Tuesday, 7 January 2014

100 years after "The Guns of August"

The arrival of the new year 2014 has generated a lot of recollection of what was happening in the world a century ago, namely, how World War I was sneaking up on everyone. There are some new books out on the run-up to the hostilities, and apparently historians largely now agree that the war was not inevitable and could have been averted with some cautious good sense—a commodity not much in view then or now.

Given the value we place on belligerent ‘self-defense’, prudent restraint was never a big part of our biped race’s approach. Perhaps the trauma of a recent war and its horrific damage focuses our species’ collective mind for a while and then fades, giving way to the more organic witches’ brew of nationalism, aggrieved victimhood and clannish entitlement that lay the groundwork for the next war.

We know from our literature and films that the war with the Kaiser was taken as rather a lark at first in some circles, an opportunity to go off and be a hero without excessive effort given that no one thought the fighting would last more than a few months. This insouciant miscalculation is cited more and more often these days by people pointing to a disturbingly parallel situation now brewing in our world—that of the tensions among Japan, China, the Philippines, the Koreas and the United States.

The details of the territorial disputes and the commercial and geopolitical strategies behind them are available in all the major publications. Most experts commenting on them don’t anticipate an outbreak of hostilities, but increasingly they don’t discount the possibility. No one anticipated the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo either.

Disputes over the the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Tiaoyutai Islands in the seas near Japan, China, and Taiwan (each country has its own name for them) may sound laughably petty to us, but a New Yorker article on the Japanese invasion of China that preceded World War II reminds us that the death toll among Chinese was 20 million, second only to the losses suffered by the Russians and other Soviet citizens in the Nazi assault. Given the steady refighting of the Civil War that we’re living through at home 150 years later, we shouldn’t be too quick to scoff at revived hostilities in Asia.

If you follow the news from day to day, there are steady signs of all sides ratcheting up the rhetoric and accompanying it with hostile actions. China recently laid claim to the air space over the disputed islands and coerced airline companies to report when their planes cross through it—enough to put a chill into anyone traveling over that way. (U.S. companies complied.) The Japanese are refusing to obey, and their PM just paid a visit to a notorious cemetery housing the remains of World War II war criminals to underline the point. Tens of thousands of nationalistic Japanese nostalgic for the good old 1940s promptly followed suit.

A Financial Times columnist wrote today that the favored historical metaphor for pretty much every situation has been “the new Munich”, that is, an attempt by a dangerous warmonger to bully us into submission as Hitler did in 1938. Kerry just used the analogy to push for war against Syria, Bush used it over Iraq, and Margaret Thatcher resuscitated it over the Falklands. Even more grotesquely, Lyndon Johnson used “Munich” to justify his war on Vietnam.

Instead, writes Gideon Rachman, we should be thinking of Sarajevo, the incident that threw Europe into an orgy of unnecessary slaughter.

In 1914, national leaders were so keen to appear strong and to protect their honour (or “credibility” as they would call it nowadays), that they were unable to step back from the brink of conflict. Reflection on the Sarajevo crisis might just prevent today’s leaders from falling into the same trap if Sino-Japanese tensions heighten again.

But, unfortunately, many of today’s political players still approach their rivalries with a Munich mindset. Neither Japan nor China is prepared to look “weak” by backing off in the East China Sea. The US is also worried that its “credibility” will be damaged, if it fails to show toughness. A prominent official in the Obama administration explained to me last year that—while he understood Chinese objections to US naval patrols near China’s coast—America could not cut back these patrols because that would be seen as weakness.

This is the kind of playground logic that four-year-old children are encouraged to grow out of. But, unfortunately, it still seems to be the dominant mode of thinking in international affairs.

We now live in a world that can produce vast quantities of material goods, enough to satisfy the basic needs even of the excessive numbers of bipeds circulating on our overtaxed globe. But instead of organizing a way to get the necessities of life to our fellow creatures, our human groups are trying to get the advantage over each other and plotting ever more ingenious ways to do it, up to and including new ways of performing the internecine slaughter that has marked our species since its arrival.

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