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12 January 2014


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William R. Cumming

Why so little analysis of the principal drivers of WWI, not just the ego and hubris of the leaders involved, but the lemming like involvement of the common man [and woman] in mass industrial warfare?


I agree that history rhymes. Today is much like the 19th century with rampart globalization and government run by and for Robber Barons.

What is tragic is to see the same mistakes repeated in one’s lifetime:

Fall of Fallujah 'Gut Punch' To Marines Who Fought There


But, there have been profound changes in the 20th century that make the pivot to Asia senseless. Who is America to fight?

A billion Chinese who are armed with at least 80 to a 1000 nuclear ICBMs, enough to destroy America?

Vietnam, again?


Or, is it that bad boy North Korea? Even a limited war there would destroy Seoul, a city of 9.82 million people, targeted by 8,500 NKA bunkered field artillery pieces.

Greed is a powerful drive, but another American War in Asia is crazy. The only valid USA strategic goal is to keep the trade routes open which is in China’s interest as much as it is ours.


It seems to me that we are stumbling and fumbling because we are walking around with one eye shut and the other one half-covered to avoid seeing what we do not want to see.

We are looking to maintain the secure feeling we had years ago in many ways. Our self-image and basic assumptions have not changed enough to keep up with the changing world around us.

As I have said here before, we have too many exclusive or almost exclusive responsibilities in the world that we can no longer afford to carry out alone. We are in effect an empire without vassals. In fact, we are an empire that distributes resources to competitor-vassals who we protect military while simultaneously competing with them economically. We cannot keep up with our "obligations" both self-imposed and otherwise, and we certainly can't keep neglecting our own people's problems much longer.

I certainly see and agree with the parallels of today vs the WWI period.

Is it possible, is it desirable for our armed services to be realistic when their peers and bosses in the civilian world are not? There's a lot of conflicting views and conflict of interests around all these vital questions.

There's a lot of big-money interests who have been benefitted from our expensive mistakes and hope that we keep on repeating them. I'd love to disappoint them.

How can we do that? How can we get some real Wise People in charge in the civilian and military worlds?


Thank you so much for your article Foresman, I have been wishing to write something like that myself but without much success. It is only now, one hundred years later that the history of the beginning of WWI can be approached with something like a dispassionate eye, and the story that is emerging is of intelligent men, doing the best that they could with imperfect information who managed to ignite the conflagration.

There seem to be Three causes of danger that are operating

1) Memory is not history and what many think they know about WW1, let alone WWII, is bunkum because it is composed of partial memories of participants.

2) The human tendency to believe that we are smarter than our forbears and that therefore the lessons of history can "today be safely ignored".

3) The shear unadulterated ignorance of the American populace, inward looking, incurious and of course, unlike Europeans, with no experience of what its like to have your city and perhaps your family blasted to bits.

David Habakkuk

Colonel Foresman,

I have some reservations about Margaret MacMillan’s essay. She writes that:

‘In the case of Syria, Assad has so far been able to defy international opinion and kill his own people because he has the Russians as well as the Iranians with him. President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister dismissed the charges that Assad has used poison gas as “absurd.”’

Given that the bombing of Syria could well have precipitated precisely the kind of processes of escalation about which Professor MacMillan warns, it would seem odd that she appears simply to discount the possibility that a ‘false flag’ operation designed to produce precisely that outcome could have been at issue. And it is all the odder, given that as we have learned many in the U.S. intelligence community were sceptical about the evidence supposed to establish Assad’s guilt.

A corollary is that Professor MacMillan appears blind to the possibility that on some issues at least – Syria, Iran, the ‘Arab Spring’ and indeed Iraq – the positions of post-Soviet Russia may actually have been rather more conducive to the maintenance of international stability than those of Britain and the United States.

As Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of ‘Russia in Global Affairs’, puts it in the current issue of that journal:

‘The Russian authorities, which from the very beginning were not enchanted with the Arab Spring, have always explained their caution with fears that the region would become Islamized. Unlike most Western commentators, who saw in the stirrings in the Middle East highly promising beginnings of democracy, Moscow was certain that the only beneficiary of Arab democracy would be even more radical Islamic groups, fused together, well-organized and standing in solid opposition to the previous regime.

‘The Kremlin’s support of authoritarian leaders was to no small degree conditioned by its aspiration to maintain the regimes that were not only secular but also, according to their own ideology, stood in opposition to all types of Islamic influence. From that perspective, deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, deposed Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were optimal rulers. And many in Russia sincerely could not understand why the United States, during George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s presidencies, was destroying or helping destroy those particular leaders.’

(See http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/redcol/Russias-Syria-policy-linked-to-Chechnya-terrorism-16303 )

This view may be wrong – I do not pretend to have the expertise to judge. But given the way things have turned out in a number of these countries, if destabilising forces in the international system are to be contained, it deserves a rather more serious engagement than Professor MacMillan appears willing to give it.

William R. Cumming

Could not agree more with this excellent comment!

William R. Cumming

Extract from Wikipedia:

Charles Wright Mills (August 28, 1916 – March 20, 1962) was an American sociologist, and a professor of sociology at Columbia University from 1946 until his death in 1962. Mills was published widely in popular and intellectual journals, and is remembered for several books, among them The Power Elite, which introduced that term and describes the relationships and class alliances among the U.S. political, military, and economic elites; White Collar, on the American middle class; and The Sociological Imagination, where Mills proposes the proper relationship in sociological scholarship between biography and history.
Mills was concerned with the responsibilities of intellectuals in post-World War II society, and advocated public and political engagement over uninterested observation. Mills biographer Daniel Geary writes that his writings had a "particularly significant impact on New Left social movements of the 1960s."[1] In fact, Mills popularized the term "New Left" in the U.S. in a 1960 open letter, Letter to the New Left.

Margaret Steinfels

On WWI histories: McMillan's book is quite good: "The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914."

But really excellent: Christopher Clark, "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914." The virtue of Clark's work is that he focuses not so much on individuals as on the policies and interest of nations. He seems to have access to the archives of Russia and Serbia to a degree that emphasizes their roles and actions as being as irresponsible as Germany's.

Have read Tuchman for the first time: opening chapter brilliant, but she has been superceded by Clark and McMillan.

Margaret Steinfels

On the prognostication front: Who exactly will play the roles of Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas?

Hank Foresman

I am reading it now. The introductory chapter on Serbia is great.

As far as the Kaiser--perhaps John Kerry!

FB Ali


Thanks for the Luknayov quote. I think the Russians have correctly assessed the impact and outcome of the Arab Spring -- in sharp contrast to the West.

The big danger now is the backing that these unleashed Islamists are receiving from the Saudis and their Gulf acolytes with their vast wealth. Unless the West acts to curb this support, it will wake up one day to face a monster that it will have difficulty dealing with.

The Russians are much more realistic. And must be bemused at the suicidal blindness of the West.


The Guns of August is excellent, as was August 1914, by Solzhenitzen. It should be obvious that there is not a 1:1 identity between current conditions and those preceding WWI, though there are similarities, such as international trade links. The trigger is a Great Power which sees a need for unilateral action, and great benefit accruing. And it requires a dismissal of the credibility of the opposition, but the opposition willing to see conflict in existential terms. Many of our post-WWII institution, such as the UN and the ICC, as well as trade organizations are intended to dissuade countries from realizing benefits from war.



I’m glad you mentioned Syria, I agree with your comments. In addition I am also troubled by her tone throughout. I think she is suffering from the same style of thinking as the elites of 1914.

I point out a pair of quotes at the end. “China ... preoccupations are likely to be focused on Asia. Further afield it will concentrate, as it is doing at present, on securing the resources it needs for its economy, while probably being reluctant to intervene in far-off conflicts where it has little at stake.” Further on:“The hope of a coalition of democracies, from Asia to America, willing to intervene in the name of humanitarianism or international stability...’

Why is it not in America’s interest to do exactly what she believes the Chinese will do? Democracy is apparently very important to create in nations where it does not exist; however, she discounts the opinions of the citizens of the US. “As for public opinion, the citizenry within individual countries, preoccupied with domestic issues, has become increasingly unwilling to fund or take part in foreign adventures.” Going so far to label the Tea Party as a “radical right wing” movement. Perhaps Americans are supposed to obey their elites, like the British, German and Russian Imperial citizens of 1914 rather than chose this nation's leaders and direct, through their elected representatives, the direction of American domestic and foreign policy?


FWIW, the "common wisdom" in France (at least what is taught in schools) is that WWI was started by a conjunction of tangled international alliances, a strong desire for settling some scores (Austria with Serbia, France with Germany), and most importantly, a lack of appreciation for the massive impact of industrialization on warfare.

Basically, nobody foresaw the scale of the slaughter that would ensue. Once it became apparent, there was no way out.

I am not sure how useful it is to compare such a situation with the present, dominated as it is by two or three major players with nuclear weapons.


Dear Hank Foreman,

Thanks for bringing attention to this well written essay. I recall finding a book written in the late 1800s about how Japan had finally entered the civilized nations now that it had colonies in Asia, and would share in the growing global peace and prosperity of humanity in the near future. Change a few minor details and it could have been re-released as new a decade ago.

I disagree that the US is the best historical parallel to Britain (true, the sun doesn't set on the US empire), my contention is that we are closer to the Ottoman empire in terms of not maintaining our industrial and financial base to support a military outsized for defense, but undersized for control. Britain, who used far smarter power than we, IMO could have supported its global dominance for many more decades absent the devastation of WWI.

Delusional (inconsistent, and sometimes incoherent) inside-the-beltway foreign policy is a common thread at SST - facts and outcomes are no match for the dogma of exceptionalism. How many times has the business cycle been declared dead thanks to the brilliance of the FED?

Clinging to an imagined (exceptional) past is a human tendency - which I think is why Mark Twain noted the rhyming of history.


Toto: Sometime in the near future, artificial intelligence applied to slaughter likely will have the same lack of appreciation as the industrialization a century ago. The question arises as to whether the killing autonomous robots will stop when humans think the war has ended.

One of my favorite Sci Fi authors, David Brin, has some interesting thoughts in this regards - I think Asimov under-appreciated how fast a networked computational system can self-improve - will "skynet" look at humans as feral puppies who threaten and waste resources? Timeline to parity are about a decade, with massive capital from US Govt and the Googles and Goldman Sachs and other nations keeping the schedule.

Larry Kart

Colonel -- I think that you and others might enjoy historian Paul W. Schroeder's IMO brilliant (albeit fairly long and chewy, though jargon-free) essay about the origins of World War I and how and why things might or might not have turned differently, "Embedded Counterfactuals and World War I as an Unavoidable War":


If that link no longer works, try plugging the title of the essay into Google.

patrick lang


I presume that the photo is the Kaiser in the uniform of the Death's Head hussars. pl

The Twisted Genius

Hank Forseman,

Your point about the importance of the study of history is well taken. My favorite course was "The Century of Darwin" taught by a Dr. Brown at RPI. Only two of us signed up for the class, but Dr. Brown was so enthusiastic about the subject matter he taught it anyways. We learned how religion, science, philosophy and conventional wisdom interacted and evolved over time to allow Darwin's (and others') theories to develop and become accepted over time. It really was a history of 19th century Western scientific thought.

I very much enjoyed MacMillian's essay. Like David Habakkuk and Fred, I too was struck by her assumptions about Syria. I sensed the spirit of Bishop Wilburforce in some of those views.

My introduction to the study of WW I was the reading of "History of the World War" by Francis A. March published in 1919. It's a fascinating look at how the allied leaders and public viewed the war immediately after it ended. Another favorite of mine is "My Reminiscences of East Africa" by Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck, a magnificent old world military man who I greatly admire. I imagine you've already read that one.

William R. Cumming

A museum dedicated to the Kaiser is in Holland where he lived out his life after abdicating!

William R. Cumming

Is there any argument for Pershing's American forces seeding the competence of US ground forces in WWII?



"Is there any argument for Pershing's American forces seeding the competence of US ground forces in WWII? " I do not understand the question. The US had competent but small forces before WWI. People like Lejeune, Harbord and George Marshall were not shoe salesmen before the war. They made people like Truman into citizen soldiers. The US Army had its first senior service school founded in the 1870s. The same situation existed between the two world wars. The forces that fought in WW2 were once again created by the professional cadres that had been nurtured in peace time. pl

Townie 76

It is indeed the last Kaiser of Imperial Germany Wilhelm II.


And indeed it is the Perzmütze (busby) and uniform of the elite First Hussars or Totenkopfhussaren (Death's Head Hussars Life Guards Regiment. Famed for capturing a French eagle at the Battle of Leipzig (1813).


I don't know about "seeding the competence of US ground forces," but Max Hastings' recent book _1914_ includes a chapter on the USA, Wilson, and the US Army. Hastings points out how important the blundering US campaign to capture Pancho Villa was in convincing the OHL (Ludendorff, mostly) that the USA was no kind of military threat. If the US Army couldn't manage a campaign of a few tens of thousands of troops, and couldn't catch one fat Mexican bandit, how (argued Ludendorff) were the Americans going to represent a serious threat to German forces in Europe? Turns out Ludendorff was wrong, but it makes the German policies of 1916-17 more understandable.

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