If we wage war recklessly, we are no better than the pagans.
A war with Russia over territory that it owned in 1783 would be unjust, reckless, and possibly suicidal.
It’s hard to believe that this is the month of March. It has that August feeling – that “August 1914” feeling, to be precise. In that month, almost exactly 100 years ago, a series of diplomatic blunders, crossed signals, and bureaucratic mechanisms (such as interlocking alliances and automatic mobilizations) set loose the monsters that would rage for the rest of our history’s bloodiest century – when more civilians were murdered by governments, the numbers suggest, than in every other century of recorded history combined. Unlike the Second World War, whose brutality can be blamed on the sociopathic hatreds of a single man, the First began in a welter of confusing claims and counterclaims over disputed territory, demands by ethnic minorities for autonomy, and crackdowns by central governments. Then followed appeals by those minorities to neighboring Great Powers, which set off a chain reaction as other Great Powers stepped in to "safeguard their interests" and "contain aggression" on the part of rival nations.
In other words, the World War I started in the same way that the Russian-American War of 2014 might well begin. It ended with the destruction of three of the regimes that had entered it, 40 million casualties, a bankrupt continent, and the replacement of fairly benevolent monarchies with ideological dictatorships. (For instance, almost every square inch of the Habsburg monarchy would be ruled in turn by Hitler, then Stalin.)
The Europe of July 1914 was a place much like America today: despite rapid social change and intellectual ferment (Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx had recently made their marks), the continent had seen 60 years of nearly uninterrupted peace and economic expansion. New technologies made it possible to build things faster and cheaper than ever, while improved communications and transport knit together distant lands as never before. I don’t think they used the word "globalization," but that was certainly what was happening, as foreign trade linked Asia to Europe and America, and a web of global investment broke down historic barriers. It was an age of "progress" that inspired utopian visions of a future without drudgery, social classes, or widespread poverty. It was thought that the sufferings that had led men to seek in Faith an "opiate" were gradually disappearing, as would the churches.
The Europe that waltzed its way up to and over the brink in 1914 was the world you read about in the stories of Sherlock Holmes and the novels of Edith Wharton, where the worst monsters prowling the earth were petty criminals and gold-digging bachelors. But once it passed the brink, as if crossing the unmarked border separating Earth from Hell, it would find itself in the blood-soaked mud of No Man’s Land, huddled behind barbed wire under clouds of poison gas. Both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien would slog through those trenches, along with millions of others, and see their closest friends mowed down.
What led the men of 1914 to throw it all away? How did Christians in so many nations convince themselves that this conflict over petty, squalid stakes – the competing claims of Serbia and Austria Hungary over godforsaken Bosnia – met the high threshold set by the Christian churches for what constitutes a just war? Just as men had fooled themselves in every preceding century, I suppose. And their bishops duly lined up behind their governments, eager to avoid accusations that they were "unpatriotic," and essentially in defiance of the pope. Pope Pius X died just after war broke out – of heartbreak, it is said – and Pope Benedict XV renewed his peace offensive, which gained the support of only a single ruler, the
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