The Guns of August

Nearly half a century ago, the journalist-historian Barbara Tuchman wrote The Guns of August. It was a popular but intelligent treatment of the historical moment before the first world war, and has become enormously influential.

Most historians these days take some issue with its history, as would I. Tuchman presented a picture of a world which was almost wired to explode, and in which politicians simply could not resist going to war.

She didn't reach back into the effects of international attempts to carve up the Balkans stretching over a thirty year period, without regard to the states there. She paid some attention to the myth that the minds of any sizeable number of people were focussed on the phrase 'war would be over by Christmas'. In common with many others, and probably with what Stephen Colbert would call the 'reality based community, Tuchman thought Austria-Hungary completely unsustainable, whereas I have a kind of sentimental attachment to the idea of the Hapsburg Empire, which of course is even more crazy than my usual attachments.

Barbara Tuchman's book did a great deal of good. It may even have saved the world. President Kennedy, a keen amateur historian, and his brother read it, and took from it the lesson (because history was still Tacitan enough that it was meant to instill lessons rather than confusion) that a rush to war should always be resisted by statesmen.

In the Cuban Missile crisis, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that Barbara Tuchman's one book may have been a decisive factor in Kennedy's resistance to the recommendation of the war party that Cuba be invaded and Soviet ships sunk. Robert Kennedy realised this in his post-assassination history, Thirteen Days, the title of which is striking but which may have been even better as The Missiles of October. Certainly, Harold Macmillan, one of the greatest of British post-war Prime Ministers, had been profoundly moved by the book and in his advice to Kennedy at the time, most of which is in the open now, got the point.

Invading Cuba, we now know--with more certainty than they did at the time--would have led to a nuclear exchange. There were functional weapons on Cuba, and to his everlasting discredit, Fidel Castro urged both their use and the use of Soviet ballistic nuclear missiles. In the crisis, he chose the option of destroying the world.

The Guns of August is on my mind very much this morning because of the news of Persian rocket-rattling. The actual capacity of the state of Israel to defend itself, pre-emptively or after against this sort of thing, by diplomacy and strategy, were Iran and Israel to be left alone with each other is not in doubt in my mind. Little Israel has, whatever the siege mentality of some, a good many friends and is possessed of a great deal of nous.

I also note that rumours of war do Iran's oil-based treasury revenues no harm too. That said, though it would be foolishly cynical to think that they were simply making a few more depreciating dollars from their threats, cupidity should never be underestimated.

What worries me is that we are not looking at an Iran-Israel issue. War parties exist in the Iranian state and in the West who seem determined to force the West into a confrontation with an oil-rich, Chinese-allied Iran.

In Iran, key members of government and of the 'security architecture' have been replaced over recent months in manufactured scandal investigations into Ahmedinajad allies and by simple displacement. President Ahmedinajad, who wants to be reelected next year, has fallen out with Ayatollah Khamenei. This seems to have prompted Ahmedinajad to deny absolutely any attempt to military cause a confrontation with Israel or the west, which some of the mullahs might want.

Iran is not as much of a closed state as some. It is interesting to me that people out of favour with the ayatollahs were being investigated for indecency last year, and that this year the 'secular' arm of the state seems to be fighting back by investigating the ayatollahs. All of this is playing out in gossip and in the press. Is it that different in kind to the American establishment all briefing against each other?

Auditors have noted that $35 billion has gone missing from the budget. I hope it's gone into someone's pockets or purse, rather than into some plutonium facility.

The working-class religious nationalist, Ahmedinajad, who I think of as a sort of sinister version of Khruschev, is finding that the Ayatollahs are at every stage moving from their position last year of condemning nuclear weapons as unislamic to much more of what seems to be a war footing.

We should also assume, on the Soviet, Pakistani, and North Korean models, that states which are after nuclear weapons are in fact much closer to gaining them than is projected by the usual authorities on the subject. Every single state that has wanted a nuclear weapon in nuclear history has got it sooner than everyone thought it would other than Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

As an aside, I have noted throughout the past four years that, every time the peaceful institutions of the west, like the arms of the UN concerned with nuclear investigations, have sought to report on inspections in Iran, world wide 'islamic protests' at such silliness as the Danish cartoons have surged.

I have no evidence for the suspicion beyond the logic of it, but I can't help seeing the hand of Iran behind all of this. If in the next month Hamas, Islamic groups in Western Europe, or Lebanon come to public prominence I will look to what Iran is up to, and I am fairly sure that cleverer and more powerful people than I will too.

In the West, a party which ought to have retired in shame after the Iraq fiasco, have again risen to prominence in recent months. John Bolton, for instance, was recently calling for war on Iran. He has suggested recently that such a strike would be ideally timed if it came in November or December, after an Obama victory but before inauguration. It may be that he favours a strike sooner.

Bolton may be on a frolic of his own, but in January the 'prominent US Security expert' was claiming that the chances of a strike on Iran were 'close to zero'. He clearly thinks that something has changed.

US Vice-President Dick Cheney already seems to have seriously spooked the US military last year with a push towards an attack on Iran, and this year he has hinted several times that such an attack remains his long term ambition. This has apparently strengthened the determination of a dovish camp associated with the military and the much-reduced CIA, or rather the power network the CIA used to represent, led by Defence Secretary Robert Gates, to oppose him.

In addition to all of this, I note the report last May in the Asia Times which seems to have been multiply sourced that the Bush administration planned a strike on Iran 'by August'. The reporter--a rather oddly named 'Muhammad Cohen' even gives details of what would be struck. The proper response to an article like that is caution, but I do find myself wondering who placed it.

I note last year's threat by the joint chiefs of staff to resign en masse if there were a strike on Iran, which was semi-overt, wouldn't easily be repeated because of replacements at the top of American forces.

There are any number of things to be worried about in the modern world. The economic storms and troubles which this blog amongst others has been predicting for the last eighteen months or so are coming to pass. For some reason, climate is changing. The arcs of instability are creaking and groaning with the fires they contain, and the oil is running out at viable prices.

But the thing that worries me most, in these wet July days in England, is the emergence of polished guns for August.


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