“The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.” Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August
It is now late July of 2014 and for the past month I have been reading about the events in Europe of 100 years ago, a time when the leaders of Europe were hurtling into a war which would change the world forever and the effects of which redound to our day. As I read each book I am always amazed at the hubris, vanity, ignorance and incompetence of the monarchs, prime ministers, foreign ministers and diplomats and military leaders. Men who managed to miscalculate their way into a war that was far larger, longer, destructive and earth shaking than most imagined at the time. As Barbara Tuchman wrote “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.”
Yes there were some who knew that a war would be longer, larger and more destructive than most expected, they were either ignored, or in the case of Field Marshal von Molkte of Germany and Joffre of France ignored their own predictions of a long costly war “made any allowance in their plans for the war of attrition which they both foresaw.” Lord Kitchener of Britain, who had no part in his nation’s planning for war and who was recalled to become War Minister on August 4th 1914 was the only military leader to act on his predictions. He predicted to a colleague that the war would last three years, but added that it might last longer, but “three years will do to begin with. A nation like Germany, after having forced the issue, will only give in after it is beaten to the ground. That will take a very long time. No one living knows.”
Of course few people, especially leaders learn from history, including Americans. In November 2002 Donald Rumsfeld predicted that the coming U.S. invasion of Iraq would “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that….It won’t be a World War III.” Of course, he and those who led the United States into war were incredibly wrong, the American involvement lasted 8 years, cost about 4500 U.S. military dead and about 40,000 wounded and when all costs are factored in will have cost the nation trillions of dollars. It also helped bring into existence the group known as ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which now controls vast swaths of Iraq and Syria and whose conquests may drag the United States back in to the Iraq conflagration, maybe even in concert with Iran. It may not be a “world war” but threatens to become global as the influence of ISIL is spreading to other parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
There are also rumblings of war coming from Russia and the Ukraine, a conflict that has now claimed nearly 300 people who had no stake in it, the passengers and crew of Malaysia Air Flight 17, shot down by pro-Russian insurgents with a missile very probably supplied by Russia. Both Russia and Ukraine have begun limited mobilization of their militaries. While one would want to believe that neither Russia or Ukraine, or for that matter Europe or the United States has an interest in war one can never be sure. As Tuchman wrote “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.”
In the weeks leading to the First World War, some nations were determined on war, others thrust into it by their perceived military interests and still others because they ignored the danger of the situation until it was too late. In all cases their actions and inaction led to disaster.