Nov. 11 is celebrated in the United States as Veteran’s Day, and celebrated elsewhere in the world as the end of World War I (called “Armistice Day”). In the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year (1918), World War I - “the Great War” as many patriots called it - ended with a harsh treaty for Germany and a bitter ending for all who participated.
The Russian Empire collapsed, and in place arose a murderous and incompetent socialist dictatorship that starved millions. The Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire disappeared from the map, replaced by “nation-states” that at once began purifying their domains of minority subjects with bouts of ethnic cleansing. The Western Empires fared much better territorially, as each gained land, but they all lost an entire generation of men to machine guns and chemical weapons.
The German Empire, at least according to French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, got off relatively easy, too. Yes, the Germans lost their overseas empire, but they got to keep their country (which had only been a country for less than 50 years). Foch thought that the armistice of 1918 was too lenient to the Germans, and that the German Empire should end up like the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian ones: broken up into smaller states that could never again threaten the Empires of the West. Cooler heads than Foch’s argued that breaking up Germany in the Ottoman/Austro-Hungarian manner would only lead to more of the ethnic cleansing that occured in those lands, and might even lead to something far worse: another Bolshevik revolution.
Ethnic cleansing and forced population swaps between new nation-states were one thing, but having a second country join Russia’s anti-capitalist revolution was quite another. Germany could keep its European realm intact, and a close eye was kept on events in German-held territories following the 1918 armistice. The collapse of the German Empire ended not with a Bolshevik revolution but a republic that tried too hard to please too many radicals. For the victors of World War I (including Americans), this was fine. We all know how the Treaty of Versailles ended up. We all know what happened with the outcome of the armistice.
What is perhaps less well known is something that happened 54 years after the armistice was signed. On Nov. 11, 1972, the United States of America officially withdrew from South Vietnam, essentially ending the 20-year war there. What stands out the most about this historical coincidence is not the coincidence itself but the fact that the United States learned a great deal from the brutal failure of the Versailles armistice.
The United States lost roughly 116,000 boys to disease and combat in World War I, and another 320,000 or so were maimed or otherwise injured in Europe. These casualties were and are relatively light in the broad scheme of war, but, then again, the United States hardly participated in the Great War (at least in an official capacity).
In the 20 years the United States was in Vietnam, by contrast, just over 58,000 boys lost their lives and 304,000 were wounded in some capacity. Why the large disparity in lives lost?
There are two general answers here. The first is that World War I was fought in Europe between organized militaries that all adhered closely to a common framework of rules and regulations regarding warfare. That is to say, the armies of Europe (and the United States) were organized, disciplined, and prepared to vanquish its enemies.
By contrast, the war in Vietnam was a guerrilla war fought between one organized military and many decentralized organizations with differing goals. With that kind of chaos, casualties were bound to be lower. The other, much more important answer, is that the American Five Stars stopped aping European tactics, the way John J. Pershing did in World War I. General Pershing was infamous for doing exactly what his European counterparts did (early on) in World War I: throwing fresh troops at beleaguered enemy lines and hoping that sheer numbers would overpower the enemy.
Pershing’s bellicosity in all likelihood caused American casualties to be much higher than they otherwise had to be, and contributed to the isolationism and anti-war sentiments in America that lasted into the early 1940s. American military strategists no doubt learned from Pershing’s Mistake, and preferred to fight a drawn-out, low-casualty war instead of a quick, high-casualty one.
America appears to favor the Vietnam scenario to WW I. With this historical background in mind, the long-running, low-intensity war being fought in Afghanistan suddenly becomes more logical.
A brutal, all-out assault on a resurgent Taliban might seem like a good way to end the war, but the long-run social costs might be higher than mere military casualties (which would no doubt be higher than they are now). A domestic surge in anti-war sentiments caused by a high-intensity war in Afghanistan would not only cause domestic unrest, it might bring down the entire postwar, American-led world order.