Ukraine-Russia conflict: how wars start | International

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In The engaged princess, Rob Reiner’s classic film, Vizzini’s character, a ruthless Sicilian spy, assures: “Starting a war is a very prestigious job with a long and glorious tradition”. But in this case it is not a conflict between the imaginary kingdoms of Florin and Guilder within a story, but the real danger of an attack against a sovereign country like Ukraine by a military and energy power like Russia. History contains several lessons, among them that over the centuries all kinds of pretexts have been used to set up a beautiful case and that the consequences of a conflict are always impossible to control and imagine. And that, once some mechanisms have been put in place, it is very difficult to go back. And also that wars may have causes, but they are not natural accidents like earthquakes: they are triggered by a handful of human beings, although the tragedy lies in the fact that millions of other human beings suffer them instead.

Canadian historian and Oxford professor Margaret MacMillan devotes a chapter of her latest book, War. How conflicts have marked us (Turner), to the reasons put forward throughout history to justify wars and invasions, beginning with Troy —”one man steals another’s wife”— until the sinking of the Maine in the bay of Havana in 1898, which justified the American attack on Spain. Although, in this case, it was mostly a tabloid fabrication: it is one of the many storms of disinformation with which wars start and in which Putin’s Russia is especially adept. However, MacMillan maintains that no burst occurs in a vacuum. “The causes of a war may seem absurd or incoherent,” he writes, “but behind them there are often much deeper disputes and tensions. Sometimes a spark is all it takes to set a huge pile of wood ablaze.”

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A key moment in any conflict is its turning point: when is it too late to stop it? In an article on the Ukraine crisis, the British magazine The Economist recalled this week a phrase from the great historian AJP Taylor: “The First World War became inevitable once the mobilization orders were issued in Berlin.” “The complexity of the railway timetables of the early 20th century, on which troop movements then depended, made any alteration practically impossible,” the magazine continues.

Few analysts think that, despite the undoubted and resounding Russian mobilization, that moment has been overcome in Ukraine without turning back, but it is always easier to read the past than the present. Netflix just released the movie Munich, based on a book by Robert Harris, which tries to save face of Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who signed the pact in the Bavarian city in 1938 by which he handed over the Sudetenland to Hitler and which allowed the Nazi dictator to prepare for war whole in Europe. The film depicts Chamberlain as a politician obsessed with the First World War, who wants at all costs to avoid another massacred generation. “Until a conflict has started, it can be avoided,” says the character. However, viewers of the 21st century know what Chamberlain did not know: World War II was already unstoppable, because Hitler had made the decision to attack and was only looking to buy time.

Tony Blair, George W. Bush and José María Aznar, before the meeting in March 2003 in the Azores islands in which the start of the war in Iraq was decided.  On the right, Saddam Hussein.
Tony Blair, George W. Bush and José María Aznar, before the meeting in March 2003 in the Azores islands in which the start of the war in Iraq was decided. On the right, Saddam Hussein.REUTERS

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The George W. Bush Administration has been inventing an intricate web of lies for years to justify an invasion of Iraq. A growing body of evidence shows that the building of the case against Saddam Hussein began just days after the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York. When was war inevitable? Did all the sessions of the Security Council before the missiles began to fall on Baghdad on March 20, 2003, help? Probably not. And, of course, when millions of citizens around the world demonstrated against the war on February 15, 2003—a moment of civic rebellion that Ian McEwan portrayed in his novel Saturday—, the White House had already taken the order to invade, which had crystallized in a huge military mobilization around the Persian Gulf.

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Iraq is a paradigmatic case of a war in which everything seems controlled —beginning with the lies with which it starts—, but which turns into a disaster with unforeseeable consequences. The past, again, offers numerous examples. In the year 415 BC, Athens decided to launch an expedition against the powerful Greek city of Syracuse. The pretext was that two cities allied with Athens, and rivals of Syracuse, had asked the Greek city-state for help. In reality, it was a fight for Hellenic expansion in the Mediterranean and another episode in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta. Athenian forces were defeated in the port of Syracuse two years later, a military debacle that ultimately destroyed Athenian democracy.

“The Athenian raid also brought with it a terrible result,” writes Donald Kagan in The Peloponnesian War (Edhasa). “Devastating losses in men and ships, widespread rebellions throughout the Empire, and the entry into the scene of the mighty Persian Empire. These reasons contributed significantly to spreading the general opinion that Athens was finished. In 411, for the first time in a century, a dictatorship was established in the city that had invented modern democracy.

German soldiers in a shelter during the Battle of Verdun.
German soldiers in a shelter during the Battle of Verdun.Efe / Verdun Memorial

Of all the disasters in history that brought unpredictable and devastating consequences, the most intriguing remains the First World War. Historians have spent more than a century trying to find the real reason why the conflict began: from the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, until hostilities broke out, five weeks passed during which the powers Europeans were unable to stop a stupid mechanism, which led them to the debacle quite involuntarily. The historian Christopher Clark coined the concept of “sleepwalkers” in the book that bears that title (Galaxia Gutenberg) to describe the way in which those responsible for the explosion walked decisively towards the abyss without being aware that they were going to cause 20 million deaths, 21 million wounded, the destruction of three empires and, at the end of the road, the Second World War.

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“How could Europe do that to itself and to the world?” Margaret MacMillan asks in her book on the beginning of the conflict, 1914. From peace to war (Turner). “There are many possible explanations, so many that it is difficult to choose one,” he writes. In the end, he makes it clear that “very few things in history are inevitable”, that the Leuven, Verdun, and Somme massacres did not have to exist. But he also maintains that “forces, ideas, prejudices, institutions and conflicts are certainly important factors, but they do not take into account the individuals – who in the end were not that many – in whose hands it was to say ‘yes, go ahead, let’s start a war’, or ‘no, let’s stop’. Wars are declared—and prevented—by human beings. But, above all, they suffer.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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