On May 15th 2009 I had the opportunity to give a lecture to a group of about 100 members of the History faculty and students at Huazhong Normal University in Wuhan, China. The lecture was based on new archival research conducted in support of a recently published two-volume set The Russo-Japanese War in Global Perspective: World War Zero which I edited along with several colleagues.
After briefly summarizing the operational history of the War, I offered ten reasons why new research findings justify the conclusion that the Russo-Japanese War should be considered World War Zero.
1. Like World War I, the origins of the Russo-Japanese War were rooted in imperialistic competition between world powers
2. As in August 1914, when the Russo-Japanese conflict began, it was fought in a neutral country(s) (China and Korea)
3. In the midst of the conflict and in the area where combat occurred, governmental structures broke down and the emergency was greeted with a response by non-governmental agencies such as the Red Cross
4. The conflict was marked by the use of sophisticated, complicated, and (above all else) lethal industrial weapons such as machine guns, rapid fire infantry assault weapons, rapid fire artillery, mines, and torpedoes. These were accompanied by the logistical infrastructure needed to keep ammunition and other essential supplies flowing to modern fielded armies
5. The natural product of the War’s deadly battlefields — mass casualties — required levels of aid which no medical corps of the period had the ability to help. The sheer numbers of men in need of aid overwhelmed these units.
6. The duration of battles at the beginning of the War lasted two or three days (The Yalu and Nanshan) and were contained to relatively small areas. By the end of the war the battles of Liaoyang and Mukden lasted weeks and featured battlefields that extended for kilometers. [NB: In terms of duration and brutality, the six to seven-month siege of Port Arthur foreshadowed what later happened at Verdun in 1916.]
7. The cost of fighting such a technologically demanding war required the formation of international syndicates of bankers simply to derive the credit needed for both the Japanese and Russians to keep purchasing and producing weapons and munitions.
8. Like WWI, the Russo-Japanese War was widely reported on and represented in all forms of visual presentations, from photographs to wood block prints.
9. Like Versailles, the Treaty of Portsmouth occurred only after one belligerent (Japan) ran out of men, materials and credit, and the Russians found themselves in the midst of a Revolution. Perhaps more to the point, the treaty itself resolved little beyond ending hostilities and, worse, created circumstances that fueled grievances that culminated in future conflict.
10. When the war concluded and the peace was signed the strengthening of the pan-Asian movement continued to fuel animosities that further destabilized the world.
How well did my Chinese audience accept the logic of the Russo-Japanese War as World War Zero? While the faculty liked the idea, they accepted it with much circumspection. More surprising were the questions I received from the students which suggested that they had little knowledge of the conflict in general. Whatever the case, the students were far more interested in discussing Japan’s role in the Asian world during the first half of the 20th century. The students were particularly curious to know my thoughts on to possible re-emergence of Japan as a world power in the 21st century.
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 remain a World War Zero advocate. And I look forward to continuing public discussion of the War’s legacy, especially when that discussion is conducted within a new international frame of reference.