There are grand forces in human history. Then there are the actions of fools who think they can control events and who then start actions that spiral out of control.
Ninety nine years ago this summer, a small series of events soon sparked a World War that resulted in decades of carnage — World War I, The Russian Revolution, WWII, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War all had their beginnings in that period. Few people today are taught much about WWI except perhaps that it began with an arms race. That race was almost more symptom than cause. The huge fleets of surface naval fleets that had been the focus of the arms race were largely bit players in the war that ensued. The real cause was that far too many European leaders of that era were certain that events could be manipulated to their political advantage.
It must be emphasized the crowned heads of Europe knew each quite well. Indeed, perhaps they knew each other too well. The German Kaiser was, after all, a grandson of Queen Victoria. The Russian Tsar was married to one of Victoria’s granddaughters. The Tsar’s mother was sister to the mother of Britain’s reigning monarch, King George V, another grandchild of Victoria. Nor were the elected political leaders strangers to each other. In the run up to WWI, European leaders were pretty much playing an insider’s game of one-upmanship. As they were raising the stakes on each other in the quest for ever bigger battleships, more overseas colonies and more advantageous mutual assistance pacts, the players missed signs of simmering discontent among those they ruled or governed. The major difference between those leaders and the West’s leader’s today seems to be that the leaders in 1913 felt they were entitled to rule by Divine Right. Political leaders in 2013 leaders seem to feel almost as entitled because they are certain they are smarter than everyone else.
The problem was that events didn’t play out as any of these leaders had planned, nor could they hope to control outcomes once shots had been fired in anger. In addition, few of them really understood warfare, as there hadn’t been a war between major European powers since 1870. Indeed, the theories of ground warfare some of these leaders had been schooled in had been largely unchanged since the days of single shot smooth bore muskets and muzzle loading cannons firing round shot an entire century earlier.
The war they started — a war that some planned to complete in a few weeks — quickly went off schedule. Instead of a short, mobile war, it became one of entrenchment that was fought for over four bloody years with automatic weapons, modern artillery, and poison gas. The resulting carnage was such that it was often impossible to even tell which army the fallen had fought for, much less to identify individual bodies. At Verdun, where over 230,000 were killed, the estimated remains of over 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers were interred en masse in the Douaumont Ossuary.
The subjects and citizens who patriotically rallied in 1914 soon turned on their rulers: Mass mutiny in France; Revolution in Russia; The dissolution of the Austro-Hugarian, Ottoman and German Empires. Among the major players, only Britain and the Commonwealth nations survived with their power structures largely intact, but the cost had been high. One price wasn’t apparent for some time to come: The intelligentsia, ashamed to have rallied enthusiastically to the battle cry of “For King and Country,” embarked upon a cycle of secular cynicism that is still playing out across the Anglo-sphere today.
When I see the pictures of John Kerry dining with Assad, Hillary Clinton meeting with various world leaders, Obama meeting with his advisers and Putin posing for the cameras as if he were successor to the autocratic Tsars I fear an insider’s game is once again being played by people who think they have the power to limit and control the outcome. There isn’t a player on this stage whose intellect, judgment, and experience is to be trusted. The few who have experienced war seem to have forgotten the lessons. Everywhere I look I see clowns to the left and jokers to right.
Events on the world stage began to spin out of control some time ago with the financial crisis of socialist programs in an age of declining birthrates. The only positive factor may be that very few of those who are governed by the world’s current crop of politicians seem ready to rally to any call for action. This isn’t a game and increasingly all around the globe people are refusing to be treated as the pawns of those in power. Senator Rand Paul’s question is being asked all around the world today in a slightly different form should warm the hearts of libertarians. Fewer people than ever before seem to want to be the first to die — or to see their children die, if all it will serve to do is to enhance the image of their leaders. That may be the factor that might prevent events today from becoming as awful as those that began in August, 1914. It certainly won’t be the improvement in the quality of the world’s political leadership.