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Richard J. Maybury portrait


Remind them of the battle of Jumonville Glen

By Richard J. Maybury

Reprint from the May 2014 EWR

In 1754, a British militia company under the command of a lieutenant colonel arrived at Jumonville Glen, about 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. There the British force of 47 men encountered a French force of about 35.

The lieutenant colonel was inexperienced. Finding himself in a legally and diplomatically muddy situation, he was unsure what to do. He got confused and lost control of some of his men. They started shooting.

This began what Americans refer to as the French and Indian War, and what is more widely known as the Seven Years War. The fighting was so vicious and widespread — the bloodiest of the century — that it killed at least a million men, women and children. Theaters of the war included not only North America but Europe, Africa, India, Cuba, the Caribbean, the Philippines and South America.

The lieutenant colonel was 22 years old. Given more responsibility than he could handle, he launched what is often called a world war.

His name was George Washington.

Despite the tendency of US history buffs to see Washington and the other leaders of 1776 as gods, the founders were as human as you and me. They made mistakes, lots of them.

They are heroes because they rose above their human failings to create a wonderfully successful revolution to advance the system of liberty. This insurrection eventually stretched around the globe ("the shot heard round the world") to shatter all the old European empires.

But I digress.

My point is that a lot of big wars…

…have begun the way the Seven Years War did, as accidents.

Today it is popular wisdom in the financial industry to say the conflict between Moscow and Nato over Ukraine, or the one between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkaku Islands, or any of the other face-offs now growing out of the destruction of Westphalia, will not lead to major big-iron wars. Supposedly, the opponents will recognize how damaging a huge war would be to their economies, and at the last moment they will back off.

Maybe so. Or not. Every one of the enlisted people and officers in all armed forces is human, and makes mistakes. Washington's in 1754 led to a great conflagration, which almost doubled his government's1 debt, created a credit squeeze, and brought a blizzard of oppressive new taxes and regulations, plus a thundering herd of regulators. These burdens enraged American colonists and led to the 1776 revolution.2 This began the decline of the British Empire, and demoted Great Britain to what it is today, just Britain.

What politicians around the world and especially in the US…

…often seem not to recognize…

…is that war is so strenuous it is an occupation for the young, like Washington in 1754. In the US military today, only 9% of all active duty personnel are older than 40,3 and this is typical of armies on every continent.

The term "military precision" is a fiction. There is little exaggeration in the statement that armies in every country are groups of teenagers with pimples and guided missiles. I can tell you from personal experience that this is why sergeants are not famous for having tranquil Type B personalities.

Politicians assume their forces — and those of their enemies — are under control and will not fire unless ordered to. But as Lt. Col. Washington discovered, and sergeants know, this is an irresponsible fantasy.

Lots of governments induct troops as young as 16. In Iran it's 15.4 So, in almost every army, the guts-to-brains ratio is heavily loaded to the guts side.

The Swiss army may be an exception. It's a tough, savvy, well trained outfit. I admire them. Their national defense strategy is the right kind. But in the mid-1800s, the Swiss decided to no longer participate in wars, so other governments consider them a bad influence and do not emulate them.

As the Battle of Lexington in 1775, and the killing of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 demonstrated…

...it only takes one shot to start a war

Any time you see rival national leaders angrily arraying their forces against, and within range of, each other — as today with Ukraine, Nato and Russia, and Beijing and Tokyo— you are seeing proof either that political leaders on both sides are brainless, or someone wants a fight.

Positioning forces this way is mixing gunpowder with large quantities of testosterone and fear. Minute by minute, there is no telling what will happen.

In Ukraine there have already been incidents that to me look like near repeats of Jumonville Glen.

So, if someone says you have no need to factor the demise of Westphalia into your investment strategy, because governments will be too wise to go to war, remind them of the battle of Jumonville Glen.

1 His government: that of Great Britain.



4 CIA WORLD FACTBOOK webpage, Military Service Age and Obligation.