Every couple years I try to make it a point to read a different history of World War I. The conflict has always fascinated me. It’s the war that broke the (old) world. It’s the war that in many ways spawned World War II and the Cold War. And it never should have happened. The world blundered into catastrophic bloodshed.
I’m presently reading G. J. Meyer’s outstanding A World Undone, and the chapters detailing the diplomatic and strategic mistakes that led to war make for captivating reading. To this day, it’s hard to believe that by August 1914, every great power in Europe was locked in a mortal struggle when, just days before, key leaders were desperate to avoid conflict.
It’s a sobering reminder that events can take on a life of their own, and that consequential actions we often attribute to malice and intention can be just as attributable to accident and incompetence.
There was one aspect of Meyer’s book that specifically caught my eye. He notes that both Britain and France were materially distracted by domestic crises and controversies while threats built abroad. By the time the public was fully engaged in the true crisis, the die was largely cast. The momentum toward war was irresistible.
Britain faced a crisis over Irish home rule, one that was dividing the British public and the British military. France was distracted by the sensational murder trial of Henriette Caillaux. In March 1914 she walked into the offices of Le Figaro, a French newspaper, and shot and killed editor Gaston Calmette.
Caillaux was married to Joseph Caillaux, former prime minister of France, and she was afraid that Calmette was set to publish intimate correspondence between her and Joseph while Joseph had still been married to his former wife.
Why bring this up? Because America is also turned inward. Our political class is focused almost entirely on itself, and sensational trials capture public attention and dominate public debate—all while this is happening:
A renewed buildup of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border has raised concern among some officials in the United States and Europe who are tracking what they consider irregular movements of equipment and personnel on Russia’s western flank.
“The point is: It is not a drill. It doesn’t appear to be a training exercise. Something is happening. What is it?” said Michael Kofman, director of the Russia studies program at the Virginia-based nonprofit analysis group CNA …
According to Kofman, publicly available satellite imagery shows that forces from Russia’s 41st Combined Arms Army, normally based in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, didn’t return to Siberia after the exercises, and instead linked up with other Russian forces near the Ukrainian border. Kofman also said footage posted online appears to show that Russia’s 1st Guards Tank Army, an elite unit based outside Moscow, is moving personnel and materiel toward Ukraine.
I highlight this information not to argue that our internal conflicts are unimportant or that Americans shouldn’t pay attention to the Kyle Rittenhouse trial or to the prosecution of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers. Instead, it’s to warn that America’s political class cannot lose sight of the fact that America has enemies, and that the gravity of their threat could rapidly dwarf our present concerns.
Moreover, we have to understand that there are also strident voices in the United States who simply refuse to recognize the threat and question American alliances. This exchange between Tucker Carlson and Ohio Republican Representative Mike Turner is illuminating and disturbing:
Carlson is explicitly questioning whether the U.S. should essentially switch sides in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia and support the nation that is threatening a democratic ally with tanks, has interfered in our elections, and attempts to undermine America’s strategic position in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond.
War between Russia and Ukraine isn’t inevitable. It may not be likely, at least not yet. But Russia’s troop movements match a war scenario the RAND Corporation recently imagined, and we’d be foolish to simply assume peace will prevail. Moreover, if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that large-scale European combat is difficult to confine and control.
America isn’t obligated to defend Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t deter Russian action. The combination of military assistance to Ukraine and decisive economic action could well persuade Russia that the cost of conflict is too high. But deterrence requires attention. It requires resolve. And—as the Cold War demonstrates—over the long term it requires at least a measure of national unity.
Kicking the Kyle Rittenhouse Hornet’s Nest …
I’m keeping one eye on Russia, but I’m also keeping one eye on the Rittenhouse murder trial. I published a piece at The Atlantic that made two key points: “First, absolutely no one should be surprised if Rittenhouse is acquitted on the most serious charges against him. And second, regardless of the outcome of the trial, the Trumpist right is wrongly creating a folk hero out of Rittenhouse.”
The argument about acquittal rested in the details of self-defense statutes, which preserve the right of self-defense even when defendants act foolishly, so long as they don’t engage in “unlawful conduct” that is both likely to provoke an attack and does provoke an attack.
The response was volcanic, and the critics came overwhelmingly from the right. How dare I say that Rittenhouse was foolish? How dare I contest his heroism? These comments are representative, in different ways:
All this is mainly Twitter warfare and Twitter posturing. As I wrote in my article, “Most of the right-wing leaders voicing their admiration for Rittenhouse are simply adopting a pose. On Twitter, talk radio, and Fox News, hosts and right-wing personalities express admiration for Rittenhouse but know he was being foolish. They would never hand a rifle to their own children and tell them to walk into a riot. They would never do it themselves.”
But tough talk online isn’t harmless. While millions merely read, some readers do act. We saw that in Kenosha, Wisconsin. We saw that on January 6.
One can understand that riots are wholly bad—and it is the responsibility of the state to maintain order—without also believing that random citizens should grab a gun and run to the chaos when they believe the state is failing that responsibility. It can be remarkably difficult to suppress civil unrest, and it’s a simple matter of common sense that armed teenage vigilantes are far more likely to create carnage than impose calm.
As I type this newsletter, the prosecution has rested its case in the murder trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers. Recall that he was shot to death after local men armed themselves and chased him down because they wanted to “talk” to him about some alleged “break-ins” in the area after they saw him running in the street. How much more blood needs to be spilled before we learn (again) that private citizens are not police officers, and, absent the most extreme circumstances, they cannot—they must not—take the law into their own hands?