A hundred years ago, we thought it was inevitable. Is it really?
One hundred years ago this month, Europe was spiraling rapidly into what would later be called “The Great War” and later still “World War One.” The heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife had been murdered in Sarajevo on June 28, but July was the critical month. During July Europe’s great powers began to converge on a consensus that war between them was inevitable. As Winston Churchill later described the unfolding events, “Nothing in human power could break the fatal chain, once it had begun to unroll. A situation had been created where hundreds of officials had only to do their prescribed duty to their respective countries to wreck the world. They did their duty.”
In hindsight, of course, most everyone acknowledges that World War I was not in fact inevitable. There was no “fatal chain” that human power was too weak to break. As early as 1916, Dr. Rudolf Steiner, referring to England’s failure to warn Germany over its violation of Belgian neutrality, claimed that, “a single sentence and the war in the West would not have taken place.” Alas, that sentence was never uttered. The great powers chose war. Sixteen million lost their lives and another 20 million were wounded, many grievously. Crowns fell across Europe, including in Russia, where 70 years of Communist despotism descended. And of course the stage was set for a far more deadly war two decades later.
Throughout the summer of 2014, we’ve been accommodating ourselves to the notion that war is again inevitable. The cruel depredations of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), including video of the beheadings of two American journalists, have shocked the world. They have captured the apocalyptic imagination of many Christians, who see ISIS as proof that we are engaged in a global religious war with Muslims everywhere. The brutality of ISIS has even provided a convenient excuse for Americans to avoid confronting our own role in the destabilization of the Middle East, where ancient Christian communities have now been eradicated.
When President Obama admitted last week that, “We don’t have a strategy yet,” for dealing with ISIS in Syria, he was widely ridiculed. On television’s Fox & Friends, host Steve Doocey mocked Obama for being “reluctant to use that three letter word that is spelled W-A-R.” Many Americans apparently agree with Doocey. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released on Monday, 61% of respondents approved of military action against ISIS, including 34% who said that we should use ground troops.
This turnaround in public opinion – just last year most Americans were dead set against intervention in Syria – should be no surprise. “If all you have is a hammer,” said the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, “everything looks like a nail.” Since the end of the Cold War the United States has looked beyond its borders and seen a world bristling with nothing but nails. As a result, we’ve wielded the hammer of US military power with alarming regularity.
In the 45 years between the end of World War Two and the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the United States was involved in four significant military conflicts: Korea, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and Grenada. In the 25 years since, the US military has taken lethal action over a sustained period of time in 11 countries or conflicts: Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen. In Afghanistan we are still embroiled in our nation’s longest war, we may soon be at war in Syria, and we increasingly risk war with Russia over Ukraine.