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Veterans Day should remind us of the perils of escalation

Veterans Day should remind us of the perils of escalation

President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCorsi sues Mueller for alleged leaks and illegal surveillance Comey: Trump 'certainly close' to being unindicted co-conspirator Trump pushes back on reports that Ayers was first pick for chief of staff MORE will be in Paris on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. He will be meeting with world leaders to remember those who served and may even briefly meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, Trump will be skipping the Paris Peace Forum, a gathering intended to help world powers and institutions avoid past mistakes including the miscalculations and escalations that led to World War I. This Veterans Day, all American leaders should consider how confrontation can spiral out of control, especially given tensions with Russia and China.

Policymakers in Washington who send U.S. service members overseas into harm’s way should recall the purpose of Veterans Day. Originally called Armistice Day, Veterans Day was born out of the horror of that conflict as a way to thank those who served and to promote peace. World War I was initially seen as a chance to defend national honor and assert supremacy over old enemies. But the exuberant crowds that greeted war were not to be seen again. 

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Although there were many reasons for World War I — militarism, alliances, nationalism — it didn’t have to happen. It was the decisions of each European leader that collectively escalated the crisis. There were instances in which they could have backed down but did not. Troop timetables, the speed of information from the telegram and telephone, and the security dilemma of not trusting or knowing each other’s intentions led to mobilization.

Of course, whoever mobilized first would have an advantage. This prisoner’s dilemma incentivized everyone to go to war footing even if they didn’t want to. Moreover, Europe’s politicians and generals were driven by an arrogant certainty in quick victory and fear of looking weak or being caught off-guard. Twenty million dead and 21 million injured was the result.

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In 1986, the United States led the largest military exercises in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) history. NATO, the military alliance between America and its European allies, held wargames called Autumn Forge 83 which included over about 100,000 soldiers. In addition, a command scenario called Able Archer simulated the release of nuclear weapons. Although just a drill, NATO’s exercises gave the Soviets a war scare, convincing their leadership America might attack. Thankfully, the Soviet Union did not react with force and President Regan, learning of Moscow’s reaction afterward, shifted to diplomacy and arms control.

This war scare matters because America and its rivals, Russia and China, have large exercises to this day. All it takes is one accident or miscommunication such as a crash of two jets, someone who gets jumpy firing their weapon, or a belief that war is imminent to cause the unthinkable. 

Furthermore, today’s world is different from World War I in two important respects; now the great powers have nuclear weapons and the speed of information — much of it inaccurate or false — over social media constricts reaction times. Therefore, military-to-military communication, a willingness to de-escalate, and tools such as hotlines are all the more valuable.

More recently, NATO’s largest war game since 2002 concluded on November 7th. Called Trident Juncture, the exercises tested the alliance’s ability to defend Norway and involved 50,000 forces, 65 ships including a U.S. carrier battle group, 10,000 vehicles, and 250 aircraft. The problem wasn’t Trident Juncture itself per se so much as if a crisis emerged and both sides upped the ante. Imagine if one of Russia’s long-range bombers was shot down while probing Norway’s defenses.

What if NATO had simulated a missile release or Russia hosted counter war games nearby? What if NATO hosted exercises in Poland? What if massive anti-Putin protests had erupted during the exercise and Moscow thought everything was a Western-orchestrated plot for regime change?

Over the past two years, I attended two war games held at George Mason University’s Schar school that were run by the U.S. War College. One simulation was over a crisis in Kaliningrad and the Baltics, the other over the South China Sea. In each of these scenarios, I watched as calls for diplomatic outreach or a pause in exercises or deployments were ignored by enough key players to make a difference.

I saw the cycle of tit-for-tat as each side made more bellicose statements and held bigger exercises closer to each other’s borders. In each game, all it took was an accident, overreaction, miscommunication, or misperception on intent to cause initial bloodshed. After that it was war.

American leaders must understand how cycles of escalation happen and how to break them before they get out of hand. To do otherwise would be a disservice to everyone who has and will serve. Veterans Day and the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I should be a time to remember that.

John Dale Grover is a fellow with Defense Priorities and an assistant managing editor at the National Interest. He is also a free societies fellow at Young Voices. His articles have appeared in Real Clear Defense, the American Conservative, Fox News, and Defense One. His views are his own.