Friday, Aug. 1, marks the centennial of the start of World War I, when the lights went out across Europe and unsettled much of the rest of the world as well.
The sheer scale of destruction and the millions of lives lost during the four years and three months the conflict raged were staggering, and remain shocking even today. More than 16 million civilians and military personnel died and more than 20 million more were wounded or injured. And yet barely 21 years later, the same principle nations involved in "The Great War," or the mis-named "War to end all Wars," went back to the killing fields again, and by the time the final shots were fired in 1945, some 60 million more civilians, soldiers, airmen and sailors had perished.
Those are numbers that retain their power to shock. Consider the psychic wounds that have yet to truly heal from the smaller scale, but no less vicious and deadly conflicts that have raged since, in places like Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and Yugoslavia.
It is in those psychic scars that the lasting legacy of "The Great War" may have been felt the longest. In the summer of 1914, Europe was still enjoying the high tide of its "Belle Epoch," or beautiful time. The industrial revolution had created vast new wealth even as it upended long-standing social order. Compared to a few decades earlier, most people, and some more than others, were living lives of much better quality than their parents and grandparents. The arts were flourishing. Europe was the center for world politics, economics and culture. The United States was knocking on the door for all of that, but still preferred to leave running the world to the Europeans, while we were focused on getting wealthier (sounds a bit like modern day China and the United States, with the roles reversed).
All that changed, not quite overnight, but soon. Instead of the short, quick glorious war anticipated by the major powers, the conflict brought stalemate, unglamorous trench warfare, and a paralysis of strategic thinking. Locked into treaty commitments binding the Germans and Austro-Hungarians to come to each other's defense on the one side, and a pact between France, Britain and Russia on the other, a diplomatic incident (the murder of the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Sarajevo that June) that should have been containable was not. Like a Greek tragedy, the political leaders of the time were incapable of finding the safety valve that could have prevented the unimagined, mindless slaughter that followed.
As we all know, the consequences were enormous; dynasties going back centuries in Germany, Austria and Russia were toppled. The war ushered out the Russian Czars and led the way to the Soviet Union. It's fair to say the economies of Europe never recovered, losing not only overseas empires but also a leading role in world affairs. A continent committed suicide in effect, and just to hammer the point home, did so again a generation later.
Could a war on the same kind of destructive intensity and global nature happen again? And if it did, what would be left when it was over, given the nuclear weaponry available now that dwarfs the killing machines of a century ago? For years, it's almost been an article of faith that finally - finally - the world had moved past that. Surely the same mistakes and mad rush to arms which set World War I in motion were stuff for the history books.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and the Soviet Union collapsed shortly afterwards, it appeared that for what seems in retrospect for a brief sliver in time, the stars were aligned for a new world order built around mutual respect, trade and cooperation. But history, as it has turned out, hadn't ended.
The first and unmistakable signal of that were the attacks of 9-11, plunging us into a new round of conflict in the Middle East, but also elsewhere. And here, as with World War I, the weapons are new and asymmetric - IED's, drones, suicide terror bombings. To a degree, the present instability across the broad arc of the Middle East from Egypt to Afghanistan reflects the removal of the European colonial powers after World War I who had demarcated artificial boundaries separating tribes and ethnic groups. The ongoing, festering inability of Israel and its Palestinian neighbors to find a peaceful resolution of their issues contributes mightily to this tension, of which we are seeing another blood-soaked chapter being written.
What's troubling about the other major issue and event that has grabbed so much attention recently - the downing of a commercial passenger aircraft over The Ukraine that resulted in the deaths of nearly 300 people - is the re-emergence of Russia as an aggressive, belligerent actor on the world stage. This is a scary and worrisome scenario. Most European nations are still incapable of decisive diplomatic action backed up by credible military strength. The last thing most Americans want to see is our involvement in another foreign war where our direct interests are not threatened. But that's not the way to place the bully back in his cave. These are worrisome, and unstable times. The interlocking nature of the problems in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Gaza and Israel, combined with an authoritarian chieftain like Vladimir Putin, makes the 100th anniversary of the Great War an eerie one, not an opportunity to look backwards with smug confidence that such a catastrophe could never happen again. It could.