The illusion of a quick war.. A Canadian historian draws lessons from World War I and the current Ukraine war



It was published by the American magazine “Foreign Affairs”. An article A Canadian historian says that wars begin with the hope that they will end quickly, but they last for a long time, and the end of some wars simply means laying the groundwork for another war.

The author of the article, Margaret Olwin Macmillan – a professor of history at Oxford University and former dean of Trinity College in Toronto, Canada – made many comparisons between World War I and the current Ukrainian war, saying that the situation of wars has not changed much despite the change in military technology and the contexts in which it takes place.

She explained that before the Russian attack on Ukraine, many assumed that wars between major powers in the 21st century, if they occurred at all, would not be like previous wars, and expected them to take place using a new generation of advanced technologies, including independent weapon systems, and their fields would be in space and cyberspace. As for the forces on the ground, it may not matter much.

However, the writer stressed that there are no qualitative differences between the two wars with regard to their fields and the dense human cadre involved in them, despite the time difference that exceeded a full century and the different military technologies used.

They are quick war

Macmillan said that the First World War showed indelibly that wars rarely go as planned. Although the current war in Ukraine is only in its second year, months later it has revealed a situation in which the front lines have hardened with very high human costs. This reality does not exclude the possibility of significant new processes occurring on either side and consequent shifts in momentum.

The past also offers us – as the author says – a grim warning. When the war in Ukraine finally ends – as happens in all wars – Ukraine and its supporters may hope to achieve a landslide victory and the fall of the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but if Russia is left in a state of bitter turmoil and isolation where he is blamed many of its other leaders and people for its failures, as many Germans did in those decades between the two world wars, the end of this war could simply lay the groundwork for another.

15th August 1917: A little girl has her hand shaken by an American soldier as his troop parade through the streets of London.  (Photo by AR Coster/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
American forces in London in 1917 (Getty Images)

The author continues her comparisons between World War I and the Ukrainian war and says that in both 1914 and 2022 those who assumed that war was not possible were wrong. In 1914 there were serious and unresolved tensions between the European powers, as well as a new arms race and regional crises. It led to talk of war, and equally dangerous was the assumption of those who started the war at the time that it would be as short and decisive as Putin’s assumption in 2022.

Emotions have a big role in the decision to go to war

Macmillan draws attention to the fact that emotions (resentment, pride, and fear) continued to play the same influence on those who decide to go to war, noting that if Putin had made the correct calculations at the beginning, it is likely that he would not have invaded Ukraine, or at least he would have tried to remove the Russian forces. Once it becomes clear that he will not get what he aims for in a quick and inexpensive conquest as he expected.

She added that Putin, like his predecessor Tsar Nicholas in 1914, remembered the humiliation. When he was a young officer in the Soviet intelligence and witnessed closely the withdrawal of the Soviet empire from East Germany, then the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself and the expansion of NATO and the European Union towards the east, he felt humiliated and threatened, while the West underestimated it. Russia’s concerns would largely ignore the blows dealt to its national pride.

Verdun Putin

One of the hallmarks of World Wars I and II is the enormous symbolic importance given to certain cities or regions even if the costs of defending or capturing them seem to defy reason. Hitler wasted some of his best troops and equipment in the famous Russian city of Stalingrad because he refused to back down.

And there was Verdun Castle in World War I. That castle near France’s border with Germany did not have an important strategic position, but its historical symbolism is what made it important for the German Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, who saw that if the French could be defeated in this place Intertwined with French history, it is possible to weaken their will to continue fighting, and even if they choose to defend it, they will suffer such losses that – as Falkenhayn said – “will drain France to the last drop of blood.” It was a challenge that the French understood and accepted.

Germany began a massive offensive in February 1916, and when Falkenhayn’s initial plan to seize all the hills surrounding Verdun failed, the Germans found themselves committed to a devastating battle that they could not win, and at the same time they were unable to withdraw from the positions they had already captured, including The remote French fortress of Douaumont, the gains, had cost many German lives.

German leaders told the audience that Douaumont was the key to the great campaign, and the Battle of Verdun ended after 10 months with the killing of about 143,000 Germans and 162,000 French, and in the end the French regained a large part of the lands that the Germans managed to seize despite the continuation of the war itself for nearly two more years .

And the war in Ukraine – Macmillan says – also produced its own foolish battles of this kind. The Russian siege of Bakhmut – a largely ruined town in the east with little obvious strategic importance – lasted 8 months, and the two sides spent more human and military resources than any other battle. In the war, Chief of Staff of the Ukrainian Army Andriy Yermak made a comparison with Verdun.

Both wars began as a local confrontation

But the possibility of repeating the example of Verdun – Macmillan adds – is not the only threat posed by a long-term war in Ukraine, and what is of greater concern is the possibility that it will attract other powers and become more widespread and destructive. World War I began as a local confrontation in the Balkans between Austria on the one hand and Serbia and Hungary On the other hand, within 5 weeks it had become a general European war, because the other great powers chose to intervene and act – as they believed – in their own interests, and then other powers entered successively, Japan in the late summer of 1914, Bulgaria and Italy in 1915, and Romania in 1916, and China, Greece and the United States in 1917.

Although many of Ukraine’s friends have not yet crossed the border into actual combatants, they are participating more and more closely and providing, for example, intelligence and logistical support, as well as more effective and sophisticated weapons.

As the quality and quantity of their support increases, this in turn increases the risk that Russia will choose to escalate and possibly attack neighboring countries such as Poland or the Baltic states. Another risk is that China could start to support Russia more actively and send lethal aid, thus increasing the chances of confrontation between Beijing. Washington and the extension and prolongation of the war.


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The illusion of a quick war.. A Canadian historian draws lessons from World War I and the current Ukraine war

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