The guns had been ordered to stop firing at 11 am on 11 November. Their last recorded victim was American sergeant Henry Gunther, shot through the head near the French town of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers, with one minute remaining before the First World War ended. Even as that last shot was fired, though, new wars were erupting across Europe. Led by the Ukrainian nationalist Dmytro Vitovsky, insurgents unfurled the azure-and-blue flag of their unknown nation in Polish-ruled Lviv. From the Arctic to Afghanistan, rebellions raged.
“Evicted from the trenches, frontlines and the official and regular struggle of militarised powers,” Lithuanian politician Michał Römer observed, the war “reached into human society and transformed itself into a state of permanent chaos.”
Facing a great arc of failing nation-states—a Pakistan besieged by jihadists hoping to build their own sharia-governed emirate; a military-run narco-state in Myanmar, riven by powerful ethnic insurgencies; a Sri Lanka fractured by an unending economic crisis—India needs to consider how it will fight the long and savage wars that could break out when exhausted superpowers finally end their struggle in Ukraine.
Their blood drained by the carnage of 1914-1918, Europe’s great powers lost the will to confront revolutionaries and warlords fighting over the carrion of the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. “We cannot act alone as the policeman of the world,” British prime minister Andrew Bonar Law lamented in 1922.
The cult of easy victory
Early in August, 1914, as his troops marched into the battle, the German monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II promised: “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” Historian Stephen Van Evera observed that Generals were seduced by what he called “the cult of the offensive”, brushing aside evidence that rifled small arms and the machine gun had given defending armies decisive advantages. Future wars, strategist Jan Bloch warned in 1899, would involve “the bankruptcy of nations and the breakup of the whole social organisation.”
Even though some strategists understood a war would involve carnage, cult-of-offence theorists saw the state system as a Darwinian struggle for existence: Great powers must kill, or be eaten.
The Generals who promised President Vladimir Putin likely made the same promises the Kaiser received from his commanders.
Leaving aside their experiences of decades-long domestic counterinsurgency, military strategists in India have designed a military intended to fight short, decisive wars. The war of 1965 saw just over two weeks of intense combat. Indian troops took just thirteen days to reach the gates of Dhaka. Even the disastrous China-India war ran for just a month, and the Kargil war unfolded over three months.
Former Army Chief General Dalbir Singh, in an address delivered in 2018, underlined “the swift, short nature of future wars”. There has also been growing interest in developing doctrines to fight limited wars, like Kargil, in conditions constrained by the need of both adversaries not to involve nuclear weapons.
There are other wars India has fought, though, which might better resemble the long wars that lie ahead—even though they are little talked about. The disastrous counter-insurgency campaign in Sri Lanka against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an emirate carved from Pakistan’s North-West, incubating jihadists, or a military cradle for new North-East insurgents in Myanmar: These could conceivably escalate to levels needing cross-border intervention.
Few actual conflicts, Lieutenant-General Deependra Hooda noted, have in fact run to the sharp-quick-war idea beloved of Indian commanders. Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam did not, famously, run to Pentagon plans. Even though Israel triumphed over its Arab rivals in a succession of quick wars, it did so at the cost of creating a demographic crisis that today imperils its polity.
“The chances of a successful, short and swift war are minimal even when facing a much weaker opponent,” Hooda presciently observed.
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Wars after the war
Even as quiet descended on the western front, the world remained at war. The armistice was marked by the bombardment of the Allied outpost in Arkhangelsk, near the Arctic. The expedition had been intended to crush the Bolshevik revolution and restore the monarchy in Moscow. “Feel all broke up inside,” one British soldier wrote in his diary. “Three killed and five wounded, a piece of shell went in my hand and shoulder. There’s a horrible sight inside: The whole family outside of a little girl, lay killed.”
Following the end of the war, though, a successful Bolshevik offensive pushed back Allied lines, and mutiny broke out among the French, British and their White Russian allies. The next summer, the Allies withdrew—leaving the White army to its fate.
“None of the Western democratic powers, even those most convinced of the need to unsaddle Bolshevik leadership in Russia, were able to start yet another, conceivably even longer and costlier war in a distant country,” historian Maciej Kozłowski observes.
The inheritors of imperial power were eager for war, though. The nationalist regime of Józef Piłsudski, given an independent Poland in 1919, launched into wars of conquest involving Germany, Czechoslovakia, the Baltics and Ukraine. The mortally wounded Austro-Hungarian empire proved unable to contain Slav national aspirations. And the Ottoman Empire, which had been steadily losing its European territories, was brought to its knees by the loss of over a million soldiers in the First World War.
Emir Amanullah Khan, at the other end of the world, leveraged the weakening of the British empire to assert Afghanistan’s claims to independence. Even though his ineptly-led forces were slaughtered—with Royal Air Force’s BE2 warplanes and machine guns being used to lethal effect—the war made clear the depth of Afghan resistance.
“A large number of people hate us with such bitterness that they would welcome even an invasion if they saw a chance of getting rid of us,” imperial civil servant George Roos-Keppel warned the Viceroy.
The cemetery of Afghan soldiers slain at Spin Boldak became a pilgrimage site according to military historian Ali Jalali. “With folk-songs hailing it as ‘the resting place of martyrs blessed by the lights of heaven’,” he wrote.
To imperial war planners, the third Afghan war demonstrated the coming of a new kind of warfare: “The days of lightning frontier campaigns, except against insignificant tribes, are over,” Lieutenant-General Skipton Hill Climo recorded. Future wars, he went on, would “entail more troops for the defence of the communications, will require more transport and will be more expensive in lives.”
Even though wars like these could be won, they were extraordinarily costly and yielded only tenuous gains. Britain could no longer afford them—setting the stage for its eventual eviction from its empire.
In the “state of permanent chaos” that Michał Römer described, the winners were often picked by the roll of the dice—revealing the cosmos might indeed have a sense of humour.
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The fate of nations
Late one fine summer morning in 1920, Alexander, King of the Hellenes, was on a walk with his dog Fritz, when they were attacked by a domestic Barbary macaque. Within weeks, King Alexander died of blood poisoning. Alexander’s father, Constantine—forced into exile by the Allies for having sided with his brother-in-law, the German Kaiser—returned to the throne. King Constantine’s return incensed France and Italy, providing the cash-strapped powers with a pretext to cut off military and economic aid to Greece.
The Turkish general Mustafa Kemal’s armies—with support from the Soviets—ended up reoccupying the Greek city of Smyrna, scholar Karl Larew recorded, and ended up making terms with the West as well. The victory would be followed by genocides of the city’s Armenian and Greek communities—leaving wounds which still fester today.
Few great wars have neat stories, history teaches us. The Ukranian nationalists who seized Lviv a century ago only got their nation because of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, not their struggle against Pilsudski’s Poland. For a century, nations appeared on maps, only to disappear again, and yet again surface.
Ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the global order has—imperfectly—resembled a clockwork universe, each part carefully ordered and restrained. This has proved to be an anomalous period in human history. As a new Cold War rises, the world can no longer count on superpowers—exhausted by wars like Ukraine, and preparing for the prospect of a new crisis from the South China Seas to the Persian Gulf—to help keep the peace across the world. India’s energy resources, trade routes and security could all be at threat.
The time has come for India to think with great care about what kinds of circumstances it might have to use military power in—and how it means to marshal the resources it needs.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)