World War I will always be remembered in history by many as a colossal waste. Millions died; billions were spent. The accumulated accomplishments of centuries of European history ground away to prepare for an era more known for evil.
The spark that lit it happened a century ago this month. Serbian terrorist Gavrillo Princip assassinated the next in line to the Hapsburg imperial throne.
And yet, the war could not have been prevented.
Each nation involved played by the rules of national ambition and/or rose to defend historical obligations or interests.
Each followed a logical path that brought it into conflict with others.
Hindsight tells us that World War I's nihilistic effect on human history should render it tragically absurd, especially since that era had no leaders like Hitler and no nations with the ambition of 1941 Japan. World War II actually may have colored our perception of what causes war. Surely it must be an implacably evil madman behind it; no one could go to war otherwise.
No mad men here. Truth be told, all of the major national leaders, Czar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Franz Josef, H. H. Asquith, and France's premier of the month in the Third Republic were all fairly average men. Not a brilliant visionary among them.
True, Germany under the Kaiser aggressively pushed itself into every territorial dispute and sought international parity with Great Britain and France. This, however, was one of many intertwining factors leading to war.
Anyone can look into the buildup to the war, but it would be challenging to find a decision made by any party which was not consistent with its national interest and explainable logically. One may not agree with the decision, but no country, for example, invaded peaceful and non threatening neighbors. Germany backed its ally, Austria-Hungary, Russia backed Serbia, Britain backed Belgium, and so on.
Point here is that the potential for war cannot always be discounted when all states have rational leaders. States can avert war, certainly. Pretending that major wars require some element of insanity or evil, however, remains a dangerous delusion.