The Guns of August are worse in 2014 than in 1914. Be afraid, be very afraid

World War I, which was really a European War, saw untold horrors. But the world today presents an even more dangerous scenario, with civilisations pitted against one another. Small actors like ISIS are now able to terrorise the world.

Rajeev Srinivasan August 15, 2014 14:20:36 IST
The Guns of August are worse in 2014 than in 1914. Be afraid, be very afraid

Many European commentators, who have good reason to remember the Great European War (otherwise known as World War I) of 1914 onwards, have remarked upon certain similarities between events in that fateful August and today. An example is Niall Ferguson’s piece ("War: In history’s shadow", 1 August, Financial Times) that concludes that we could be looking at a calamity, and points out that those in finance, media and academia had absolutely no idea what was happening in 1914; and further that, today, the will to use force has disappeared from Europe.

Barbara Tuchman’s masterful The Guns of August, a comprehensive account of the events that led up to 1914, attributes much of the blame to lebensraum-seeking Germans. Similar sentiments may be motivating some of the potential antagonists of today as well. But there is more: the Samuel Huntington thesis of a Clash of Civilizations may also be playing a role in making things more fraught now.

The Guns of August are worse in 2014 than in 1914 Be afraid be very afraid

Remembering World War I. AFP

Make no mistake: this was a European war, despite the "world" part of the name. India made the biggest contribution to the war effort, with, according to The Hindu paper, "3.7 million tonnes of supplies, over 10,000 nurses, 1,70,000 animals, £146m of Indian revenue", over a million troops, 74,000 of war dead in those distant fields, 13,000 war decorations, and yet was not even a footnote in the war. A major story in The Economist, "Commemorating the First World War: In foreign fields", 2 August 2014, contrived to talk about its dominions, thereby not even mentioning the word "India" once. Just so much cannon-fodder.

But the next World War will not be a European War in disguise. We have just gone through a particularly bad week. Most alarmingly, there is the news of the continuing advance into Kurdish Iraqi territory by the irregular troops of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), followed by an apparent genocide of thousands of Yazidi, a small Zoroastrian minority. It appears the ISIS decapitated dozens of Yazidi children and men and abducted their women as sex-slaves. They also pushed 40,000 Yazidi on to a treeless mountaintop, where they are dying of exposure, starvation and thirst.

The Yazidi were not even given the usual choices: convert, flee or die; they were to be exterminated, presumably because of their religion (somewhat similar to Hinduism, considered pagan and thus abominable).

There were appalling stories of parents throwing their children to their deaths fearing what would happen to them if they were to fall into the hands of the ISIS; similarly women apparently jumped off cliffs in an act reminiscent of jauhar in Rajasthan during Mughal invasions. In any case, it is a humanitarian holocaust of the first order, and after dithering for days, it appears the Americans began to airdrop supplies to the Yazidi, in addition to making 'targeted air strikes' on ISIS military targets (are there also 'untargeted strikes'?), although they were mostly focusing on Erbil, a Christian enclave under threat.

Closer to home, there was the alleged gang-rape of a young Hindu teacher in a madrassa in Meerut, followed by alleged forced conversion – but the veracity of this is still disputed. Incidents such as these are raising the temperature for internal conflict.

Then there was the American major-general shot to death by an Afghan in army uniform in a military base in Kabul. In Cambodia, the surviving top strongmen of the Khmer Rouge were sentenced for crimes against humanity after a lengthy trial. There is an Ebola epidemic in West Africa, threatening to break out and affect the rest of the world. A bad time indeed.

On a macro scale, the empires of the West and Russia seem to be on a collision course with the fallout of troubles in Ukraine, and in particular the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17 over that country. US and European countries have imposed punishing sanctions on Russia, which, however, is unlikely to cave in; Russians have retaliated by banning food imports from America and may curtail gas shipments to Europe via Ukraine. All this will affect food and energy prices, which have been rising anyway.

It does appear that both the empires of the Cold War – the Soviet and the American – have unravelled, and this is leading to a vacuum, which others will fill. Clearly, the United States is retreating into something like isolationism, licking its wounds after successive disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, as nemesis follows hubris (eg. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History).

The Russians are flexing their muscles, laying claim to the remnants of the old Soviet empire, although some might say they have been forced into their adventures in Crimea and eastern Ukraine by Nato’s attempts to increase its sphere of influence. But the fact is that, just as the collapse of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires was a root cause of the Great European War, there is a similar void in 2014.

Just as an insurgent Germany then resented the advantages of the incumbent British, we now have an insurgent China resenting the advantages of the incumbent Americans, including their ability to print money that the world then uses for trade: something which the BRICS Bank may in time allow the Chinese to do too.

Germany, in 1914, was looking for its proper share of the colonial loot that other Europeans were enjoying. The slaughter in the static trench warfare that followed may have killed off a substantial number of European men (which incidentally had the positive side-effects of making European women more economically valuable and hastening their push for the vote and other forms of equality; and also of making it more likely that colonialism would end).

Nevertheless, Germany was a relatively small power, surrounded by other powerful nations, all of whom could and did conspire to keep their ambitions in check. That is not the case with China: it is a continent-sized power with no equally large, strong neighbors to control them (whence their belligerence with all: Japan, India, and Russia are all handicapped in various ways). Their increasing saber-rattling in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and in Chinese-Occupied Tibet has removed all misconceptions about their alleged ‘peaceful rise’.

China is thus qualitatively different: in 1914 the dramatis personae were all from a single civilisation, that of white Christian Europe (and therefore they generally understood each others’ hot buttons). China is a different civilisation. Besides, China has a massive chip in its shoulder: it considers itself (“Middle Kingdom”) superior to all else, and is intent on showing the despised gwailo (foreign devils) their place. Unless you have studied it thoroughly, you may not be able to predict what they will think or do.

Similarly, in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, there were various bands of nationalists and anarchists and so forth – non-state actors in today’s parlance – who were hard to fathom; but still, they were from the same civilisation, more or less.

But the bands of armed marauders such as ISIS and the various franchises of Al Qaeda are again from a different civilisation that the white Christian Europeans may not be able to fathom easily. They arise from the breakup of the artificial nations the Europeans created in the old Ottoman empire. They come with different yardsticks and tolerances, not to mention a huge demographic bulge of unemployed and angry young men.

If you see some of the grim photos ISIS has put out as a marketing tactic, you can see that this is no army of disciplined soldiers, it is young men out on a lark, seeking revenge on an unfair world, global conquest as promised by their mullahs, and, incidentally, women to rape and war booty to loot.

The removal of controlling forces in the Middle East, such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, has created the leadership vacuum that the non-state actors are now filling. In hindsight, it could be argued that it was a bad idea to overthrow these dictators, unsavory as they were, for they kept in check the massive fault-lines that are now coming to the fore.

In a sense, the West is doubly to blame: first, for creating seemingly random nation states in the Middle East without taking into account ethnic and religious differences there, and, second, for then removing the forces for stability. Iraq, Libya, now Syria: wherever the West has interfered, what were once relatively stable societies have been decimated and turned into wastelands.

I think it was Huntington who said that Muslim civilisation is convinced of its own superiority, but obsessed with the inferiority of its power. It may have found its sources of power now, in its ability to terrorise and in its overflowing coffers of petrodollars, ransom money and captured bank funds. ISIS, with its ‘annual reports’ and internet-based marketing, broadcasts its acts, including summary, random executions, picturesque crucifixions, etc, to terrorise and dishearten its enemies: softening them up before the actual human wave. This works, at least within limits, as the Taliban demonstrated around 2001.

The Pakistanis have long been aware of this useful tactic: The Quranic Concept of War is the Pakistani Army’s favourite book. It was written by General SK Malik, with a foreword from a former a president of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-haq; so we can except it to be fairly close to official doctrine. It is also widely known in Arabic circles. Some of its bracingly blunt assertions are notable:

"Terror struck into the hearts of the enemies is not only a means, it is the end in itself. Once a condition of terror into the opponent's heart is obtained, hardly anything is left to be achieved. It is the point where the means and the end meet and merge. Terror is not a means of imposing decision upon the enemy; it is the decision we wish to impose upon him.”

To the casual observer, ISIS may appear to be like the post-apocalyptic marauders of the Mad Max series of science-fiction films, set in a similarly arid Australian moonscape. But in their own context, ISIS is internally consistent: they may well be, with minor differences, exactly like the Muslim armies of the 7th century CE that we marvel at today. They burst out of Arabia then and overran the major civilisations of Egypt and Persia in 50 years or so, wiping out their cultures and imposing Islam on them with astonishing ease. Flash forward to ISIS’s relentless march.

Let us now throw in some additional complicating factors: the easy availability of weapons, potentially, including those of mass destruction, as well as large amounts of capital available to both the Chinese and the Islamic civilisations. Now we can begin to see that a near-future war (that is, if we haven’t already entered a Great War and just don’t know it yet) may be quite a lot more destructive than what prevailed a century ago.

In the middle of all this, India has the great misfortune to be right next door to both these belligerents. The Hindu/Indic civilisation, one of the eight or so distinct civilisations around, is unprepared militarily and intellectually to take on this challenge. But the wisdom of having a well-equipped army has never been more apparent. “Speak softly but carry a big stick”, as Theodore Roosevelt advised in a different context.

Thus, the recently exposed news of AK Antony’s shocking inaction as UPA 2 defence minister is only the latest act in a long series of Nehruvian blunders that may mean when the guns of August 2014 fall silent, there may be no India left as we know it today. Unless, that is, we act now, on a war footing. "Only the paranoid survivem," as the saying goes.

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