Anything but war
For the Herald
100 years on, we can see the difference between then and now
THE HAGUE — A number of forthright minds have already been spooked by the circular powers of the round number 100. It was in July and August a century ago that the pacts of honour and depths of ignorance weaving together the governments of Europe hurried everyone into war. The commemorations are ongoing. But at any moment on a cable news channel last week, the onlooker might have undergone the feeling of inner liquidity that goes with the thought that it could all be happening again.
A massing of Russian forces, estimated to number 20,000, swivelled attention to the Eastern front and the possibility that patience in the Kremlin with the new Ukrainian rulers as well the errant and underperforming pro-Russian militia is wearing thin. The prospect of inter-state war, sure to absorb NATO’s high table at the alliance’s summit beginning in Cardiff this Thursday, afforded brief respite from another conflagration: the multi-media executioner’s parade mounted by the Islamic State, on whom bombs seemingly fall to modest effect. Britain hiked up its terrorist warning. Once again, Prime Minister David Cameron promised a “generational battle” against extremists.
Appropriately for this repetitious centenary, the noise of clattering arms and whirring propaganda vehicles is rivalled by the busy presses of the publishing industry. An estimate from the history editor of the Times Literary Supplement puts the number of new World War I volumes piling up in the journal’s offices at over 100.
Besides totting up the tomes to reach that necromantic total, the TLS also dug out from the archives its past editions from August 1914. In one of them it found verses composed by Britain’s then-Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges: “Much suffering shall cleanse thee/ But thou through the flood/ Shalt win to Salvation,/ To Beauty through Blood.”
Sentiments such as these were of course the staple fare for all Europe’s populations, joyous as they were that the battle for supremacy had at last been joined on their behalf by aristocrats in dinner suits. But the evocation of battlefield glory in 1914 — a prospect so thoroughly belied by trench warfare, later reflected in far better poetry — also points to the distance between then and now, rather than the proximity.
For the outstanding fact of the current warmongering, and the cause of many of its peculiar features, is the absence of any urge towards war. The states that stand on the frontline of the West, either those staring down Vladimir Putin or readying for remote combat in Iraq, are desperate to be seen to be doing something, so long as it does not amount to crude military intervention. These constraints may be imposed by moral conviction, by electoral considerations, by concerns over the economy, or by awareness of their own military frailties: whatever the exact composition of their motives, Obama, Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel differ only in the hues of their rhetoric rather than the hard reality of their caution.
Having discounted the use of hard power, these leaders are then forced to concoct stirring visions of national security from yesterday’s bureaucratic buffet. Speaking plainly, Obama told reporters that “we don’t have a strategy yet” to contain the Islamic State: “our core priority right now is just to make sure our folks are safe.” Cameron, who might dearly like to burnish his premiership through acquaintance with historical crisis, was confined last week to rolling out a battery of police measures to control incoming and outgoing Islamists. As generational battles go, it certainly elevated passport control to new heights of valour.
In case it is thought that these are the acts of decadence, redolent of Western countries enamoured of touch-sensitive screens and child obesity, then consider more closely the case of Russia. NATO argues that Moscow is waging a novel race for global power, in which its special forces are as important for success as viral misinformation, control over natural resources and tie-ups with organized crime in vassal states.
There is undoubtedly truth in this. But Russia is neither exceptional in this regard — consider the US and British eagerness to monitor global communications prior to Edward Snowden — nor is Putin free from exactly the same hard power constraints as the West. The defining attribute of Russian operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has been “stealth.” An estimated 1,000 Russian soldiers, according to NATO, are now operating inside Ukrainian borders, where Russian weaponry has been widely distributed to rebel forces.
One might quibble with the description of an operation as secret or stealthy when the entirety of the world media appears to report it. Yet the effort at disguise and subterfuge do serve to camouflage any violation of international law. Most importantly, they also preserve for the Russian domestic audience the glow of an underdog’s courageous resistance to outside attack; a glow, it should be added, that might fade fast should the façade be erased.
Already a committee of soldiers’ mothers in Russia is agitating for information on the fate of 400 Russian soldiers said to have been killed or wounded in such non-existent combat operations. This is a critical detail. Of all the information hardwired into Putin’s geopolitical calculus, little could possibly be as significant as the effect of the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan on the longevity of the Communist regime. This ill-conceived war helped speed the demise of an all-embracing system that was rooted in revolution, ideology and victory over the Nazis; a similar misstep would almost certainly topple a government anchored in natural resources, tough guys and the Winter Olympics.
The stupidity of the human species, particularly its governing variety, means that war might still break out despite every effort expended to the contrary. But the reason we are so entranced and appalled by the Islamic State is not just its serial barbarity, but also the fact that it alone seems to hold dear what the whole of Europe once desired and now forsakes: Beauty through Blood.