On this fourth of July I had a little bit of time to myself so I pulled a book down off the shelf and started reading. The book in particular is called "Naval Battles of the First World War" and is mainly focused from the British point of view, which is sensible since the British navy played a critical role in the first world war. In the end, the Germans sued for peace because their civilians were starving under the Allied blockade and they could see the enormous buildup of American forces entering the war. The British navy beat back the submarine threat, turned back the Germany navy at Jutland, and did their part to push the Germans into a series of desperate 1918 offensives that were ultimately blunted by the Americans, British and French ground forces.
As I read about World War One, which I have studied for decades (I generally learn something new in every book, particularly those about specialized topics such as some relatively obscure naval battles in some of the more remote oceans), I started to think about how future historians will look back on THIS war.
The Start of the War and Its Geography
It is hard to determine exactly when this war started, such as there is a great deal of debate on the start of World War Two (World War One started with a bang as everyone mobilized so there is little debate as to WHEN it kicked off). You could say that World War Two started for the US on December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor (Germany declared war soon after). The more common date is in 1939 when Germany attacked Poland. Some historians pick 1937, when Japan invaded China, and some go even further back to 1931 when Japan attacked Manchuria.
You could say that this war started when we invaded Iraq the second time, or on 9/11 when they attacked the World Trade Center. Or you could go back further to the first Iraq War when we liberated Kuwait. You could go back further to the attack on the USS Cole or even the bombing of the Marines in Lebanon.
To the extent that this is a world war, it could be defined as a war against Islamic fundamentalism. From that perspective, the battlefields get wider; certainly Britain and Spain have been hit by attacks (bombs), as well as Africa (US embassy in Kenya). Indonesia in Asia and the Philippines also faced home grown Islamic movements. Russia has been embroiled in a war in Chechnya since the 90's, as well, that could be defined in broadly similar turns (although this is highly debatable). Afghanistan makes it even more complex; the Russians invaded in 1979 and battled through the 80's - to a large extent our current war against the Taliban remnants is a continuation of the unresolved issues of that war.
The End of the War
One of the most common themes against the war is that the aims are undefined; they may contrast it against the "clear" goals of the Second World War (or even, to a lesser extent, the Korean War). WW2, however, really wasn't a war in and of itself; it was mainly a continuation of the FIRST world war. The Germans, French, British and Russians picked up where they left off; Japan and Italy did switch sides, and Turkey stayed neutral, but most of the rest of the participants stayed the same (and the USA came in late, again).
The Balkans, which were the match that lit the First World War, weren't resolved until the 90's for the most part, when Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia fragmented for their own "final solution" to the problem of multiple ethnicities sharing the same territory (the solution is pretty sobering, mostly involving ethnic cleansing of one sort or another).
There were some solid ends to the Second World War; the ends of Britain and France as colonial powers, and the end of Germany as a military power. I don't think that the final chapter has been written on Japan; they inhabit a dangerous portion of the globe (North Korea, China, etc...) and will probably re-militarize quickly. Certainly the animosities haven't faded even if the shots have died down.
Look at Korea; the "hot" war stopped in the 1950's and we are still engaged in nuclear brinkmanship with the lunatic North Korean regime. No peace treaty was ever signed and none are in sight...
The Biggest Difference:
The biggest difference in warfare is the focus on civilians. Civilians certainly suffered in the First World War, through starvation and disease, but they weren't generally TARGETED. The Second World War, in particular the Germans and Communists, did target civilians as an explicit war aim. Today, however, civilians are generally the explicit target. This makes the battle lines much more fluid, and the end goal harder to achieve. In prior wars you could beat the enemy in the field, surround them, and destroy them. Their planes were shot out of the sky and airfields taken, and their ships sunk and swept from the sea. This is the exclusive focus of my First World War book, for example.
Now that the focus of attacks are civilians, there aren't obvious solutions. You can't kill all the nations civilians, and they can't "surrender". The attackers aren't ships, they are often infiltrators who live amongst the erstwhile enemy, right in the midst of peaceful and productive immigrants who look just like them.
People need to look at this war and why it will be long. Our enemies are fanatical and not swayed by their own death; this is not going to make a resolution any simpler to obtain. Their goals are not known and many of the "civil war" variety; entire states would be bloodbaths if they were to win, with civilians the main victim.
The future historians will have to decide what is important and what is not; when were the battles and who won; who were the generals and leaders that decided victory, or was it a slow war of attrition.
Remember that the assassination that started World War One wasn't ultimately resolved until the 90's, and finally with a climactic series of battles that were long in coming.
The most positive element of this conflict is the clear superiority of our military to the potential competitors; and this is why we give thanks on the Fourth Of July. It is only due to brave men and women laying their lives on the line that we enjoy the freedoms that we have today; freedom to worship, earn a living, and not be the target of arbitrary (or intentional) violence.