While I won’t reveal my exact age without truth serum or at gunpoint (even then I’m not promising anything), I will share that back a few decades ago when I was in ninth grade, I recall a visit that my United States history class received from two World War I veterans. Both were extremely nice older gentlemen who were kind enough to squeeze into their old uniforms for the occasion but who couldn’t seem to remember very much about the war they fought in.
They weren’t alone. Not many people recall much about World War I.
As U.S. history goes, our class didn’t spend a lot of time on that war. The only fact I recall being required to remember was how it all began which can essentially be boiled down to the following sentence: On June 28, 1914, Serbian terrorists assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.
I remember being rather perplexed as to how and why the assassination of a single individual could set off a chain of events resulting in all out world war, but none of my teachers could offer much more of an explanation than to repeat that same sentence. If you could remember that it all began with the murder of Archduke Ferdinand, you had it.
We also learned about the use of horrible chemical weapons and the horrors of trench warfare. Why the entire world went to war was never fully explained. I didn’t get a better idea as to how and why it all happened until I read the excellent Pulitzer Prize winning book by Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August.
Today, as I write this, the United States navy has ships stationed in the Mediterranean with cruise missiles aboard prepared to “attack” Syria as punishment for the murder of 1,400 men, women, and children with chemical weapons. Sadly, these people died in the same brutal fashion as many troops did in World War I.
Meanwhile, Russia, which uses a naval port in Syria, is evidently bolstering its fleet in the Mediterranean by sending two Russian ships towards the Syrian west coast. China is also sending one of its largest ships to the area supposedly to “observe” what happens.
President Obama claims that if he shoots it will only be the proverbial “shot across the bow” intended to intentionally miss the target but to do it in such a way that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad gets the clear message that he’d better quit using chemical weapons or else.
Since the Syrian civil war began, roughly 100,000 people have died in presumably unpleasant fashion, but we’ve made it clear that we don’t intend to stop that sort of killing by this action. Shooting and dropping bombs is evidently fine. We just don’t want Assad using chemical weapons.
Historians say that no one could really foresee the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand setting off a world war. With superpower ships together in the Mediterranean in rather ominous fashion and threats of some type of military action (even if it’s mostly for show) looming over the entire scene, it is not hard to see how this entire event could spiral quickly out of control as it did in the summer of 1914 over the murder of an obscure member of Austrian Hungarian royalty.