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What caused the Great War? How about dumb luck?

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What caused the First World War?  A long list can be assembled from the history books: capitalism, nationalism, imperialism, militarism, sleepwalking by the decision makers, screaming for blood by the press, just plain stupidity widely spread amongst men, all of the above.

Maybe the list is still too short. How about bad luck, even extremely bad luck?

You may think that's a throwaway line, a cynical or simply unworthy way to think about Europe's descent into barbarism and mass murder. But it's more or less what former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, for one, wrote a decade ago on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the war:  "There is still an ongoing debate as to whether the war was an inevitable result of imperialistic powers building up an excessively competitive attitude toward one another or whether it was a tragic comedy of errors that resulted from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife." 

Indeed, when you ponder the on-the-spot route changes taken by the car carrying the Archduke, the mere fact that the assassin Gavrilo Princip was standing where he was when he was, was a matter of incredible luck for him.

Yet consider the consequences of the killing.  According to the self-styled "atrocitologist" Matthew White: "Left unsparked, the Great War could have been avoided, and without it there would have been no Lenin, no Hitler, no Eisenhower." White picks Princip as the most influential person of the twentieth century. 

To imagine that the war was "inevitable," "sooner or later," a pre-determined result of some conjuncture of historical forces, is wrong, wrong from the very moment of the improbable event that triggered it all, and the "story" of the war begins. (The war was "improbable" writes the historian Christopher Clark "at least until it actually happened.") 

And if the inception of the war is as chancy as it was, does it make sense to pretend that we can tell a coherent and convincing narrative at all? Shouldn't we be suspicious of any book that claims to do so? In fact, Clark, in his book Sleepwalkers on the lead up to the war, argues for focusing more on how the war happened than on why as a way of "opening the story to an element of contingency." We would then realize that "the people, events and forces described in this book carried in them the seeds of other, perhaps less terrible futures" -- and that should give us hope.

The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, in his massive statistical study of the history of violence -- The Better Angels of our Time --  insists the best way to transcend the temptation to tell, in hindsight, stories about individual wars is what he calls "statistical thinking." Boring perhaps, though not in Pinker's telling.

There's no "story" to be found by the historian. It's always, literally, "his" or "her" story, his or her attempt to find manifest order and purpose, which are what does not exist.  The historian should not pretend otherwise. We should beware of those who, if only implicitly, start sentences about the past -- or anyone about the present -- with "certainly" or, in present discourse, "absolutely."

A little doubt goes a long way. There is randomness about life, in the small and in the large. Shit happens. So do shit storms.

Before black swans were found to exist, with the "discovery" of Australia, something that almost never happened was called a "black swan." The statistician Nassin Nicholas Talib has appropriated the term to describe an event that falls so far out on the tail of a bell curve of all such events that no-one pays anything more than lip service to its actually happening. The First World War was a black swan.

But, you may object, then wasn't the Second World War a black swan too, and if there were two so close together how can they be called black swans? The answer, statistically speaking, says Pinker, is that there could be a cluster effect where the improbable first war increases the probability of the second war. The other way of thinking about this most improbable double disaster is the extraordinary failure of international governance that allowed this to happen.

This linkage between the two wars is consistent with what historians have long insisted happened. It makes the twentieth century the lethal century it was, one of the worst of all time, but it didn't necessarily mean that another world war was likely to happen again soon, and it hasn't, though we came too close for any comfort in the Cold War. The irony is that two of the most terrible wars in all of history have been followed, as Pinker shows, by, again statistically speaking, an unprecedented peace and decline in violence. (If you find this counter-intuitive, it is possibly because you are paying too much attention to the news where violence is alive and well, but the sum of its parts is not.)

When the physicist Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of quantum mechanics, came up with the uncertainty principle, that both set limits on the knowable while giving fresh insight into many problems, Einstein refused to accept it, saying God did not throw dice. In fact, God did. (He hadn't died; he was possibly in Las Vegas where Einstein probably never went.) In the world where humans live, there is likewise deep and pervasive uncertainty which likewise sets limits and opens up new ways of thinking.

But what follows from all this methodological lucubration?  In the face of uncertainty, a condition even harder to cope with than improbability when catastrophe is a possibility, wisdom consists of caution in decision making, of taking time, of taking the long view, of knowing there will be unintended consequences. These may, however, be the very things that modernity ruled out happening, or even seriously imagining.  (In this century that would explain the behaviour of Bush-Cheney in the Middle East and the unpopularity of Obama when he pleads for time.)

If all of this sounds "postmodern," it is. If the First World War was the creature of modernity, the time would seem to have long since come to move on.


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