Lions Led by Donkeys: “A World Undone”
World War One spelled the end of Europe as a geopolitical and economic power, and it also led to the ascendance of the United States. The main reason, in my view, was because so many of the bright young men in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Austria, Russia, Italy were killed on the war fronts across the globe between 1914 to 1918. Estimated to the amount of 20 million dead, their lives were thrown away charging machine guns and artillery for a few yards of gain, directed by clueless old men sitting many miles away in safe and comfortable quarters.
The British in particular were remarked by the Germans that they were “Lions led by Donkeys.” Basically, the everyday frontline soldier was fierce and courageous while their generals were idiots. Or butchers in the case of the French. This comment was relevant to almost all the countries. Brave young men, let down by poor, undeserving and incompetent leadership. Awful, criminally incompetent men like Field Marshal Sir John French & General Douglas Haig of the UK, Luigi Cadorna of Italy, Conrad von Hotzendorf of Austria, John Pershing of the USA and Joseph Joffre of France who led their men to slaughter. For example, 125,000 died during the fruitless battle of the Somme. 400,000 French soldiers & 350,000 Germans died at the Battle of Verdun. Killing done at an industrial scale and frightening level.
For contrast on how big and horrific these numbers are, 214,000 Americans died in the entire US Civil War; 291,000 Americans died in World War 2; 47,000 in the Vietnam War. The US lost about 53,000 soldiers in World War 1. The numbers I listed for the Somme and Verdun were for 1 single battle. The Somme involved 3 million soldiers on all sides with 1 million men wounded or killed. (If you want to learn more, recommend “A World Undone” by GJ Meyer, one of the more readable books of the Great War).
No wonder many of the soldiers who came back home, came back disillusioned, bitter and broken both mentally and physically. Shattered bodies and shattered minds. Shocked. All the while wondering what they risked their lives for and lost friends and family over. And they were just thrown back into society with no support or safety net. Quoting actor Cilian Murphy, who stars in the excellent “Peaky Blinders”, describing the main character, war vet and gang boss Tommy Shelby, “he lost faith. Religion was just a joke. Authority was just a joke. The establishment was a joke.”
This sentiment was understandably widespread. It was probably one of the big reasons for the societal change and chaos that raged across Europe in the 1920s. Nothing is more scary than angry young men with nothing to lose. Rightfully angry at an out of touch establishment elite who used them and then tossed them aside. This is how revolutions and riots come about throughout human history.
This also reminds me a lot of what’s happening now in America. So many bright young people across the world, badly served by their leaders whether in government or business. A gerontocracy (rule by the old) at the top of the American Federal government, the crazy amount of lobbying by big business, the selling out of many politicians on both the Republican and Democratic side to various business interests foreign and domestic. All grifters to a massive degree. I mean look at House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi for example. Worth an estimated $196M while earning $223,500 for her government job. Probably one of the most successful inside traders around, who flaunts her wealth while so many American families are struggling to feed their families. So infuriating. I can’t imagine what my Iraqi and Afghanistan war veteran friends think. I admittedly feel raging anger when I see her and her equally corrupt counterparts on the Republican side. I believe this anger can be seen in the YOLO economy and the GameStop saga. Or even with the election of that supposed outsider Trump to the presidency back in 2016. At its core, it is about the regular everyday people saying “Enough is enough” and wanting to see some change.
But there is change coming, albeit in a grim way. As the saying goes, “Science advances one funeral at a time.” This is relevant for politics, business and cultural life. And as a fellow old person & Gen X, if you cannot stay flexible and mentally agile, which gets harder to do as you get older, then be prepared to step aside. Let the next generation come to the fore with their energy and new ideas. Ideas and thoughts that might be more relevant for their times.
Demographics are destiny. The Boomer generation (1946–64) in America was arguably the most impactful due to its massive size of 70.68 million people. But this is now being followed by the even bigger Millennial Generation (1981–96) of 72.2 million people & an almost as large cohort of Gen Z (1997–2012) at 67 million. (Note: Gen X 1965–80, for the record is only at 64.9 million people).
Because of this, we can fully expect massive change to come over the next 8 years in America and consequently, the rest of the world. The influence of the up and coming generation of Millennials and Gen Z’s will bring new energy & vigor, new thinking, and new morality to the world. For better or for worse.