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The tragic history of Chicken

In the game of “chicken,” two individuals, maybe armed with Buicks, hurtle toward each other at breakneck speed. It is a game which, if played out to its apparent purpose, amounts to a joint suicide pact. But in fact, that’s not the intention at all. Chicken is based on bluff. The game is meant to be cheap theater, not a prelude to tragic reality. Each participant, of course, assumes the other will blink, will swerve to avoid the collision, and that the non-swerving “winner” will strut away to bloodless applause. Although there is no guarantee, the game is meant to be won and lost without loss of life, or even injury. But what if each misjudges the other? Then both die.

Such a game of chicken is usually the sphere of immature teenage boys trying desperately to hide their enormous insecurities behind a façade of bravado. Even if no one is hurt in the contest, we shake our heads over the juvenile irresponsibility. But at least the pimply faced boys are gambling only with their own lives, rather than with others’. With two lives, rather than millions. No, for profound foolishness on that scale, we have to turn to the wholly “adult” world of statecraft.

In Europe, in the summer of 1914, an epic five-sided game of chicken was played, but by heads of state, not teenagers, and armed with massive military arsenals, not Buicks. In this “game,” all miscalculated, none blinked. The resulting “crash” became World War I.

These inept leaders of the Great Powers did not want a general European war any more than the Buicks’ drivers want a head-on collision. There were genuine differences between the Powers, but considering the cost of a continental-scale war, it made no sense to wage one. Still, in their belligerent rhetoric during that summer of crisis, they all appeared to crave war. According to Cambridge University historian Christopher Clark, they did so because they all “imagined that ‘bluffing’ would suffice to achieve success. None of the players thought that it would be necessary to go all the way.” Instead of cool-headed, diplomatic efforts to diffuse the crisis, they opted for crowd-pleasing displays of “arrogance and swaggering.” Once ensnared in the momentum of their own warlike words, though, they felt they had to “go all the way,” or else appear weak. And so, like “sleepwalkers,” Clark says, they stumbled into an unnecessary war, “blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” Twenty million soldiers and civilians would pay with their lives for that empty swagger.

And we find that, whether on a lonely stretch of country road or in the arena of global politics, the tragic dynamic of “chicken” is the same. It is the familiar and pathetic attempt to compensate for boyish insecurities with bluster. This was best exemplified in 1914 by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Historian Margaret McMillan says that he had been “an unloved, restless child” who, therefore, “had never grown up.” And yet, this man-child, this bombastic bully had come to control the most powerful army in the world. His “erratic behavior and wild statements,” adds McMillan, “had done much to unsettle Europe” even before that fateful summer.

To be sure, Wilhelm shared blame with many others. But still, history’s lesson is clear, and it applies equally to German Kaisers, Czarist Foreign Ministers, or French Ambassadors — or to a Supreme Leader of North Korea, and a President of the United States. Immature tantrums and taunts in crisis times are not only counter-productive; they are criminally reckless.

Like the shell-shocked battlefields of 1914’s war, the history of the 20th century is littered with the tragic consequences of 1914’s folly. Here in 2017, let’s be wary of disfiguring the 21st century with a repeat performance.
Jim Wiggins is a retired Copiah-Lincoln Community College history instructor.

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