Americans always seem to be captivated by WWII. The Nazis and Imperial Japanese make excellent villains, and the conflict helped catapult the U.S. to the status of global hegemon. Furthermore, some people still have friends and relatives who served during the Second World War (though, sadly, this generation is quickly dying out). Thus, it is still possible for many Americans to personally relate to the conflict. WWII also represents a stereotypical “good” war. America’s enemies were clearly evil, and the conflict catalyzed a patriotic effort that involved almost everyone. Moreover, American goals and objectives were clear, and the victory was absolute. In many ways, though, this is exactly why exclusively studying the Second World War is insufficient: It represents a kind of war that rarely happens.
Unfortunately, almost nobody outside of political scientists and historians knows that much about the First World War. I believe that this is largely because the war did not impact the U.S. as profoundly as the conflict that followed. Thus, Americans tend to ignore it and instead focus on WWII, a war that fundamentally changed America’s role in the world. This, coupled with the lack of a clear narrative like that found in World War Two, has, I think, resulted in World War One being almost completely ignored by the general public. This is a shame.
World War One is a far more interesting conflict because it is more ambiguous. For example, it is far from clear that either side was evil in the way that the Nazis were. The conflict is also fascinating because of its results: With many national groups forming their own states at the expense of traditional imperial powers like Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, the map of Europe was profoundly reshaped after the war. Because of this, groups that were previously ignored acquired a far greater voice in European and world affairs. The conflict is also intriguing because it witnessed so many technological and tactical innovations that fundamentally changed the way economies functioned and militaries fought. Finally, the complex international environment that existed before the war is deeply fascinating and has inspired a plethora of IR theories and historical narratives ranging from power transition theory to formal theories of alliances to theories about dynamic trade expectations. It is exactly because the onset of the war is so muddled and complex that it is so engrossing and intellectually rewarding to study.
However, perhaps the best reason to study the First World War is that it reveals the complexity of conflict and international cooperation, and it shows the unimaginable costs of poorly-conceived military adventures. Both sides ended up in conflict because they were too aggressive and unwilling to back down when war seemed likely. Not only did neither side work adequately to avert conflict, but they also failed to envision the extreme length and cost of the war. In many ways, this mirrors current debates about American foreign policy. While we aren’t facing a global war among near-peer competitors like European statesmen in July of 1914 were, the United States is being forced to deal with a number of conflicts that – should it choose to engage – will assuredly lead to unforeseen consequences. In much the same way that European policymakers inadvertently stumbled into a massive conflict that resulted in the Götterdämmerung of three empires and European society more broadly, many American politicians and voters seem to unthinkingly advocate militant policy positions without thinking through potential externalities. Of course, this is not to say that the U.S. should never stand up to aggression or provocation from other states and non-state actors. It is, however, to argue that Americans should be conscious of the fact that most wars aren’t as straightforward and clearly defined as the Second World War. Were these historically illiterate Americans to immerse themselves in the rich literature on the First World War, they would quickly understand that war is far more complex and confusing than the overly simplified good vs. evil total war narrative suggests.