- 17 Apr 13
The current situation in North Korea has echoes of the lead-up to World War I...
Barbara Tuchman was one of the great American historians of the 20th century. I was reminded of her by the current goings-on in Korea. The North Koreans have announced they are at war and have authorised their army to attack the US. The Chinese have been meeting diplomats and expressing “serious concern” and the Americans are saying they wouldn’t be surprised if North Korea launched some form of attack.
They might just be crazy enough to do just that, although many believe it’s just sabre-rattling to impress the hunger-stricken masses. But it was the comment by Russian deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov that reminded me of Tuchman. He said that Russia is worried by the “explosive” situation and that a simple human error could cause the crisis to spiral.
Indeed. Barbara Tuchman’s August 1914 explored the military decisions and actions leading up to and during the first month of World War I. The abiding impression is how accidental it all was. Sure, things happened that triggered and escalated the crisis. But in the century since the Napoleonic wars, European nations had evolved a complex diplomatic process to defuse crises before they degenerated into catastrophes.
It failed. World War I was a crisis that spiralled and nobody knew how to shout stop. Complacency, poor communications and arrogance conspired to bounce numerous countries into a conflict that destroyed the world that spawned it and generated much of what we have now.
In very general terms, world leaders with a sense of history learned a lesson. Indeed, during the Cuban missile crisis, a moment not unlike this, President Kennedy urged members of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExCOMM) to read Tuchman’s book.
But who learns history nowadays? And world leaders are a more diverse lot than during the last century. World War I was essentially a European conflict and the notion that it was a World War as opposed to Another European War now causes some amusement. So, who learns from history nowadays?
The upshot is that all bets are off. Anything could happen in Korea and beyond, because the North Koreans have no anchorage in the real world, messy and inconclusive as it might be. They don’t have the networks, the dull routines of smiling and smarming that defuse and smother crises before they conflagrate. The kim chi’s a bit off today, sir…
That and, of course, they have nuclear weapons. Simply getting a missile into the air would be catastrophic. The US would probably intercept it but where? And what then? A radioactive cloud circling the earth for years?
I’m sure the Chinese and the Russians are frantically trying to talk some sense into their bizarre neighbours. For everyone’s sakes, one hopes they succeed.
It’s not as if there isn’t enough to be worrying about. Jaysus, you wouldn’t know which way to look. Last week it was all about protesting teachers and troubles in schools.
Before that it was the Gardaí. And the doctors. And the nurses. And Minister Dicey Reilly. And Labour’s misfortunes. One could go on but you catch my drift. Ireland’s in a state of chassis. So is much of the rest of the world.
But that brings me back to Barbara Tuchman. She also coined Tuchman’s Law. From looking at history she reckoned “Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts”.
The fact that something is on the record makes it appear continuous and universal, whereas it’s more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place.
She added that after listening to the daily news “one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists.” But “the fact is that one can come home in the evening – on a lucky day – without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena.”
This led her to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold (or any figure the reader would care to supply)”.
That was written a generation ago. It’s even truer today. For example, to listen to the meeja you’d think that young people are totally stressed, permanently drunk and sexually voracious, exhibitionist, self-harming, callous, bullying and bullied… Quite how they rise to threesomes is beyond me!
Basically, it’s a vicious cycle. Small problems are described and given shape by the meeja. As a result they gain shape and traction. So they get bigger. The meeja write about how they’ve become bigger. They get bigger again. And so it goes on and on and on. It’s win-win. (The alcohol issue is a good example.)
It may well be that Kim Jong-un and his top brass understand Tuchman’s Law better than most. Huffing and puffing and issuing threats works as well as actually sending troops off to shoot bullets you can ill-afford.
You just have to hope an accident isn’t waiting to happen…