Millard Grimes: Too brief a respite from bloodshed

April 24, 2014 

There was a small item in some newspapers, but scarcely a mention on the TV news recently that no American military personnel were killed in action the past week.

This was welcome news when you consider how few weeks during the past 70 years that has been true. Americans have become too complacent with casualty lists, as if they are an acceptable price for the good life we live in the safety of 2014.

Exactly 109 years ago this year, in 1914, most Europeans had become complacent about the peace and comparative prosperity most of them enjoyed. The nations of Europe produced the industrial age; planted their flags throughout the world and controlled the economies of nations they did not claim.

The summer of 1914 seemed a time for celebration, especially among the royal families who ruled in England, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia.

The United States had recently added its 48th state and begun flexing its muscles as a world power by taking over the Philippine Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

The major European nations were ruled or controlled mainly by people who spoke similar languages, were from the same race and cultural backgrounds; several rulers or their spouses were all the grandchildren of Great Britain's Queen Victoria who held the throne for 64 years.

But there were nervous and devious men in charge of the great nations, and they had built up armies which needed more action. In August 1914, without any good reasons, they stepped out of their long period of relative peace into a darkness none of them could imagine. They expected glorious victory. They suffered disaster. Over a period of 40 years (1914-1945) Europe tried to commit suicide, as one world war was followed by another, more deadly and destructive.

The royal dynasties that had ruled for so long did not survive the first war. The Romanoffs of Russia; the Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary; the Holenzollens of Germany. The Russia of the Czars became the Soviet Union of Stalin; the Germany of the Kaiser became the Nazi Third Reich of Adolph Hitler; Austria-Hungary was split into many principalities, some still struggling to find an identity a century later.

And, of course, millions of people lost their lives, often when their generals ordered them to charge the newly developed machine guns across bare fields on which they were mowed down like so much grain waving in the wind.

Worst death and destruction was to come in World War II as the means to kill and destroy reached new levels.

And then last week there was the barely noticed report that no Americans had died in combat in the past week.

Distressingly, there were also the stirrings of unrest in that cursed area which nurtured both world wars, the Balkans of Central Europe.

I looked on a map to find Ukraine. It is halfway around the world from the United States. It has a long border with Russia. Ukraine was part of Russia for many years before gaining its independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke up. Its people have suffered for centuries under whatever type of government was in charge. They also suffered 5 million casualties in World War II, 10 times the number for the U.S., and their country was left devastated.

So its people know war at its worst and it is odd that some of them would choose war today, whatever the provocation. As for the U.S. role in this distant dispute over which bad government will rule, Ukraine is not worth the life of an American PFC, to paraphrase Otto Bismarck, the German chancellor.

Russia's belligerence in that area is unfortunate, of course, but it is hardly cause for declaring a new Cold War. Russia today, as President Obama well put it a few weeks ago, is "a regional power," not a world power as the Soviet Union was. According to the World Almanac, Russia spends half the money on military operations that the U.S. does, and less, in fact than Japan and India.

Russia is threatened by terrorists from various Muslim countries on its borders, or even within its boundaries; NATO, which was formed to contain the old Soviet Union, now includes countries that border on Russia, and one of the reasons for the current unpleasantness is the desire of NATO to enlist Ukraine as a member, which would be somewhat similar to Canada joining an alliance against the United States.

The stakes are minimal, but the danger can never be underestimated. The drums roll and there is an historic urge to answer their call, but the music always ends as a dirge.

Millard Grimes, editor of the Columbus Ledger from 1961-69 and founder of the Phenix Citizen. is author of "The Last Linotype: The Story of Georgia and Its Newspapers Since World War II." A profile of Grimes can be found in the Georgia Encyclopedia, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org.

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