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Bad Actors and Big Wars

by Eric Ferguson on April 3, 2017 · 1 comment

coat of arms of Hapsburg empire of AustriaApril 6th marks the 100th anniversary of the United States entering World War I. If there’s one metaphor you’ve read in every history of World War I, it was probably “tinderbox”. That’s how the pre-war world is frequently described: “Europe was a tinderbox”, or “rival alliances were a tinderbox”. If someone had asked me about WWI before recently, I probably would have said “something something tinderbox” too. Not now, in a change Trump has already wrought. I occurred to me that it was in a way something worse: two bad actors started the war. There was nothing unavoidable about it. Two people could have stopped it. Yes, two, and how this relates to Trumpworld will likely be guessed by readers before I spell it out, but let’s spell it out anyway.
That’s not to dispute that the European empires weren’t a metaphorical tinderbox, but when weren’t they? Was a balance of power that could crash down in a major war an invention of the early 20th century? We’ve had balances of power between rival states going back to at least the invention of states, and I suspect it goes back to whenever groups of pre-historic humans noticed there were other groups of humans, and found themselves asking how strong everyone was and who were likely enemies or allies. Point being, it’s wrong to think there was something unique in the early 20th century and it had to result in a big war inevitably. Maybe it was inevitable, no way to know, but it didn’t have to happen right then, the way it did. So why did it? What caused such a massive breakdown of global order and the world’s biggest war (pending the next world war, of course)? What went wrong?
What went wrong was two bad actors: Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.

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World War I no longer living memory in US

by Eric Ferguson on March 2, 2011 · 3 comments

UPDATE: How the start of World War I is like the start of Iraq War II

The last American veteran of World War I, Frank Buckles, has died. There are still two veterans living, but probably in the next couple years, the war originally known as The Great War will no longer be living memory. It happens I’m an historic reenactor, one of those people who dress up in historical costumes and pretend I’m living in another time as a close up and personal way of teaching history. I’m a strong believer in the maxim “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it,” so as inevitable as it is that all events, even world wars, fade into history, I can’t help being slightly concerned it will be forgotten. The great powers focused on their rivalries and ambitions, and mostly missed the consequences of of an unstable Europe mixed with Industrial Age weapons. Could it happen again? Well, yes, it happened again just 20 years later.

Actually, I’ll go so far as to say it’s been forgotten. I remember while working at Ft. Snelling teaching school groups about the history of the post, including its 20th century history, that not just the kids, but usually the adults had no clue. They knew there was a World War I, but only because the only war many had heard of was World War II, and a bit of math kicked in.

I was thinking, after reading the linked story this morning when I should have been stuffing the newspaper in my bag and getting ready for work, WWI started almost exactly 100 after the Napoleonic Wars ended (including the War of 1812, which is the American part), so the last veterans of those wars probably died 20-25 years earlier. I wonder if anyone was aware of it, if anyone wondered if such a huge war could happen again, if anyone wondered if the passing of the Napoleonic Wars out of living memory would make something like them more likely to happen again.

As a side note, though I suppose it shows how obvious things get forgotten, whenever I hear the term “surrender monkeys”, I can’t help recalling that France essentially took on the rest of Europe at the same time, and nearly won.

So after reading the headline about Frank Buckles, I had earworms of those Eric Bogle songs about WWI, the one about massive killing, and the one about massive forgetting.
No Man’s Land, often covered as Willie MacBride, Bang the Drum Slowly or The Green Fields of France is the one about massive killing. It’s one of those songs where the lyrics subtly change with each performer. One verse goes:

I can’t help but wonder now Willie MacBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you “The Cause”?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain.
For Willie MacBride, it’s all happened again.
And again, and again, and again, and again.

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda is the one about massive forgetting:

And so now every April, I sit on me porch
And I watch the parade pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,
Reviving their dreams of past glories.
And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore,
They’re tired old heroes from a forgotten war.
And the young people ask, what are they marching for?
And I ask myself the same question.
But the band plays Waltzing Matilda, And the old men still answer the call,
But as year follows year, more old men disappear,
Someday no one will march there at all.

UPDATE: After posting this and thinking about how World War I started, I realized there is a parallel between World War I and Iraq War II. In both cases, the war started because a great power was looking for an excuse to invade a smaller country, and grabbed an excuse that had nothing to do with the country they attacked. Just as the Bush administration told us Iraq was involved in 911, Austria decided to blame Serbia because a Serb nationalist in Bosnia, which was part of the Austrian empire, assassinated the Austrian archduke. Each took advantage of the understandable desire of their publics for revenge after a shocking attack (as I typed that, I realized, Shock Doctrine again). Serbia had nothing to do with it, but Austria had been looking for a chance to grab Serbia, which was small and looked like a quick war. Austria miscalculated as badly as the neocons did about Iraq, and were as unwilling to think through the possible consequences of declaring war on Serbia as Bush was to think think about what could go wrong in Iraq.