This Fourth of July we celebrate our nation’s 238th birthday. Though not the official start of the American Revolution (that’s actually The Shot Heard Round the World on April 19, 1775), it’s the date we celebrate because it is when the Declaration of Independence was signed. I doubt any war has ever begun in such a gentlemanly fashion. But 2014 marks the centennial of another event. One with a similar initial intent, though more violent, of longer duration and greater global consequence.
On June 28th, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife. A 19-year-old nationalist, Princip belonged to a class of Christian peasants who had been oppressed for centuries. He wanted freedom for his people. It would take 94 years for a free Serbia to exist, and the war that started it all wasn’t waged in the area that is Serbia today. It wasn’t even fought between the Serbs and their oppressors.
So what was gained by the Great War? Sadly, practically nothing. In all of history, I doubt there was ever a more senseless war. Five years and 16 million dead for nothing. Worse than nothing. Most of the world’s great conflicts for the last 100 years have their roots in 1914. The Great War would not have been renamed World War I, the Nazis would not have murdered 17 million civilians and the Ottoman Empire would not have been artificially splintered into the caldron of hate and violence that is the Middle East today.
Winston Churchill paraphrased George Santayana when he warned that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I wonder how we’re doing. We created many of our own worst enemies (Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, and Osama Bin Laden), we have supported oppressive regimes (Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain) and we have sacrificed our own people and the environment for short-term financial gain (Gulf oil). Though often done with the best intent (after all, Iraq invaded Kuwait and needed to be driven back), if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the West has made it an Autobahn.
In 2001, the murder of 3000 people sent us back to war. Thirteen years and 37,482 casualties later and everything that was paid for in blood is being erased. Iraq is being overrun by ISIS and, by all estimates, Afghanistan will follow suit once the West pulls out. I believe most Americans want to be helpful. We wield tremendous power that can help feed the hungry, heal the sick and stop oppression. But that power does not give us the right to impose our values on other cultures. We’ve tried it. It created a lot of casualties, cost a lot of money, and it clearly didn’t work. The last thirteen years mirror the events of the last century – deep and garish scars in nearly every corner of the globe without positive change. Yes, we should lend aid, but it should be done in conjunction with, not in dismissal of, the indigenous people. When will we ever learn?
In 1991, I was on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. When the cease fire came and we were sent home, CNN showed the Iraqi military limping back to Bagdad. They were bloodied, but not broken. Saddam was still in power and many of us feared that there would be a Gulf II. We feared that American intervention had not solved the problem, but planted the seeds for another conflict.
Our American independence was gained by fighting our own fight. Sometimes the best thing for us to do is allow people to figure it out on their own.