Sunday, May 21, 2017

What is a "World War"?

Besides my credentialed field of "Comparative Religion," I've always loved Literature and History. Within the latter, for some reason, I've continuously been drawn to Military History. Maybe it comes from playing with army toys as a boy or board games like Risk, or growing up in a house with many books containing colorful maps of conflicts throughout history. It's something I've also always felt vaguely guilty about, too. War is horrible. Just look at what's been happening in Syria and Sudan over the last few years. At least as an adult, my interest in the subject now comes back to the historical motivations for war, the personalities involved, and also the bigger philosophical questions: are humans inherently violent? Does the capacity for war and its existence as a human endeavor go back to the farthest reaches of our species' history, as some have claimed?

Within this topic, and similar to my last post, I've been wondering about the logic behind a prevailing academic category, this time for certain kinds of conflicts: the so-called "World War." Sparking my curiosity about the term, April marked the 100th anniversary of the US entry into the European conflict usually called World War I. What differentiates that war from the conflicts of previous millennia to earn the dubious distinction of the first "World" War? Was it really the first? Was World War II really the last? How do we determine a "world" war and what does it say about how we view human history?

The obvious criteria would be global involvement, in terms of both geography and population. Rather than clear things up, this actually muddies the water, as several conflicts before and after World Wars I and II were just as widespread. Some examples:

The Seven Years' War (1756-1763)
Fought between Britain, the American Colonies, Prussia, and the Iroquois Confederacy on one side against France, Sweden, Russia, Austria, and Spain on the other, this war ranged across North America, the Atlantic, and Europe. It's also the war where George Washington cut his teeth as a general. (American history often calls it the "French and Indian War" or, more interestingly, "The War that Made America.") This map (and others, courtesy of Wikipedia) shows the extent of territory involved in the conflict. Green displays France and its allies, while blue represents Britain and its allies.

The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815)
Though mostly confined to Europe, Napoleon's bids for empire also stretched into Egypt and involved naval battles in the Atlantic, the Pacific, and Indian oceans. It involved countries from one end of Europe to the other and, arguably, involved the United States for a few futile years. Green and blue again for the French and British, respectively.
The Cold War (1947-1991)
The ideological confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union never brought about the nuclear devastation that many feared (the "World War III" of popular culture), but that does not mean this was an era of peace. Far from it. Though the two never confronted one another directly, both fought their own wars (in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Eastern Europe, for example) as part of this struggle, as well as funding proxy wars in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Though it was a "Cold" (as opposed to "hot," or "shooting" war, I guess), millions of people still died due to the actions of the powers involved and their surrogates. It also was far more global than either World War I or II. Blue shows the US and its allies, red is for the Soviets. Blue and red "X's" represent insurgencies supported by one or the other side. (China, a bit of a wildcard in the struggle, is yellow.)

It seems that if we use the criteria of "global conflict" (in terms of geography and population), each of these conflicts would easily qualify. So does that mean that, in actuality, we are on World War V or VI (depending on if you count the so-called "War on Terror" a world war, which some have been inclined to do). Why not go even further back? The Greco-Persian wars (499-449 BCE) spanned multiple continents, involved large alliances of peoples (for the time) and were incredibly consequential for human history. The same could be said for the Rome-Carthage Punic Wars. Then there are the more modern wars that never seemed to make it into the news, no matter the millions and millions of deaths. The "Great War of Africa", alternately called the "Second Congo War," is a perfect example. Why are World Wars I and II the only conflicts deemed worthy of the title "World War"?

If we look closer at the two wars, I think we can come up with a few hypotheses. The first is that both (despite the Second's Pacific theater) were both primarily European struggles, showing a Western preference for aggrandizing its own history with ostentatious (or, in this case, "notorious" might be the better word) terms. My other hypothesis is more philosophical and involves looking more deeply into the interconnection of these two wars. Though twenty-one years (1918-1939) supposedly separates World Wars I and II, Europe (and the rest of the world) was not exactly placid during this period. There was the Russian Civil War, the Polish-Soviet War, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and the Spanish Civil War. In other words, between 1914 and 1945 there was almost continuous conflict in Europe, with each war following on the heels of its predecessor, organically linked. With most of the members of the opposing sides remaining static between World War I and II, why is it not referred to as one massive, calamitous war, a Second Thirty Years' War? In fact, going further, since it follows immediately on the heels of Germany's defeat, and Soviet-Western antagonism began during the Second World War, couldn't the Cold War be seen as an extension of World Wars I and II, making the period of 1914-1991 one long train of belligerence?

This is my point: delineating just two conflicts as "World Wars" does not really make sense when the "World War," and war itself, has been a constant throughout history. So, naturally, that's precisely what we have done: set apart just two particular wars from the past as distinct, as the "Really Big and Bad and Scary Ones," perhaps because it makes us feel better about human history to believe we have ascended (or maybe descended) to that level of destruction only twice. This is despite all the evidence to the contrary. Sadly, human history is far bloodier than that, and more consistently so than our labels for World Wars lead us to believe. Unfortunately, that does not seem likely to change in the near future. According to one survey I came across, out of approximately 200 countries in the world, about how many do you think are neither directly nor indirectly, neither internally nor externally, involved in a conflict currently? The answer: eleven. The "World War" is not peculiar to the mid-20th century. It both precedes that period, and persists with perhaps greater intensity. In the more acutely interconnected, globalized world of the 21st century, any and every war might come to be a "World War."

Next time, join me for something a little different, and a little more in line with the stuff I tend to teach about in my classrooms: What do the Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, and Christopher McCandless all have in common? Until then, take care!

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