It’s been obvious since the troubles in Ukraine began that Vladimir Putin was seeking a casus belli. That’s an expression that seems to have gone out of fashion.
I learned it from Mr. Groden in 9th Grade Latin class. He was a very good teacher, a former priest who presumably learned his Latin the hard way. I was a very bad student of Latin, but I picked up enough vocabulary to be useful in English Lit. classes since the Brits were persuaded they were the New Roman Empire and had the Latin to prove it. My fragments also don’t hurt in working crossword puzzles and figuring out the occasional Jeopardy clue.
Googling Casus Belli suggests it originally meant the case for war, as in a legal case. That is, an argument why some circumstance or other justified the commencement of hostilities. By the 18th century, however, it had assumed its present meaning – a pretext for starting a war you are already itching for.
The exploding of the Maine, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Hitler’s claim that fellow Germans were being abused as a minority in adjacent countries have all served a casus bellis. (That’s probably not the plural. I told you I was a lousy Latin student.) Obviously, Putin has taken a page from the Hitler Playbook.
Perhaps casus belli has fallen out of favor because times have changed. We are probably less ashamed about being contemptuous of smarty pants foreign words, people and places than a generation or two ago. But the real crux of the matter may be that we once thought it was only perfidious foreigners who resorted to trumped up, fraudulent excuses to let loose the dogs of war. Straight-shooting Americans would never stoop to that sort of chicanery.
By now our own history has become so thick with examples that it’s hard to pretend we aren’t capable of the same behavior. We once tried to avoid wars. Now we rush headlong into frays that time teaches us we would have been better off giving a wide berth. To be fair to those plotting foreigners, they at least had a plan. We seem to gallop to our follies in a Custer-like manner.
It appears now the blowing up of the Maine, used to justify the Spanish-American War which the Secretary of State described as a “splendid little war,” was not the result of enemy action but a faulty design aboard ship that allowed its own munitions to send the ship sky-high. It also spawned our first experience of an Asian guerilla war in the Philippines in which as many as 200,000 casualties may have been inflicted. Splendid.
The escalation in Vietnam was justified by an attack against the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. Lyndon Johnson had no trouble persuading a lemming Congress to give him all the power he needed to teach those evil communists a lesson. They followed the flag, though it led off a cliff, by a unanimous vote in the House and a vote of 88-2 in the Senate.
It was latter revealed that the United States was engaged in covert actions and Maddox was probably in North Vietnamese waters prior to the appearance of three North Vietnamese patrol boats, When they did appear the Maddox fired on them when they were over a mile away. They continued to close and were subjected to artillery fire from Maddox and from carrier planes that had been called in. All three were damaged and the Maddox was hit by one machine gun round.
A second alleged attack on our ship two days later was years after the fact revealed to have been a radar malfunction. There were no attackers, but that didn’t stop Congress from getting us in a quagmire for the next 10 years at a cost of 58,000 dead and 150,000 wounded.
It was years before it became apparent that the attack that served as the casus belli for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was half justified by our provocative actions and half a mirage, radar ghosts not real boats. More recently, the casus belli for invading Iraq was Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and his close relationship with al Qaeda. Actually he and al Qaeda hated each other and the weapons of mass destruction are still missing.
Obviously we lack the moral high ground in complaining about the fraudulence of Putin’s excuses for grabbing Crimea and threatening to do the same with Ukraine. But does it really matter? Everyone who’s paying attention in such cases knows that the excuse is just that. Putin looks upon Ukraine and other former Soviet Socialist Republics with hungry eyes. He wants the vassals back and is likely to move against them unless he becomes persuaded the cost is too high.
The casus belli is window dressing. The real issue is what he is willing to pay to get them and what others are willing to pay to stop him – in blood, treasure, face, prestige. If this sort of calculus were wholly rational few such adventures would go forward. But the wolfish or prideful heart has reasons that reason knows not of. One misstep and the world is headed for sorrow. Who thought the death of one Archduke could possible trigger a war responsible for 20 million dead?
As the Fat Man reminded Sam Spade, standoffs call “for the most delicate judgment on both sides. ‘Cause as you know, sir, in the heat of action, men are likely to forget where their best interests lie and let their emotions carry them away.”