In 1962, Russia took a chance on putting ICBMs in Cuba, only a few dozen miles away from the USA. In October of 1962, the USA very nearly invaded Cuba and very nearly triggered the launch of those ICBMs – which had their warheads already installed – as well as the ICBMs in Soviet submarines stationed in the area… submarines that were observing radio silence and that had orders to launch should the USA so much as touch a Russian ship en route to Cuba. One voice in the USA spoke to the president on the verge of ordering forces to undertake actions that would result in the launch of thousands of nuclear missiles… one voice spoke, and managed to convince a room full of hawks to take a different path. War between great powers did not happen that day.
Ten years later, Richard Nixon gave orders to the USA’s nuclear bombers to make glancing probes of Russian airspace. He ordered the missions to show the Russians how determined we were to win the war in Vietnam. Russia responded with minor violations of our airspace, presumably to show how they were equally as determined. Both sides had made their point and managed to step away from mutually assured destruction.
But this latest matter in Ukraine… this is perhaps too close to home for the Russians and too much of a stretch for the USA to back away from. Or, maybe this one, like other close calls before it, will be just that – a close call. But it will be one less close call before the final one that isn’t a close call at all, but the beginning of the real thing.
Look back 100 years ago to see a similar pattern. The great powers of Europe had nearly come to blows over colonial matters quite frequently in the years leading up to 1914. They managed to avoid wars in those cases, but each of those incidents made it more possible for those great powers to contemplate war with each other. In the end, it was a particularly violent and dramatic expression of violence in the Balkans that provided the sudden release for that pent-up violence. It didn’t have to be the assassination of an Archduke in Sarajevo that launched the Great War, but it was. Had a Serb not slaughtered a Hapsburg, something else was bound to have happened to get the great powers to commence destroying each other. 100 years ago, the great powers had exhausted the exploitation of the world to the south and east of them. Their economies demanded new asymmetric relationships, and that meant doing to each other what they had done to the Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans.
Germany got it first, good and hard. Its reparations fueled the boom of the 1920s in the nations of the victorious West. Its bankruptcy caused a sudden starvation of the whole system, triggering the seizures of the Great Depression. The Germans emerged from that experience with a leader and a mass of followers that were determined to reverse the asymmetric relationships and use the plunder of nations to fuel its own growth.
The German nation failed in that enterprise, leaving the USA and USSR as the premier consumers of nations on the planet. They struggled mightily with each other, with the sudden collapse of the USSR in 1991 leaving the military-industrial complex of the USA in a quandry. If it had no great enemy to fight, what was the massive military might of the USA needed for?
The answer came in the form of tiny nations around the world that tried to find their own way, preferably those with oil under them or in possession of some strategic bit of land. But after the USA paid a bloody visit to the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan, it found itself in a world in which its own ability to act unilaterally greatly curtailed.
China held a large amount of USA debt. Russia’s military strength had grown along with its fortunes in the energy trade. Once again, the world was host to competing great powers, playing their great games.
What will start the next, terrible, cataclysmic war? Will it be the shoving match between Japan and China in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? Will it be the squabble over the rocks that pass for the Spratly Islands, where China demands what the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and even Taiwan claim as their own? Will it be in Ukraine, where the CIA-backed government refuses to back down to the Russian-backed government? Will it be in Syria, where Russian terrorist proxies do battle with American terrorist proxies? Perhaps it will be in Turkey, a state on the verge of violently unraveling as horribly as did Libya or Egypt? Could we see it all begin with one mortar shelling too many across the Line of Control in Kashmir? A misfire in the DMZ on the Korean Peninsula?
Any of those could be the spark, or something else equally minor yet elevated in importance because of the context in which it happens. 2014 is not 1914, but the world of 2014 is very much the world that was in the days leading up to 1914. At one point, one of the great powers will step too far, make a miscalculation, or simply decide that this time, it cannot back away from an ultimatum. At that point, the war begins.
We might take some solace in the thought that the combatants of WW2 did not use poison gas as often as those of WW1. Then again, the intention to starve entire populations to death prompted campaigns of unrestricted submarine warfare and firebombing of cities – only the defeated in WW2 were tried for war crimes. WW2 saw the first use of nuclear weapons. If WW3 does not see them, well and good. But WW3 would still see the carnage of machine guns, fuel-air explosives, cluster bomblet munitions, anti-personnel landmines, so-called “poison” bullets, and the like. Perhaps the nascent developments in biology and customization of microbes will see the first biological war, in which diseases ravage nations that are too afraid to use nuclear weapons on each other.
None of this informs the actions of nations in the present day, because their leaders all depend upon a myth of invincibility and ultimate triumph to sustain their grip on world power. Do your worst, we shall rise victorious in the end – so they all boast. So it was in 1914, but of the eight mighty empires that entered that war, four of them were completely shattered five years later. That was only with a few of the horrors mentioned above. If we see the use of nuclear weapons, we may see all of the mighty empires that enter into the next war come to their end.
And yet, we keep taking steps toward war.