For the next four years we’ll be passing dozens of hundred-year milestones for First World War events. A few weeks ago on June 28, the 1914 assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand was remembered. It was the match that lit the fuse.
About a week from now, July 28th will mark the hundredth anniversary of the start of actual hostilities. As you can see, it took just a month for the fools to start a war that would kill 10 million combatants and 7 million civilians, redraw the map of the world and sow the seeds for an even more deadly and destructive war less than a generation later.
Many of our parents and grandparents lived through the second war. It has left an immense imprint on popular culture and the mental landscape of the remaining survivors and their heirs. The survivors of World War I, on the other hand, are gone and the cataclysm is all but forgotten except in the sketchiest terms: assassin, trenches, Somme, Verdun, Kaiser Bill, Lawrence of Arabia, Russian Revolution, Red Baron, The Yanks are Coming, armistice, victory, Versailles.
That’s too bad. The first may contain more hard lessons for the present than the second which was clearly the result of unchecked aggression by actors so floridly, obviously malign that even an isolationist United States was finally persuaded to go all in.
The First War is a different kind of cautionary tale. Many at the time thought war was inevitable and when it came regarded it as a crusade rather than power politics played by interlocking aristocratic dynasts having a spat. Alliances had been made to prevent it while arms were stacked even higher. Rather than deter it, this guaranteed it would quickly go from a minor dispute to a continent-spanning catastrophe.
As seems usual in the approach to war, everyone expected a quick victory. No one foresaw the endless grinding bloodbath. The military wise men failed to anticipate the industrial scale of modern mechanized war , though the example of the American Civil War had given a foretaste fifty years earlier. Once it began, commanders doubled down on obsolete tactics. And soon, no one saw a way to make it stop. The more blood was spent, the more unthinkable a cessation without victory seemed. To win the day for their dream of a greater German empire, British empire, Austro-Hungarian empire, Russian empire and Ottoman empire, all of them were blown to bits. Madness.
And perhaps the most unsettling fact of all, once a nationalist freedom fighter (or terrorist depending which side you’re on) fired two bullets in the Balkans events outran the ability of men to control them. The conflagration was on. Many welcomed it. There is now evidence the Germans had planned it as early as 1912 but decided to postpone until their navy was larger. When the pretext of assassination came, they were ready to seize the opportunity.
Could a spark set off something similar today? There seems to be a potential triggering event about once a week lately: Syria, Egypt, Crimea, Ukraine, Palestine, the South China Sea, the fantasy Caliphate of ISIS, the Pakistan-India border, Iran. Many of the would-be combatants armed with or in hot pursuit of weapons immeasurably more deadly than anything imagined in 1914 or 1939. Not to mention the possibility of non-state actors equally hungry for loose nukes or weaponized pathogens.
The first bang in this kind of conflict could be a lot more destructive than the shots fired in Sarajevo, and if it led to a kneejerk escalation, the result could be far more swift and terrible than 1914-1918. For one thing, civilian casualties now can be expected to greatly exceed military.
Are we alert enough to the risks? Are we wise enough to contain any outbreak? Or will we exhibit the same excess of hubris and poverty of foresight as shown a century ago and march singing into the abyss?
And afterward, as a frightened man once said, the living will envy the dead.