Be Grateful for Small Wars

“The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light, by a series of perceptible gradations, began to fall upon the map of Europe.”

Such a beautiful sentence, written by Winston Churchill describing how, in July 1914, the attention of Britain turned from the crisis in Ireland to the looming war on the continent.

BBC 4 has just completed a chilling series – five 15-minute programmes entitled “The Month of Madness”, historian Christopher Clarke’s pellucid exposition of the appalling sequence of events which burst like a cataract of blood from the barrel of Gavrilo Princip’s pistol when he assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary.

All Princip wanted was a united Serbia. Bosnia, an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was in fact only 43% Serbian by ethnicity, but Serbian nationalists believed passionately that it belonged in the Kingdom of Serbia. The Black Hand, Princip’s armourers,  thought the assassination would cause a backlash from Vienna which would cause Serbs to rise and throw off the imperial yoke.

What happened instead was a war involving 65 million combatants, caused 20 million deaths and an uncounted number of broken lives, ruined four empires and triggered the Bolshevik revolution.

Objectively, the cause of the war was a chain reaction sucking one alliance in after the other. The Austrians were outraged at the murder of the moderate son and heir apparent to the 84-year-old emperor Franz-Josef. In their eyes Belgrade had done nothing to prevent the machinations of the powerful secretive organisation known as the Black Hand and must be punished.

They asked Germany for support and were immediately given a blank cheque: do what you like, we’re with you all the way. Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia, with no stated objectives and no exit plan.

The Russians had always seen themselves as part of a greater Slavic, Orthodox realm. It was inevitable and obvious they would come to Serbia’s aid. The Austro-Hungarians, records show, scarcely considered the issue. The Germans were more strategic – Russia was in a process of extensive military development and the Germans calculated that war with them, being inevitable, was better fought sooner than later.

France was a close ally of Russia. In an unfortunate accident of history a scheduled Franco-Russian summit took place in St Petersburg early in the crisis. The hawkish French president Raymond Poincaré urged the Russians to ‘be firm’ and, astonishingly, at the formal banquet he raised his glass to toast “the next war.”

Within days, the Russians were mobilising. France followed suit.

The British initially wanted no part of it. But when the Belgians refused passage to the German army to attack France the Germans charged in, something the British could not tolerate; they too, on the 4th of August, declared war.

From complete and unthreatened peace on June the 28th, it took only 38 days for the situation to spiral out of control and cause the Great War.

Why, really? I wrote about the ‘objective’ causes of the war, but they were in fact largely subjective. The real cause of the war, in my opinion, was the thirty years of peace which preceded it. Britain, with  the Boer war recent in its memory, was the lone reluctant party. Military hawks, with powerful armies, will not sit in their barracks forever. To them, a military career that never sees them fire a shot in anger is a disaster, a pointless life. Likewise their political masters, the war ministers (“Defence Ministers”) who deploy them, the cushioned politicians who spend their days with the generals endlessly discussing weaponry and its destructive capabilities and being whizzed around in helicopters, cruisers and jets, ogling the sexy paraphernalia of warfare and making patriotic speeches.

Even I am not immune to the effect of a gun in the hand. Many years ago I was one of a four-man crew conducting a geological survey of the Gibson Desert in Western Australia. I was the cook and logistics person and was often left alone for days while the geologist, his assistant and the mechanic made forays around the area. There was a shotgun. I had never used a firearm. Sometimes, in boredom, I would take it out. Break it open, look down the barrels, fit a cartridge, lock and cock it.One day I was doing this when a crow walked into the clearing in front of the camp.

The crow strutted around in that amiable, cocky manner common to crows. I took aim. And then I pulled the trigger. I was horrified. I like crows. But I had just killed one. Why? Because the gun was such an interesting thing. For its mechanics, its aesthetics, its precision and power. I wanted to use it for what it was designed for.

I feel the guilt of that crow’s death even to today. And if I was susceptible to such a trivial influence as the attraction of a mere shotgun, how much more the hawkish by nature?

So, let us be regretfully thankful, if such a thing is possible, for the Korean and Vietnam wars. They probably saved the planet from nuclear destruction; the generals had drunk their fill of murder and destruction, the populace had witnessed it in horror, and no-one pressed that button.

My thesis: hideous they may be, but small wars kill the appetite for great ones.



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