Steve Paul

View from World War I looks ever grim today

Historians Chad Williams (from left), Graydon Tunstall and Mitch Yockelson spoke Sunday at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City.
Historians Chad Williams (from left), Graydon Tunstall and Mitch Yockelson spoke Sunday at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. The Kansas City Star

Listen to a few historians talk about reverberations of World War I in today’s world and it’s hard to avoid a sense of pessimism for the globe’s future.

Then again, confronting the pictures, headlines and the streaming topical sewage of today, it’s hard to put on a face of cheery optimism either.

But that war. It got under way for real 100 years ago this month, so it may seem distant and perhaps even irrelevant to those who don’t know any better.

In reality, its echoes are all too familiar — eerily familiar at times — and we will be often reminded of them as the next four years of remembrances pile up. The lessons are worth paying attention to.

In its ongoing series of programs to highlight war history, the National World War I Museum at the Liberty Memorial last Sunday presented a panel discussion with three historians.

Collectively they characterized the war as a collision of imperialism, nationalism and colonialism. It was inevitable. It was brutally costly in human lives. And running not far from the surface was the fundamental need for oil, for the petroleum energy that builds the modern world and the war machine.

“Oil becomes the mainstay of warfare and the key to military power,” said Graydon Tunstall of the University of South Florida.

There’s a legacy that’s not going away anytime soon — think of the geopolitical struggle over Ukraine or the economic tug-of-war involving the U.S. and China.

The Sunday program included a video clip from a History Channel feature in which historians were asked to describe the war in one word. “Cataclysmic,” one said. “Stupid,” said another.

The visiting historians challenged the last as far too glib.

“There’s a danger in characterizing the war as stupid,” said Chad L. Williams of Brandeis University, “because it mattered ... to many people... and it runs the risk of dismissing the war as a historical event.”

The historians were not much impressed with President Woodrow Wilson.

“Wilson never understood what the war was about,” Tunstall said.

Added Mitch Yockelson, who teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy: “Wilson never visited a battlefield. He didn’t care so much for the fighting. He was more interested in what would happen at the peace talks.”

The United States emerged from the war as a dominant force. U.S. leadership in global conflicts has been expected ever since, and questions about leadership and foreign policy in the current and previous administrations have turbo-charged the political climate.

In her classic history, “The Guns of August,” Barbara Tuchman captures the world as we know it now: “The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.” (By the way, it’s being read by The Star’s FYI Book Club.)

That existential circumstance seems to hover still, especially as war and revolutions are being shaped as much by religion as naked nationalistic power. That creates perhaps an even tougher trap from which to extract ourselves.

Last weekend’s panel coincided with a meeting here of the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission, which is charged with creating awareness of the war’s history and supporting commemorative programs.

“If we do nothing else as a commission than to ignite the interest of young people in World War I, then we’ve done our job” said Army historian Robert Dalessandro. “Everything else is gravy.”

There were indeed young faces in the museum auditorium last Sunday. So at least we can hope that this current push to understand history will reach the generation of people who will have the capacity to wrestle the war’s legacy into something more like sanity.

To reach Steve Paul, call 816-234-4762 or send email to Follow him on Twitter at sbpaul.