The events that led to World War I – the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife while in Sarajevo – occurred 100 years ago today. Carried out by a Bosnian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip, it set in motion a four-year war that was the most expensive in world history (estimated at $400 billion contemporaneously) at that time, it killed more people, caused more devastation, led to the simultaneous decline of four empires. Far more importantly it exposed the link between global capital and imperialism, setting the stage for a much more dire war. It’s no wonder people came out of it wondering what it was all for, with a minimum of 9 million (and perhaps as many as 20 million) dead, and turned to cynicism, consumerism, and dangerous radicalism across the globe.
My great Grandfather Frank Moore and my Great Uncle William Brown fought in the so-called Great War. Grandpa Frank made it home, convinced he was a lucky one, and proposed to the love of his life. Uncle William wasn’t so fortunate. He perished in the Meuse-Argonne offensive’s final phase, and to this day, among the few times I’ve ever seen my Grandfather Clayton Brown cry was when he talked about his beloved “Uncle Willie.”
I have always been interested in World War I because of this familial connection. World War I was a seminal moment for my family. The Moore’s (my maternal grandmother’s side) believed that they had somehow been blessed, and our family could not have come about any other way but through luck. The Browns (my maternal grandfather’s side) were shocked at losing William, but as long-standing American patriots they thought “every generation needed to make its sacrifice” – until my Grandfather, Although he saw the flag draped box that came home much later (following William’s disinterment and repatriation) he became suspicious of pretty much anything national leaders said. He would fight in World War II, but never liked to talk about it. Years later when I contemplated military service, his counsel provided a glimpse into his thoughts on war and nationalism.
I make no pretensions to intellectualism – the meanings of war are always made up, by politicians seeking to justify a particular policy. But the effect is always a personal one, felt by those whose lives are altered and those left behind. Tonight, I’ll have a drink in memory of those who didn’t come back until it was over over there, and those who didn’t come back period.