Destroyed by Belief

guns of augustIn reading the classic social science book, “The Guns of August,” I can’t help but think how relevant this book still is to today’s society.

The book–often considered the definitive World War I narrative–spends the first third just discussing the decision-making processes of the main actors involved in the build up to war. The events which unfolded across Europe that late summer of 1914 are wholly depressing, but give great insights into the human mind, and the intractability of belief.

Paradoxically, war was both completely unnecessary, and all but inevitable. At each stage along the way, peace could have been achieved (or at the very least, the scale could have been greatly reduced) but the decision makers could not break free of presuppositions and the long-held beliefs which failed to match the reality.

The first, biggest, and most dangerous belief was one held by all nations: the myth of the quick, decisive war. This belief wasn’t based upon any facts, but merely a knowledge that a long, drawn out war would be a complete economic catastrophe for Europe. That reality was too horrible to consider, so instead the nations believed that victory could be achieved by a single, significant battle. Of course, the events of both World Wars proved to be absolutely catastrophic to Europe and beyond, but at no point did this force the sides to come together at the negotiation table.

There were significant naysayers to this belief, notably German Field Marshal Moltke in the late 19th Century, who eloquently described the way new technologies would only make long wars more likely, not less. Sadly, these alternate (and ultimately accurate) narratives were quietly rubbished. Like global warming today, there were experts in their given field proclaiming that disaster was possible, indeed likely, if their advice was not heeded. And, like their analogous modern-day counterparts, the decision makers ignored the dire warnings of the experts.

As we know from history, World War I was anything but a quick, decisive war. The troops were not “Home by Christmas,” and Europe would be plunged into darkness for five long years (and for the losing side, the darkness would last much longer).

Individually, France and Germany each held their own irrational and intractable beliefs, both of which would cost them dearly. Both sides had their master plans, offensives designed to swiftly end the war, decided and unchanged for years prior to the hostilities. Again, the initial starting point of “We can win this war quickly and decisively” infiltrated both sides, and both worked backward from there.

France's ill-fated "Plan 17."

France’s ill-fated “Plan 17.”

France, believed with unflinching conviction that their war could be won by an offensive on their right flank, not through a defensive battle of attrition on their left. Moreover, any evidence that the German forces would attack their extreme left wing was greeted as good news, “The stronger their right wing, the more they are open to our attack!” Clearly no new information was going to change their belief, even if this news put their whole war effort at risk. They ignored the likelihood of a strong German attack through Belgium, even as the early stages of the war proved their true intentions. The French decision makers were convinced of their strategy, and no amount of new evidence could force them to reconsider their carefully designed plans.

Germany's "Schlieffen Plan." At this point, Germany and France seemed to be fighting two completely different wars.

Germany’s “Schlieffen Plan.” At this point, Germany and France seemed to be fighting two completely different wars.

The Germans were equally if not more culpable of errant beliefs leading to disastrous consequences. They believed the only way to avoid a two-front war was to win a decisive victory against France–one that would require victory within six weeks, so they could in turn only fight Russia. Again, we see the starting point of the mythical “Quick War” as the one to base all of the rest of their assumptions. The plan had been laid out for over a decade, and when it was finally time to mobilize, their only choice was to attack France, even if there seems to be a strong indication that a two-front war could have been avoided. However, when the Kaiser brought up the possibility of changing mobilization orders to just Eastern front, his generals refused. The timetables had been set, and to change plans at that late hour was unthinkable. There’s an easy joke to be made here about Germans and their timetables, but as we’ve seen, the French were equally unable to change their plans, especially at the vital early stages of the war.

Their other big mistake in judgement was the belief that Belgium wouldn’t put up a fight when the Germans violated their neutrality. The Belgians were not so quick to forgive the Germans for the violation of their borders, and fought them tooth and nail. The German generals were simply baffled by the aggression of both the Belgian soldiers and civilians, as if they hadn’t even considered the possibility of a hostile occupied country. The German army did eventually break through Belgium, a few days behind schedule, but the Belgians would continue to be a thorn in their sides for the rest of the war.

The War would prove conventional wisdom wrong, but at great cost. After blindly following the previous beliefs from the outset of the War, it became impossible to correct these mistakes. The momentum of war and battles very quickly became an unstoppable force, and the War and the incorrect beliefs that came with it went from preventable to intractable in a matter of days.

If we choose to disbelieve the inconvenient, we make ourselves more at risk of the worst outcomes. There are loads of contemporary corollaries to this example, global warming being just one of them. Like the early days of a war, we stand on the brink; we can choose to ignore the threats associated with global warming and risk being unable change course when it has become too late, or to take preventative action, and perhaps mitigate the worst effects.

Another modern corollary is over the idea of war in the Middle East. This example seems frighteningly appropriate. As terror attacks have become more common, and vast swaths of the Muslim world have become overrun by fundamentalist Islamic armies, the calls for action have reached a fever pitch in the U.S. There is a belief that we can win a quick, decisive war in the Middle East. Sadly, we don’t have to go back as far as World War I to prove the foolishness of this notion. We don’t even have to go back to the Russians in Afghanistan. No, instead we have two perfect examples of our own continued involvement in both Afghanistan and Iraq, starting in late 2001 and early 2003, respectively.

Needless to say, the mission was never accomplished, and certainly not quickly. Worse still, our involvement directly contributed to the current mess. The same weapons we supplied to Afghanistan in the 80’s and were turned around and used by the Taliban. In fact, they still are using our weapons. And in Iraq, ISIS could only exist after we had sufficiently destabilized the country, and had removed its despotic (but secular) leader (this is not to say we should have supported Saddam Hussein, but it is merely to show that our actions have had significant unforeseen and dangerous consequences in the region). To add insult to injury, like the Taliban, ISIS are now using the weapons we supplied.

Would the Middle East be better off without our “help?” It’s debatable, but possibly. In retrospect, would our trillions of dollars have been better spent elsewhere? Certainly. But this post isn’t about regretting past mistakes, but about avoiding them in the future. So, can we win a war–quick or not–in the Middle East? Recent evidence seems to suggest otherwise. A counter argument could be made that we went into the last war unprepared to deal with the insurgency and failed to conceive of a proper exit strategy. This is true, but have we learned enough in the subsequent years to come up with a better strategy this time? I’m doubtful.

Sadly, we’ve seen time and again that human belief takes precedence over new information. Climate change deniers continue to deny, regardless of the steady stream of evidence and record-setting years to the contrary. The same Hawks that called for our last two wars are calling for renewed efforts. And they’ll get it too, it’s just a matter of time. Once the Drum of War starts banging, it can only be drowned out by the concussions of a million bombs exploding in a far away land.

I’m not foolish enough to let my pacifist beliefs override the enormous evidence of history. I will not stand back and happily support the coming war, but it is certainly coming. Humanity is such a tragic species. We’re capable of so much beauty and knowledge, and yet we cannot overcome our evolutionary heritage of xenophobia, aggression, and mysticism.

This has been a thoroughly depressing post to contemplate and write. However, we cannot look at history and only see the horrors of humanity without seeing the good. In this regard, I do have some hope for the future. As much as the media likes to pretend otherwise, we’ve never lived in a better time. Life expectancy is at an all-time high, technology is connecting us like never before, more people are free and out of poverty than ever, and every corner of the globe is becoming more and more multicultural. For these reasons, I have the slimmest of hopes that we can overcome our beliefs before destroying our planet and ourselves. Though, it will probably be a close-run thing.