Expecting the unexpected

This year sees the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I in Europe. It was known as the Great War until W.W.II which was in many ways more deserving of the descriptive adjective - "world" in that the second conflict was more global than in 1914-18.

The United States joined the war only in April 1917 and thus the conflict has less impact on the national memory than in Europe where this year will see many somber commemorative events at war graves in northwestern France and elsewhere, and in the villages and towns of the combatant countries across the length and breadth of the continent.

With all the other issues such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iran going on at present, why should something that took place far away and a hundred years ago be worthy of much attention here in America? Here are some reasons to ponder.

First, it was a war that was a surprise to many in Europe.

Unlike W.W.II when it became increasingly and publicly clear that the aggressive ideologies of Nazism and Japanese imperialism had to be dealt with by force, in 1914 the vast majority of Europeans were enjoying their summer activities. True, there were rumblings here and there but most people were either preoccupied by domestic troubles or were dodging them by being at the beach, or at the races, or simply enjoying the summer sun.

There were few signs that Europe was about to erupt into a conflict in which 16 million military and civilians would be killed and almost 20 million wounded, died of disease, famine or went missing. Even when it had begun, the general expectation was that it would be over by Christmas.

Secondly, the trigger to the war was the unexpected event of the assassination in Sarajevo of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungary Empire, and his wife on an official visit. At first sight, tragic though that terrorist act was, why should it bother Paris, London, Moscow and Berlin? But one by one the dominos began to fall quickly and within less than six weeks countries were at war and by the end of which the map of Europe was changed for ever.

Thirdly, the rising power in Europe was Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm II and his generals had a proud Prussian military tradition. Personally, the Kaiser at the age of 34 was headstrong and overbearing, and he felt that Germany was not getting the respect that it deserved. The German population was greater than that of either Britain or France, its industry was vibrant and its economy was strong and growing ever stronger. The established powers of Britain, France and Russia had to be put in their place.

Fourthly, as it turned out, the generals on both sides found themselves unprepared for the advances of technology. The advent of barbed wire, motorized vehicles, tanks, poison gas, aeroplanes, zeppelin raids, submarines and other new inventions and tactics such as trench warfare arrived on the battlefield to confront generals whose battle experience was largely cavalry charges and soldiers who were either trained to be smart on the parade ground or not trained at all.

There were, of course, many other causes and aspects to W.W.I, but these will do for my purpose in this brief article. Now let us fast forward to 2014. The rising power is now China. It has a population four times that of the United States, an economy that has grown considerably in recent years, and without doubt it is feeling that it is not getting the respect that it deserves. For the leadership in Beijing, actions have to be taken to show that it cannot be pushed around any more, particularly in the seas that are adjacent to its long coast and thousands of miles from mainland United States. One result of this attitude is that China now has its first aircraft carrier and has announced a program to build three more. Moreover, in the East China Sea and the South China Sea for Beijing there are territorial claims to be asserted: Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and others in the region need to be shown who is the big boy on the block.

Then there is the enigma of North Korea. At the age of 28 Kim Jong Un became the leader of North Korea in 2011 at almost the same age as Kaiser Wilhelm II when he became Emperor in 1888. With 1.2 million people under arms of a total population of some 24 million, with an arsenal that may include a limited number of nuclear weapons, and with a history of bluster and threats interspersed with acts of volatile aggression, North Korea is a problematic neighbor for South Korea and Japan to have.

In the circumstances, it is not surprising that Japan and South Korea feel it necessary to be on their guard and take precautions such as increasing their respective military budgets. Just two weeks ago, in Davos, Switzerland, Prime Minister Abe of Japan noted that the increasing tensions between China and Japan were similar to those between Germany and Britain prior to World War One, and President Aquino of the Philippines has expressed somewhat similar concerns.

And as for the advances of technology and having confidence that present-day political leaders and generals can handle an unexpected trigger event or a military confrontation, we should bear in mind that China last fought a land war in 1980 and has not participated in naval conflict since 1974. Due to its constitution Japan has had no combat experience since 1945. Moreover, there is no international political machinery in the region to head off rising tensions and the outbreak of war as now exists in Europe.

None of this means that war in the Pacific Rim is inevitable, or is even likely. But the United States has major interests and security commitments in the region and would not be able to stand aside from the situation should the unexpected happen. It is in this context that it might be wise to draw some salutary lessons from World War One.

Derek Boothby - a former official with the United Nations - will be giving a talk titled "Stumbling into War; Lessons from World War I" for the Green Mountain Academy for Lifelong Learning at Burr and Burton Academy on Tuesday, Feb. 25.


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