A Misadventure

King Arthur was mortally wounded as a result of a military accident; allegedly his forces and Mordred’s were facing eachother in a state of high tension and one of the soldiers saw an adder, drew his sword to kill it, and everyone mis-read the waving steel and the battle began.

I’m skeptical; it seems like a transparent plot device. But accidents can lead to military disasters – probably the most notable historical accident was when Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary’s car stopped right outside of the pub where Gavrilo Princip, would-be assassin, was having a sandwich. Events can take on a life of their own, and sometimes it’s murderous. That’s why I’m attuned to mistakes in the nuclear command/control systems – nuclear wars are pretty damn irrevocable and the command loop is not as controlled as we are led to believe. In any case an immediate, accidental nuclear war is pretty unlikely unless we roll ’00’ some year, but a cascading military disaster like the one that started WWI is a fairly plausible scenario.

I suppose the degree to which an accidental war is probable has something to do with the preparedness and force structures near the accident. That’s why the nuclear “inbound missile!” alert in Hawaii on Jan 23, 2018 [wik] was not catastrophic or even anything but scary – nobody local could return fire and nobody did. That is a different proposition, entirely, when you have a region like the Korean border. The North Koreans have massive artillery parks (and now, nuclear weapons) aimed at Seoul, and if they think they are being attacked, they might  make a catastrophic mistake. The same goes for the US troops and South Korean troops – those guys are also living on a knife-edge, especially when the US is busy blustering about North Korea’s nuclear defiance, and making threats. [vice]

A U.S. Army base in South Korea picked perhaps worst time to sound a false alarm: on Thursday night, an emergency siren went off, stirring a momentary panic that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had delivered the “Christmas gift” he threatened to send the U.S.

The announcement system at Camp Casey was meant to play Taps, the somber song played at military funerals, at 10 p.m. local time to signal the end of the day, as is customary at the base. Instead, an emergency siren blared over the speaker system.

Speaking of system design, the lost art-form: how manual is the announcement system at Camp Casey? I.e.: how dipshit-prone is it? A reasonable system design, if the announcement system is part of the emergency command/control, would be to have a redundant capability, and one of the redundant systems is configured for emergencies and the other for normal announcements. I.e.: a big red button that says “emergency warning” and perhaps an iPad full of .MP3 files of normal announcements, and a microphone for adding new ones. I’m imaging having Karl Kasell doing the voice-overs for the standard announcements. “Dinner… TIME!” or whatever.

“(click) Sword is about to be drawn but it’s OK we need to kill an adder. (click)”

I went looking in Mallory, expecting a beautiful illustration of the sword-adder incident, but oddly, the whole story about the death of Arthur and the return of the sword to the lake is all jammed in the last few pages, with no illustrations at all.

Another literary conceit I always loved was Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo and the “is this an accident, or an incident?” bit. This situation was, I suppose, an accident that could have become an incident.


  1. says

    a cascading military disaster like the one that started WWI is a fairly plausible scenario

    My school’s history book stated that the assassination was not the cause of the war, it was merely an excuse. The war started, because everybody on both sides wanted a war. The assassination merely served as a handy excuse.

    I suppose the degree to which an accidental war is probable has something to do with the preparedness and force structures near the accident.

    Yes, also their willingness to start a war. If people want a war, they will find some excuse. If people don’t want a war, they will seek diplomatic solutions instead.

  2. Dunc says

    I agree with Andreas – without the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, they would have just found some other excuse. Everybody talks about that assassination, but hardly anybody talks about the assassination of the great French socialist and anti-militarist Jean Jaurès, which was arguably as important.

    I have been known to argue that WWI was a war fought by the ruling classes of Europe against their own working classes. I’m not going to defend that view at any length here, but I think it’s worth at least considering.

  3. says

    Dunc @#2

    Everybody talks about that assassination

    In my history curriculum (at school, later university) we didn’t talk about that assassination almost al all. It was more like, “The guy got killed, that was a timely and handy excuse to start a war, now let’s talk about the real reasons why this war happened: military alliances, militarization and preparations for a war, imperial ambitions, economic motivations, etc.”

  4. springa73 says

    I think that the real question regarding the start of WWI is why the leaders of the various European powers were prepared to go to war in the summer of 1914 when they had not been before. There had been earlier diplomatic crises that had not led to war, in spite of militarization and opposing alliance systems. European leaders were not totally blind to how dangerous and destructive a general war could be, though they tended to underestimate how long it would last. So why did both sides refuse to try diplomacy in summer 1914 when they had been willing to compromise in earlier crises?

    (Not a rhetorical question – I’ve read a few possible explanations but don’t have confidence in any of them.)

  5. brucegee1962 says

    I haven’t looked into the causes of WWI in great detail, but I have friends who discuss it endlessly. The consensus I believe they came to was that the German high command was convinced that Russia was on a trajectory that would overtake them in a decade or so, and that was a situation they could not tolerate. They knew that fighting a war might destroy Europe, but that was a price they were willing to pay so long as it kept Russia in its proper place.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    Also, if anyone here is at all interested in Arthurian stories, you ought to read T.H. White’s Once and Future King and its sequel, the Book of Merlin (he has much the same attitude towards wars as our host Marcus does). In his version, it isn’t an adder that the knight draws his sword to kill — it’s a harmless garter snake. Camelot is destroyed simply because people are natural born killers.

  7. Dunc says

    My pet theory is that there were a number of factors that the ruling elites of Europe were very uncomfortable with – excess industrial capacity, a burgeoning working class population, and above all the threat of international working class solidarity – which they thought could be neatly dealt with by a nice little war, which would also have various other side-benefits such as allowing a new generation of aristocratic officers to cut their teeth in the field. Unfortunately, the war they ended up with was neither nice nor little, and turned out to be much harder to end than to start.

  8. lorn says

    Way back in olden times, when phones were mainly on walls in kitchens and the height of automotive technology was the hydraulic lifter, a cynically perverse hypothetical was raised: If you wanted to start a nuclear war; how would you do it? Let’s say you have an army of fanatics and 50 to 100 million dollars.

    Our solution was this: Fake a missile launch by using large diameter aluminum duct as a decoy body. Launch it with commercial drill pipe using a design developed by the French. Launch a couple of dozen from a commercial freighter onto a rough ballistic path toward a major Russian city that just happens to be a major nuclear sub base. The Russians would see a missiles rise up, as if launched from a sub, and flying toward their base. They have minutes to react.

    Of course the decoy missiles burn out after three minutes and fall to earth nowhere near the sub base but, odds are, that nuclear war has already started as the real ballistic missiles are on their way.

    Of course, that was way back then. The Russians, given their poor radar coverage of the day, might not have even seen your fake missiles coming in.

    Now it should be easier. Work your decoy strike on the India/Pakistan border when they are at the height of sabre rattling. Ranges are shorter, reaction times shorter, radar coverage a sure thing, tensions higher, estimation of the reasonableness of the other side lower.

    And no, nuclear wars are not hard to stop. When all the missiles have flown and all the bombs have been dropped they stop all by themselves. Interrupting one in the middle isn’t difficult, given the mentality of the likely participants, once it starts; stopping it is likely impossible.

  9. neptune8191 says

    For an excellent fictional treatment of a contemporary North Korea / US nuclear war started by various misunderstandings/overreactions/etc of this sort, see:

    Jeffrey Lewis
    “The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel”
    ISBN13: 9781328573919
    ISBN10: 1328573915

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