War. War Never Changes.

The Compression of Time

As events in the past become more remote and removed from the present, we have a tendency to compress them. The Roman Empire came about one weekend when Julius Caesar decided he should rule the world, and few can name his successors, save a few luminaries, and a several villains. After the fall of Rome, general knowledge of history becomes vague and obscure, lost in the mire of what is called the ‘Dark Ages’, an era promptly followed by knights in shining armour, King Arthur and other fictions. A series of wars were fought about religion, and someone invented science, an Italian in the employ of Spain found the New World, and before long the modern world was born with the industrial revolution. At this point most people can add more detail; two world wars were fought, one was caused by the folly of generals and empires, the other was a ‘good’ war to end tyranny. Then there was a Cold War, Vietnam, and now, the War on Terror. Wars are an interesting example of this trend. The Hundred Years War was a series of three separate wars between France and England between 1337 and 1453, which included several periods of peace, but are lumped together because they shared the common theme of Englishmen killing French. In a similar fashion some use the term the ‘2nd Hundred Years War’ to describe a series of wars between France and Great Britain from 1688 to 1815. It is easy for us to define the past, agglomerate vast periods of history into catchy titles, dilute the trials and tribulations of entire generations of people into pithy epithets, and categorise decades of suffering with bland appellations.

The First Classic Blunder

There have been many more ‘world wars’ other than the two most recent ones. The Mongols, you could say, tried to be the first to start a world war in the 1200’s by invading everywhere they could, but were mostly confined to Asia and Europe, mostly because the Old World had not found the New World, which was hiding in the middle of the ocean because Asians and Europeans seemed terribly fond of conquering things. Luckily for the Mongols they never went up against a Sicilian when death was on the line, only getting as far as Austria. The Mongolian Empire quickly fragmented, though the various bit and pieces survived for quite some time in many parts of the world.

In the late 16th- and early 17th-centuries the Dutch and the Portuguese went to war all over the world, fighting for the colonies they had been busy building in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. This was also part of a larger war between the Spanish Empire and the Dutch Republic, known as the 80 Years War. But that wasn’t really a ‘world war’, it was just a war between several kingdoms, principalities, and empires that happened to take place everywhere from South America to the Philippines, and mostly at sea. The participants in that war also fought in the 30 Years War, one of the most destructive wars in European history, in which nearly a third of all Germans were killed. The first true world war began in 1688, not in 1914, which was when a world war which we call ‘First’ began.

Bella, horida bella!

There were several other global conflicts before the War to End All Wars didn’t. The Nine Years War (a.k.a. the War of English Succession), the War of Spanish Succession, the War of Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, the North American Wars, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars all involved various world powers of the time and were fought on several continents. ‘Succession’ was clearly all the rage at the beginning, but soon went out of style as its market was limited to the nobility, and was replaced by a new brand called ‘Revolution’, something the common man and woman could rally behind. These wars were fought across the Americas, Europe, and parts of Africa and Asia. You could say that they were all ‘world wars’ but, like the First and Second World Wars, they involved all the same protagonists fighting for the same goals and so could all be lumped together into one big war, the 2nd Hundred Years War (1688-1815). In theory, we might alternatively refer to this as the first world war.

The Name is the Thing

The First World War was not called that by the people who fought it, it was only called ‘First’ after the second one happened. At the time it was known as The Great War, or The War to End Wars. How would they have known it was first, that another would follow it, and so soon? No European war before it had been so destructive, or killed so many people, or been fought in so many places and involved so many nations. And then the second one happened, which was even worse. So it made sense to call them the First and Second World Wars. But now there is the idea that they were really one big war, so it could be called ‘The Great War’, or ‘The Second 30 Years War’. It began in 1914 when an Archduke took an ill-informed drive in Bosnia, and ended when the fury of the sun was unleashed on the land in which it rose. There was a bit of a pause in the middle, from 1918 to 1939, allowing everyone to take a little break and build more weapons and bombs, but the Spanish and Russians provided some interval entertainment in the form of civil wars in which many other European nations were involved, making them international events. The Japanese, feeling left out, went to war with China and Russia, and later joined in on the World War fun and games as an ally of the Axis powers. It can even be said that the resolution of the Great War was one of the causes of the Second World War. So, if these wars were really one big war, can refer to the whole episode as ‘the Great War’? Or the second world war. Might we include the Cold War in this period? In another few decades the compression of time will be so great that the entire 20th Century might be view as one continuous period of conflict, followed immediately by the Century of Terror. We can only hope for a future where we define eras by successive periods of peace.

Nine Years War
War of Spanish Succession*
War of Austrian Succession
French and Indian Wars The Second Hundred Years War 1689-1815
Seven Years War*
American Revolutionary Wars
French Revolutionary Wars*
Napoleonic Wars*
Russo-Japanese War
The First World War (The Great War)*
Spanish Civil War The Great War 1899-1945
Russian Civil War
2nd Sino-Japanese War
Chinese Civil War
The Second World War*
The Long War 1899-1990
First Indochina War
Korean War
Vietnam War Cold War 1945-1990
Cambodian Civil War
Afgan War
Angolan Civil War

*  ‘World wars’

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4 responses to “War. War Never Changes.

  1. Another stimulating read! I too wonder how historians in 2200AD (if there are any) will amalgamate the prolonged periods of conflict in the twentieth century. I expect it might be a “ban-holiday weekend” using your Roman analogy, with bad weather and some local yob actions?

    • Thank you.

      Some historians have already begun amalgamating the 20th century. Niall Fergusson (a name I offer withh rolling eyes) proposes calling it ‘The Century of Hate’, Hobsbawn calls it ‘The Short Century’ (in opposition to the previous ‘Long Century’, 1789-1914), both basically arguing that the First and Second World Wars were the same war, and that the Cold War, and all the conflicts it stimulated in Asia, Africa, South America, and Eastern Europe, was itself a ‘world war’, so they can all be lumped together. I’m not sure I agree, or even like, the periodisation of history by conflicts; the world is far too complex to work that way. I don’t think a British infantry general in the First World War had the same global perspective, the aims or intentions, of a Soviet commander in charge of nuclear weapons, just as much as the life of a German farmer in 1914 was radically different to one in 1994…

      But yes, I agree, it might eventually be distilled into the equivalent of a weekend to regret…

      • Thanks for understanding my typing, should have read “banK-holiday weekend”!
        I too find lumping periods of time around major conflicts/wars to not be helpful, a much longer perspective is needed. Comparing the lives of folk from across the whole social spectrum in, say, Manchester or Liverpool, from 1850 to 2010 would give interesting results I suspect?

      • I imagine it would, but that kind of specified history would rarely, if ever, be found beyond the realm of academic studies. The broad strokes of history are easier to grasp, wars make for exciting documentaries, and people find it more satisfying to blame madmen, politicians, or kings.

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