The deadliest folly in history began 100 years ago this August.
The 20th century dawned with more hope and promise than any before it. Living standards were rising rapidly.
During it, poverty, disease and war could be eradicated, many intellectuals believed.
Until August 1914. More than 8.5 million soldiers and up to 40 million civilians died during World War I — an appalling butcher’s bill for a war no one wanted.
Military technology had raced far ahead of tactics. Bone-headed generals launched bayonet charges against machine guns.
In the First Battle of the Marne (Sept. 5-12, 1914), more French, British and German soldiers were killed (483,000) than all American battle deaths in World Wars I (53,402), II (291,557), Korea (33,739) and Vietnam (47,434) combined.
For the first time since the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), noncombatants were deliberately targeted.
It began in August 1914, when German soldiers shot 150 civilians at Aerschot in Belgium to terrify others so they wouldn’t rebel. Worst was the Armenian genocide (1.5 million deaths).
Virtually an entire generation of young men was wiped out. Depression replaced rapid economic growth. The war’s devastation fueled fascism in Italy and Germany, communism in Russia, setting the stage for even bloodier war.
WWI crushed the old world in which kings were rulers, not mere figureheads, and vast empires stretched across the globe. There were fewer than 50 independent nations then; the current total is four times that number.
Our world is very different. Surely national leaders now wouldn’t “sleepwalk into war” as Kaiser Wilhelm, Czar Nicholas, et. al. did back then. But Graham Allison, Harvard professor and Defense Department consultant, hears “echoes of 1914” in 2014.
So does the military historian Sir Max Hastings. This year “the risk of some local turf dispute exploding into a great power collision (is) alarmingly real,” he said.
The “echoes of 1914” are loudest in the Pacific, where an increasingly belligerent China threatens war against all who resist its breathtaking territorial claims.
China “aims to push rather than break limits,” said an analyst for the International Institute of Strategic Studies. But wars are more often the product of miscalculation than conscious design, history indicates.
The turmoil in the Middle East today reminds her of the turmoil in the Balkans in 1914, said British professor Margaret MacMillan, who wrote a book about “The War that Ended Peace.”
War has been as common a source of human misery as poverty and disease. On average, there’ve been at least three “major” wars going on every year for the last 4,000 years, calculates biologist Antonio Casolari. A territorial dispute between a rising power and a declining one that escalated out of control has been the most frequent cause, Ms. Allison said.
From the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) on, alliances have heightened the risk of war. And when rulers stir up nationalist fervor to distract attention from economic problems, the risk of war rises.
There’ve been just three periods of relative peace: the Pax Romana (27 BC to 180 AD), the Pax Britannica (1815 to 1914), and the Pax Americana (1945 to the present). They existed because one nation was so mighty no others dared challenge it. All were happy times for humanity.
The Pax Romana ended when a weakened Rome struggled to repel barbarian invasions.
As Germany, after unification in 1871, rose to become Europe’s leading industrial power, the Pax Britannica dimmed.
The policies of President Barack Obama are putting an end to the Pax Americana. He’s slashed military spending, refuses to exercise American leadership.
The administration “makes tough-sounding statements as a substitute for action and, if the tough words don’t work, it backs down,” said Walter Russell Mead, editor of The American Interest.
Both friends and enemies have less faith in America’s will to act, so neither pay much attention to what the president says. His “grand strategy of disengagement” is facing “comprehensive failure,” Mr. Mead said.
My fervent hope for 2014 is we’ll get through it without blundering into war. That’s still the way to bet, but the odds for peace are diminishing.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Pittsburgh Press: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1476.
First Published January 8, 2014 4:12 PM