Our Views: Small foes, great losses

Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” is now considered out of date because of new scholarship about the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, but it was an influential book of its time. Among its avid readers was President John F. Kennedy, who wished to learn during his time of nuclear stand-off whether mistakes of leaders could lead to unintended and catastrophic conflicts.

The mistakes of the leaders in 1914, and they were many, make Tuchman’s book still a brilliant read. But some mark the beginning of World War I not to the marching of armies in August but to a simpler crime, that of the assassination of the Austrian heir in the restive city of Sarajevo a century ago, on June 28, 1914 — a hundred years ago this month.

The archduke and his wife were killed by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, with a handgun, after a bomb plot went awry. That the government of nearby and independent Serbia had at least some complicity in what we would now call terrorism is now pretty clear.

And Austria’s mistaken belief in its military power would lead it to declare war, involving Serbia and then Russia and then Germany and then France and Britain, and ultimately the United States. It is that tumble of dominoes that Kennedy wanted to avoid, as he faced a nuclear-armed Soviet Union.

World War I brought changes to the international map that still resonate today. This centennial year of the war’s start is going to bring out a host of lessons and a lot of what-might-have-been discussions. Kennedy’s foe, the Soviet Union, was of course born in the unrest caused by Russia’s catastrophic intervention in what was then called the Great War.

What is so striking is not that alliance networks might lead today’s United States into another Great War. It is that, compared to the scope and consequences of two world wars, the petty hatreds of small groups continue to loom so large in human affairs.

In Iraq, what seems to outsiders idiotic hostilities between Sunnis and Shiites that lead to slaughter today are centuries old. Yet those differences still have the power to strip the humanity from the perpetrators of murder. Iraq itself is a leftover of the Great War, a country created after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.

Even as the European Union sought to mark the anniversary with a concert in Sarajevo devoted to the blessings of peace, The Associated Press reported that Bosnia Serbs erected a monument to their own cause: a statue of the gunman, Gavrilo Princip.