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The promise World War I couldn't keep

By Samuel Moyn
August 8, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
French soldiers sing the national anthem at the beginning of World War I in August 1914. This "war to end all wars" might seem like ancient history, but it changed the world forever. It transformed the way war was fought, upended cultures and home life and stimulated innovations that affect us today. With more than 30 combatant nations and nearly 70 million men mobilized, World War I profoundly destabilized the international order. Look back at some of the war's key events. French soldiers sing the national anthem at the beginning of World War I in August 1914. This "war to end all wars" might seem like ancient history, but it changed the world forever. It transformed the way war was fought, upended cultures and home life and stimulated innovations that affect us today. With more than 30 combatant nations and nearly 70 million men mobilized, World War I profoundly destabilized the international order. Look back at some of the war's key events.
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World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
World War I: A time of upheaval
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Samuel Moyn: WWI launched debate: can laws of war impose limits how war carried out?
  • After WWI, aim was to end war, but in 100 years, aim shifted to making it more 'humane,' he says
  • Moyn: Focus now not to end nations' aggression, but to stop atrocity. Vietnam a low point
  • Since 9/11, our wars much cleaner, lawful; but WWI idea of 'war to end wars' failed, he says

Editor's note: This is the eighth in a series on the legacies of World War I appearing on CNN.com/Opinion in the weeks leading up to the 100-year anniversary of the war's outbreak. Ruth Ben-Ghiat is guest editor for the series. Samuel Moyn is professor of law and history at Harvard University. His new book is "Human Rights and the Uses of History."

(CNN) -- The guns of August 1914 unleashed a debate that is still with us: Can the laws of war actually impose limits on how war is carried out?

Germany invaded Belgium, violating that nation's neutrality -- which was guaranteed by treaties stretching back to the 19th century. This act horrified the world -- as would the civilian occupation policies that marked German rule in Belgium, Northern France, and elsewhere during the long years of trench warfare.

Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn

The question of how much international law should be respected during wartime has resurfaced repeatedly through the 20th century -- in America, it has come up frequently since 9/11, especially surrounding the "torture debate."

Indeed the revelations that American soldiers in Iraq brutalized detainees at Abu Ghraib prison marked a turning point in how Americans regarded the morality of "our" war, and on one level this was nothing new: atrocity has repeatedly stunned Americans throughout their history, and they have sometimes mobilized against it.

WAR'S LASTING LEGACY

The first World War began August 4, 1914, in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary on June 28 of that year. In the next two months, CNN.com/Opinion will feature articles on the weapons of war, its language, the role of women, battlefield injuries and the rise of aerial surveillance.

Opinion: How a century-old war affects you

Yet on another level, the years since Abu Ghraib have marked a radical new stage, because of how central law has been to our debates about war: The American government tried to deny that treaties prohibiting torture (from the 1949 Geneva Conventions onward) applied to the global war on terror, but it failed. In fact, over the 20th century, the world took real strides towards the goal of "humanizing war," though perhaps only because the century also made war itself so much worse.

But there is another story about World War I and the legal consequences it set off that is less familiar and more disquieting. It is about a legacy we have lost, rather than one we have realized: that of aiming, through the laws of war, to bring war itself to an end.

Three unexpected things from WWI

Opinion: Should nations pay the price for their leaders' misdeeds?

World War I, as Paul Fussell famously argued, discredited what Wilfred Owen in a classic poem called "the old lie": that it is sweet and honorable to die for one's country. But what it has meant to shift allegiances from nation to "humanity" has changed drastically over the 20th century among those flirting with wider and cosmopolitan sensibilities. Namely, the highest goal shifted from the abolition to the humanization of war.

When World War I ended, the German Kaiser was very nearly criminally tried. It was only his flight to the Netherlands that made him inaccessible to justice. But it was his aggression, rather than his army's atrocity, that mattered most. There is even evidence that after World War I the phrase "crimes against humanity" -- which now refers to abuses against civilians -- often meant warmongering itself.

Opinion: The mighty women of World War I

In other words, the law would criminalize war, rather than merely make it cleaner. The Nuremberg trials after World War II maintained this focus, attending most to the Nazis' aggressive crimes against peace -- bringing war to the world like the Kaiser had before them -- than atrocities in general or crimes against humanity in particular.

By contrast, our post-9/11 debates around the laws of war have rarely centered on the moral validity or legal propriety of war itself . Rather, from the torture revealed at Abu Ghraib, to drones, and now surveillance, the concern of the mainstream of the American public has centered on how far the executive may go in the pursuit of victory. If law matters, it is to keep the war "humane," rather than to keep it from happening in the first place.

Air power harks back to Civil War-era hot air balloons and was used all over the theaters of World War I for reconnaissance, bombardment, and aerial combat. Here, the French-built Voisin "pusher," originally built for reconnaissance and later developed as a bomber. It is credited with the first air-to-air kill. Air power harks back to Civil War-era hot air balloons and was used all over the theaters of World War I for reconnaissance, bombardment, and aerial combat. Here, the French-built Voisin "pusher," originally built for reconnaissance and later developed as a bomber. It is credited with the first air-to-air kill.
WWI surveillance
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WWI surveillance WWI surveillance
Female army recruits from the United Kingdom are seen during drills in May 1917. World War I broke down barriers between military and civilian life. With the men away in battle, women took on an extraordinary role in support of the war, whether it was on the front lines or at home in factories and farms. Female army recruits from the United Kingdom are seen during drills in May 1917. World War I broke down barriers between military and civilian life. With the men away in battle, women took on an extraordinary role in support of the war, whether it was on the front lines or at home in factories and farms.
Women during World War I
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Photos: Women during World War I Photos: Women during World War I
At Versailles Palace, representatives of Germany and the Allies sign the treaty that ended World War I, June 28, 1919. Article 231, the notorious War Guilt clause, required "Germany (to) accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage" during the war. At Versailles Palace, representatives of Germany and the Allies sign the treaty that ended World War I, June 28, 1919. Article 231, the notorious War Guilt clause, required "Germany (to) accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage" during the war.
Tribunals and justice after WWI
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Photos: Tribunals and justice after WWI Photos: Tribunals and justice after WWI
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that lingers, lethally, into the present day. About 1 million casualties were inflicted, and 90,000 were killed. Here, French troops wear an early form of gas mask in the trenches during the first widespread use of gas, by the Germans at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1916. World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that lingers, lethally, into the present day. About 1 million casualties were inflicted, and 90,000 were killed. Here, French troops wear an early form of gas mask in the trenches during the first widespread use of gas, by the Germans at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1916.
Chemical weapons in World War I
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Photos: WWI chemical weapons Photos: WWI chemical weapons
The scale and type of physical injuries endured by soldiers injured in World War One challenged the ingenuity of prosthesis designers, whose work to replace lost body parts would let many return to productive civilian life, a process echoed today with soldiers injured in our recent wars. Here Austro-Hungarian soldiers practice walking with artificial legs at the First War Hospital, Budapest. See gallery showing the effects of the war. The scale and type of physical injuries endured by soldiers injured in World War One challenged the ingenuity of prosthesis designers, whose work to replace lost body parts would let many return to productive civilian life, a process echoed today with soldiers injured in our recent wars. Here Austro-Hungarian soldiers practice walking with artificial legs at the First War Hospital, Budapest. See gallery showing the effects of the war.
WWI's "Bionic Men"
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Photos of WWI\'s \ Photos of WWI's "Bionic Men"

Opinion: How World War I gave us 'cooties'

Many survivors of World War I would have viewed this as a drastic constriction of their aspirations and a failure of their aims. Even if it is justifiable, the narrowing of our concerns must be explained.

For Americans, it may have been Vietnam that caused the transformation. That era saw a massive spike in antiwar consciousness, and Americans joined the world in worrying that the country was now forsaking the very legacy of the laws of war it had helped build.

But after that generation's Abu Ghraib -- the My Lai massacre, whose revelation in army photographer Ron Haeberle's images was once equally famous -- a consensus slowly built. What people arguing about war could agree on was that it was immoral and illegal to fight it so brutally. The goal of criminalizing aggression lost traction, and focus on atrocity took its place.

Opinion: The 'bionic men' of World War I

In the years after Vietnam, more and more people signed on to this view. Barbara Keys shows it was after and in response to Vietnam that Americans joined the international human rights movement, which sponsored a Campaign against Torture, which in turn led to a treaty outlawing the practice, setting up the possibility for our torture debate.

Many of the statutes that most constrain the executive in the way it fights, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, were passed in this atmosphere. (Congress also passed laws trying to keep presidents from unilateral military action, especially the War Powers Resolution, but recent history shows it to be a dead letter.)

I find the Vietnam-era debate to be an illuminating point of comparison with our time. If we are honest, we will see that atrocities after America's 1965 escalation in Vietnam then dwarfed atrocities now. It hardly makes whatever violations we have committed excusable, of course, to say so.

How WWI gave us drones

The other day, President Barack Obama acknowledged that "the CIA tortured some folks" after 9/11, but the full documentation has remained a political football and neither Democrats nor Republicans want accountability for crimes.

But we should not let our justified outrage over these facts distract from the truth that America's post-9/11 military has fought some of the cleanest wars ever. In particular, compared with the crimes of prisoner detention and aerial targeting in Vietnam (and torture too), America's recent misdeeds have been minor.

One big reason is the U.S. military's own response to Vietnam: After decades of benign neglect or outright disregard, it started to treat the laws of war as real constraints on how it fights.

Opinion: When chemical weapons killed 90,000

Consider the decision to target enemies to make sure only combatants rather than civilians are in our crosshairs: Vietnam was more like World War I, with lawyers nowhere to be found, and civilians dying in massive numbers. Today military and other government lawyers play a central role, as the recent controversy over the legal authorization of the drone strike on Anwar al-Awlaki attests.

The long trajectory from World War I has produced a paradoxical situation: We now have real, though insufficient, constraints on war's brutality, and more public discourse than ever about it. But we lack much concern about the goal of eliminating war itself. One legacy of the horrified response to modern war remains alive and well, but the other is forgotten. The "war to end all wars," as World War I has long been known, doesn't deserve that name yet.

Photo blog: WWI: The Golden Age of postcards

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