World War I and Lessons for Contemporary Policy on War and Peace

Tasneem Jamal Defence & Human Security

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 35 Issue 4 Winter 2014

Canadian War Museum Ottawa, ON
26-28 Sept. 2014

What experience and history teach is this—that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it. (G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History)

The Group of 78 and Project Ploughshares worked together to organize this conference in Ottawa in September. The goal was to bring together historians and commentators from civil society and the academic, diplomatic, and military communities to consider the “Great War” in relation to issues of contemporary international peace and security.

What can we learn from World War I to prevent armed conflict in our day, strengthen the tools of diplomacy and peacebuilding, inhibit the innovation of increasingly destructive weaponry, and reduce the stockpiles of costly weaponry?

The conference focused on efforts to prevent war up to 1914, technological innovation in WW I, Canada’s decision to go to war and its consequences for Canadian civil society, and ending the war and the failure of the peace.

World War I has a special significance in Canadian history. Together, Canada and Newfoundland (not yet part of Confederation) lost more than 68,000 soldiers—more than in all other wars combined, before or after World War I. More than 152,000 were wounded. Total casualties amounted to 2.7 per cent of the Canadian population at the time.

Of course, the legacy of the “Great War” goes far beyond Canada, beyond the number of dead and wounded and its traumatic impact on society at that time. The world of the 21st century is still struggling with the consequences of decisions made at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, including redrawn boundaries in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

Unquestionably, the world of 2014 is profoundly different from that of 1914, because the nature of war and peace in the 21st century has radically changed. For example, the devastation of a nuclear conflict would far surpass anything ever experienced in past warfare. However, as we mark the 100th anniversary of WW I over the next four years, remembrance should include a rededication to actually learning lessons from this conflict to prevent war in our day and build sustainable peace where conflict has spun out of control into armed violence.

The Group of 78 will publish a report of the conference proceedings early in 2015.

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