There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.– Eugene O’Neill
Over the weekend, the world observed what must be considered one of the bleakest, bloodiest anniversaries in the history of humanity. One hundred years ago, on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo along with his wife by Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb who was a member of a group known as the “Black Hand.” The Archduke was struck by two bullets and died within minutes, while his wife died en route to the hospital.
One month later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, the other great European powers soon joined the fray, and with banners flying and trumpets blaring, the awesome butchery that was World War I began. The bloodletting did not end until November of 1918, and once the smoke and mustard gas had cleared, four of the great powers in Europe – the Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German empires – no longer existed. Millions were dead, whole swaths of Europe lay in ruins, and the old Napoleonic practice of close-order battle marches had been rendered into so much meat by the lethal metal truth of modern mechanized warfare.
The cascading aftermath, however, was only just beginning. The chaos unleashed in Russia by the war led to the collapse of the government, the rise of Vladimir Lenin, and the birth of the Soviet Union. Ten years after the creation of the USSR, Josef Stalin was named General Secretary of the Communist Party. He remained the undisputed leader of the USSR until his death in 1953, and during those intervening years, Stalin oversaw one of the most ruthless, paranoid regimes that has ever existed on the skin of the Earth. At the peak of his atrocities, there were as many as 1,000 executions a day, while millions more were “disappeared” into gulags. Despite this, the Soviet Union under Stalin grew to be a tremendous industrial power, and a dominant presence on the world stage.
In Germany, the turmoil left in the wake of the war was just as pronounced, and came to affect the entire planet along with the course of human history. The war, and the armistice that was signed to end it, left Germany shattered and humiliated. The rage, deprivations and despair left in the wake of the collapse of the Weimar Republic became fertile soil for the growth of German fascism, from which a failed painter named Adolf Hitler was able to reap a truly bitter harvest. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland, the slaughter of the Holocaust was underway, and the global massacre that was World War II came to pass.
World War II beget the creation and use of the atomic bomb, the subsequent spread of which placed the human race in peril of extinction, a peril that lingers to this day. Upon observing the governing principles of Stalin, the US ambassador to the Soviet Union, George Kennan, penned and transmitted the “Long Telegram” in 1946, the document credited by history as being the genesis of the Cold War. The aftermath of World War II, combined with the onset of the Cold War, inspired the passage of the National Security Act in 1947 and the creation of the American “National Security State.”
The National Security State beget the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, and their all-encompassing ethos of secrecy and broad-spectrum surveillance. The National Security State, along with the hyper-militarization of America caused by World War II, beget the military-industrial complex and the decision to put and keep the American economy on a permanent wartime footing, a status that remains in place today. The astonishing profits available to that complex by way of war, combined with the paranoia of the Cold War and the callow opportunism of American politicians, beget the decades-long carnage of the Vietnam War, as well as a dozen other “actions” around the world, including war in Iraq, war in Iraq again, and soon enough, war in Iraq once again.
All of that from two bullets, fired by a 19-year-old boy one hundred years ago.
To be sure, this is an abridged and incomplete history. Threaded through this tapestry of woe are bolts of random chance and the vagaries of fate; had Franz Ferdinand’s driver known the route he was supposed to take through Sarajevo, for example, he would not have taken a wrong turn and inadvertently presented the Archduke before the pistol of Gavrilo Princip. That being said, quantifying the twisted possibilities of all the might-have-beens we have passed over the hundred years since those two bullets were fired is, in the end, an exercise in futility. It happened, and here we are.
I make mention of this long, grim thread of history in the looming shadow of the ongoing chaos in Iraq. Over the weekend, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced the creation of what they call a caliphate, which spans large portions of those two nations. The current situation in those two nations, and in the Middle East entire, can be laid in large degree to the decision by the Bush administration to lie the United States into a war in Iraq, a decision based upon feckless dreams of empire and the desire for political and financial profit. The matter is on the verge of spiraling beyond control and could lead to a region-wide conflagration, the ultimate outcome of which is anyone’s guess.
The very simple moral: big clouds condense around small particles, as Richard Bachman once wisely wrote. Individuals certainly, and governments absolutely, must think long and hard about the consequences of their choices before they decide to pull the trigger. Two bullets in Sarajevo unleashed one hundred years of carnage. Some facile lies from a few American politicians may well have unleashed another hundred years of the same.