OP-ED: Beware politicians promising 'quick, glorious' wars

Jeremy Barnes
Springfield Township
In this Wednesday May 23, 2018 photo, United States Marine Corps Reserve Captain Owen Gardner Finnegan walks among the headstones at the Aisne Marne cemetery in Belleau, France. The World War I battle of Belleau Wood in northern France pitted untested U.S. forces against the more-experienced Germans, who were making a push toward Paris. It became a defining moment, proving the Americans’ military mettle and helping turn the tide of the war. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

A sage walked into a village in India and found the townsfolk pulling people one after the other from the river. 

When he turned to leave, apparently without helping, the villagers confronted him. 

“I’m going to see why they are falling into the water in the first place,” he explained.

2019 marks the centennial of the Treaty of Versailles, which was the last attempt to resolve a complicated conflict like the First World War with one single settlement.

There are lessons from the failure of that compact that we would do well to remember if we are going to stop falling into the same old river.

First, a war often contains the germ of the conflict that follows it. Thus part of the explanation for the Second World War lies in Hitler’s ability to motivate Germans with "alternative facts" about the 1914-18 conflict and the way it ended, not least that Germany was betrayed by civilians, including the press, and was not actually defeated because the allied armies did not occupy Germany itself.

Similarly the Cold War grew out of the occupation of Germany in 1945 by the allies from the west and the Soviet Union from the east, with the mutual distrust that was involved. Future historians may well view the period from 1914 to 1989 as one war interrupted by 20 years of relative peace.

More:OP-ED: Taxpayers will be on the hook for millions of government work hours that no one actually worked

More:OP-ED: Trump should demand a better tax cut, not a bigger wall

Hitler also said not only that if a lie is told often enough the people would believe it, but the bigger the lie the better. A current example among many might be the unwavering belief of the North Korean people in the superhuman powers, if not infallibility, of Kim Jong-un.

Secondly, major conflicts can develop unforeseen from small clashes. The assassination in Sarajevo of Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by Gavrilo Princip, a student and Serbian nationalist, on June 28, 1914, was the spark that lit the conflagration, much against expectations. 

Indeed, many of the leaders of the countries involved were away from their respective offices when the various declarations of war took place in the last week of August, 1914. 

Just as events in Serbia prompted a chain reaction, so too could countries in the Middle East do so today, not least Yemen and Iran. We speak loosely of crushing Iran, of ignoring the opposition of Russia, China, Syria and Iraq, just as Austria ignored the opposition of Britain, France and Russia when it mobilized against Serbia in August of 1914.

These rapid escalations from small beginnings are unpredictable in their outcomes. In September 1914, the British believed that the war would be “over by Christmas,” and men rushed to enroll in the army should they miss the "fun."

Leaders promised a quick victory, unable to foresee that modern technology in the form of machine guns, tanks, barbed wire and chemical weapons would decimate conventional armies, irrespective of their size.

Hence, we need to question politicians who promise a short, glorious war, often declared for internal political reasons, or those who promise "mission accomplished" prematurely. One only has to look at the on-going presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps even their longer term presence in South Korea, Japan and Germany, and the fact that, despite assurances to the contrary, ISIS has not yet been defeated.

In the 20th century, for the first time in history, more innocent civilians were killed in warfare than combatants. In the First World War, there were an estimated 20 million deaths, of which more than 10 million were civilians, and 21 million wounded. In the Second World War the death toll may be as high as 80 million, 55 million of whom were civilians, including 19 million to 28 million from war-related disease and famine. 

Those numbers, and the suffering involved, are beyond my ability to imagine. Today, of course, we glibly talk about putting 15,000 militia along our southern borders to protect us from civilians seeking safety and asylum from violence in their own countries of origin. In 1935, when Mussolini’s air force bombed the Abyssinians from the air, “the pilots showed great courage,” said one cynic, “despite the danger of getting hit by rocks thrown from below.”

Finally, the rise of nationalism as compared to patriotism, a distinction made by President Macron in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in November last year, makes the world once again a potentially deadly place. 

Donald Trump probably did not understand the implications when he declared himself to be a nationalist, nor is he one to correct himself after misspeaking, but the hyper-nationalism evident in Hungary, Poland, Italy, Brazil, Russia, North Korea, Iran and Iraq, sometime underlain with religious fervor, is disturbingly dangerous, and reminiscent of Europe in 1914, underlain as it was by the rigid alliances which sprung into action in the space of ten days of that year.  

The alternative, as with the Marshal Plan in 1946, is to strengthen countries that are susceptible to demagoguery and non-democratic forces, including those in central American, with economic and humanitarian aid so that poverty, the spring board of so much desperation, is diminished. 

With U.S. intervention in Yemen, Iran, Syria, North Korea and Libya, and conflicting messages about their withdrawal, we can only hope that missteps in the face of historical precedent, often under the guise of defeating "terrorism," itself a convenient generalization, do not lead us into yet another debilitating, bloody  and fruitless conflict, even more so if the underlying purpose is to distract us from political challenges at home.