This year marks the 100th anniversary of two of the biggest military slaughters in history – the battles of the Somme and Verdun, both fought during the First World War. Shockingly, when we survey the warmongering mentality today of US-led NATO powers one may deduce that not much has changed fundamentally. We see the same murderous squander of human potential by an unaccountable elite.
During the Somme and Verdun campaigns, upwards of two million casualties were suffered on all sides by the British and French armies in trench warfare with their German enemy. The Somme was the deadliest battle of the entire war, pitched between July and November 1916, while Verdun was the longest running, from February until December in the same year.
For the British army the opening day of the Somme remains its worst day in martial history, incurring some 60,000 casualties and losses in a matter of hours.
The First World War, from 1914 to 1918, which was waged mainly on French territory and pitted major European powers, including Russia, against one another, resulted in a total death toll of 17 million, of which the majority – 11 million – were military.
It is astounding to think that only a mere 20 years later, an even more catastrophic world war would take place. The Second World War (1939-1945) resulted in at least 60 million dead. And in that carnage, it was civilians who would comprise the vast majority of the dead.
Both wars became emblematic of industrial-scale killing. Machine-guns, tanks, warplanes and warships were first deployed on a scale never seen before in the history of warfare.
However, it is the First World War perhaps that stands out as the more futile and barbaric. After all, during the Second World War, known as the Great Patriotic War in Russia, men and women courageously gave their lives to defeat a brutal, genocidal ideology of fascist imperialism espoused by the Axis Powers led by Nazi Germany.
By contrast, there was no such noble ideological or moral contest about the First World War. It was simply an imperialist power-grab between Europe’s monarchies and capitalist ruling classes. It is no coincidence that the slaughter of millions of ordinary citizens in the trenches impelled the insurrectionary ferment for the Russian workers’ revolution in 1917. The war also fomented workers’ movements and socialist politics across Europe and the United States out of aversion to the barbarity of warmongering rulers.
When looking back on the Somme and Verdun battles, one cannot but wonder at the depravity of the slaughter. For days, weeks and months, wave after wave of men from opposing lines were ordered over-the-top to charge into no man’s land where they were cut to pieces by artillery and rifle fire.
Millions of human beings were forced to endure extreme deprivation, disease, hunger, the terror of chemical weapons and the hell of witnessing their fellow men being mutilated in rat-infested trenches.
And for what? Through all the mud and blood-splattered carnage, the battle lines were scarcely altered in the ebb and flow of killing. And all this suffering for the rivalry and prestige of a tiny ruling class in the respective warring nations, who also made financial fortunes from the mayhem.
The contemporary point though is this: has anything really changed when we survey our modern world? The same obscene waste of resources and human life appears to prevail – all at the behest of unaccountable rulers and their corporate masters.
The United States and its Western allies – Britain, France and other NATO members – every year spend an estimated combined total of $1 trillion on military. The US allocates the lion’s share, with some $600 billion a year.
By comparison, the expenditure by the US-led military alliance on productive economy and public services of education and health is a fraction of that devoted to the means of war.
At the latest G7 Summit held in Japan, the assembled political leaders were reportedly concerned about the dimming prospects of economic growth, and rising poverty and unemployment within their societies. Is it not ludicrous for these so-called leaders to express such concerns, yet they allocate trillions of dollars each year to war machines?
How much of France’s unemployment problem, for example, could be solved if its government henceforth directed the country’s $50 billion annual military spend towards socially productive activities?
Nonetheless, and perversely, the French government of Francois Hollande instead demands that workers’ rights and public services be gutted in order to boost the economy.
The same fiendish futility can be said about the US, Canada, Britain, Germany and so on. How is that in supposed democracies the relentless misallocation of economic resources is permitted without the slightest public debate, let alone challenge? Is it not proof of despotism that a minuscule section of society can hold the majority effectively to destructive ransom?
Moreover, the squandering of so much economic and social potential in the form of militarism among the NATO powers engenders the despicable logic of all-out war-making. It is truly alarming how the US and its NATO allies are contriving a case for war against either Russia or China – all on the basis of spurious claims or from reluctance to resolve alleged disputes through diplomacy and dialogue.
Not surprisingly, Russia and China are compelled to likewise devote more of their economic resources to spending on military at the expense of productive social development within their societies.
This vicious circle of militarism and war becomes global and self-reinforcing – and all the while the impetus for this cataclysmic dynamic is largely set off by a social elite of corporate bosses, finance capital, lobbyists and their paid-for politicians.
A century on from the horror of the First World War and its epic slaughters, it is not an exaggeration to say that the majority of we humans are still being forced against our better judgments and needs into war by an oligarchy of arm-chair generals, politicians and financiers.
How is it that we are, in effect, standing in poverty and social deprivation waiting for the sounds of war to explode?
One hundred years after the Somme and Verdun, we are still in the trenches.