On the night of July 28th 1914, as Europe slipped into the embrace of war, Winston Churchill, in one of his less statesmanlike moments wrote his wife: “Everything tends towards catastrophe, & collapse… I am interested, geared-up and happy.”
One hundred and three years ago the nations of Europe were careening towards war, a war that would destroy the old order, devastate the flower of European youth, energize revolutionary movements on the far left and far right, and impact the world up to today. The war which began with the Austrian-Hungarian Empire declaring war on Serbia two days prior would eventually claim 20 million dead and another 21 million wounded. It would be followed by the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, and massive political, geographical, and economic crises which led to the Second World War Two decades after the Treaty of Versailles.
The outbreak of the war was the result of a complex web of personalities, politics, prejudices, and per-conceived fixed notions, and wrong-headed assumptions by the leaders and the peoples of the nations involved. In his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 Christopher Clark wrote:
“Moreover, the complexity of the 1914 crisis arose not from the diffusion of powers and responsibilities across a single politico-financial framework, but from rapid-fire interactions among heavily armed autonomous power-centres confronting different and swiftly changing threats and operating under conditions of high risk and low trust and transparency.”
As they moved ever closer to calamity many could not believe that disaster was hanging over them as surely as the Sword of Damocles. Barbara Tuchman noted: “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.”
The world that we live in is much like that of August 1914, as Clark describes them. Unklike 1914, when the United States was an emerging power on the periphery of the conflict, the United States is the great power, with a Navy like Britian’s and Army like Imperial Germany’s, but with a leader who does not seem to be able to control himself from his worst instincts.
I shudder as I watch the regime of President Trump descend into self-inflicted chaos driven by the whims of a narcissistic President who has no capacity for self-reflection, who relishes in humiliating those who are most loyal to him, and who lives in a cloud-cuckoo-land of fact-free paranoid fantasies run amok, at the very point the country’s most dangerous potential adversaries threaten at every corner of the globe and long-standing allies wonder what has happened to the United States. Tuchman described the President, who she never met, in his domestic and foreign policies, when she wrote:
“Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.”
One hundred and three years ago far more able men than this President were making decisions based on their own self-deception and unwillingness to face the facts that we staring them in the face. Believing that victory would be quick and their cause vindicated governments mobilized their fleets and armies, and began to declare war.
President Trump, who ironically avoid serving in the military believes in military power and surrounds himself in with Generals and military hardware. At the commissioning ceremony of the new aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford he said “When it comes to battle, we don’t want a fair fight. We want just the opposite. We demand victory, and we will have total victory, believe me.” He reflected that belief this week when in tweeting about banning transgender persons from the military he said “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory…” even as he weakens our alliances, praises dictators, and his Secretary of State continues to erode the country’s diplomatic power. It is as if he is determined to find a war in which he will be remembered as a great warlord, like Kaiser Wilhelm II envisioned himself.
As I observe the actions of our President in relation to our enemies and allies alike and watch their response to him, I am reminded of Tuchman’s description of Sir Edward Grey on the eve of the First World War, “Watching with his failing eyes, the lamps being lit in St. James Park, Grey was heard to remark that “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them again in our lifetime.”
I don’t want to sound like a pessimist but every night I go to bed wondering if early the next morning the President will tweet us into a war. Likewise I wonder what the President will do if Kim Jong Un will fire the missile that brings Armageddon to an American city, or a terrorist group finally succeeds in detonating a weapon of mass destruction on American soil. The latter question is not just how he will respond militarily, but rather how far he will go in curtailing political dissent, free speech, and civil rights. I wonder if the President, to use the words of a less experienced and statesmanlike Churchill is geared up and happy as events tend toward catastrophe and collapse.
Anyway, for now I’ll do my best to remain hopeful that disaster can be avoided but with every passing day I get more concerned about the future of the country and the world.