Zeroth World Wars

[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

A couple of interesting posts at The Russian Front suggest that the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 should be thought of as a World War Zero, or alternatively that the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 should be. It's often useful to play around with the names we give to historical events and phenomena, because it reminds us that they are just names. And this is an old game for historians (as Dave Stone notes) -- the Seven Years' War is sometimes considered to be the first world war (if not the First World War). But I'm not sure in what sense the Russo-Japanese and Russo-Turkish wars qualify as world wars. Shouldn't the primary determinant of this be that they were fought on a world scale? Even the epic, doomed voyage of the Baltic fleet to Tsushima isn't enough to make the Russo-Japanese War a world war, as all the actual fighting was localised to a relatively small region in Manchuria (if you set aside a few potshots at British trawlers).

But in his post, John Steinberg does give a list of reasons for his argument regarding the Russo-Japanese War (which comes out of research for a two-volume work he co-edited entitled The Russo-Japanese War in Global Perspective: World War Zero). It seems to me that most of them are not actually about geographical extent but rather other sorts of scale -- of battles, of casualties, of finance, and so on. That is, in Steinberg's formulation the Russo-Japanese War sounds something like an approach towards total war, not a world war. If that's the case then I find this statement surprising:

As for the concept of World War Zero, most western military historians continue to view the Russo-Japanese War as a regional conflict rooted in the age of imperialism. Historians in Asia, appear much more respective.

I thought the Russo-Japanese War was well-known among western military historians (if not among contemporary western military staffs) for its bloodiness. Hew Strachan, for example, refers to it quite often (well, on 30 pages out of 1139) in volume I of The First World War. It's also a common element in diplomatic histories of the war's origins, for Russia's defeat had a tremendous impact on the strategic calculations of all the other Great Powers. So it seems to me that western historians are quite comfortable in seeing the Russo-Japanese War as a step along the road to total war and/or to the First World War in several respects. I think I must be missing something here.

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8 thoughts on “Zeroth World Wars

  1. Erik Lund

    Clearly the first world war was the "long war" of 1683--1717, but thanks to Rich Burlew, we don't need to stress over the numbering. Before World War Zero, there was World War -1, and so on.

  2. No question that scale / scope distinguish the Russo-Japanese War from World War I. John Steinberg can speak for himself, but I'm sure he realizes that fact as much as anyone, and would say that on grounds of scope, the Russo-Japanese War can't be seen as World War Zero. As I understand Steinberg's argument, he is suggesting that if we look at the OTHER things that make World War I different and new, we see that those things are equally true of the earlier Russo-Japanese War.

    Now I do not find Steinberg's argument entirely convincing, and my post was an attempt to explain why. Leaving aside the question of scope, and employing only the criteria that Steinberg uses to see the Russo-Japanese War as like World War I, I find that earlier conflicts qualify just as much as his World War Zero. While my post focused on the Russo-Turkish War, I think very similar arguments could be made for the Crimean War and the American Civil War.

    In sum, I was accepting for the sake of argument that we can leave out scope / scale, and suggesting if we do so, there are lots of wars we might choose to label World War Zero.

  3. An interesting idea and I can see what Steinberg is saying but like all of these theories we are applying a model to case studies, certainly a social science based approach and not alway applicable. As Brett notes the Seven Years War is often quoted as a World War but what about the Napoleonic period?

    However, we could go the other way and suggest that the First World War was a European War with a colonial slant and the actually the only World War was the Second World War, which was truely global in its scale and scope i.e. there were significant battles on several continents. The truth is that the First World War was decided in Europe, however, the Second World War was not decided when the war ended in Europe.

    This idea is a a bit like a new version of the Total War debate and will probably rage for a while. The Total War arguement has come in for criticism, notably by Jeremy Black who has suggested what may be total for one nation is not for another. Indeed the concept was applied the First and Second World Wars but the model has been used on the Thirty Years War. Hence the problem with these models. Interresting and helpful in exploring conflicts and their nature but they end up being used in areas that are just not applicable.

    My two pennys worth.

  4. Erik Lund

    When you get down to it, "World War Zero," is a way of getting to what we want to talk about. It's an arresting image, and once the conversation is arrested, we link our chose WW0 to the hook we'd like to hang from. Just at the moment, I'm interested in seeing more attention on quick fire artillery, less on machine guns. (Boys and their toys and all that.)
    "The Russoo-Japanese War made the first use of modern quick fire artillery." The largescale manufacture of quick-fire artillery for the first time required the use of large banks of fully automatically controlled heavy machine tools. Thus, process control; so, computers. The Russo-Japanese War: first stirrings of information age modernity!"
    But I could probably do as many more as I've had cups of coffee. Maybe there should be a contest. Goofiest claim for World War Zero, most interesting tangent taken from it?

  5. Post author

    Note also Jonathan Dresner's take at Frog in a Well.


    Thanks, I did realise that your post was more of a critique of Steinberg's than anything else, sorry if I didn't make that sufficiently clear. But to the extent to which labels matter I don't see the value in calling these world wars, because they are not by any stretch of the imagination world wars. As Ross says, we can argue this even for WWI, but it's surely far less misleading there than for 1904-5 or 1877-8. In the end I'm even sure whether I'm just being pedantic here, but if we are going to stick labels onto things then we've already got one which seems to fit most of Steinberg's criteria, and that's the total war concept.


    Rapid-fire artillery still comes back to the Franco-German antagonism doesn't it? France was already making large numbers of 75s by 1904.

    BTW, I've just noticed that Wikipedia has a section for Groundbreak French weapons of the 19th century, including 4 aircraft which, however groundbreaking they were, cannot reasonably be considered weapons ...

  6. Neil Datson

    There is another debate to be had.

    When did WWII (or WWI, WWIII, WWIV etc according to your viewpoint) actually start? 1939 is a very Euro-centric view. Surely 1937 has a strong claim (Sino-Japanese War). But what about 1931? There was no 'peace' in China from then on, and a foreign power was involved.

    And again, when did it end? With the surrender of Japan, or the final expulsion of the US backed Kuomintang from mainland China in 1949?

    And after that it was less than a year before there were international forces fighting in Korea, in a war that has yet to formally end . . .

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