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War Can Take On a Life of Its Own

by Keith Edgerton on Sep 15, 2001

Keith Edgerton

Can responses to past terrorist acts provide any sort of guidance to the United States as it moves toward the brink of war?

Despite the belief of nations that they can limit the scope of armed conflict, events historically have often spun out of control and led to catastrophic consequences. In light of the rising national outrage, Americans might well take a deep collective breath and reflect on the sobering chain of events leading to World War I, a particularly horrifying mess of a modern war that Americans naively believed was fought to end all wars.

On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old high school student, shot and killed the archduke and heir to the Austrian throne, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, at point-blank range in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.

Much of Europe was outraged by this audacious, cowardly act of terrorism. Princip, a Bosnian nationalist, had connections to the Serbian ultra-nationalist organization, the Black Hand. For the Austro-Hungarians, long embroiled in a bitter territorial dispute with Serbia, this was sufficient pretext to settle old scores and to avenge the cold-blooded assassination.

Egged on by its German allies, the Austro-Hungarian empire declared war on Serbia in late July. Within a few days Russia, allied with the Serbs in hopes of building a pan-Slavic empire, mobilized its armed forces. In turn, Germany threw into motion an intractable military plan requiring it to move immediately to war.

The Germans understood that a mobilization of Russia’s army would also lead to the mobilization of both France’s and eventually Britain’s military forces. Russia, France and Britain had previously allied themselves in a series of diplomatic shields designed, ironically, to prevent war from occurring.

The Germans mobilized and declared war on Russia and France during the first week of August 1914. Within a few weeks the German army constructed a defensive flank against Russia and dramatically invaded France, violating Belgian neutrality and bringing Britain fully into the mounting conflict.

In September 1914, Allied forces stopped the German advance in France at the Battle of the Marne. Both sides then dug in along what would become the great Western Front, a series of trenches extending nearly the entire breadth of northern and eastern France. What ensued thereafter was four years of slaughter unprecedented in human history.

No one in the emotional days surrounding the initial terrorist act that provoked World War I anticipated the toll it ultimately would take. Most assumed that whatever conflict occurred would be over quickly and would be relatively painless, antiseptic almost, with minimal collateral destruction.

But the great armies (eventually including that of the United States) that fought in France, and in many other areas of the world, possessed killing technologies that the industrialized countries had been perfecting and stockpiling for years: machine guns, submarines, destroyers, long-range artillery, warplanes and poison gas — implements that had never been used in waging war on such a scale. Conservatively, at least ten million people perished, including tens of thousands of civilians, with probably another twenty million or so injured.

Can the parallels between June 1914 and September 2001 guide America’s leaders now? While the awful current events continue to unfold, Americans need to remember the consequences of rushing to war. Eighty-seven years ago, the Austrians, stung bitterly by an act of terrorism and backed by strong allies, raced to national catharsis by a declaration of war on a militarily weaker Serbia. No one could foresee what would follow.

In the immediacy of the moment of America’s national crisis, the chorus of calls for immediate retribution will swell ever louder to punish those responsible for these heinous acts. But Americans should be aware that war — if this is what the recent events ultimately produce — can take on an uncontrollable and especially terrible life of its own.


Keith Edgerton is an assistant professor of history at Montana State University in Billings and a writer for the History News Service.