History Doesn’t Stop When Armies Cease Firing

The story, like many that come out of Russia, is murky. Government agents arrested Mikhail Khodorovsky, Russia’s richest man and the chairman of Yukos Oil Company, the world’s fourth-largest energy firm. They also froze 44 percent of Yukos’ assets. Prosecutors accuse Mr. Khodorovsky of, among other things, evading $1 billion dollars in taxes (he is worth $8 billion). The big question on the table: What does the arrest show about the attitude of President Vladimir Putin to free enterprise? Is he planning to renationalize big Russian industries? (He says he is not.)

Communism officially fell in the Soviet Union a little over 12 years ago. I wrote a scattershot column about that event for this paper, because my deadline came in mid-fall; I was also leaving for a vacation. So it was at a Cairo hotel, and in the International Herald Tribune , that I saw the headline “COMMUNISM COLLAPSES.” It was one of the most momentous revolutions of the last century, and one of the least bloody.

But wait. Blood was shed later, in Chechnya. Who would have thought? Who would have thought then that, 12 years later, the President of Russia would be an ex-K.G.B. officer, who might-or might not-be favorable to free enterprise? “History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors”-more cunning than we who walk them.

Textbooks give prominence to first shots and peace treaties; both look equally clear and definite. Yet it is easier to begin a war or a revolution than to end one. Our simple model of the clean finish was set in stone by the end of World War II, still the biggest shooting war in living, or close to living, memory. Two images-the mushroom cloud, and the Japanese diplomats in striped pants and cutaways on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri -tell a compelling story. Drop some big ones on the bad guys, and they give up. They give up so completely that the only question is whether, after years of emulation, they learn to beat their vanquishers at their own economic game. Ruined Berlin and the seedy, shifty murderers in the Nuremberg dock make the same point about Nazi Germany.

But World War II is a rare case. Wars, unlike American lives, tend to have second acts, generally messy ones.

The War of the Spanish Succession began in 1701 with a dynastic quibble: Would the throne of Spain, which then ruled an empire that stretched from Milan to Mexico, pass to a grandson of the King of France? England, Holland and Austria said no, and assembled a grand anti-French alliance. There was many a famous victory; the Duke of Marlborough, the English commander, got a splendid palace out of the Battle of Blenheim. Then, after a decade, England tired of taxation, impeached the duke and quit. The war stuttered to a halt as other allies threw in their successive towels. England confirmed its reputation as perfidious Albion, but why blame England? Who says wars have to end all at once?

In 1754, another world war began when a young Virginia militia officer, George Washington, surprised and “murdered” (that was the French view) some French troops in the Pennsylvania woods. This war, the Seven Years’ War, would suck India into its vortex, as well as Europe and the New World. This time England stuck it out, and groaned under such a load of booty at war’s end that they gave some of it back to France. They did keep Canada, though, which had unforeseen consequences. England’s American colonists, no longer fearful of French bogeymen operating out of Quebec, instead became resentful of England. In time, General Washington threw them off, with French help.

This wasn’t quite the end for us, however. The British continued to take a proprietary view of American Indians and of American sailors (especially if they were British deserters), until we found ourselves going one more round in the War of 1812. When John Quincy Adams signed the Treaty of Ghent which ended that war, he remarked that he hoped it would be the last peace treaty between the two countries. He was right, although the last battle of that war, the Battle of New Orleans, was fought after the Treaty of Ghent was signed.

Picking weak enemies can raise the odds for closure. We beat Mexico pretty badly in the Mexican War, and they stayed beaten. So did Spain after the Spanish-American War. Yet after that war, we had to fight Filipino guerrillas when we decided to occupy the country that they thought we had come to liberate.

Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War I, the war to end all wars. Yet the end of World War I did not even end itself, as the Allied powers toyed with subduing the revolution in their former ally Russia, and as Greece tried to divvy up the Turkish rump of the Ottoman Empire. The Allies did not make a big push in Russia; most of the deaths in that country were inflicted by Russians upon themselves. But the Greco-Turkish War resulted in the ethnic cleansing of millions.

When Dwight Eisenhower was running for President in 1952, he promised to go to Korea, to see for himself what might be done to end the war there. Ike won, and the fighting stopped. Yet for 50 years we have kept thousands of troops on the peninsula, which the son of the dictator who launched the Korean War now threatens with nuclear weapons.

Coming to our own time, President George H.W. Bush crushed Saddam Hussein with a brilliant land and air campaign. Who would have thought that only 12 years later, President Bush’s son would have to do it all over again?

This is not an argument for pacifism. Some wars are necessary and just, whether weighed in the balance of Realpolitik , or measured by the horrors they end and the freedoms they midwife. The aftershocks of war must be measured by the same criteria as the wars themselves-the costs involved, the interests to be served.