The war to end all wars

Three-expert panel discusses World War I at SUNY?Fredonia

OBSERVER Photo by Damian Sebouhian Associate Professor of History and author Christopher Capozzola discusses the origins and significance of Uncle Sam during a panel discussion held at SUNY Fredonia’s Reed Library.

The United States’ entrance into World War I in 1917 resulted in major changes for the country, most notably the massive expansion of the federal government. The “war to end all wars,” coined by British author H.G. Wells, not only failed to live up to that catchphrase’s promise, some experts view WWI as the seed who’s tree has born the fruit of today’s “Forever War.”

Others argue that the U.S. involvement in WWI represented a seed for values like democracy and human rights, who’s tree bears the fruit of a more peaceful world than the one lived through during the first half of the 20th century.

These concepts and much more were discussed during a recent three-expert panel held at State University of New York at Fredonia, commemorating the centennial of WWI. The speakers included Christopher Capozzola, associate professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of “Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen”; Brian Castner, Iraq War veteran and bestselling author of “All the Ways We Kill and Die”; and Ian Fishback, Iraq and Afghanistan war special forces veteran and TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” (2008).

Capozzola spoke first delivering an illuminating presentation on the impacts of WWI upon the citizenry of the US and how the war effort led to major expansions to the federal government.

The first major catalyst that inspired a large percentage of Americans to join the war effort came with the invention of Uncle Sam by illustrator James Montgomery Flagg in 1916.

“Within a year, despite (president) Woodrow Wilson’s stated intentions to keep America out of the war, the nation was already mobilizing young men into the ranks,” Capozzola explained. “In the Spring of 1919 the image reappeared, this time on a U.S. Army recruiting poster with ‘I want you.’ They had printed more than 4 million copies of this poster.”

Following the creation of Uncle Sam in 1916, came the Selective Service Act of 1917, “The first large-scale universal conscription in the U.S.”

Before WWI, Capozzola said, the US had an army “smaller than Bulgaria’s (and) a political structure that saw little role of the federal government beyond delivering the mail.”

Before WWI, the largest federal budget ever was $762 million.

“After the war, the smallest federal budget was $2.7 billion,” said Capozzola. “The size and scope of the federal government grew drastically and never came back down.”

These expansions in power led to the following changes:

¯ Implementation of ID cards for citizens.

¯ The 16th Amendment: giving Congress the power to tax income (the Income Tax).

¯ The regulation of alcohol, which turned into prohibition (1920-1933).

¯ Intervening in disputes between business and labor.

¯ The institution of daylight’s savings time.

¯ Institution of the IQ test.

¯ Institution of the nascent welfare state.

¯ Creating and maintaining a standing army.

¯ Introduction of the Cold War.

¯ Increased surveillance powers.

“Uncle Sam was nearly everywhere in American lives,” said Capozzola.

The professor noted that much of the surveillance conducted during WWI was practiced by its own citizens, clubs, churches and local governments.

“Buffalo has one of the most chilling stories of wartime surveillance, Capozzola said. “City police would visit every single home in the city asking people to fill out a form in which they pledged their (support). Police were coming to (people’s homes) to find out to what extent (they were) supporting the war effort.”

Capozzola said that in all his research he knew of no city of Buffalo’s size to have conducted such an extensive police-enforced surveillance program.

Capozzola said that 126,000 U.S. soldiers died in WWI, 50 thousand in combat; 600 thousand Americans died of the Influenza Epidemic of 1918; in total WWI claimed over 18 million lives and wounded another 23 million, worldwide.

Brian Castner spoke next, mainly discussing what “Many of my fellow veterans and I call the Forever War”. They call it that because “we’re stuck in the middle of a war right now that is the longest in American history, with no end in sight.”

Another name used interchangeably is “Post 9/11 wars”, Castner said.

“They include American activities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lybia, Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines, Mali, Chad and Niger.”

Castner told the tragic story of a Navy bomb technician Scott Dayton, who was the first American service member to die in Syria.

Castner said Dayton was on his sixth tour, was 42 years old and had been in the Navy for over 20 years. He could have easily retired.

Castner wanted to know why someone like Dayton kept going back.

“The answer is heartbreaking,” Castner said. “He kept deploying because he wanted to do his part and see the war through to the end. How can you see a forever war through to the end?”

Castner explained that the U.S. government has been successful at keeping the war going without any significant public backlash because of three major factors.

The war is on foreign soil. There is compliant citizenry at home. The technological disparity between the US and its enemies is vast.

“WWI did not last forever because none of the conditions that I described were present,” Castner said. “Public support faded quickly. The technology was equivalent. Both sides had heavy artillery, machine guns, poison gas. It was the technology that made people say we would never be able to fight another war. Today American soldiers have such a technological advantage, we can keep fighting forever. We have enough drones, we have enough armored vehicles, body armor, air strikes.”

Ian Fishback analyzed WWI and where the world is today in the context of philosopher John Dewey’s original moral argument in support of America’s involvement in WWI.

Fishback argued that both world wars should be looked at “as a set,” with the ending of WWII resulting in the fruition of more equal rights and democracy spread around the world.

“There is the rise of human rights as an international sentiment,” Fishback said. “What used to be the U.S. and a few other countries that were democracies, all of a sudden becomes the norm for people to aspire to. There are many more democracies now.”

Fishback concluded by saying even though there are many more civil wars being fought across the world, there is far less war overall.

“Violence has decreased tremendously over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st and the problems that we have now are how do we solve all these civil wars that still exist. But compared to the problems we faced in the 20th century, they are smaller in scale. We’ll come up with peaceful solutions.”