I like to think of myself as an optimist. My glass is always full, not empty. Even when it's only half full of water, when I think about it, I realize the other half is still full of air, so yes, my glass is full. When life throws me lemons, I don't make lemonade; I make lemon shooters. Party a little, clear my mind, come back fresh the next day and go about the task of fixing whatever it is that's broken.
Almost always. But not today.
Imperial Austrian Parliament & Athena Fountain Vienna, October 1989
For today marks the hundredth anniversary of the
event that triggered the "War to End All Wars".
I'm sure some of you know that a hundred years ago today, June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife were shot dead in Sarajevo by a Slavic separatist. These murders led directly to the First World War when Austria-Hungary subsequently issued an ultimatum against the Kingdom of Serbia. When this was rejected, Austria-Hungary declared war and invaded. Russia, who had agreed to come to Serbia's defense, but who in turn was also allied with England and France, quickly found itself fighting with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and their German allies. Italy, in spite of its alliance with the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians, apparently didn't feel like having a war that day, so they opted out and were subsequently replaced by the Bulgarians and Ottoman Empire. Not so lucky, the Belgians and the Luxembourgers, however, who also didn't feel like having a war that day, but didn't have the luxury of deciding the matter for themselves since they happened to be in the way of Germany's path to France.
Armed with the 20/20 hindsight of history, a number of amazing curiosities and inconsistencies immediately jump out of this sequence of events, the least of which is that the term "shit show" didn't achieve popular usage until early in the twenty-first century, which based on the facts at hand, seems to have been about a hundred years too late.
But that's not the point. You could easily spend the rest of your life analyzing the causes and effects of the "War to End All Wars". Others have before, and I'm sure many others will in the future.
Earlier in the week I stumbled over a news item reminding me of this upcoming anniversary and it prompted in my mind a single question:
How many wars have there been since the end of the War to End All Wars?
In a time when everyone between ages of eight and eighty carry the collective knowledge of the Internet around in their pocket, it would seem like an easy question to answer. Type a few words into your favorite NSA monitored search engine, click on "I'm Feeling Lucky" and presto… here's your answer.
Not quite. No easy answers here. It seems to be right up there with "When Does Life Begin?" or "How Many Licks Does It Take to Get to the Center of a Tootsie Pop?"
It depends. What kind of licks? What kind of life? What kind of war? Anyone who limits their intake of news to sources in the United States will inevitably learn how many "American" fatalities there were, expressed precisely to the nearest single digit, whether it be in a war, a plane crash, a boat capsizing, a bus running off the side of a mountain, or any other natural or man-made disaster you can imagine. Sometimes, almost as an afterthought you'll hear how many souls perished who weren't blessed by God Almighty with an American passport. This number, however, will generally be rounded off to the nearest hundred or thousand, perversely similar to the manner in which profits and losses are rounded to the nearest thousand or million on a corporate balance sheet.
But I digress…
One of the first entries I stumbled over was the research of a gentleman by the name of Milton Leitenberg, who wrote a brilliant eighty-six-page paper on twentieth century wars and conflicts. In it, he very methodically tallied up a total of 41 million dead souls between 1945 and 2003. If you're interesting in delving into the multitude of reasons people can find to kill one another, or perhaps even more tellingly, the outrageous number of excuses others can find to watch it happen in front of their very eyes and do absolutely nothing to stop it, then by all means, give it a quick read.
Perhaps you'll find it more cheerful than I did.
But it helped to answer part of my initial inquiry, even though it also muddied the waters enough to convince me that nailing down an exact number was going to be impossible. According to Milton's arithmetic, between 1945 and 2003 he was able to tabulate exactly one hundred fifty-eight wars in one hundred three different countries. And it probably bears pointing out; these are just the ones we know about.
But the tally gets complicated when you start to consider point-of-view. Take Vietnam or Afghanistan, for instance. Milton counted Vietnam five times: one war with France, another one with the U.S., a third with Cambodia, and finally, two with China. Afghanistan was counted three times: once with the Soviet Union, one more, still ongoing, with the U.S., and one civil war in between, just to break up the monotony. Brings us to a total of eight wars in two countries, right? Sorry, not so fast. For the average American, ask anyone off the street. You'll get the same answer ninety-nine point nine percent of the time: Two wars. Duh! That time Our Guys were in 'nam and then that other time Our Guys were in Afghanistan. For the average Russian, or Frenchman, or Chinese? I wouldn't even hazard to guess. Pick a number between two and eight. But what about the poor local villager who had the misfortune to be stuck in Vietnam or Afghanistan during the time these conflicts were taking place? From their point of view, wouldn't it look like one never-ending episode of rape, murder and pillage with the occasional break for a few years while the teams change sides? It seems that calculating the number of wars is a tricky business.
But it can be done, albeit with some margin of error. On to Wikipedia, which in retrospect probably should have been my first stop. No messy body counts or ethical dilemmas here; just orderly tables with pretty flags indicating the date, the victors and the vanquished. And from the tables, we can compile the answer: three hundred fourteen. Plus or minus, again, depending on your definition of when one war stops and another one begins.
Three hundred fourteen wars in the century that followed the War to End All Wars. An average of three per year. That's the pathetically sad answer to the question I asked myself.
The one I didn't ask but should have, maybe because of some subconscious sense of foreboding about the answer, is the most provocative one of all. Someone else had asked it in online and I simply stumbled across it randomly in the course looking for my own answers:
How many years of World Peace have there been since end of the War to End All Wars? The answer to that one would be a big, shameful zero.
But as I said at the beginning, I'm not a fan of the negative post and at the end of the day, there's not many things more negative than pointing out mankind's abject failure to get along with one another. So I'll try to end on a hopeful note.
Optimism in my view is worth a lot. It doesn't stop bullets, but it's arguably more productive than sitting on the sidelines watching atrocities happen and not lifting a finger or saying a word to stop them.
Meteorologists are, by and large a pessimistic group of people. They'll tell you day in and day out that we have a 30% chance of rain. Never, not once, have I ever heard a meteorologist predict a 70% chance of sunshine.
Similarly, we can choose to use today to bemoan our failures at stopping war over the past hundred years since Franz Ferdinand's assassination. Or we can choose to rejoice that June 28th is also coincidentally the ninety-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which marked the formal end, after five horrible years of death and mayhem, of the War That Didn't Quite End All Wars After All. Personally, the optimist in me prefers the latter.
So I post this today in the hope, no matter how futile it might be, that the next ninety-five years will somehow prove to be less homicidal than the last.