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Rant: The War That Nobody Dares Explain

HarryDuntemannArmy1917-adjusted-500 wide.jpg

Armistice Day. I call it that in this entry because 100 years ago today, The Great War (now called World War I) ended. We’ve broadened the holiday to all those who have served in war on our behalf, but until 1954, the day was named after the armistice that ended WWI.

My grandfather Harry Duntemann served in The Great War. (See the photo above, from 1917, location unknown. He was 25.) I never got to talk to him about it because he died when I was four, or I would have asked him what caused the War. I’m not entirely sure he could have told me. Degreed historians have been unable to tell me. I’ve read a pile of books about it, but as close as I’ve come to an answer is simply that Europe’s leaders were about ready for a war, and when the assassination of a second-shelf political figure provided them with an excuse, they went for it. Four years and sixteen million deaths later, the armistice was signed, Europe was rearranged, Germany thoroughly humiliated, and all the pieces put in place for an even greater war a generation later.

Bad idea, top to bottom.

Here’s my theory, which I offer as speculation based on a view from a height: WWI was a pissy argument among Europe’s ruling elite, made deadly by industrialization and technologies that hadn’t been dreamed of during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Certain members of this insufferable boys’ club took offense at other members’ reaction to crackpot Princip’s terrorist attack, leading to others taking offense at their offense, leading to a wholesale loss of face among the elites, who threw the inevitable tantrum and leveled half of Europe in the process. They’re still digging up live ordnance in places a century later. Lots of it. Sometimes it explodes. In terms of casualties, WWI has never really ended.

The common element here? Inbred ruling classes who cannot conceive of being wrong about anything. In 1914, they were elite by virtue of aristocratic birth, or sometimes having risen through the local equivalent of civil service. That era was the transition from “the King can do no wrong” to “the government can do no wrong,” which was perhaps a step in the right direction, but…

…we still have ruling classes, and they are dangerous. Graduate from an Ivy and you’re set for life. Along with the diploma you’re given the impression that you’re just…better…than people who go to state schools, or who eschew college altogether. This leads to a pathological inability to doubt your own view of the universe, and in most cases, your own expertise. Given too much power, such people can, have, and will continue to destroy entire nations.

Self-doubt is an essential personality trait. I consider it the single most reliable indicator of people who are high in both rational and emotional intelligence. A modest amount of self-doubt among Europe’s elites could have stopped WWI. Stopping WWI, furthermore, might well have stopped WWII.

I don’t honestly know what one can do about ruling classes. Not supporting political parties would be a good first step, because political parties are mechanisms that make the elites rich and keep them in power. But you know how likely that is. Redistribuing power (not wealth) would be another good step. Again, this would mean broadening access to the Ivies (ideally by some sort of entrance lottery) and limiting the powers of government far beyond the degree to which government would allow itself to be limited. (I have a good political novel on the subject in my notes that I won’t write, because political novels are depressing.)

And even that might not work. Once again, we run up against the primal emotion of tribalism, from which most of our current troubles emerge. That’s a separate topic, but not an unrelated one.

My advice? 1. Shun the ruling classes. You’ll never be one of them (no matter how much you think you deserve to be) and fostering ordinary people’s desire to be among the elites is how the elites keep ordinary people under their control. 2. Limit government power at every opportunity. The less power our elites have, the less damage they can do. 3. Read history. Granted, I read a lot of history about WWI and still doubt whatever understanding I thought I gleaned from those books…

…but let me tell you, I understand the Jacobin mindset completely.



  1. Michael J John says:

    I could not help but notice the boards that make up the side of the object where the senior Mr. Duntemann is standing. They have to be at least 12 inches wide. I know some furniture makers that would love to get their hands on those.

    1. Harry stood at 5’7″ or maybe 5’8″, so eyeballing them, those are indeed 12″ boards. Good Lumber was easier to come by 100 years ago, though I recall having some lengths of scrap 1X12 when I was a teen in the ’60s.

      All that said, I read an article somewhere indicating that there is now more hardwood forest in the US than there was when the Europeans arrived, at least in part because a lot of marginal farmland in the NE has gone back to forest. I’m surprised at how cheap oak lumber is at Home Depot, though granting it’s not 12″ dimensional. Sheesh, you can drill and tap that stuff!

  2. Larry Nelson says:

    My father was two years old when your grandfather stood in front of that tent. Twenty three years later my father could be found standing in front of the same kind of tent at Camp Claiborne. He was 6′ 4″ but had the same rail thin build and good natured grin. WWI just planted seeds for WWII.

    Like many, Dad never talked about his experience. I only found out he served on Guadalcanal a few months ago. I wish this book had existed when my Dad was still around:
    It is the story of his life that he never really shared. From birth on the harsh plains of Depression era North Dakota through horrors on tropical islands.

  3. Very thoughtful piece – thank you! There’s something very humanizing about that pic of your grandfather — it really makes you realize that these were real people impacted by the war.

    As an engineer, I find self-doubt to be essential. I’ve worked with people who thought they were infallible, and when they did make mistakes (which everyone does), we had to spend a lot of time to put together a case to prove the source of the mistake, but even then, they’d say “well, you didn’t do it right” or something. I think it comes from a lack of self-confidence where admitting mistakes is seen as a weakness and undermines their self-importance.

  4. Dave Morgereth says:

    Hi Jeff

    Very well thought article. I am grateful to your grandfather, your father and all other veterans for their service to our country.

    Regarding self-doubt, I remember a time as a contractor, installing a software system at a naval base. After I resolved an issue, the head of the dept asked me what caused the problem. “There was a bug in my code”, I casually responded. He looked at me as if I was from Mars and said “none of our contractors has ever admitted anything like that”. I smiled and responded, “well, if I’m here long enough, it will probably happen again”.

    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman

  5. TRX says:

    The war happened because Wilhelm II was a sorry git who thought he could get some gangbanger-style “respect” from his peers if he had a nice little war.

    The General Staff had made a multitude of plans; the assassination of Ferdinand was just where Wilhelm got tired of waiting and send his armies out. Wilhelm was *going* to have his war; it didn’t really matter what the excuse was.

    A lot of the handwaving over the cause of the war seems to be from early historians who, for whatever reason, felt they couldn’t put the blame where it properly belonged. And considering Wilhelm had his supporters and plenty of testy relatives, discretion might well have been the better part of historical valor… still, there’s no reason to continue the whitewash a century later; the Age of Monarchs is over.

    And Wilhelm died wealthy, free, unindicted, of old age, to add insult to injury.

  6. Tom Roderick says:

    Excellent Post Jeff. Your thesis reminds me of a book I read quite a while back titled “Collapse” by Jared Diamond. It was an informal survey of what caused some societies to survive over long periods of time and others to fail due to whatever external “cause” came along. As I remember it the key factor in the failures was the existence of an “elite” class that was isolated from the effects of whatever was about to do them in.
    As for being wrong… As an engineer I ALWAYS assumed I was wrong until proven otherwise. My life’s motto was, “I am not always wrong, but I am never far from it.”
    Again, an excellent piece.

  7. Rich Rostrom says:

    My take is a little different. When you write “others taking offense at their taking offense”, it’s oversimplifying greatly. Austria-Hungary took offense at the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (in which the government of Serbia was involved, though Austria couldn’t prove it). Nobody questioned that.

    But Austria-Hungary went beyond “taking offense” to forcing war upon Serbia – and at that point Russia told A-H to back off, or Russia would intervene. Germany backed A-H to the hilt (“the blank check”, as many historians describe it), and in fact incited A-H to push the issue to the limit. Many in Germany were in fact looking for an excuse to attack France and Russia, and establish Germany’s complete dominance.

    To make an analogy: suppose teenage Tommy Sloan committed an act of really serious vandalism – say torching Mr. Allen’s garage. Mr. Allen says to the Sloan family: “Repair my car, replace all my tools, replant my garden where the fire fighters trampled on it, walk up and down the block for two hours every evening for a month wearing a sign that says ‘Tommy Sloan is a nasty little punk who torches garages’, and keep Tommy chained up in the basement for a year.” The Sloans say they’ll do the car, the tools, the garden, and the sign, but they won’t imprison Tommy that way – it would be against the law.

    Mr. Allen then says “Then I will break into your house and take all your stuff.” Mr. Ross says “Hey, don’t do that, ro I’ll come throw you out.” Mr. Grant says, “If you interfere, I’ll break your arm. It’s time I showed you who’s boss”.

    And there you have it: Allen and Grant had a legitimate complaint, but they’ve turned it into an excuse for beating up their neghbors.

  8. Sam L. says:

    …we still have ruling classes, and they are dangerous. Graduate from an Ivy and you’re set for life. Along with the diploma you’re given the impression that you’re just…better…than people who go to state schools, or who eschew college altogether. This leads to a pathological inability to doubt your own view of the universe, and in most cases, your own expertise. Given too much power, such people can, have, and will continue to destroy entire nations.”

    And we’re not allowed to shoot them!!!

  9. Samuel Bassett says:

    About the time that picture was taken, the US Army was (unsuccessfully) chasing Pancho Villa around Northern Mexico under the command of “Black Jack” Pershing. That uniform does not look like Civil War surplus, nor like WW I type. Would do for 1918 or so.

    1. Interestingly, I have my grandfather’s service ribbon for the Mexican campaign, and vaguely recall stories that he was part of the force looking for Pancho Villa. So that may have been where he was when the photo was taken. Alas, the back of the photo has no annotation, as do some of the others. My father took a great many photos of steam locomotives, and carefully recorded on the backs of the prints what it was, and where and when it was taken. Pictures of family, not so much. Aunt Kathleen (his sister) was better in that regard, but I have a box of snapshots of people I just can’t identify.

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