The picnic basket is packed with fruit, bread, tea, and some candy. The horses and carriage are out front ready to go; the weather could not be finer. A perfect day to spend at a picnic in the sunshine, to witness war.
It may sound absurd to us; however, there was a time when civilians would watch battles and make a social outing of it. Take for example the famous Battle at Manassas during the American Civil War.
“…civilians armed with picnic baskets followed the Union Army out from Washington in July 1861 to watch what everyone thought would be the climactic battle of a short rebellion.” –Jim Burgess, Ground Magazine 2011
“On the hill beside me there was a crowd of civilians on horseback, and in all sorts of vehicles, with a few of the fairer, if not gentler sex …. The spectators were all excited, and a lady with an opera glass who was near me was quite beside herself when an unusually heavy discharge roused the current of her blood —‘That is splendid, Oh my! Is not that first rate? I guess we will be in Richmond to-morrow.’ Irritated by constant appeals to borrow his glass, Russell decided to press forward after an officer rode up and exclaimed to the cheering crowd, “We have whipped them on all points.” – London Times correspondent William Howard Russell.
The people in the nineteenth century viewed war from a completely different view than today. Honor on the battlefield and the call of duty to your king and country was a heavily romanticized notion. War was something to be glorified and writers would tell fascinating stories of heroic deeds and of men facing death with splendid dignity. You could almost envision British soldiers declaring, “God save the Queen!” with their dying breath.
Up until the twentieth century the size of the armies were small compared to the population. Alexander the Great crossed into Asia with an army of 35,000 men.
Napoleon was reported to have bragged he could not be stopped because he spent 30,000 lives per month. The American civil war deaths are reported to be 620,000. This number was very high for America because Americans made up both sides of the conflict. The official toll was 360,000 men from the Union army and 260,000 men from the Confederate army. J. David Hacker, a demographic historian from Binghamton University in New York, claims the toll is closer to 750,000. Overall, the number of soldiers lost in war was small, generally speaking.
I see WWI as a part of history that is important and relative today. It was the monumental collision of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The empires of the world were changing, modern psychology made propaganda very effective, and war tactics had not changed with the technology and machinery of the Industrial Revolution.
The mess that became the start to WWI is complicated. There are thousands of books, theories, and opinions about the events and alliances leading up to the war. The British and French empires had industrial technology and colonies with many resources, including men. Russia, recovering from wars with Japan and Turkey, was not technologically advanced but had a mass of soldiers and was still a capable force. The Ottoman empire was defeated and not the power they once were and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was still a force. At this time Germany was becoming a country that was growing in population and technology. Their army was arguably becoming a great power.
Among these empires there were treaties between themselves and surrounding countries. France and Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary, Britain and Belgium, etc. Most of these countries knew that a war was coming. Germany and Russia were preparing before the outbreak. Europe has always lived with war. Empires have come and gone for centuries. However, there had not been a direct conflict between all of the biggest empires since the Napoleonic wars. The Crimean war was big, but, that was Russia against many and only lasted two years. I believe that the world was not prepared for the world’s empires to all fight against each other and bring almost every European country, Canada, Australia, America, Japan, and colonized soldiers from India, Africa, and Asia as quickly as it did.
The world was a powder keg of hostilities that were long standing and deep. Within WWI there were many memories and grudges from the Franco Russo wars, the Napoleonic wars, Russian Japanese war, Germany had fought against Austria, and the Serbs also had a real problem with subjugation by the Austrians. All of this made it easy for propagandizing the citizens. “The first casualty of war is the truth.”
Newspapers and magazines were the information source. The advancement of photography and the new moving pictures took manipulating public opinion to a new level. The stories of atrocities were greatly exaggerated, especially the extravagantly barbaric portrayal of the German soldiers in Belgium. British propaganda was world class and potent. America had extaordinary propagandists as well. If you want some really interesting research into propaganda and swaying public consent, enter into a search engine: WWI propaganda and and any of these names: Creel, Lasswell, Lipmann, Bernays, Byoir, Kellogg and Bryce. The death toll in which these men are indirectly responsible in unfathomable.
In ‘Propaganda Technique in the World War’, Harold Lasswell in 1927 stated: “But when all allowances have been made, and all extravagant estimates pared to the bone, the fact remains that propaganda is one of the most powerful instrumentalities in the modern world. It has arisen to its present eminence in response to a complex of changed circumstances which have altered the nature of society…. A newer and subtler instrument must weld thousands and even millions of human beings into one amalgamated mass of hate and will and hope. A new flame must burn out the canker of dissent and temper the steel of bellicose enthusiasm. The name of this new hammer and anvil of social solidarity is propaganda.”
“So great are the psychological resistances to war in modern nations that every war must appear to be a war of defense against a menacing, murderous aggressor. There must be no ambiguity about who the public is to hate.” He wrote of Woodrow Wilson: “Such matchless skill as Wilson showed in propaganda has never been equalled in the world’s history…. From a propaganda point of view it was a matchless performance, for Wilson brewed the subtle poison, which industrious men injected into the veins of a staggering people, until the smashing powers of the Allied armies knocked them into submission. While he fomented discord abroad, Wilson fostered unity at home.”
Edward Bernays on the “group mind”: “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it,” This was his “engineering of consent.”
Women would walk through the streets in Britain and put a white feather, a symbol of cowardice, in a man’s lapel and scorn him for not enlisting. They were known as the White Feather Girls. Francis Beckett’s grandfather was killed in 1918 after enlisting following a white feather shaming. He was exempt from serving as a father of three daughters. She condemned the women in an article for the Guardian in 2008.
The sinking of the Lusitania is the most famous propaganda and arguably the most powerful, as it was used to try dragging America into the war. America did not enter the war for another two years. The German response to the first complaint from Woodrow Wilson is a fascinating read. Gottlieb von Jagow, on 28 May 1915 wrote:
“The Lusitania was one of the largest and fastest English commerce steamers, constructed with Government funds as auxiliary cruisers, and is expressly included in the navy list published by the British Admiralty”
“..the Lusitania when she left New York undoubtedly had guns on board which were mounted under decks and masked.”
“..the Lusitania, as on earlier occasions, had Canadian troops and munitions on board, including no less than 5,400 cases of ammunition”
Regardless, the loss of 124 lives and the Bryce Report were powerful anti German propaganda.
These are important lessons of the Great War. The critical lesson that should be learned from this war is the appalling death toll technology can generate.
There were days that the French and British armies each had over 20,000 soldiers killed in battle. That is one third of the soldiers that the United States lost during the entire Vietnam war killed in one day. These battles raged for years and depleted countries near the point of collapse. The toll is hard to comprehend.
Newer refined machine guns were devastating to the infantry and calvary personnel. The Maschinengewehr 08 (MG 08) fired 500 – 600 rounds at an range of 2,200 – 3,900 yards. This 42cm M-Gerät howitzer nicknamed “Big Bertha” was a 43 ton monster, a modified naval gun that fired a 42cm, 830 kg artillery shell. That is a 16-1/2″ inch, 1,829 pound artillery shell. One shell directly hit the ammunition magazine in the Belgian Fort Loncin and completely obliterated it.
The battle at Ypres introduced a new barbarity. Against the Hague Convention rules, German soldiers opened cylinders of chlorine gas against the Allies. This nefarious turn of events lead to both sides using chemical warfare. German mustard gas became the deadliest and most notorious. Reports of the agonizing and excruciating effects on the soldiers, alarmed the world and public opinion would continue to turn against Germany.
In the midst of this carnage, the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 reminds us that these soldiers were everyday people a year and a half earlier. The German Christmas trees and the cease fire is one of the few positive aspects of the conflict. Soldiers exchanged cigarettes and refused to kill on Christmas. The Germans wanted to play a game of soccer but British officers would not allow it.
Similar to WWI, we are in a time of conflict between superpowers, United State of America, Russia, and emerging power, China. China does not have the technology of Russia or the US; however, with a standing army of 2.5 million and more in reserves, its numbers represent a force to be taken seriously. China has demonstrated many times its complete disregard for human life.
Russia remains a formidable force with an advanced military and is getting increasingly wary of western interference in Syria, Crimea, and Ukraine. The recent drop in Saudi oil prices are threatening to destroy the ruble. The Russian people still remember the looting of their country under Boris Yeltsin following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Like the Ottoman Empire of WWI, Iran is not a superpower, however, it and Syria can be strategic allies for Russia.
As for propaganda, today’s science of the brain, psychology, behavior, trauma, and social engineering combined with the internet and the rise of social media have advanced the “group mind” and “engineering consent” to unimaginable levels. Facebook and Twitter fueled Kony 2012 and the Arab Spring phenomenons. We have streaming riots online, flash mobs, viral videos, soundbites, Ukrainian conflicts, missing airplanes, and open government corruption and data mining. Highly advanced mind control technology have all the factors of a Philip K. Dick novel. Studying people like Edward Bernays and his book, Propaganda will help to understand the mental minefield of todays media bombardment.
Like the Great War, today’s technology has added many new weapons that are untested. As we enter this precarious time we should be concerned that militaries have highly advanced weaponry and equipment. I mean really advanced. Mind blowing, lose sleep, scary advanced. For example, there are the ScanEagle drones that perform like a “swarm of insects.” while communicating with each other and also genetic super soldiers outfitted with robotic exoskeletons. These super soldiers will be implanted with “nanosensors” inside their bodies that could diagnose or even treat illness from within. If this isn’t unsettling enough, they will be using mind reading video cameras. In 2007, Wired wrote an article on these telepathic binoculars.
Russia has claimed that its Khibiny jamming technology completely rendered the radar of the USS Donald Cook useless. The Russian fighter is said to have made twelve fly-overs with the US Navy defenseless to stop it. Russia also has a massive underground facility under the Yamentua Mountain. They are very secretive and refused to answer President Clinton’s questions. It was in the NY Times in April, 1996.
We know the Chinese have been building underground for centuries.
As for free speech and the right to assemble, anti war protesters need to be concerned with the Active Denial System microwave gun that was experimented on prisoners and has been admitted to be for use as a weapon for future crowd control.
What does the future of weapons mean for the very idea of dissent? How do we rationally resist a government or military using ultrasound to control brains, hacking automobile control systems as stated by DARPA’s Dr Kathleen Fisher, or deploying drones that determine the fate of a target without human decision? The question of computers using algorithms to decide the fate of human beings needs to be thoroughly examined before building killer robots. Robots without humanity or compassion. Perhaps a lesson can be learned of the capabilities computerized war technology from those that were witness to the lethality of the Great war. Men like Winston Churchill.
WWI accurately showed the world what twentieth century war was going to be and showed to the world that civilian populations are now a casualty of war. This makes the thought of chemical and biological weapons the most terrifying. Almost fifteen years ago gene targeting bioweapons were addressed by a neocon think-tank called Project For a New American Century. A policy paper called, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” in September 2000, stated: “advanced forms of biological warfare that can “target” specific genotypes may transform biological warfare from the realm of terror to a politically useful tool.” This think tank, PNAC, had prominent members including Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Jeb Bush and Scooter Libby.
Suspend all belief and assume the government was completely benevolent and trustworthy. Does it have our faith in its ability to guard against events such as the missing deadly virus from a Texas lab? These labs are experimenting with some pretty scary viruses.
‘Mark Buller, a professor of molecular microbiology at St. Louis University said that colleagues at the Army’s biodefense institute at Fort Detrick, Md., were planning to test the superlethal cowpox virus on mice. Yesterday, neither the White House nor Fort Detrick would comment on whether those plans had been approved.’ – NY Times 2003
The Twentieth century perspective on war is not aligned with the war capabilities of the twenty-first century. The empires are on a collision course, high tech propaganda and mind boggling weaponry make history relevant. Let us turn off our smart phones occasionally and read history. Let us not turn it into the proverbial history we are doomed to repeat. Understanding history and the manipulation of people will allow us to avoid cataclysmic events like global war. But to resist it, we must understand it.
Follow this link to some great photos of WWI.
For a good audio podcast on the war follow this link to Dan Carlin and his Hardcore History series.