Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
June 28, 1999
We're still waiting for a 99-year peace
Eighty five years ago, on Sunday June 28, 1914 at 11 a.m., a tubercular patient named Gravilo Princip fired a couple of shots and fatally wounded Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. The couple had just left the royal palace in a borrowed car for a round of ceremonial visits to Sarajevo.
For reasons not yet fully understood, the death of this undistinguished duke launched the 20th century and closed the door on the 19th, and blew away our collective innocence forever. Two shots were fired and half the world bled.
Apart from the short Crimean War, Europe had enjoyed peace and prosperity for 99 years. But in 1914 various tribal councils, no doubt inspired by liberty, peace, truth, honour and patriotism, decided to polish their guns and slaughter their neighbours. The insanity lasted for four interminable years.
When the inferno finally ended, the battered survivors wondered what had happened and why. The mindlessness of the war was justified as the "war to end all wars" as if humanity had felt the irrepressible urge to get something primordial off its chest once and for all so it could then live the good life.
So ghastly was the devastation caused by the new-fangled technology that it was difficult to imagine that anybody in their right mind would ever dream of war as a solution to social, political and economic problems.
The romance and theatre of brightly uniformed toy soldiers, neatly lined up in a farmer's field, drums, pipes, flags and banners announcing their readiness to do battle, was over for good. This was a war which was fought with gas and machine guns in the mud, slime and fleas of the trenches and, for the first time, in the clear blue sky.
I saw Billy Bishop Goes to War last fall, and our national hero comes across as a maniac with an insatiable desire to shoot down the greatest number of enemy planes and live long enough to tell about it.
He was one of the lucky ones. More than 10 million soldiers were killed and 20 million were wounded or taken prisoner with no apparent effect. The front line stayed basically the same.
In the battle of the Somme the Allies had 600,000 casualties and the Germans half a million. In four and a half months the offensive gained a strip of territory 30 miles wide by seven miles deep.
Nor were the casualties restricted to the professionals. The Austro-Hungarian Empire counted seven million casualties. Imperial Russia lost more than nine million people. England sacrificed a million men and France endured losses of 15 per cent of its population.
The reason for all this was to humiliate Serbia, teach it a lesson and avenge a duke whose death few people regretted.
One wonders what lessons, if any, were learned. Two decades later the Second World War started with the insane visions of an Austrian wallpaper-hanger about a Third Reich. It ended five years later with another act of insanity when an amateur piano player dropped the first atomic nuclear device on Hiroshima, setting the stage for the long drawn-out Cold War.
Japan was ready to capitulate, but the bomb was meant as a demonstration to intimidate Russia, the ally who conveniently became the new enemy. For the next few decades the U.S. concentrated on cleansing the world of all communist sympathizers at home and abroad.
Half a century later, you would say their goals have been achieved, and we're waiting for a 99-year peace dividend.
But here we are again, testing our latest most deadly war toys, teaching the Serbs another lesson and warning the old Russian bear that it is for her own good that she learn to dance to our neo-liberal tunes.
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