the experience was so shattering that their own rising generation turned away from patriotism into cynicism and pacifism and defeatism, which made them slow to confront the evils brewing in the aftermath of the war. They shrugged off the challenges; everyone was out for themselves alone.
Austria-Hungary was broken up into ethnic nations, which has given us the Balkans as we know them today, still riven by ethnic conflict that has touched off terrible actions even in our own generation.
The German Empire was replaced by the Weimar Republic under terms so onerous and humiliating that the rise of Adolf Hitler was made much easier barely twenty years later.
The Ottoman Empire was also dismembered, and the map of the Middle East was redrawn by the English and French. The crazy quilt of artificial states such as Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon – and Palestine – were all created by the Sykes-Picot treaty at the end of the War, in a process accurately described in one book title as, “A peace to end all peace.” And with the abolition of the Sultanate in the Turkish revolution that followed, the office of Caliph became vacant for the first time since the founding of Islam – the very caliphate that today’s Islamic jihadists want to recreate.
Meanwhile, America went back into isolationism and indulged itself in the Roaring Twenties, but we shouldn’t forget that the heavy hand of progressivism first showed itself during this time, as the Wilson Administration nationalized production by fiat and criminalized criticizing the government by the Sedition Act of 1917. Ever since, some Americans have toyed with the idea that we need somebody who’ll just override our slow and cranky old Constitution and “make the trains run on time,” as was admiringly said of Mussolini between the wars.
World War One was a catastrophe of epic proportions that separated all that came before from all that followed after into two different worlds, the inhabitants of which could barely comprehend what life looked like to the other.
And what caused it? Nobody has ever agreed upon a reason. In a sense, everything caused it. You could say that the Franco-Prussian War set up the conditions for WW I. In another sense, you could say the end of the Napoleonic Wars set up the international system that all the European powers had bought into for a hundred years and which finally failed. Or you could say that the conflict had been brewing ever since Charlemagne’s empire had been divided among his grandsons; the fault lines ran that deep.
And yet, when the war finally came, nobody could really believe it was coming. Things had gone on so long without the catastrophe actually coming that everyone assumed they’d muddle through one more time – until they didn’t. A small thing touched off another thing, which touched off another thing, which triggered a response and the invocation of a treaty and a flurry of diplomats and suddenly, everybody was shooting at everybody else. And with the advent of new technologies such as machine guns and poison gas and so on, the carnage reached unimaginable levels. Generals refused to believe the casualty reports – or worse, refused to read them, lest they be emotionally influenced and dare not order what they thought they had to.
Well, the History Channel will probably do some specials on WW I this fall, though I imagine nobody will make much of it. But the anniversary has been on my mind – and so significant it was, I thought I had to say something about it, to mark the occasion. But if it is so significant, then what does it signify? What is the meaning of it? What can I say, as from God, that is more than just a History Channel special of my own?
Oh, I could preach you an anti-war message – that’s easily done. Lots of clergy do that. But I’m not a pacifist, and I don’t denigrate the important service of those we train to fight our wars. A cheap tirade against war, as such – an accusatory snort about how we should invest as much in making Peace as we do in making War – you’ve heard that before. Where is the wisdom in that?
No, there must be something more that I could say, some kind of lesson to be learned from the Great War. And this is what I have come up with: I want to say something about Judgment.
The Book of Amos is a sermon about Judgment. It begins, “Thus says the Lord: for three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” – and then it lists the bad deeds of those in Damascus. Then he says, "Thus says the Lord: for three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment." And then, "For three transgressions of Tyre, and for four," then "Edom," then "the Ammonites," and finally "Moab." By this time, the Israelites of the northern kingdom, to whom Amos delivered this sermon, are really cheering. All of their traditional enemies are being threatened with the wrath of God. And then he says, “for three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment." Well, Judah was a rival kingdom, yeah – but it was also part of God’s people. Amos is cutting a little close to the bone at this point, and they're no doubt wondering where this is going. And then he says, “Thus says the Lord: for three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.” And suddenly ol’ Amos has gone from preachin’ to meddlin’. They accused him of being a Judan spy. They refused to hear him when he said that the same rules that applied to all the Gentiles around them applied to them, too.
But that’s how judgment works. It’s not a matter of God personally singling out a person or a nation and arbitrarily letting loose the awfulness on their heads. Judgment isn’t like that – and God doesn’t rush to judge that way, anyway. After all, he’s been holding back the Day of Judgment all these centuries, until all his children have a chance to respond to the gracious call to peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. But judgment isn’t just a matter of punishment by God – it’s more like what the Eastern peoples call Karma: What goes around, comes around. Actions have consequences. Or as your mother used to say, If you keep making that face, it’ll freeze that way.
People who keep acting foolishly eventually get hurt by their own folly. People who act recklessly may escape disaster one time after another, but if you keep acting recklessly, eventually you’re going to go smash. This is what judgment is. It is the natural consequence of our own behavior. And God doesn’t so much visit the consequences on our heads as, you might say, stops protecting us from our own bad judgment. So we do it to ourselves.
And this is what happened in the years leading up to WW I – and the years leading up to WW II. It also happened in our country in the years leading up to the cataclysm of the Civil War. People make compromises with certain situations. They accept evils they can’t rid themselves of – which you can hardly blame them for, but pretty soon, they no longer even see them as evils. They try to muddle through. They thoughtlessly follow the routine that always worked before. They refuse to do the Right Thing. They refuse to do the Hard Thing. They trust to luck and refuse to see the risks they’re running. And they make what profit they can from it, until the day when the whole society tips over into the abyss.
In the midst of WW II, Dorothy Sayers spoke of the greed that had consumed and weakened France in the years between the wars. She wrote of one man she called “a sordid and cynical French businessman” who had fled the fall of France in a boat and wound up in England. “Someone asked him, ‘Why did France break down like this?’ and he answered: ‘Because she had too many men like me.’” Men who thought they could always cut a deal with those who threatened them, because everyone had a price – as they did.
I look at the world today, and it doesn’t resemble much the world I thought I would inherit from my parents. It doesn’t even resemble the one I thought I had figured out as a young man. There are many dangers loose in the world today, and I’m not sure anybody quite knows how to deal with them. And there are internal dangers to our society quite apart from what Russia, or Iran, or the Islamic jihadists intend. We muddle through, compromising with all sorts of things we have come to take as just normal, and we think it’ll all work out somehow.
Ah, but “For three transgressions of America, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” -- will not bail them out, will not give them yet another pass. Why, because God is a vengeful God? No, quite the contrary. But if you keep making that face, it’ll eventually freeze that way. If you keep doing foolish things, eventually your folly will undermine everything wise that supports your comfort and peace. Because actions have consequences.
We dare not be like the Shire-hobbits, who “came to think that peace and plenty were the rule in Middle-earth and the right of all sensible folk.” Peace and plenty have to be constructed. They have to be worked for. They will be there for us to enjoy only if someone offers them on behalf of God. Following Christ is thus more than just "me and Jesus," since the fate of the world -- or of our society -- is more than just my personal happiness and personal piety. It calls for all of us to care for something beyond ourselves.
We naturally look to government for this. But this takes great wisdom on the part of our government, and no government can be much wiser than the people from whom it derives. It requires a government which acts virtuously, but no government can be much more virtuous than the people from whom it derives. Which means how you and I live and how we participate in our society matter intensely in the long run.
We need to pray for our country, and pray for peace – but as Jewel sings in her song, “A Life Uncommon,” There are plenty of people who pray for peace, but if praying were enough, if would have come to be.
We have to live in peace to bring peace to the world. And we cannot do that by making peace with the world, as such. We have to learn wisdom and live virtuously, even amidst folly and vice, even when others look down on us for spoiling the party. And we can only do this by following Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. And if we do that, we might just renew our society and lead the world past its current dangers. And may it be so.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.