Wednesday, June 18, 2014

1914 not so different from 2014

Trench warfare that accomplished little for four years
In catching up with the history of World War I as the 100th anniversary kicks off June 28, it's apparent the mindset that produced that catastrophe is alive and well today.

In reading Christopher Clark's "The Sleepwalkers," a passage about the reasoning to assassinate the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne stood out.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who looked down on the Serbs, was apparently a reform-minded monarch who wanted to assign more autonomy to the Slavic lands such as Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Macedonia, after the controversial annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary in 1908.

Many of the Serbian terrorists "recognized this idea as a potentially catastrophic threat to the reunificationist project."

"The targeting of the archduke thus exemplified one abiding strand in the logic of terrorist movements, namely that reformers and moderates are more to be feared than outright enemies and hardliners."

Sound familiar?

Also, in 1910, a Serbian terrorist tried to assassinate the Austrian governor of Bosnia, in Sarajevo no less. He fired five shots, but they all missed. The Serbian then used his last shot to kill himself. For this, a statue was built in his honor and he's still considered a national hero for failing so spectacularly and then committing suicide. 

Fortunately, they didn't have suicide vests back then.

What's striking about the cauldron of the Balkans where WWI began, is that it mattered little in the overall scheme of things then and matters even less now. Afterall, much of the war was waged far from the Balkans in Belgium and northern France.

Yet, the uneasy peace between Bosnia and Serbia brokered in 1995 after the "ethnic cleansing" committed by Serbs and Croats against Bosnian Muslims in their 1992-1995 war, is as fragile as ever.

This area of the world has been in constant conflict for centuries and there is no sign that it won't flare up again. Maybe, Serbia is waiting for the Ukrainian crisis to boil over before making another move. There is always some score to settle in the Balkans.

Serbia still pines after Kosovo, which has suffered eight major conflicts since 1369. It was the Battle of Kosovo Field in June 1389, when the Serbs were routed by the Turks, that is considered one of the most important dates in Serbian history and was cited as justification for Serbia's invasion of Kosovo in 1999.

Good grief. Serbia is still living in the Dark Ages.

Most of the blame for the problems in the Balkans before World War I belong to the Serbs, who had this notion that they needed to govern all Serbs in neighboring states. They were involved in two Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913 that set the table for the really, big show.

Anyway, if point A is the assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, how did the world get so quickly to point B, which is the Great War, beginning July 28, 1914, between the Triple Entente (Britain, France, Russia) and the Central Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary)?

It's complicated.

Here is a link to a thumbnail sketch that shows Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which prompted Russia to defend Serbia. Since Germany was allied with Austria-Hungary, it declared war on Russia. France was aligned with Russia and declared war on Germany. Then, Britain, with her colonies and dominions who were all allied with France, declared war on Germany as well. Because of its military agreement with Britan, Japan also declared war on Germany. Italy, aligned with the Central Alliance before the war, finally joined the fray in 1915 on the side of Triple Entente.

The U.S. wouldn't get dragged into it until 1917. In the 17 months that America fought in Europe, it lost nearly 117,000 men.

In essence, the world's dominant powers were playing Risk for real. It was a game for many of the leaders of that era who exploited nationalism and patriotism to horrible consequences.

The Industrial Revolution ushered in many amazing things including more effective ways to kill more people more quickly. Poison gas was just one of the many new ways to die.

The result was about 9.7 million combat deaths, another 21 million or so seriously injured and about 6.8 million civilians killed.  Serbia, for starting the war, lost almost 20 percent of its population.

Four imperial empires ceased to exist: Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman.

And, it was all merely a prelude, of course, to the far more disastrous, truly worldwide conflict: World War II. The Greatest War?

After WWI, the map of the Middle East was redrawn by the British with little thought about the separate realities of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds.

The chickens have now come home to roost.

In 2014, the Middle East continues to be a thorn in the world's backside much like the Balkans remain today.

There have been a number of conflicts for decades in the region between Israel and its Arab neighbors and now between Muslims themselves.

Iraq's civil war was inevitable, even if the U.S. military stayed there for a thousand years.

Does anyone really care about the bloodletting between Sunnis and Shiites? Or between Syrians?

Unlike the Balkans, there is oil in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia that underpins the reason why this god-forsaken area matters to anyone outside the region. Plus, Israel is our unofficial 51st state.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Saudi Arabian nationals belonging to al Qaeda, led to the escalation of instability in Middle Asia. In 2003, President Bush decided to throw gasoline on the embers smoldering in the Middle East by invading Iraq.

Will there be another Sarajevo-type event to drag the whole world into what is really just a neverending regional conflict?

If there is, it could get ugly fast.

Russia and China want to battle the U.S. for worldwide supremacy and the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan could be the ticket to that eventual confrontation.

The difference now is that Germany and Japan now side with America, Great Britain and France.

Russia still has some scores to settle with Germany, as does China with Japan. And we owe the Saudis, who finance much of the terrorism in the region from oil they sell to us and others.

Gee, sounds like Risk all over again.

Now that we live in the nuclear age with a seemingly ceaseless supply of suicidal terrorists, we could see a war of total annihilation of many countries and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people.

The human mind hasn't evolved much in the past century in spite of the changes to almost everything else in the world.

This is no time for hotheads to decide things.

1 comment:

  1. Thankfully Cheney is not running the show anymore!

    While I am no Obama supporter, at least he offers a slightly more even hand with Israel.