Report from the York Union: The Transformation of War 1914-2018

Image: The Public Domain Review
Image: The Public Domain Review

On 12th November 2018, the York Union welcomed Sir Lawrence Freedman, to give a lecture on the transformation of war from 1914-2018. Freedman is the Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, was a member of the Iraq inquiry and the Official Historian of the Falklands Campaign. He is also an alumnus of the University of York.

Appropriate timing, to discuss how war has transformed the day after marking the centenary of the end of the First World War. The lecture began with the simple question – why was this not “the war to end all wars”? Only twenty years later, the world saw the rise of Hitler in Germany, and another conflict on a global scale. Post-1945, violent decolonisation and wars in Korea and Vietnam continued to inflict bloody violence on millions of people. Even in the twenty-first century, conflicts in the Middle East continue to make headlines, many of them arguably with origins in the two great wars of the twentieth century.

For Freedman, there is some explanation in the unprecedented change in warfare. Before 1914, he argued, there was a sense of war as inevitable, to be fought by regular forces and determined by decisive victory over the battlefield. War, before 1914, was relatively normalised, not necessarily something to be feared, but an accepted means by which states resolved conflicts and nations defined themselves. The Great War, as it became known, changed this. The sheer scale of the conflict, the debates that go on even today about who was actually responsible for the beginning of the war, and the hugely complex political context in which it took place created a type of warfare that was markedly different to the wars that had come before.

Freedman suggested that a factor in the eventual outbreak of the Second World War was the fact that the Allies did not occupy Germany after the armistice, leaving no palpable sense of defeat, and the opportunity for Hitler’s national-socialism to grow. He also pointed to the split of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires after the war, leaving unstable new states. Additional issues can be seen in international peace campaigns which brought war to the attention of the world, and, some would argue, legitimised conflict by creating a common conversation surrounding it. These peace efforts, common in legislation across the 1920s, made the declaration of war the core issue, meaning that fighting continued simply without the declaration of war, bringing no concrete change to violent conflict.

Although the First World War was eventually won on the battlefield, it created precedents that were to transform the nature of warfare over the next century, and likely beyond. The invention of the aeroplane and new weaponry meant that civilians became part of the conflict, giving a whole other dimension on which war could be fought. For those in command, the civilian element became important in conflicts throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries. Seen as a weak link in the war effort, civilian populations automatically became vulnerable to attack. Other transformations in warfare have been evident in the advent of technology, beginning with the atom bomb and continuing into the information era, with the growth of drone strikes and cyber-attacks. All such innovations have changed how the world views war.

Ultimately, Freedman concluded that, from 1918, there has been a move away from the great power wars so common the early and mid-twentieth century. Instead, conflict has become more about the everyday, and can involve anyone – whether a government official, war commander, or ordinary citizen. The lecture was a poignant reminder of the prevalence of war today, highlighting that although the First World War may have seemed the “war to end all wars” at the time, the evolution of war in the hundred years since has made the capabilities of warfare even more deadly.