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The Peril of Preventive War

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

About this time of month one hundred and one years ago the armies of Europe were beginning a four-year bloodletting that killed over ten million soldiers and resulted in twenty million other deaths. That war spawned other wars and conflicts the world over, some of which still go on today. Since I have been to war in Iraq, a war that if we took international law and war crimes seriously would be considered illegal under the codes that we tried the major German and Japanese war criminals under at the end of the Second World War, I take war, and going to war very seriously.

The beginning of the First World War provides an example for us of how out of control things can get when leaders opt for war when doing the hard work to keep the peace is much more in their interests.

The Austrian Declaration of War against Serbia

One of the premier military and political theorist who has ever lived, Carl von Clausewitz “No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” Sadly, few political leaders take his advice.

It was a war that should never have happened. It was a war for which the belligerent powers could boast many causes but for which few had any real objectives. One hundred and one years ago this week the armies nations of Europe were beginning clashing on the frontiers of France, Germany, Belgium and Russia. Their leaders were hell bent on waging a war that all thought would be short, decisive and end in victory for their side. The leaders were wrong and nearly a century later the world still pays the price for their misplaced beliefs and hubris of those men.

It was a war in large part brought on by the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire’s fears. Fear of neighbors, ethnic minorities and its place among regional and world powers led the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to decide for war when the very unpopular heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of the recently annexed province of Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 28th 1914.

Conrad von Hötzendorf: War was the only means of politics

It was a series of decisions by those in the government of the Empire that brought Europe and the world to war, a war which we still feel the effects of today. In particular it was the decisions of the Austrian Chief of the General Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Foreign Minister Leopold Berchtold and the aging Emperor, Franz Joseph which plunged the world into a world war which spawned revolutions, regional wars, a second world war, a cold war and countless other wars. The decisions were based on the belief, still common today that war is the only means of politics.

Emperor Franz Joseph: “If we must go under, we better go under decently”

Hötzendorf had been a continual advocate of war in every situation. He lobbied for war in 1907 against Italy and Serbia, in 1908 against Serbia, Russia and Italy, in 1909 against Serbia and Montenegro, in 1910 against Italy and the list increased in the years leading up to the war. He fervently believed that “the use of armed force alone could retard the centrifugal forces of nationalism in the ‘multinational empire’; war was the only means of politics.” The Emperor, Franz Joseph was of the same mindset by 1914 and in the days following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand he gave his approval to the actions of Hötzendorf and the diplomacy of Berchtold that doomed the Austro-Hungarian Empire and would destroy and remake Europe within a span of four years.

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg: The Blank Cheque

 The leadership of the Empire had decided on war within days of the assassination. Berchtold dispatched an emissary to Kaiser Wilhelm who decided in counsel with his Imperial Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg gave the Austrians a “blank cheque” of unconditional support for war against Serbia. Berlin was confident that “the Balkan crisis could be localized” and “advised Vienna to “proceed with all means at its disposal” and that Germany would support Austria-Hungary “come what may.” In doing so they willingly ignored the wise counsel of Otto Von Bismarck who considered the Balkans “not worth the life of a single Pomeranian Grenadier.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II

After they received German support the Austrians did everything that they could to ensure that war would occur. Their demands of Serbia were intentionally designed to be unacceptable to that country and they held key information from their German allies in the three weeks after they received the unconditional German support.

Helmuth Von Molkte: “no alternative but to fight a preventive war…” 

German militarists, particularly the Chief of the General Staff Helmuth Von Molkte the younger saw the coming conflict in racial and cultural terms. Von Molkte said that the coming war   would come “sooner or later” and be a war “primarily a struggle between Germans and Slavs” and compared Serbia to an “abscess.”  As the war cloud built Von Molkte told the Foreign Secretary von Jagrow that there was “no alternative but to fight a preventive war so as to beat the enemy while we could still emerge fairly well from the struggle” ignoring the advice of the Iron Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck who counseled “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”

 

Austrian Reservists going to war

 The Austrians felt that the threat from Serbia combined with internal political factors related to the Hungarian and other Slavic regions of the Empire, and the increasing influence of Russia and Germany in the Balkans was an existential threat. At the same time they were poorly prepared for war. Their military was large but poorly trained and equipped.  Their national infrastructure, industry and railroads were ill prepared for the demands of war. Their German allies had not planned for war either and were critically short of the required stocks of ammunition needed for a general war in Europe.

Cheering crowds in Petersburg

The Russians were heavily invested in the Balkans linked to other Slavic people by culture, language and religion. The French were bent on revenge against the Germans for the debacle of 1870 and had no stake in what happened in the Balkans. The British a few years prior to the war had told the Belgians not to expect support if they were invaded by Germany, but declared war to “protect Belgian neutrality.”

German wives and girlfriends walking alongside the Landser…

 The Austrians thought that with German support that even if Russia intervened that the war could be limited to Serbia. They were wrong. Just as the Germans had given the Austrians a “blank cheque” the French, both officially and unofficially were giving the Russians their own blank cheque. French Ambassador Maurice Paleologue assured Russian Foreign Minister S.D. Sazonov of the “complete readiness” of France to fulfill her obligations as an ally in case of necessity.

French Soldiers being cheered

Austria declared war on July 28th, Russia followed by a partial mobilization to support Serbia on the 29th. Kaiser Wilhelm attempted to avert war at the last minute but Czar Nicholas II wrote, “An ignoble war has been declared on a weak country. The indignation of Russia, fully shared by me, is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by pressure to which I am exposed and compelled to take measures which will lead to war.”  This was met with German mobilization on the 30th and the French on August 1st. Declarations of war were exchanged and on August 4th in response to Germany’s refusal to respect the neutrality of Belgium Great Britain declared war against Germany.

A final kiss from a British Soldier at Victoria Station

They were fateful days. Only the Austrians entered the war with any positive objectives, military or political goals. Every other power lurched into the war without clear objectives or end states. One writer noted that the war had “causes but no objectives.”

The world again finds itself perched at the edge of the abyss of war. There are people, smart and otherwise reasonable people who believe that they can wage “preventive wars” and rely on brute military force to solve nearly any problem. There are others that suggest that we should not criticize “allies” even when their decisions could be disastrous to them and the world, much as the Germans gave their Austrian brothers a “blank cheque.”  I wish that they would just look at the consequences before they commit nations and the world to more war that can only result in calamity and great suffering without benefit for anyone or any nation involved.

Those that counsel “preventive wars” need to remember the words of Otto Von Bismarck that “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, History, leadership, Military, national security, Political Commentary, world war one

The Islamic State and the New, Old Nature of War

bilad ash shaam

I am a realist when it comes to human nature and the reality of the evil that human beings can do. I have been to war, and personally I can think of nothing worse than more war. For me war is part of the reality that I live with, and which I am reminded of every time I try to sleep. That being said, a new war is gaining in intensity and threatening to blow away what is left of the old world order.

For most modern Americans and others living in the West, war is an often abstract concept regulated to small bodies of professionals fighting actions far away, of which we only catch occasional glimpses of on television or the internet. For most Americans and others in the West, modern war has become a spectator sport, and one far less interesting to most than either American or European football matches.

We in the West have been protected from the savage nature of war for the better part of six decades, with the sole possible exception being Vietnam, when the press had nearly unfettered access to the battlefields and the troops fighting the war. That war was a staple of the six o’clock news on a daily basis for a decade, bringing the war home in almost real time, and that coverage as well as the large numbers of Americans killed and wounded coming home from the war triggered a public backlash against it that helped bring the American involvement to an end.

The government and the military changed the way that war has been covered since, now reporters are vetted and closely supervised, even when they are imbedded with the troops. When the war in Iraq began to go bad, even the return of those killed in action was largely off limits. During the Iraq War many news programs took on the character of cheerleaders as Saddam was toppled. The media only slowly adjusted to the reverses brought about by the failed strategy of the Bush administration in Iraq as the falsehoods that brought about the invasion were revealed and the Iraq Civil War and insurgency spread like wildfire.

As such most people, including political, business, media elites, and even military theorists fail to understand the essential and unchanging, character, nature and complexity of war. As British theorist Colon S. Gray so bluntly points out: “Some confused theorists would have us believe that war can change its nature. Let us stamp on such nonsense immediately. War is organized violence threatened or waged for political purposes.” 1 If we fail to understand that we cannot understand the ongoing wars, to include that being waged by the Islamic State, or Caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

This war that the Islamic State is waging is bigger than most of us understand or want to believe. It is not simply about toppling the Assad regime, nor even taking Baghdad, or even about gaining control of the oil of the Middle East, though each is a goal for the Islamic State.

The larger and much more ambitious goal of the ISIS leadership; that of toppling the Saudi monarchy, which ISIS feels is corrupt and heretical, and the occupation of Mecca, Medina and ultimately Jerusalem, the three most holy sites in Islam. The Puritanical and violent Wahhabi Islam practiced by ISIS rightly understands as so many other Wahhabi fundamentalists have throughout the years; that the possession of these sites, especially Mecca and Medina, give them both legitimacy and standing as the preeminent Islamic government in the World.

The House of Saud allied itself with the founder of Wahhabi Islam in the 1700s, but it was not until the 1920s when the British Indian Office backed the Saudi against the other tribes of the Arabian Peninsula that Wahhabi Islam had a stable base to reach out and touch the rest of the world. As the Saudis became more affluent and connected to the world through oil and the global economy some leading Saudis have tried to moderate their Wahhabi beliefs, modernize the Kingdom, even allowing women a few rights, and to accommodate more progressive beliefs. In the 1970s this brought about the assassination of King Faisal in March 1975 and the seizure of the holy sites of Mecca by extremists in November of 1979. That, coupled with their military alliance with the United States after the Gulf War brought about more opposition from the more radical Wahhabi including Osama Bin Laden whose Al Qaeda network spawned ISIS.

ISIS has found its greatest success in exploiting failures of many of the despotic and totalitarian leaders of Arab states, divisions in Islam, foreign influences and the seemingly hopeless plight of Arabs to overcome poverty and oppression in those countries to advance their cause and promote their ideology. Their brand of Islam which teaches that almost anything is an idol enables them to destroy historical sites, cemeteries, houses of worship and archeological treasures belonging to Christians, Jews, Buddhists and even to other Moslems.

Terrorism and terrorist groups have not generally been non-state actors in the world wide political drama, however, that being said, even non-state actors have strategic, ideological and political goals to which their violence is directed. The unique nature of ISIS is that what most of us assumed to be yet another non-state terrorist group is becoming an embryonic state with its own economic assets, media arm coupled with defined military and political-religious goals, both against other Moslems and the West. Is is morphing before our very eyes from a non-state entity to a hybrid entity with character traits of a non-state and a state actor, especially as it takes control of more and more territory in the Tigris-Euphrates basin of Syria and Iraq.

The message of ISIS to all, including other Moslems, is to convert to their understanding of Islam or die. It is the same kind of message that other religious extremists at the helm of governments have used for millennia, sadly including many Christians.

The fact that the Islamic State is aspiring to become not just a non-state actor, but to place itself as a dominant power on the world stage makes it different. It has the capability of operating in the open where it physically controls cities or regions, as well as in the shadows in countries viewed by them as the enemy. It will most likely adapt its tactics as the situation dictates. Against weaker, or politically unstable neighbors, it will use more conventional means and asymmetrical warfare. However, against enemies who have the power to strike them from afar such as the United States, they will use the asymmetrical means of various types of terrorism; traditional bombings, kidnappings, hijackings and assassinations, the use of any kind of WMD that they can obtain and even cyber-terrorism to attack financial institutions or critical infrastructure.

The war that the Islamic State is preparing for is a throwback to the heady days of Moslem conquest from the 7th to the 15th Centuries. But unlike those days where early Moslems were interested in such things as classical Greek learning, the preservation of historic sites or advances scientific or mathematical learning, the Islamic State is bent on destroying all vestiges of other peoples, groups or religions. Because their absolutist and apocalyptic beliefs allow no compromise, they can and will ruthlessly pursue their religious, ideological and political goals using terror as a tool.

We in the West have not faced something like this in a very long time. War is not just a military and political endeavor, “it is social and cultural… and must reflect the characteristics f the communities that wage it.” 2 The leaders of the Islamic State understand this fact all too well, that is a major reason why they are attracting new Jihadists around the world. However, we in the United States in Europe are on the whole, so detached from such matters that we do not understand the savage nature of war, or the motivations groups like the Islamic State. To us they are barbarous and a throwback to times where our ancestors waged wars of religion and ideology to conquer, convert and enslave unbelievers.

There are many politicians that seem to believe that the Islamic State can be crushed quickly by US and allied forces. However, history shows that such religious-political-ideological movements do not die easily, even when mercilessly attacked by superior military forces.

Those that think a series of surgical strikes by aircraft, cruise missiles or drones; or attacks by Special Forces will eliminate ISIS as a threat do not understand the nature of that beast. We have become enamored of the technology that we use to make war, and we often forget the preeminence of the human dimension. Technology changes rapidly, the nature of the people that employ it seldom changes.

The West must, for human rights and freedom and not for imperialist, economic or even the mission of spreading democracy, we must be prepared for a long and difficult war that will be waged in the most brutal of manners by all sides. We must realize that there will be a terrible cost such a war, economic and human to be sure, people will die and economies will suffer, but worse there will be a cost to our individual and corporate psyche.  This war will eventually have a profound effect on all  us.

We must realize as Helmuth Von Molkte told Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1906 that the next war “will be a national war which will not be settled by a decisive battle but by a long wearisome struggle with a country that will not be overcome until its whole national force is broken, and a war which will utterly exhaust our own people, even if we are victorious.” Von Molkte’s tragic mistake was that he did nothing to “follow through the logic of his prophecy” 3 and allowed his country to enter a war that it was not prepared to wage, and which caused its collapse.

Ultimately, despite our protestations this war, which has already started will become a war without mercy to use the words of John Dower. The West will be slow to move, and half measures will provoke more attacks and a further spread of the Islamic State. Alliances will have to be made with nations that we may despise, but who are also threatened by the Islamic State. Such is nothing new, the United States and Great Britain allied themselves with the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler.

However, when ISIS successfully attacks a major European or American city causing great loss of life, which they very probably will do, the gloves will finally come off. Then the only words to describe how the West will wage the war will be those of William Tecumseh Sherman who said: “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out….” 4 The Islamic State is sowing the wind, and they will reap the whirlwind.

We must look to history, our own as well as Islamic and Arab to understand the new era we are entering, for in truth, despite all the technological advances and changes in strategy and tactics, the fact is that as Colin Gray writes “what changes about war and warfare, although it can be very obvious and can even seem dramatic, is actually overmatched by the eternal features of war’s nature.” 5

T.E. Lawrence wrote a memorandum to the British Foreign Office warning of what we are seeing today: “A Wahabi-like Moslem edition of Bolshevism is possible, and would harm us almost as much in Mesopotamia as in Persia…” T.E. Lawrence, Memorandum to Foreign Office 15 September 1919

Well, that vision is upon us, and with that I will close for today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Beginning of the Never Ending End: August 1914

wwimobilization

“An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.” Barbara Tuchman

On August 1st 1914 the armies of Europe were mobilizing for war. The last feeble efforts at diplomacy were failing as leaders, and diplomats sought a way out of the situation that their policies had brought about. They had allowed the military instrument to drive policy, rather than for policy to dictate how the military should be employed as an instrument of national strategy. As such they became prisoners to their military mobilization plans, all of which depended on speed in order to gain advantage over their adversaries.

The nations and militaries of Europe were devoted to the “cult of the offensive” by which they would crush their enemy’s armies in a quick campaign. In Germany there was the modified Schlieffen Plan that was about to be executed by the army commanded by Von Molkte the younger in which Germany would violate the neutrality of Belgium in order to invade France, risking war with England in the process. In France, the offense was also the rule of the day, Plan 17 dictated an advance to recapture the Alsace and drive into the heart of Germany. Russia had “Plan 19” nicknamed by some “the Russian Steamroller,” while Austria-Hungary, the chief protagonist of the War dithered with plans to attack Serbia and defend against Russia, which her military commander Conrad von Hotzendorf neither shared with his German allies, or the politicians leading his country to war.

The numbers of troops were massive, the Germans mobilizing nearly four million troops in less than two weeks, the Austrians three point three million, the French over three million and the Russians nearly five million. Serbia, Belgium and Great Britain were mobilizing as well, but the numbers of soldiers that they mobilized were a fraction the size of the major land powers. Soon other nations would become involved, the Ottoman Empire on the side of Austria and Germany, Italy on the side of England and France. Bulgaria and Romania would become involved as well as far away Japan, which saw the opportunity to expand its empire and influence at the expense of Germany.

No leaders had planned for a long war; they did not believe such a war could last. “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.”

But they were wrong and in the opening weeks and months of the war, every army lost massive numbers of troops ensuring that victory would not come quickly or cheaply. Between August and December 1914 the Germans had sustained about 800,000 casualties, the French about the same, the Austrians close to a million, the Russians at least 500,000 and the tiny British expeditionary force took about 87,000 casualties of the 110,000 troops deployed to France.

The war dragged on until November 1918. An armistice was signed; a peace treaty made, territory divided but the war never really ended, and in a way continues today in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe. The “War to end all War” really never ended, it continues today in some many places. It really was a war without end.

Of course in August 1914 the leaders of Europe gambled everything on a roll of the dice. The decisions that they made were made deliberately and with forethought, but the logic of those leaders was fatally flawed, and the implications of their flawed decision making process are still haunting us today. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like the politicians, pundits and preachers, that “Trinity of Evil” that find glory and profit in war have learned anything. Like Conrad von Hotzendorf many leaders today believe that “the essence of politics lies in the use of the means called “war.” As Barbara Tuchman said “Learning from experience is a faculty almost never practiced”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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August 1914: The Beginning of a Century of Disasters

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The Austrian Declaration of War against Serbia

“No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” Carl Von Clausewitz

It was a war that should never have happened. It was a war for which the belligerent powers could boast many causes but for which few had any real objectives. Ninety-nine years ago this week the nations of Europe were hell bent on waging a war that all thought would be short, decisive and end in victory for their side. They were wrong and nearly a century later the world still pays the price for their misplaced beliefs and hubris of those men.

It was a war in large part brought on by the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire’s fears. Fear of neighbors, ethnic minorities and its place among regional and world powers led the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to decide for war when the very unpopular heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of the recently annexed province of Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 28th 1914.

Baron Conrad von Hotzendorf

Conrad von Hötzendorf: War was the only means of politics

 It was a series of decisions by those in the government of the Empire that brought Europe and the world to war, a war which we still feel the effects of today. In particular it was the decisions of the Austrian Chief of the General Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Foreign Minister Leopold Berchtold and the aging Emperor, Franz Joseph which plunged the world into a world war which spawned revolutions, regional wars, a second world war, a cold war and countless other wars. The decisions were based on the belief, still common today that war is the only means of politics.

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Emperor Franz Joseph: “If we must go under, we better go under decently”

 Hötzendorf had been a continual advocate of war in every situation. He lobbied for war in 1907 against Italy and Serbia, in 1908 against Serbia, Russia and Italy, in 1909 against Serbia and Montenegro, in 1910 against Italy and the list increased in the years leading up to the war. He fervently believed that “the use of armed force alone could retard the centrifugal forces of nationalism in the ‘multinational empire’; war was the only means of politics.” The Emperor, Franz Joseph was of the same mindset by 1914 and in the days following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand he gave his approval to the actions of Hotzendorf and the diplomacy of Berchtold which doomed the Austro-Hungarian Empire and would destroy and remake Europe within a span of four years.

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Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg: The Blank Checque

 The leadership of the Empire had decided on war within days of the assassination. Berchtold dispatched an emissary to Kaiser Wilhelm who decided in counsel with his Imperial Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg gave the Austrians a “blank cheque” of unconditional support for war against Serbia. Berlin was confident that “the Balkan crisis could be localized” and “advised Vienna to “proceed with all means at its disposal” and that Germany would support Austria-Hungary “come what may.” In doing so they willingly ignored the wise counsel of Otto Von Bismarck who considered the Balkans “not worth the life of a single Pomeranian Grenadier.

After they received German support the Austrians did everything that they could to ensure that war would occur. Their demands of Serbia were intentionally designed to be unacceptable to that country and they held key information from their German allies in the three weeks after they received the unconditional German support.

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Helmuth Von Molkte: “no alternative but to fight a preventive war…” 

 German militarists, particularly the Chief of the General Staff Helmuth Von Molkte the younger saw the coming conflict in racial and cultural terms. Von Molkte said that the coming war   would come “sooner or later” and be a war “primarily a struggle between Germans and Slavs” and compared Serbia to an “abscess.”  As the war cloud built Von Molkte told the Foreign Secretary von Jagrow that there was “no alternative but to fight a preventive war so as to beat the enemy while we could still emerge fairly well from the struggle” ignoring the advice of the Iron Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck who counseled “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”

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Austrian Reservists going to war

 The Austrians felt that the threat from Serbia combined with internal political factors related to the Hungarian and other Slavic regions of the Empire, and the increasing influence of Russia and Germany in the Balkans was an existential threat. At the same time they were poorly prepared for war. Their military was large but poorly trained and equipped.  Their national infrastructure, industry and railroads were ill-prepared for the demands of war. Their German allies had not planned for war either and were critically short of the required stocks of ammunition needed for a general war in Europe.

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Cheering crowds in Petersburg

 The Russians were heavily invested in the Balkans linked to other Slavic people by culture, language and religion. The French were bent on revenge against the Germans for the debacle of 1870 and had no stake in what happened in the Balkans. The British a few years prior to the war had told the Belgians not to expect support if they were invaded by Germany, but declared war to “protect Belgian neutrality.”

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German wives and girlfriends walking alongside the Landser…

 The Austrians thought that with German support that even if Russia intervened that the war could be limited to Serbia. They were wrong. Just as the Germans had given the Austrians a “blank cheque” the French, both officially and unofficially were giving the Russians their own blank cheque. French Ambassador Maurice Paleologue assured Russian Foreign Minister S.D. Sazonov of the “complete readiness of France to fulfill her obligations as an ally in case of necessity.

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French Soldiers being cheered

 Austria declared war on July 28th, Russia followed by a partial mobilization to support Serbia on the 29th. Kaiser Wilhelm attempted to avert war at the last minute but Czar Nicholas II wrote “An ignoble war has been declared on a weak country. The indignation of Russia, fully shared by me, is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by pressure to which I am exposed and compelled to take measures which will lead to war.”  This was met with German mobilization on the 30th and the French on August 1st. Declarations of war were exchanged and on August 4th in response to Germany’s refusal to respect the neutrality of Belgium Great Britain declared war against Germany.

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A final kiss from a British Soldier at Victoria Station

They were fateful days. Only the Austrians entered the war with any positive objectives, military or political goals. Every other power lurched into the war without clear objectives or end states. One writer noted that the war had “causes but no objectives.”

The world again finds itself perched at the edge of the abyss of war. There are people, smart and otherwise reasonable people who believe that they can wage “preventive wars” and rely on brute military force to solve nearly any problem. There are others that suggest that we should not criticize “allies” even when their decisions could be disastrous to them and the world, much as the Germans gave their Austrian brothers a “blank cheque.”  I wish that they would just look at the consequences before they commit nations and the world to more war that can only result in calamity and great suffering without benefit for anyone or any nation involved.

Those that counsel “preventive wars” need to remember the words of Otto Von Bismarck that “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Gathering Storm: Shades of 1914 as War Threatens in the Middle East

Israeli Navy Dolphin Class Submarine

“The world tells Israel ‘Wait, there’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’” Benjamin Netanyahu 

The question is not if but when. The tensions between Iran and Israel continue to boil over even as the rest of the Middle East begins to melt down.

Last week on the 11th anniversary of the September 11th attacks Al Qaeda backed forces attack the US Consulate in Benghazi Libya killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others. Militants in Egypt laid siege to the US Embassy while newly elected Egyptian President and Moslem Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi dithered torn between his party ideology and the pragmatic reality of the dependency of Egypt on the United States for military and economic assistance. Throughout the region from Tunisia to Indonesia protests, some marked by violence broke out at United States and other Western nations diplomatic outposts.

Shahab III Missile Ranges

The Iranians and their Hezbollah allies have repeatedly threatened Israel with destruction and have improved their missile forces significantly ever the past number of years even without nuclear weapons. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding the United States and the west set “Red Lines” regarding the Iranian nuclear program that would trigger an automatic attack on Iran by the United States.

Like the First World War the tensions, provocations and rhetoric increase even as military forces mobilize and gather in the region. Iran is preparing for massive military exercises involving land, air defense and ballistic missile units from the Iranian military and Revolutionary Guards to begin in October.  Iran admitted this weekend that forces from their Revolutionary Guards are currently operating in Syria placing them in position to directly engage Israeli forces in the event of conflict.

By October the United States will have three Carrier Strike Groups, the USS Enterprise, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and USS John C Stennis and an Expeditionary Strike Group with an embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit in the region. Additionally warships from more than 25 countries are gathering for exercises designed to counter any blockade of the strategic Straits of Hormuz by Iran. Other ships, including the French Aircraft Carrier Charles DeGaulle battle group and the British HMS Illustrious  “Response Task Forces Group” are in the Eastern Mediterranean and could be in the region within a week. US Navy submarines, both attack and ballistic missile are never far from a threatened area. US Air Force  Fighter Squadrons have been reinforced and it is certain that strategic air force units of B-2, B-52 and B-1 bombers are certainly deployed where they can respond as needed. The build up by all sides is unprecedented.

The countries of the region are on hair trigger alert. Any act, intentional or unintentional by any party could trigger a war that would most certainly bring great destruction to the region but would likely sink the global economy and spread around the world through acts of terror and revolutionary violence.

Numerous reports and Israel government official statements indicate that Israel is ready, to strike Iran, if need be alone to prevent what they believe is an existential threat to Israel. While some believe that any Israeli attack on Iran would be precision strikes aimed at Iran’s nuclear program and ballistic missiles sites. However, most experts believe that an Israeli strike would at best set back the Iranian nuclear weapons program a couple of years and trigger a regional war with very unpredictable outcomes. If the Israeli strike is conventional in nature the Iranians will strike back against Israel, as well as US targets in the region. The US would certainly respond but any war would affect the region and the world economy as oil prices would rise exponentially.

With that in mind it is possible that the Israelis fearing the existential threat of Iranian nukes might use their nuclear forces in a first strike role.

Most experts believe that the Israelis would only use nuclear weapons in a retaliatory “second strike” capacity. The reasoning is that the first use of nuclear weapons by Israel would be against their national interests. That is logical but history is replete with times that nations have acted in ways contrary to logic because the action is deemed “necessary.” It is the same logic that said that the Germans would not violate Belgian neutrality in 1914 knowing that such an action would trigger British intervention on the side of France and Russia. It was believed by most that “the Germans are dangerous but they are not maniacs….” The Germans faced war on more than one front and felt that they had to deliver a swift blow to knock France out of the war in order to defeat Russia. It was a risk that they were willing to take and one which helped lose them the war and set about a series of events that made the 20th Century the bloodiest in human history.

In the current situation many in Israeli leadership may view the use of nuclear weapons to stop an existential threat as a legitimate use of the weapons. Israel does face real threats and those threats are increasing as Iran increases in strength and no longer has traditional rival Iraq to worry about. Likewise the instability of Egypt and the anti-Israeli animus of the Moslem Brotherhood which now leads Egypt has increased the real and perceived threat from that country. An Egypt openly hostile to Israel armed to the teeth with advanced American weapons is a dagger pointed at the heart of Israel. Israel’s leaders may be willing to suffer international condemnation in order eliminate what they consider an existential Iranian threat to ensure their survival and ability to defend against Egypt as well as conventional and unconventional Hizbollah forces operating out of Lebanon and those of Hamas in Gaza.

If they were to use nuclear weapons the primary delivery system in such a strike would most likely be Dolphin Class submarines armed with nuclear capable Popeye cruise missiles. These missiles have a 1500 km range and while the missiles could be used in a conventional strike their utility would be limited to precision strikes against unfortified headquarters buildings housing Iranian leadership, or command and control facilities. The numbers of Popeye missiles the Dolphins carry is limited since the majority of Iranian nuclear sites are hardened facilities or deep underground their use against them in a conventional manner would be a waste.

The threat to United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan is great if a broader war erupts. US and NATO forces, already fighting an increasing Taliban insurgency are for all practical purposes surrounded if a war spreads and Pakistan shuts down the southern supply route. Even this week Taliban insurgents scored a victory successfully attacking the strongly fortified joint US Marine and British base Camp Leatherneck-Camp Bastion destroying 6 AV-8B Harrier jets on the ground, damaging more aircraft, valuable hangers and support facilities while killing 2 Marines. A war with Iran would threaten to turn Afghanistan into a trap for nearly 100,000 US and NATO coalition troops.

It could as Barbara Tuchman said of the the Germans of 1914 that the Israelis have “staked everything on decisive battle in the image of Hannibal….” but that the ghost of Hannibal might have reminded the Germans and the Israelis that though Hannibal and “Carthage won at Cannae, Rome won the war.” In mid May and early June of 1914 even before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand Field Marshal Von Molkte and others felt that the scales were tipping against them. He told his Austrian counterpart Field Marshal Conrad Von Hotzendorf that “from now on ‘any adjournment will have the effect of diminishing our chances of success.’” On June 1st Von Molkte said to Baron Eckhardstein,“We are ready, and the sooner the better for us.”

The storm clouds of war are thickening and darkness hovers as the storm gathers. In 1914 the politicians, diplomats and soldiers that realized war would be disastrous were a minority in their respective governments and their warnings went unheeded. In 1914 “war pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no use….” As the sun set and the lamps of London were lit on August 4th 1914 Sir Edward Grey said to a friend “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” It is as if we are watching the same drama play out in the Middle East now.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Days of Disastrous Decision Making: July 28th – August 4th 1914

The Austrian Declaration of War against Serbia

“No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” Carl Von Clausewitz 

It was a war that should never have happened. It was a war for which the belligerent powers could boast many causes but for which few had any real objectives.

It was a war in large part brought on by a declining empire’s fears. Fear of neighbors, ethnic minorities and its place among regional and world powers led the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to decide for war when the very unpopular heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of the recently annexed province of Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 28th 1914.

Conrad von Hötzendorf: War was the only means of politics

It was a series of decisions by those in the government of the Empire that brought Europe and the world to war, a war which we still feel the effects of today. In particular the Chief of the General Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Foreign Minister Leopold Berchtold and the aging Emperor, Franz Joseph.

Emperor Franz Joseph: “If we must go under, we better go under decently”

Hötzendorf had been a continual advocate of war in every situation. He lobbied for war in 1907 against Italy and Serbia, in 1908 against Serbia, Russia and Italy, in 1909 against Serbia and Montenegro, in 1910 against Italy and the list increased in the years leading up to the war. He fervently believed that “the use of armed force alone could retard the centrifugal forces of nationalism in the ‘multinational empire’; war was the only means of politics.” The Emperor, Franz Joseph was of the same mindset by 1914 and in the days following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand he gave his approval to the actions of Hotzendorf and the diplomacy of Berchtold which doomed the Austro-Hungarian Empire and would destroy and remake Europe within a span of four years.

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg: The Blank Checque

The leadership of the Empire had decided on war within days of the assassination. Berchtold dispatched an emissary to Kaiser Wilhelm who decided in counsel with his Imperial Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg gave the Austrians a “blank cheque” of unconditional support for war against Serbia. Berlin was confident that “the Balkan crisis could be localized” and “advised Vienna to “proceed with all means at its disposal” and that Germany would support Austria-Hungary “come what may.” In doing so they willingly ignored the wise counsel of Otto Von Bismarck who considered the Balkans “not worth the life of a single Pomeranian Grenadier.

After they received German support the Austrians did everything that they could to ensure that war would occur. Their demands of Serbia were intentionally designed to be unacceptable to that country and they held key information from their German allies in the three weeks after they received the unconditional German support.

Helmuth Von Molkte: “no alternative but to fight a preventive war…” 

German militarists, particularly the Chief of the General Staff Helmuth Von Molkte the younger saw the coming conflict in racial and cultural terms. Von Molkte said that the coming war   would come “sooner or later” and be a war “primarily a struggle between Germans and Slavs” and compared Serbia to an “abscess.”  As the war cloud built Von Molkte told the Foreign Secretary von Jagrow that there was “no alternative but to fight a preventive war so as to beat the enemy while we could still emerge fairly well from the struggle” ignoring the advice of the Iron Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck who counseled “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.” 

Austrian Reservists going to war

The Austrians felt that the threat from Serbia combined with internal political factors related to the Hungarian and other Slavic regions of the Empire, and the increasing influence of Russia and Germany in the Balkans was an existential threat. At the same time they were poorly prepared for war. Their military was large but poorly trained and equipped.  Their national infrastructure, industry and railroads were ill-prepared for the demands of war. Their German allies had not planned for war either and were critically short of the required stocks of ammunition needed for a general war in Europe.

Cheering crowds in Petersburg

The Russians were heavily invested in the Balkans linked to other Slavic people by culture, language and religion. The French were bent on revenge against the Germans for the debacle of 1870 and had no stake in what happened in the Balkans. The British a few years prior to the war had told the Belgians not to expect support if they were invaded by Germany, but declared war to “protect Belgian neutrality.”

German wives and girlfriends walking alongside the Landser…

The Austrians thought that with German support that even if Russia intervened that the war could be limited to Serbia. They were wrong. Just as the Germans had given the Austrians a “blank cheque” the French, both officially and unofficially were giving the Russians their own blank cheque. French Ambassador Maurice Paleologue assured Russian Foreign Minister S.D. Sazonov of the “complete readiness of France to fulfill her obligations as an ally in case of necessity.

French Soldiers being cheered

Austria declared war on July 28th, Russia followed by a partial mobilization to support Serbia on the 29th. Kaiser Wilhelm attempted to avert war at the last minute but Czar Nicholas II wrote “An ignoble war has been declared on a weak country. The indignation of Russia, fully shared by me, is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by pressure to which I am exposed and compelled to take measures which will lead to war.”  This was met with German mobilization on the 30th and the French on August 1st. Declarations of war were exchanged and on August 4th in response to Germany’s refusal to respect the neutrality of Belgium Great Britain declared war against Germany.

A final kiss from a British Soldier at Victoria Station

They were fateful days. Only the Austrians entered the war with any positive objectives, military or political goals. Every other power lurched into the war without clear objectives or end states. One writer noted that the war had “causes but no objectives.”

The world again finds itself perched at the edge of the abyss of war. There are people, smart and otherwise reasonable people who believe that they can wage “preventive wars” and rely on brute military force to solve nearly any problem. There are others that suggest that we should not criticize “allies” even when their decisions could be disastrous to them and the world, much as the Germans gave their Austrian brothers a “blank cheque.”  I wish that they would just look at the consequences before they commit nations and the world to more war that can only result in calamity and great suffering without benefit for anyone or any nation involved.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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