John Keegan: It's Not Another World War One

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Military historian John Keegan is author of "The First World War" (Vintage).]

Is the conflagration in the Middle East a repeat of the escalating global hostilities of almost a century ago? Newt Gingrich asserted as much soon after the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah erupted, saying "We're in the early stages of what I would describe as the Third World War."

More than 60 percent of Americans now believe that the conflict in Lebanon will lead to a larger war. And the former House speaker's words have been echoed by columnists from across the political spectrum who are comparing what is happening today to the events that launched the great powers of Europe into World War I in 1914. Then, a seemingly isolated incident -- the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist -- set off a chain reaction that culminated in the Great War. Could another such incident -- Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers -- trigger a similar 21st-century cataclysm?

Having devoted my career to military history, I am certain that such speculation misses essential differences between 1914 and today. Then, the future combatants were linked by a network of mutual assistance treaties, obliging them to go to war if one of them was attacked. Today, despite the United States's commitment to protecting Israel, there is no parallel system of alliances in place.

The early 20th-century treaties in particular obliged Russia to go to war with Germany if France were attacked and obliged Germany to go to the aid of the Austro-Hungarian empire if it were attacked by Russia. There were other alliances: Britain had an understanding, though not a formal alliance, with France that committed it to send troops if the French were attacked. Most important, it had a longstanding commitment to defend Belgium if it were attacked by any power -- a commitment dating from Britain's involvement in procedures that had set up Belgium as an independent country in the 19th century.

With a deadly inevitability, these treaties triggered one another in July and August of 1914. Austria mobilized to attack Serbia, which it held responsible for the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo on June 28.

Russia then mobilized its army against Austria, because it was committed to protecting its Slav brothers in Serbia. Germany then mobilized against Russia, and Russia's mobilization provoked that of France, which prompted the mobilization of Germany. When Germany invaded Belgium to forestall France's attack on Germany, as the Franco-Russian treaty required, Britain responded by warning Germany that it would go to war if German troops were not withdrawn from Belgium.

By the first week of August, all the leading states of Europe had gone to war, with the exception of Italy, which had wriggled out of its treaty responsibilities, and Spain, which did not belong to the system of alliances.

No such system operates in the Middle East today. ...
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