World War I is one of those wars that even those who fought it had trouble explaining. The 4-year-long war left over 17 million people from at least 20 different countries dead. Was it fought for democracy and self-determination? That’s what U.S. President Woodrow Wilson claimed, but then he also invaded and occupied an independent Haiti, instituting forced labor in the only country borne out of a successful slave revolt.
In reality, the war that raged from July 28, 1914, to November 11, 1918, was fought largely because every major power in Europe (and a couple years in, North America) thought it could use the trigger of an archduke’s assassination to expand their power and influence. Most powers ended up weaker than before, while those that achieved gains — France occupied the Rhineland, Germany’s prime industrial area, for several years — found them costly and rather infamously short lived.
During the 1920s and even until the mid-1930s, the question “What was that all about?” continued to dominate discussions of war and peace. The failure to find a good answer contributed to the preference for isolationism in the United States and Western Europe that prevailed among the general public until Adolf Hitler showed that his idea of diplomacy was to encourage the rest of the world to rubber-stamp his aggression until it was their turn to be annexed.
Hitler’s rise may have been enabled by appeasement, but it’s not right to say it was the product of peace. In 1934, the U.S. magazine Fortune, a periodical whose name suggests its audience, published the sort of muckraking expose one would be hard-pressed to find in today’s business press. Naming names, it called out what would later be termed the “military-industrial complex” — a U.S. Senate committee at the time went with the more colorful “merchants of death” — for profiting off the misery of World War I and following up by arming all the sides that would go on to fight the sequel.
“According to the best accountancy figures, it cost about $25,000 to kill a soldier during the World War,” the article began. “There is one class of Big Business Men in Europe that never rose up to denounce the extravagance of its governments in this regard — to point out that when death is left unhampered as an enterprise for the individual initiative of gangsters the cost of a single killing seldom exceeds $100. The reason for the silence of these Big Business Men is quite simple: the killing is their business.”
And what a business it was. As the article noted, the U.S.-based Bethlehem Steel “not only makes armor-piercing’ projectiles, but ‘non-pierceable’ armor plate — which must sometimes cause slight confusion on the proving ground when anyone attempts to demonstrate the virtues of both at the same time.”
Companies also sold to both sides, before, during and after World War I. As The Washington Post reported, when U.S. soldiers “invaded Europe in June 1944, they did so in jeeps, trucks and tanks manufactured by the Big Three motor companies in one of the largest crash militarization programs ever undertaken. It came as an unpleasant surprise to discover that the enemy was also driving trucks manufactured by Ford and Opel — a 100 percent GM-owned subsidiary — and flying Opel-built warplanes.”
As Fortune noted in its 1934 expose, while political leaders may have expressed mutual fears and condemnations of each other, “the lion and the lamb never lie down together with more good fellowship than these French, German, Czech, and Polish gentleman when they come together to discuss, as fellow directors, the problems of increasing Europe’s consumption of armaments.” Indeed, “The armorers,” said Fortune, “are the true internationalists. Regardless of their nationalities, they work in concert at the two axioms of their grade — prolong wars, disturb peace.”
Indeed, capital may have no gods nor moral compass, but it does have respect for its larger clients, wherever they may be. Noted The Post: “When the U.S. Army liberated the Ford plants in Cologne and Berlin, they found destitute foreign workers confined behind barbed wire and company documents extolling the ‘genius of the Fuehrer,’ according to reports filed by soldiers at the scene.”
Its safe to bet that Ford executives wished a GM plane had dropped bombs on those love letters.
Profit though they may have from armed conflict and the preparation for it, it’s not as if there is some small cabal of arms dealers that plans each war.
“There is no perfectly homologous group of single-purposed individuals that sits down before a polished table in a soundproof room and plots new holocausts in Europe,” wrote Fortune.
In fact, there’s plenty of money to be made by arming nations during times of peace — it’s that arms race, though, that enables and encourages arms manufacturers, making war all the more likely, be it in 1914, 1939, 2003 or today in 2015.
“What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once asked her future successor and accessory to the Iraq war, Colin Powell. Having the means to do something makes it awfully tempting to do it, as most critics of concentrating power in the hands of a few have argued for a millennia or more. And even if one would rather not start a war, having the means of mutually assured destruction at one’s hands makes a small quarrel all the more likely to set off a big mistake.
It’s certainly not the case that such concentrated power — including the power to effortlessly destroy millions of lives with a 200-word memo or, these days, the push of a button thousands of miles away from the point of an unmanned drone’s impact — makes anyone any safer in the long run.
As of 1934, France was seen as “the greatest military power of modern times,” noted Fortune, “with an army which all but equals in numbers and far surpasses in equipment Germany’s vast militaristic machine of 1914.”
A lot of good that did.
Fortune wasn’t the only unusual source of anti-imperialism after World War I. General Smedley Butler, the most decorated Marine in U.S. history at the time of his death, fought on behalf of U.S. imperialism from Honduras to Nicaragua and Haiti to France. In 1935, five years after he retired, he looked back on what he did with disgust.
“War is a racket. It always has been,” he wrote, looking back on his years of service. “It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious,” with profits “reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”
Butler was speaking of all the wars he had been asked to fight, but it was the global one that set him off.
“When our boys were sent off to war they were told it was a ‘war to make the world safe for democracy’ and a ‘war to end all wars,’ ” said Butler, referencing Woodrow Wilson’s grand justifications. “Well, eighteen years after, the world has less of democracy than it had then.”
Whether by accident or, as Butler suspected, intent, the war did make many a man richer.
“At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War.” he wrote. “That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.”
It’s these people, the general argued, that should be first in line at the next draft.
“Let the officers and the directors and the high-powered executives of our armament factories and our munitions makers and our shipbuilders and our airplane builders and the manufacturers of all the other things that provide profit in war time as well as the bankers and the speculators, be conscripted,” he said.
No one took him up on the offer. Four years later, there would be a second World War. One that would make the first almost seem civilized. On November 11, “Remembrance Day” as it is known in the countries that fought the first war to end all wars, we would do well to remember that while race and religion have played a part in inflaming tensions, the cause of most wars can still be traced to dollars and cents — nations and their corporate offspring fighting for power and resources. Perhaps it’s time for a return to the draft, in the U.S. and elsewhere, but one limited to the 1 percent for whom war is an abstraction, not a cause of misery and death.