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Excuses and Reasons

January 03, 2014 By: NCVeditor Category: Jerry Elmer, Politics

Remembering History’s Lessons on War and Peace

by Jerry Elmer

It is 2014, the centenary of the beginning of World War I, and the world is in for four years of hundredth-anniversary observances. In 2016, we’ll hear all about the Battle of Verdun, the longest battle of the war (and one of the longest in the history of warfare, from February through December 1916). On November 11, 2018, we’ll mark the one hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

And this year, on June 28, we will all be reminded of the assassination in Sarajevo, Bosnia, of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie at the hands of a Serbian nationalist. The long-forgotten name of Gavrilo Princep, the Archduke’s assassin, will be suddenly remembered and talked about. And it will be glibly repeated that this assassination caused the war.

But that is not really true. The assassination was the occasion for the Austrian invasion of Serbia on July 28, 1914, but it was not the reason. There had long been tensions between Austria and Serbia. In 1912, during the First Balkan War, Serbia (and Montenegro) had driven out the Ottoman Turks, who had been the colonial masters of Serbia since 1389. In 1913, in the Second Balkan War, Serbia was attacked by Bulgaria; but Serbia defeated Bulgaria and its allies and Serbia expanded its territory. In 1914, Austria viewed rising Serbian nationalism as a threat to its empire; and Serbia viewed Austria as a dangerous imperial power (like the long-hated Ottoman Turks).

The Austrian Army’s Chief of Staff, Field Marshal Franz Conrad, had long wanted to invade upstart Serbia. In 1911, Conrad had been disciplined by the Austrian Kaiser, Franz Joseph, for his (Conrad’s) unbridled warmongering. In 1913, the year before the Sarajevo assassination, Conrad had formally proposed invading Serbia 25 separate times, but the Kaiser had rebuffed Conrad’s invasion proposals every time. When the assassination occurred in 1914, Conrad finally got what he had been primping for all along; but, as I say, the assassination was merely the excuse used by Conrad to accomplish what he had wanted to do anyway (and had proposed doing literally dozens of times in the past).

The consequences of the First World War were horrific. Nine and half million soldiers were killed on all sides; another 15 million soldiers were wounded. No one has ever accurately calculated the number of civilians killed or wounded. The Versailles Treaty that ended the war led, more or less directly, to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. And it all started in July 1914, with Field Marshal Conrad lying — using the assassination in Sarajevo as an excuse to get what he wanted anyway, the invasion of Serbia.

Contemporary readers will notice immediately the parallel to the Bush-Cheney Administration in 2003 lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as an excuse to get what it wanted anyway: the invasion of Iraq and the commencement of a long and bloody war. The analogy is valid, but my point here is a broader one. Politicians and military leaders lie to get us into wars; the results are often horrific for millions upon millions of victims. World War I and Iraq are exemplars — but so are the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the Spanish-American War of 1898, and the Vietnam War. In warfare, as in other aspects of human intercourse, patterns are important.

Although (as we shall see, below) American leaders in three different centuries have proved adept at lying to provide the excuses for wars, the trait is a human one and is not limited to Americans. The case of the Franco-Prussian War is instructive.

The ostensible cause of the Franco-Prussian War was the so-called “interview at Ems” on July 13, 1870. On that date, a French ambassador, Vincent Benedetti, met the Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm in the spa resort town of Bad Ems; Benedetti conveyed certain French demands of Prussia, including that Prussia would forswear putting forth candidates for the Spanish throne. Prussia rejected the French demands, and less than a week later, on July 19, France declared war on Prussia.

But while the Ems incident was the ostensible reason for the declaration of war, it was not the real reason. In fact, both Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor Napoleon III, in France and Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck in Prussia had been itching for war with each other for some years. Both of these men wanted a foreign military adventure for domestic political benefit.

In France, Napoleon III was facing increasing opposition to his autocratic constitution of 1852 from liberals and democrats. In the election of 1869, Napoleon’s Second Empire candidates went down to resounding defeat at the same time that there was a sudden burgeoning of opposition newspapers. In January 1870, anti-imperial demonstrations, some violent, swept through Paris after a prince, the emperor’s cousin, murdered an anti-imperial reporter seeking an interview. Napoleon III was itching for a foreign war, and the jingoism that he knew would inevitably accompany war, in order to quell dangerously rising domestic political opposition.

Meanwhile, in Prussia, Chancellor Bismarck was in the middle of his project of unifying the many small German states. Although some of these states came into Bismarck’s union eagerly, others — including Bavaria and Hessia-Darmstadt — were deeply reluctant. Socialist sentiment was growing among the factory workers, and urban liberals were advocating for Prussian (and pan-European) disarmament. Bismarck was itching for a foreign war, and the jingoism that he knew would accompany war, in order to quell domestic opposition and speed the project of German unification.

Indeed, so eager was Bismarck for war, that when the telegram arrived in Berlin describing the incident at Ems, Bismarck (and General Helmuth von Moltke) carefully re-wrote it, changing what had been a mild, bordering on conciliatory, message into a hostile and chauvinistic one. The crafty Bismarck then carefully released the heavily doctored document to Prussian embassies and the domestic press. It turns out that the Bush-Cheney practice of doctoring documents in order to fabricate a casus belli is a very old trick indeed.

During the ten months that the Franco-Prussian War lasted (July 1870 to May 1871), well over 100,000 French soldiers and well over 100,000 Prussian soldiers were killed or wounded. But luckily, Bismarck and Napoleon III both got the nice, little war they wanted so badly for reasons of (their respective) domestic political situations.

And, as I said, American leaders can play the same game.

In the 1890s, during the Cuban war of independence against colonial Spain, the United States warship Maine was dispatched to Havana harbor to protect U.S. economic interests in Cuba. On February 15, 1898, there was an explosion on the Maine; the ship sank and much of the crew was lost. Although the ship’s captain reported that the ship had not been attacked, President William McKinley, who was eager for conquest, did not let mere facts interfere with his grandiose plans. “Remember the Maine,” President McKinley cried. “Remember the Maine; to hell with Spain,” was the cry taken up by the yellow press (especially the newspapers in the empire of William Randolph Hearst). The United States went to war with Spain, and acquired Guantanamo base in Cuba and the Philippines as colonies. In 1976 a U.S. Navy investigation confirmed that the Maine had never been attacked; the fatal explosion had been of the ship’s own coal furnace. The Philippines remained a U.S. colony until 1946; Guantanamo is, of course, still a U.S. base.

On August 4, 1964, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson announced that the U.S.S. Maddox had been attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats in the South China Sea, off the coast of Vietnam. Johnson asked Congress to authorize military action in response. Three days later, on August 7, the Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The resolution passed the House of Representatives unanimously; there were only two dissenting votes in the Senate, Wayne Morse (D-OR) and Ernest Gruening (D-AL). The resolution authorized the President “to take all necessary measures … to prevent further aggression.” This was the blank check that Johnson wanted and needed to begin 11 years of illegal, immoral warfare in Vietnam.

In 1971, the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, a secret Pentagon study of the war that had been leaked to the Times by its principal author, Daniel Ellsberg. In the Pentagon Papers we learned that the Gulf of Tonkin incident had never occurred. That is, there was one salient difference between the burning of the Reichstag in Berlin on February 27, 1933, the excuse used by Hitler for seizing dictatorial power, and the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, the excuse used by Johnson for commencing over a decade of war: the Reichstag actually did burn down. In 2005, the U.S. government declassified a National Security Agency investigation of the Tonkin Gulf incident that concluded: “It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night.”

Over 58,000 Americans were killed during the war, and over 300,000 were wounded. Over two million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians died. The Tonkin Gulf incident may never have happened, but luckily President Johnson got the excuse he needed for war. Today, the Bush-Cheney Administration is held in very low regard because everyone remembers its blatant lies about weapons of mass destruction as an excuse for invading Iraq in March 2003. But that kind of behavior is really not that unusual; indeed, out-and-out lies as the justification for going to war is quite common.

This year the world will observe the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War. In June, we will surely hear that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo was the “cause” of the war. But it was not the cause; it was merely the occasion. The causes went much deeper. The causes included a world bristling with armaments; Germany’s so-called “Schlieffen Plan” to launch a preemptive attack against France in the event of rising international tensions; and an Austrian military that was looking for any excuse to invade the Balkans. The Archduke’s assassination provided the excuse that Austrian Field Marshall Conrad wanted.

But it is important to remember the difference between an excuse and a reason.

Jerry Elmer is the author of Felon for Peace: The Memoir of a Vietnam-Era Draft Resister. The book has been published in Vietnam as Tôi phạm vì hòa bìng, by Thế Giới Publishing House in Hanoi, which is bringing out a third edition of the book in January on the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement.

2 Comments to “Excuses and Reasons”


  1. History lessons of centuries of imperialism
    This so called ‘First World War’ involved the military collisions of the principal Empires of the time: the British Empire and Commonwealth; the Austrian Empire; the Napoleonic Empire of France; the Spanish Empire; the Balkan Empire; the Turkish Empire; and embroiled the American Empire; the Russian Empire. These Empires led to the dominance of many countries by by aggressive militarism. The classic example is the ‘British Empire’. Today it is difficult to imagine that the governments of the islands of the UK had conquered, dominated, and imposed imperial rule over the Caribbean/ India and Pakistan/ South Africa/Egypt/Central Africa/ the Americas/ Canada/ Australia/ the sheikhdoms of Arabia/ among other places. The period of ‘Empire’ was by definition the period of militarism and war. Once an empire had been established it had to be maintained and controlled by dominance, and capitalism; by deceit, violence, weapons and armies and navies.
    At the time of 1914 any attempt to expand an Empire led inevitably to global ‘War’. The patterns of conflict since the period of ‘Empire’ reveal that the peoples of Europe must be seen as among the most violent, and domineering.

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  2. and, of course, over time the colonised and enslaved peoples of the Empires come to resent, and hate, the colonisers.
    In particular, the Afro Caribbeans, the Africans, the Indians, the Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, among others, come to rebel against their imperial rulers; and to resent the racism to which they are subject.
    The social problems of today can be traced to the imperialism and militarism of the past.

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