ashthomas//blog: July 2006


Monday, July 31, 2006

Keegan on Lebanon vs the First World War

Sir John Keegan, one of the best and most respected military historians writing today, had a column in Sunday's Washington Post discussing the similarities and dissimilarities between the current situation in Lebanon and the First World War. In "It's Not Another World War One", Keegan successfully argues that what distinguishes the present crisis from the crisis in July 1914 is the lack of an intricate system of treaties and international agreements.

It was those treaties, between Germany and Austro-Hungary, Russia and France, and Great Britain and Belgium, that turned what might have been simply another localised Balkan conflict into the Europe-wide Great War. The Middle East, on the other hand, is a collection of states that exist without formal obligations to protect each other or join any conflicts. As Keegan writes,

No such system [of treaties] operates in the Middle East today. The United States is committed to protecting Israel, but it does not have a mutual assistance treaty with that country. There are no alliances binding Syria to Lebanon or Iran to Syria. There is a treaty between Israel and Egypt, but it is a peace treaty. So there are no automatic diplomatic arrangements in the Middle East that will cause one country to go to war with another if a third is attacked. Indeed,
the undesirability of interstate relations lies in their informality, not their formality. All the Muslim states except Egypt are on hostile terms with Israel, but none is involved in a mutual assistance treaty guaranteed to bring on a war in the event of Israeli aggression. Instead of fixed and formal treaty arrangements, the nations of the Middle East coexist in a state of mutual suspicion and hostility -- hostility that may turn to war without warning, or without the specific conditions that treaties impose.

Keegan also gives a very good quick summary of the system of alliances that existed at the outbreak of the First World War:

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.

It was simply a matter of coincidence that this week's lectures for the subject that I am tutoring in this semester deals with the First World War. All my tutorials this week have begun with lively, and occasionally heated, debate about the causes and conduct of Israeli/Lebanese/Hezbollah war, with all my students seeing its significance and potential.

What then, are the similarities, if any, between the First World War and the Lebanese conflict? Probably the biggest is the fact that much of what has followed has been the result of an underestimation of the enemy: Hezbollah's leader Nasrallah, in ordering the initial incursion into Israel in which the two soldiers were kidnapped, quite obviously did not expect that Israel would react so strongly. Likewise, Austro-Hungary (and Germany) did not expect Russia to be so staunch in its support of its Slavic cousins in Serbia. The "Great Risk", as it has been called, set off a series of mobilizations on both sides that eventually led to the outbreak of war proper.

The commonality, therefore, seems to the willingness of actors in both conflicts to make calculated gambles on the response of the other side, which in both cases had terrible consequences.