As Americans watch the unfolding crisis in Syria and the zealous treachery of the ISIS terrorists, a number of moments stand ready as catalysts for greater U.S. military involvement. Gruesome acts such as the beheading of American journalist James Foley only serve to inch us closer to all out war.
When ISIS or other similarly motivated groups harm innocent people, it raises our collective ire. It should. Unfortunately, the death of innocents is the invariable spark that ignites the flame of war. This situation is neither new nor novel.
History is filled with examples where nascent war expands beyond the confines of the military. In cases like ISIS or al Qaeda, it is often difficult to tell the combatants from the civilians. Often no reliable line can be drawn. It’s that gray line or the alleged gray line that introduces so much needless cost into the bill of war.
Seldom do these acts exist without a foundation of violence. A prime example can be found not in the modern era but from the first world war.
Before August 28, 1914 — one hundred years ago today — World War I had been largely confined to land-based battles. This day would see the inauguration of battle on the high seas.
The first significant North Sea meeting between British and German ships took place off the German coast in a partially enclosed body of water known as Heligoland Bight. This area was used to shelter several bases of the German High Seas Fleet. Just as importantly, it served as a good origination point for attacks against Britain.
Before Heligoland, the German fleet rarely ventured far from port. This changed when British commander Reginald Tyrwhitt was given the task of leading a small fleet of British ships, including two light cruisers, HMS Fearless and HMS Arethusa, and several destroyers, into the bight as a tactic to lure German ships out to sea — where a much larger British force, commanded by Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty was waiting.
In the ensuing melee, the British squadron sank three German cruisers and damaged three more, causing 1,200 German casualties. In contrast, Britain lost only 35 sailors and all of their ships remained afloat.
This defeat proved highly influential for Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm. From this routing he concluded that the German navy should be kept off the open seas, as its best use was as a defensive weapon. This did not, however, mean Germany’s withdrawal from naval combat — just a change in tactics.
From that day forward, Germany’s most effective naval weapon was its fleet of U-boat submarines. Six months later in February 1915, Germany announced unrestricted warfare against all ships, neutral or otherwise, that entered the war zone around Britain. A month after that, a German cruiser sank the William P. Frye, a private American merchant vessel that was transporting grain to England.
On May 7, the British-owned Lusitania ocean liner en route to Liverpool from New York, was torpedoed without warning just off the coast of Ireland. Of the 1,959 passengers, 1,198 were killed, including 128 Americans.
This event represents one of history’s most notorious moments in gray-line acts of war.
The German government maintained that the Lusitania was carrying munitions. In response, the U.S. demanded reparations and an end to German attacks on unarmed passenger and merchant ships.
Breaking its subsequent pledge to see to the safety of passengers before sinking unarmed vessels, in November, Germany sank an Italian liner without warning, killing 272 people, including 27 Americans.
From that point forward, American opinion became much more amenable to direct involvement in the European war. With each act of terror in the Middle East we take steps down a similar path.