Over there

Editorial Notebook

August 14, 2004|By Will Englund

IN COUNTLESS VILLAGES across France there stands - not far from where the old men play boules, or from the tourist-dappled cafes, in the shade of stately trees and hemmed in by rabid traffic - a statue of a soldier atop a monument on which is inscribed: MORT A DEVOIR. As the old joke has it, "Died from Homework." No - despite what generations of American high school French teachers have taught their students, this devoir means "duty," not "assignment." The French are serious about commemorating their staggering losses in World War I. It's curious, in that light, that the two countries perhaps most profoundly changed by the war remember it barely - in America's case - or not at all - in Russia's.

Ninety years ago this month, the Great War began. Ninety years ago today the first British troops disembarked at the French port of Boulogne on their way to defend the honor of little Belgium, which was already the scene of shockingly vicious atrocities by invading German troops. Farther south, French soldiers crossed the frontier into German-held Lorraine, sparking the first direct clashes between the two great armies. To the east, the Russian First Army was a day away from its invasion of East Prussia. The war, which had been looming since June, was truly beginning.

In the past few years, historians have taken a renewed interest in the war, and there's a reason why. Although huge crowds in the capitals of Europe that summer cheered in expectation that their troops would be home by Christmas, generals and politicians knew better - they understood that it would be a protracted fight. But they may not have understood that, nine decades later, the world would in some sense still be fighting the war they unleashed.

It began as a clash of empires, but it became something else. It let loose the idea of nationhood among people who had not experienced it - Latvians, Croatians, Czechs, Arabs. When the war began, most of the world's Muslims were subjects of the sultan in Istanbul or of the king in London; Paris and St. Petersburg ruled nearly all the rest. The 1918 armistice carved out new nations and made a bow in the direction of self-determination. But the results weren't perfect - they couldn't be - and international conflict ever since has largely been about adjusting the lines, and also about resolving the absolutist ideological questions that arose from four years of slaughter.

American public memory pays little heed to the nation's first European war, captivated as it is by the victory over fascism in 1945, the triumph of the "greatest generation." In Russia, similarly, where World War I spelled the end of czarism, the beginning of civil war and the onslaught of Communism, people prefer to dwell on the later struggle with the Nazis. Yet this was really just the second chapter of the book that opened in 1914. Today, we're deep into Chapter Four - or is it Five? When Asian and African colonies broke free in the decades following 1945 (not always violently), those were battles in the continuing Great War. The same for Lithuania in 1991. The long conflict in Sudan, too, comes down to self-determination and poorly drawn boundaries.

Now the cockpit of war is in Iraq, a nation cobbled together by diplomats and generals in 1918, and a place where issues both of virulent ideology and of identity are again at the forefront. A British army was in Basra 86 years ago, and there's one there again today. Only the Ottoman Turks - who once ran the place - are out of the picture.

Missing, too, on the world stage are the Austro-Hungarians, and, for all practical purposes, the Germans. The Russians are still recovering from the damage that began in 1914. The French have their statues and memorials. The leading player is the United States, in a role that became inevitable - after the doughboys went Over There.

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