Historians look back to war ‘that created the world’ we live in

Michael Neiberg

Michael Neiberg, an instructor at the U.S. Army War College, stands on the Norwich University campus in Northfield. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger

NORTHFIELD — Compared with World War II, its predecessor World War I gets far less attention.

Fewer books have been written about the first conflict. The veterans of that earlier war were never dubbed “The Greatest Generation.”

But historians argue the war that started 100 years ago and the events that preceded it are more relevant and comparable to today’s geopolitical situation than its far more famous successor.

World War I has been subsumed by “a good war,” said Robert Dalessandro, a historian who is chairman of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission.

“World War II had the bigger villains and the bigger bombs,” he said.

Dalessandro, a retired Army colonel, was among the featured speakers at the 22nd annual William E. Colby Military Writers’ Symposium at Norwich University. The theme this year was examining the legacy of World War I, dubbed at one time “the war to end all wars.”

To Dalessandro and other historians speaking at the military college in Northfield this week, the first global conflict — and particularly the way it was resolved — led to the Second World War.

“The way dawn follows night,” Dalessandro said. The general consensus among the historians was that the prosecution of Germany after WWI was too harsh and allowed Adolf Hitler to take advantage of the German people’s anger and economic despair to rise to power.

Jennifer Keene

Jennifer Keene. Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University

Jennifer Keene, an expert on World War I who is president of the Society of Military History, maintained that the events leading up to the first war are similar to questions being debated today, more so than the circumstances before the second conflict started.

“We have the reality of terrorism in the world, but how far do we go in ceding our civil liberties in order to protect ourselves? This was exactly the same dilemma that the First World War generation had,” she said.

Another similarity between then and now, she said, was the question about what America’s role in the world should be.

“We have this question about sending our troops out of our country, worldwide. When is American intervention welcomed? When is it seen as interference?” Keene asked. How far should America go fostering democratic political systems, she also asked, an issue she said was on the minds of people before World War I as it is today.

Michael Neiberg teaches about international relations theory and critical thinking — but not military strategy — to colonels at the U.S. Army War College. He believes understanding World War I and its consequences is still relevant today.

“I want folks to understand that World War I is not some dusty thing with black-and-white photographs and people wearing strange clothes. It is the event that created the world we are now living in, and we ignore that at our own peril,” Neiberg said.

For example, he said the conflict in Syria and the political vacuum in the Middle East today are largely the result of no single power filling the void after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire following its defeat by the Allies in World War I.

World War I also epitomized the tension between the chief executive and Congress over when to wage war and how it will be handled after that declaration is made, according to David Barron, who won the Colby Award for his book “Waging War: The Clash Between Presidents and Congress, 1776 to ISIS.”

David Barron

Author David Barron at Norwich University. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger

The most dramatic example of that tension during that period was when Congress defied President Woodrow Wilson and refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.

Barron said that although the question of who can wage war is still being debated — Sen. Ted Cruz said President Donald Trump should “make the case” to Congress for why he bombed Syria — there has been a detente of sorts between the two branches of government and that the checks and balances have largely worked.

“The president has a fairly wide latitude at the very outset to engage in a limited conflict overseas, but if it doesn’t seem to be going as well as he made it sound like it would, Congress is pretty quick to jump in,” said Barron, a federal circuit court judge.

And there is a reluctance, Barron said, for the United States to declare war, for fear that it would be considered World War III.

Mark Johnson

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