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January 2, 2018


On this New Year's Day, it makes perfect sense to me that I reflect on the book I started in 2017 and will finish in 2018:

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914


In middle school I was taught that an Austrian Archduke was murdered in Serbia and everyone went to war over it. It never made sense to me but I was willing to regurgitate it on my history test.  In high school I was taught that World War I was an inevitable culmination of Europe's centuries-old geopolitical conflicts and good luck trying to make any sense of it.  


To be fair to my history teachers, the Archduke's murder did pave the way to war and centuries of geopolitical strife did set the stage for war. But what The Sleepwalkers shows is that neither of these factors made the war inevitable.  Even in the weeks and days before the war broke out there existed a real possibility that war could still be averted.  


What struck me most in the book was the revelation that language choices in the diplomatic realm can make all the difference between war and peace.  Word choices form perspectives and perspectives give birth to justifications for action and finally action. For instance, what is the difference between "aggressive military buildup" as opposed to  "defensive mobilization".  


Every country calls its own actions "defensive" which is intended to connote "justified".  "Aggression" is always used to describe another country's actions and connotes "unjustified". The argument is circular: It is our opinion that we are justified because it is our opinion that they are unjustified and if it is our opinion that they are unjustified and we are justified then they must be unjustified and we justified.  The conclusion in 1914, though not inevitable, was that there must be a war.

Based on the evidence in the book, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Russia and not Austria-Hungary was the aggressor that instigated World War I.  But by labeling Austria-Hungary the aggressor and convincing Russian citizens and allies of this characterization, Russia deftly changed the world's perspective and opened the way to war. 


Initially not everyone bought Russia's characterization.   But over time, with enough insistence (and the allies' own ulterior motives), Russia's allies followed into the fray. In the end, World War I was a war of words before it was a war of violence.  I suppose that's true of every war.  Who was the aggressor in Vietnam? One could answer either way depending on perspective.  


In the year to come, let us hope that our leaders choose their words wisely.  And let us remember that past geopolitical history does not dictate an inevitable future.  The present will always separate the past from the future.  Let us be wise in the present.












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