Ukraine’s War Is Like World War I, Not World War II

Published: 27 October 2022

By Anatol Lieven
via the Foreign Policy magazine web site

A digital composite images shows troops landing at Anzac Cove in Turkey during the Gallipoli campaign in World War I

The West is using the wrong analogy for Russia’s invasion—and worsening the outcome.


It often seems as if the hawkish elements of the U.S. establishment have only ever heard of one war: World War II in Europe. This is because whatever else they forget or get wrong about that war, they are right that it was planned and initiated by a deeply evil and megalomaniac force which posed a threat to the entire world, which had to be completely defeated, and with which no morally acceptable compromise was possible.

The perennial and exclusive references to that war allow U.S. hawks to portray every conflict in which they wish to involve America as an existential struggle against evil, which if not engaged in will lead to catastrophic consequences for America and the world. This has been true of their approach to Vietnam through Iraq to the present war in Ukraine, with disastrous results for America and the world.

This, however, is precisely what makes World War II so exceptional. The great majority of wars in modern history and indeed in American history have been far more morally complex in their origins, and have ended not with the complete victory of one side but with some form of messy compromise. Most wars (and this includes World War II) also illustrate the law of unintended consequences. The end results are very often not those predicted or desired even by the ostensible “victors.”

From this point of view, World War I is a far better historical analogy than World War II for the present war in Ukraine. The years 1914 to 1918 saw the deaths of more than 20 million people, around half of them civilians. Even the French and British victor nations emerged ruined. The consequences of World War I—including the Communist Revolution in Russia and the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—paved the way for World War II.

Of the various leading figures, only Vladimir Lenin, who predicted that war would lead to revolution, can be said to have been accurate in his analysis prior to the war. Nobody else’s predictions came true. If it had been given to the governments in 1914 to see the future, not one would have thought the war worthwhile. Or as a French farmer near Verdun remarked simply a half-century later to Alistair Horne, the British historian of the Battle of Verdun, “Ils etaient fous, ces gens-la”: Those people were crazy.

Today, no serious historians—or educated people in general—would argue that this conflict was necessary and in the real interests of any of the participants, nor that continuing the war in order to gain complete victory was necessary or wise, nor that the Versailles Settlement that ended the war turned out well for the victors, let alone the defeated. From the perspective of a century later, it seems obvious that in adopting the policies that led to war and persisting in its continuation, all the ruling elites of Europe fundamentally and disastrously misjudged the true interests of their countries.

Read the entire article on the Foreign Policy web site here:

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