Historian Barbara Tuchman characterized the events leading up to World War I as The Guns of August.
While there is no statistical evidence that wars break out any more often in late summer than in other seasons, the world was torn apart at that time of year twice during the 20th century: in early August 1914, and then again on Sept. 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Maybe it is the effects of the heat, or the sense of urgency to do something before the cold of winter; but nonetheless, we’ve also seen a lot of late-summer violence the last few decades.
Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, leading to an American-led air campaign and ground war in early 1991 that demolished the Iraqi army. On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 radical Islamic terrorists took down the World Trade Center complex and hit the Pentagon — the worst foreign attacks on the continental United States since the British burned much of Washington, D.C., in 1814.
What can we learn from these dog-day cataclysms?
First, for all the rising prewar tensions, the general slaughter to follow was mostly unforeseen. Experts thought August 1914 would lead only to a war “over by Christmas” — not 500 miles of trenches from the North Sea to Switzerland, and 8 million combat dead by 1918. Even after Hitler invaded Poland in a lightning strike, no one dreamed that more than 50 million deaths would follow.
Second, these late-summer bloodbaths usually followed from the initial impression of aggressors that they would face few consequences. After the Munich Agreement, Hitler had no reason to believe that gobbling up Poland would lead to a world war rather than more of the same appeasement. Saddam Hussein had no idea that the United States would react to a far-away border dispute by mobilizing a global coalition against him, and by bombing large swaths of Baghdad. Likewise, few imagined that nine years after 9/11, American troops would still be fighting in Afghanistan to keep the Taliban — the former hosts of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda — from returning to power.
In short, grand professions of peaceful intent in the face of global tensions, or even noble indifference to dictatorial aggression, ensure that war follows.
Finally, in the ensuing wars the United States lost thousands of soldiers when it was not well prepared — and far fewer when it was. There was almost no American military in 1914 and little more when we declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1917.
America was once again woefully unarmed in 1939, when Germany started the European war, and not in much better shape when attacked by the Japanese in December 1941. As a result, in both of its victorious world wars the United States lost tens of thousands of troops.
A fully armed and mobilized volunteer American military forced Iraqi forces out of Kuwait with relatively few losses. And even in the long current slogs in Iraq and Afghanistan, for all the heartbreak of their terrible human costs, fewer American soldiers have died than in single past battles like the Meuse-Argonne or Iwo Jima. In short, America never went to war regretting that it was overarmed and overprepared.
We should keep such bothersome late-summer history in mind this August. The world is once again heating up with the weather. Iran boasts of its new nuclear reactor — with more to come. A nuclear North Korea keeps threatening South Korea. Hezbollah and Syria are arming to the teeth with new missiles. And an assurgent Turkey is seeking an updated version of its Ottoman imperial past. Meanwhile, the United States has unsuccessfully reached out to firebrand leaders such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and Syria’s Bashar Assad, while drifting away from its Indian, Israeli, and European allies.
Even more worrisome, in times of 1939-like recession and staggering deficits, the United States is understandably talking of massive cutbacks in its military. Nations never reduce defense expenditures because they want smaller militaries, but because in tough times the public shortsightedly thinks that money is better spent on social programs at home.
The combination of provocative rivals abroad, our president’s constant assurances that the United States has been at fault in the past and wants to reach out to enemies in the future, and probable defense reductions should remind us to tread carefully this late summer.
Unfortunately, the past guns of August teach us that war may be looking for those who are not looking for war.
– Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.