I’ve been reading a little bit about The Great War, when time permits. The 100th anniversary has unleashed a lot of good books, articles and even a podcast on the subject. Dan Carlin’s series on the war is excellent if you’re into podcasts. I have a dozen books on my list, that have come out in the last few years, unread on my shelf, but I’m hoping to knock them out in the fall.
The Great War is on that list of things you have to know about in order to be an educated man. The 100 Years War, the Thirty Years War, The English Civil War, the American Civil War and the Great War are events you simply have to know in order to know the modern age. You don’t have to be an expert, but you need the basics. In the case of the Great War, I don’t know if you can be an expert. The Battle of the Marne is enough to keep a first rate mind busy for a lifetime.
What has always intrigued me about this war is two things. One is everyone went into it, even the German military, with out of date notions on warfare. Some of their attitudes were pre-Napoleonic, in regards to the rules of war. The biggest error was in not understanding how the changing technology would change war fighting. They could not imagine it. Instead, they learned it in a massive bloodbath.
This is not a post about that war, but about our next one. At the start of the last century, lots of smart people thought war was no longer a possibility. Globalization, trade, “smart” managers and technocrats had made territorial expansion unprofitable and counter productive. Norman Angell wrote a very influential pamphlet arguing that the integration of the economies of European countries had grown to such a degree that war between them would be entirely futile, making war obsolete.
We hear the same arguments today. The addition now is that American military hegemony, along with the nuclear stockpiles of China, Russia and the US, makes war an impossibility. No one would risk it. What everyone hangs their hats on is the global capital markets. War at any scale would make the global elite poor and that means there will never be another war of any scale.
Just because these claims echo those of 100 years ago does not make them invalid. They may be right, as it seems unlikely that we will see tanks racing across Germany again, but that’s not the way to bet. Great economic upheavals have always ended in great wars so this great economic upheaval is probably going to end in a great war. The question is what will it be like?
I think the place to start is with the Russians. Again, hailing back to the Great War, Russia, like the Germans 100 years ago, is the country trying to get a place at the table, but is instead being ignored. France and Britain controlled 70% of the globe a century ago. Today, the West controls 100% of the world economy. Finland gets more respect from Western powers than Russia. They have a lot of reasons to cause trouble.
The way the Russians handled Crimea and Ukraine should be one of those things that keeps western planners up at night. It was asymmetric warfare at a level no one thought the Russians possessed. It’s not just that they have evolved their military strategies; its that they have clearly learned a lot about how Western strategies have evolved. Those “little green men” who popped out of nowhere did not pop out of nowhere. That was well planned and well executed.
What the Russians clearly learned is that the old rule of war is still true. The side that gets there firstest with the mostest usually wins. In the case of Crimea, the Russian got their forces in control of the ground before the West knew what was happening. Instead of tanks and infantry units, the Russians used irregulars in anonymous uniforms, mixed in with local elements sympathetic to the Russians
Now we see the Russians, to everyone’s surprise, are putting boots on the ground in Syria. They have tanks guarding an airfield that they appear to be building up, presumably for the purpose of basing fighter planes. Coincidentally, there are a million Syrians heading to Europe as refugees. Those refugees will certainly maintain links back to the home country. Inevitably, Russian intelligence will be working with Syrians in the region, developing lots of contacts that could be used later.
This may sound far fetched, but consider another example from the Great War. The guy who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand was a guy named Gavrilo Princip. He was part of a conspiracy run by a member of the Black Hand. Their leader was a man named Danilo Ilić, who was controlled by Serbian intelligence. The people who poisoned Alexander Litvinenko with polonium are not going to fret about running Syrian terrorists in the heart of Europe.
This partnering with locals the Russians are doing has another benefit. It lets them cheaply extend their influence to weak spots of the West. Setting up camp in Syria means they can create mischief through the Middle East and North Africa. They are, in effect, extending the front lines north to the Baltics and south into the Mediterranean. Instead of being surrounded by the West, Russia and its partners is now surrounding the West.
The Industrial Revolution ended with two massive wars that nearly obliterated civilization. If not for the Anglosphere, civilization would have ended. maybe the technological revolution ends with something less dramatic. Maybe the next great war is a low grade affair between irregulars. I don’t know, but it seems like the folks to watch are the Russians.