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1914: The Guns of August and Lessons for Today

Editor’s note: Retired Canadian Forces Captain Barry Sheehy warns that the world might be stumbling its way into another devastating global conflict that could end up as World War III. Various players engaging in insufficiently considered geopolitical activities in pursuit of disparate objectives could unleash unintended consequences of horrific devastation. US involvement in the war in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion brings into direct conflict the two countries with the world’s largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons. There are good reasons to be concerned about the mental health of the leaders of both countries.

Julian Assange asserted that “Nearly every war that has started in the past 50 years has been a result of media lies.” We should be under no delusion that the news will tell us what is really happening. The mainstream media have become megaphones for government propaganda. Not many years ago, mainstream reports on Ukraine mentioned corruption, its neo-Nazi problem, and its authoritarian president, Zelensky. Now Ukraine has become the poster child for upholding the ideals of democracy and Zelensky a courageous freedom fighter.

Sheehy points out that the West inviting Ukraine to join NATO despite Russia’s many warnings was a good way to start a war. Was NATO’s invitation a deliberate ploy to institute regime change in Russia through a war in Ukraine? Like Canada’s Trudeau, Ukraine’s Zelensky is a globalist with close connections to the World Economic Forum. Putin, in contrast, has condemned the West’s abandonment of its foundational Christian values. Is he, as an unapologetic nationalist, a major impediment to the one-world government that our globalist overlords would like to establish?

We as individuals have no control over what is happening. All we can do is not allow ourselves to be swept away by the propaganda that presents the situation in Ukraine as entirely black and white and in whatever way we can, try to pull our leaders from the brink.


In her book, The Guns of August, historian Barbara Tuchman told the story of how, seemingly against its collective will, Europe moved inexorably toward World War One. At one point, she recounted a conversation between an ex-chancellor of Germany and his successor. “How did it all happen?” the first man asked incredulously. “Ach,” said his successor, “if we only knew.”

President John F. Kennedy, an avid reader of history, kept Tuchman’s book by his bedside throughout the Cuban Missile crisis in October 1962 as a reminder of how nations stumble into cataclysms. At that time, he was receiving nonstop advice to attack Cuba immediately. What no one knew was that retaliation by Soviet nuclear missiles had been delegated to a Soviet Colonel in Cuba who was ordered to retaliate if attacked using the missiles at his disposal. Even Soviet Premier Khrushchev was unaware these Armageddon orders were in the hands of a mere colonel in Cuba. This opened-ended Armageddon switch stayed open for days before it was discovered and closed. Appalled, Khruschev rescinded these orders and took control of all launch decisions. During that time, Kennedy was under relentless pressure from the military and Congress to attack the missile sites. He resisted. Kennedy commented bitterly that if he did what the generals wanted, no one would be alive to tell them they were wrong. Kennedy assessed correctly that Khrushchev had himself up a tree and needed time to climb down…and still survive as Soviet leader. Kennedy’s prudence and caution may well have saved the world in 1962.

The searing experience of staring into the abyss during the Missile Crisis changed Kennedy. He became committed to arms reductions and test ban treaties and a more stable relationship with the Soviet Union. He never wanted to live through a second missile crisis.

How would JFK view today’s cavalier American, Canadian and NATO response to the Ukraine war, where it is assumed that there can never be a miscalculation or misstep? Our present policy seems based on the assumption that nothing can go wrong while history teaches that going wrong is the norm rather than the exception.

Lessons from the catastrophe of WW1

WW1 was a human calamity such as the world had never before seen, and its commencement was not anticipated by most European leaders. They danced around the edge of the abyss, confident the pending catastrophe could somehow be avoided. Yet it wasn’t. Why?

The origins of WW1 can be traced to the failure of the 1848 uprising across Europe to throw out the old absolute monarchies Napoleon had banished. With the fall of Napoleon, the old order was restored, bottling up the forces of modernity and nationalism unleashed during the Napoleonic era, making 1848 inevitable. This uprising has sometimes been referred to as “a turning point in history when history failed to turn.” The old order hung on.

This set Europe’s continental monarchies on the road to obliteration in 1914-1918. The debacle of the First World War would see the old monarchical order swept away.

Past lessons turn to Hubris.

Not only were traditional 19th century monarchies unable to cope with the complexities of the 20th century but many of the tenets of the previous half century would prove fatal in the face of new challenges. From 1870-1914, Europe faced and defused countless crises between great powers. Time and again, Europe’s great powers had clashed over colonies and interests in Africa and Asia, only to find a resolution after some initial blustering and limited bloodletting.

The lesson drawn from this experience proved fatal in 1914. This represents a classic “mislearning” i.e., drawing incorrect conclusions from real events. This mislearning inculcated a sense of assurance that things could always be managed back from the brink. In a crunch, something could be arranged, such as the “Entente Cordiale” negotiated between France and Great Britain in 1904 over colonies in Africa. Decades of successfully coping with crises led to hubris rooted in the assurance that past ability to cope with international tensions was a predictor of future capacity to do the same, but by 1914 the world had changed.

In the years leading up to WW1, countries entered multiple secret treaties to support each other in the event of war. These treaties were often secret and not included in diplomatic calculus. Once triggered, these secret treaties set off a chain reaction of mobilizations that made World War 1 inevitable. Declaring war on one country now involved a war with another, previously unidentified country or countries. This turned all previous diplomatic and military calculations on their ear. The situation was ripe for miscalculation.

To make the situation more dangerous, there were those on all sides that viewed war as inevitable, perhaps even desirable. These were a minority but an influential one. The populations of many of these countries were undecided about war but not as adverse as one might expect given that they would bear the brunt of the carnage. The prototype war everyone envisaged was something akin to the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870-1871. A short, sharp affair which was soon over…not something that would kill 20 million people.

As for those in charge, an argument can be made that the moribund monarchies of central Europe and Russia were not always governed by the best and brightest. Monarchies are not meritocracies. The acuity of French and British leaders is also open to question. Thus, incompetence more than malice played a role in this tragedy.

Train Schedules

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 showed how military success could be driven by something as mundane as train schedules. Prussia won this war based on a superior logistics and transportation system. Once a general mobilization was underway, the troops needed to be moved from staging areas to deployment areas to make room for the arrival of newly mobilized units. Once the deployed troops arrived at the front they were positioned to strike. If your opponent was slow in mobilizing and deploying troops by train, you could deliver an overwhelming blow in advance of your opponent’s arrival, a modern demonstration of the American Civil War axiom of “the first with the most.” Thus, once mobilizations began, they took on a life of their own. Nations found themselves enslaved by critical train schedules as they raced to the abyss.

Ukraine: Today’s Miscalculation

Consider the crisis we face today in the Ukraine. The parallels are chilling. Our ability to avoid a nuclear war since 1945, notwithstanding the harrowing Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, provides a false sense of assurance that all crises can be managed. The lesson of how close we came to Armageddon in 1962 has been largely forgotten.

Russia’s primary objective today is to keep Ukraine out of NATO; that was a red line not to be crossed. Yet the west invited Ukraine to apply to join NATO. If someone wanted to trigger a war this would be a good way to start one. Russia, on the other hand, thought Ukraine would be quickly overwhelmed. Even the US government predicted Kyiv would be occupied in short order. Much to everyone’s surprise, Ukraine did not collapse but put up a fight. So here we see miscalculation building on miscalculation. The next surprise was the bellicose response of the US and NATO to Russia’s invasion. Ukraine is not part of NATO. There are no treaty obligations requiring NATO to come to Ukraine’s assistance. But NATO countries and, in particular, the US, sent arms, money and supplies on a scale that took everyone by surprise.

Subtly, the aim of the war in Ukraine evolved into an attempt to defeat Russia and bring about regime change. Where did that come from? Suddenly, all bets were off.

Talk of nuclear conflict now became commonplace, confident in the assumption it would never happen. The room for miscalculation grew into chasm. Then we have evidence emerging that it might have been the US which destroyed the German-Russian Nord Stream gas pipeline. If true, the implications for Germany’s continued role in NATO and even the stability of the European Union are unnerving. Who could possibly have thought that attacking Nord Stream was a good idea?

Meanwhile, Russia has withdrawn from the START nuclear treaty and plans to expand its nuclear arsenal. China is likewise expanding its nuclear arsenal. The alert status of nuclear forces in Russia have been heightened.

Now let’s consider the matter of competence. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan was a debacle, leaving behind $80 billion in front-line US equipment. The awful spectacle of the withdrawal hurt US prestige around the world. Meanwhile, Russia, China and Iran are forming an alliance. The maxim of US foreign policy since Richard Nixon has been to keep Russia and China apart. Somehow the west allowed, even facilitated, this deadly merger. The announcement of a new potential global currency based on Russia, China, Brazil, South Africa, India and Indonesia threatens the status of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. The alienation of Saudi Arabia, as the US sought an accommodation with Iran, has ended the petrodollar which was the bulwark of the US currency’s status as the world’s reserve currency. Massive deficits have only weakened the dollar’s standing globally.

This is just a partial list but the message is clear. US foreign policy is not in steady hands. Mistakes have been made and others may be looming. Putin has made his own mistakes. He thought Ukraine would crack within days. It did not happen. These are the hands in which the future of mankind rests. Meanwhile, no one is talking seriously about a cease fire and negotiations. How is this possible?

As per the lessons of 1914, how sure are we this crisis can be managed and will not spin out of control? On that count the lessons of history are hardly reassuring.

Capt. Barry Sheehy CD.


About the author

Originally from Montreal, Canada, Barry Sheehy holds degrees from Loyola and McGill Universities and the Canadian Armed Forces Decoration. After leaving the military, Mr. Sheehy entered the entrepreneurial world of business consulting, advising multinational corporate executives in more than a dozen countries throughout Europe, Japan, North America, the Middle East and the Pacific Rim. Throughout his successful business career, he has progressed a love of history to become ranked as #3 among notable Canadian historians.

His written works have appeared along side of those of Presidents Clinton and Bush, Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin and business leaders such as Lou Gerstner, Jack Welch, and Michael Dell, Edwards Deming, Stephen R. Covey, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Gary Hamel, Peter Senge and Tom Peters. His speaking tours have taken him to Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mexico, Canada, and the United States. He is the author of six books. in the areas of supply chain management, investment optimization and quality improvement.


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