100 years ago, Serbian rebels dreaming of changed political boundaries assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo. The initial response was muted, but three weeks later, Austria-Hungary responded forcefully by issuing an ultimatum to Serbia essentially threatening force if it did not bring the killers to justice.
Russia and Serbia were allied and as a precautionary move against the slim chance of a Russian entrance into the dispute, Austria-Hungary sought assurances from Germany that it would provide aid should Russia declare war on Austria-Hungary.
Serbia actually did respond in a conciliatory matter to Austria-Hungary, but it failed to appease Austria-Hungary and war was declared on Serbia on July 28, 1914. Russia, bound by treaty to come to Serbia’s aid, mobilized its army. Germany responded by declaring war on Russia. France, obligated by treaty to Russia, found itself at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Germany invaded Belgium to clear the path for a conquering of Paris.
Britain, citing a treaty obligating it to protect Belgium, declared war on Germany. The Empire was called upon, meaning Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and South Africa entered the foray to fight on the side of Britain. Attempting to pioneer the seas, the Germans began submarine warfare, openly sparring with Britain and France and also threatening the commercial interests of a neutral America.
On May 7, 1915, German submarines torpedoed the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. Germany claimed it thought the civilian vessel was a military vessel carrying munitions. 128 Americans onboard perished and the U.S. would later use the incident as a justification to enter the conflict and declare war on Germany.
World War I would drag on till November 11, 1918, killing roughly 10 million military personnel and 7 million civilians. Over 20 million were wounded. The “war to end all wars” was hardly that – the world found itself embroiled in war again just two decades later.
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The parallels between events leading to World War I and the missile destruction of a Malaysia Airlines 777 jetliner over Eastern Ukraine yesterday are ominous. It is not difficult to imagine how reactions to the tragic death of 298 could spiral out of control in very short order.
We have most intelligence sources saying that pro-Russian separatists were behind the attack. We have intercepted communications posted by the Ukrainian government on YouTube suggesting that the militants believed MH17 was really a Ukrainian Air Force jet, like one they had shot down earlier in the week. Particularly disgusting, the rebels can be heard laughing and celebrating the death before realizing their mistake. We must grapple with the disturbing realization that these rebels did not arm themselves – that the Russian government supplied the surface-to-air missiles and launching equipment necessary to carry out the missile attack. We also see satellite evidence that Russia has stealthily tried to bring back this equipment over the border.
Even more disturbingly, we have a sharp escalation in harsh rhetoric between Ukraine and Russia over this incident. Ukranian Prime Minster Arseniy Yatsenyuk has called on world powers to support his government’s resolve in bringing to justice “those bastards who committed this international crime”. US President Barack Obama condemned Russia today, stating that Russia has failed to use its influence to curb rebel violence.
Meanwhile, a counter-narrative has emerged from Moscow. President Vladimir Putin has blamed Ukraine (“And without question, the state over whose territory this took place, bears responsibility for this awful tragedy”) for the incident and state-run media in Moscow has pushed a story suggesting the plane was shot down by the Ukrainian military, who mistook it for President Putin’s 777 that flew overhead near the same time on the way back his recent trip to the Americas.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko stated, “Not a single terrorist will avoid responsibility. Each of them will be punished” and tonight the Ukrainian government has come out swinging again, publishing a picture of a dead baby in the rubble and directing a taunt at Putin and Russia: “This baby’s death is on your conscience…damn you for centuries!”
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But history also shows that positive steps can emerge from tragic human loss. Two recent inadvertent airline attacks eventually furthered world peace rather than lurched the world closer to another world war.
The Soviet Union shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983 off the eastern coast of the Soviet Union on its way from Seoul to New York. 269 passengers were killed, including 61 Americans. Tensions were high in the immediate aftermath as the USSR denied culpability and even went so far as to claim KAL007 was on a spy mission.
With war games in full force and the DEFCON Level lowered, cooler heads prevailed and reflections upon the loss of human life actually warmed relations between the two countries, leading to an arms reduction agreement and eventually the end of the Cold War.
Another example was a 1988 downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by the U.S. Navy. Iraq and Iran were engaged in a long war with the US on the side of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis (the enemy of my enemy is my friend). The Navy claimed the attack was accidental while the Iranians claimed it was deliberate. The sudden loss of 290 souls prompted reflection and became a catalyst for seeking negotiated peace – Iran’s Supreme Leader reasoned the war was unwinnable and that it was futile to continue to sacrifice men and money on a stalemate with no realistic peace on the horizon.
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This is where the law, history, politics, and travel meets – the unfolding situation fascinates me and yet I am supremely disturbed at how complacent I have become about the loss of life. As I wrote my news-style piece yesterday, the thoughts running through my mind were not about the individual stories of each of the 298 people onboard the flight, but about seeking revenge against the perpetrators…more violence.
How could Malaysia Airlines lose another 777? How could this silly squabble over land and resources fueled by jingoism in Ukraine – it is not even about religion this time – lead to the death of 298 people minding their own business 33,000 feet above ground? There were infants and seniors onboard, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Human history has again been altered by the course of violence and for the families of the lost, a deep sense of horror will permeate into doldrums of anguish in the coming days.
We can honor those who have died – and let’s also note that nearly 800 Ukrainians and Russians have also died in this conflict – by stopping further bloodshed. How trite, right? Wrong, for what other path forward can be posited? When will we learn from history? Were not the 17 million deaths of World War I enough? Will society rise to the occasion and use the archetypes of the Korean and Iranian tragedies instead of resorting to a surge in violence and further destruction of innocent life?
I do not know what the path to peace is in Ukraine, but I pray that this terrible tragedy will advance rather than inhibit rapprochement and ultimate reconciliation. We see in the obituaries of those who were lost how precious each life is and we see in the news stories of 298 people dying in one instant how fragile life is. Oh what a world.
It merits remembering that the world came within hours of a devastating nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Had sagacious insiders not found a way to forge a secret compromise and instead declared war, most of the world, not just 298 people, would have faced annihilation in the flash of a light.
Thus my thoughts from the last Malaysia Airlines tragedy come into play once again – I hope you love what you do. And if you have a friend or loved one that you are at odds with, make today the day you make peace with them. For we never know what tomorrow will bring…
For the sake of all the world, let us hope that tomorrow will not bring even more needless death.