Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Stumbling into Catastrophe: Word Confusion

The great majority of events lack clearly definable causes, they just happen; but some happenings acquire a catastrophic momentum. When a relatively minor event appears to have been responsible for triggering a far greater disaster it is clear that a whole complex of prior conditions must have been in place, ready to go, as it were. The assassination of the Arch-Duke Ferdinand, for instance, certainly sparked off the First World War, but it could not really be said to have caused it; the causes were manifold and deep-seated. Indeed, the underlying causes of this dreadful event are so many and various that, with hindsight, the conflict would appear to have been almost inevitable.

But the judgement of the 'historical inevitability' of the First World War, or indeed of any major historical event, is simply being wise after the event. This applies to the whole of history. Every aspect of the past is attended by the ghosts of what-might-been - if this or that battle had not been lost; if the King had had an heir; if the alliance had held; if the weather had been more favourable, or if, as at Waterloo, Napoleon had not been suffering from haemorrhoids - and so on ad infinitum. Chance and error have always made at least as important a contribution to the course of history as carefully laid plans.

It is clear though that catastrophes originate in some smaller initial event. The process become increasingly likely to occur as the conditions of 'catastrophic poise' become more acute - that is to say where a sequence of events become increasingly likely, and increasingly drastic in their outcome. A useful analogy for this state is that of a mountain peak, at the top of which a small piece of stone becomes detached. A loose stone might tumble a short way and come to rest - or it could roll in a slightly different direction, dislodge others, and create an avalanche. The avalanche might then destroy an entire Alpine village.

If we count the Second World War as deriving from the First, then the assassination of Ferdinand at Sarajevo set off the most devastating series of events in modern history, perhaps in all history. But the incidents that trigger catastrophes are not always so dramatic - they may indeed be quite trivial in themselves. The following accounts, one from the recent past, the other from the 13th century, are extreme cases. The circumstances are quite different, but what they both illustrate is the truly appalling consequences that may follow from confusion over a single word. An imprecise word can become a loose stone …

Word Confusion and Catastrophe 1

In July 1945 the Japanese War Cabinet received the Potsdam Ultimatum from the Allied forces, demanding that they surrender or face crushing defeat. By this time, with most of their cities in ruins, and with mainland invasion threatened, it was clear that they had little choice. The Emperor was prepared to end the war, and he had the power to do so. The Japanese cabinet were urgently considering the ultimatum, but wanted more time to discuss terms. They released a statement declaring a policy of Mokusatsu.

Unfortunately the transitive verb Mokusatsu has two distinct shades of meaning - it can mean 'to ignore', but it may also indicate the intention to 'refrain from comment'. The statement issued by the War Cabinet was intended convey the latter meaning to the Allied forces, but an error in translation meant that it went out as 'The Cabinet ignores the demand to surrender'.

The mistake was soon realised by the Japanese War Cabinet, but to have recalled the statement would have involved an unthinkable loss of face. If the intended meaning had been made clear to the Allied forces, they might have given pause - and the Japanese Cabinet might, within a short time, have backed the Emperors decision to capitulate. Instead the U.S. secretary of War, Henry Stimpsom, gained the impression that the Japanese were not at all prepared to surrender, without, as he put it, suffering a 'tremendous shock'.

The decision was then taken to use the new, powerful weapon that had only recently become available. Hiroshima was bombed on 6th August, Nagasaki three days later.

Word Confusion and Catastrophe 2

In the early part of the 13th century the Muslim world was enjoying a period of exceptional peace and prosperity. Its old enemy, the Byzantine Empire, had recently been shattered by their fellow Christians, the Latin Crusaders, whose own incursion into Islamic territory had now been reduced to a few strongholds on the Syrian shore. The rest of the Dar al-Islam, including North Africa and the Middle East had attained a rare stability. The Shi'ite heresy had been curtailed, and for the first time in centuries there were no serious internal divisions, and no serious external threat. But this impression of security and prosperity was completely illusory - in reality Islam was on the eve of its greatest ever disaster.

The danger, to which the entire Islamic world was oblivious, lay just beyond its eastern-most extremity in Central Asia, the area now known as Trans-Oxiana. At the time this was the centre of the extensive Khwarismian empire, ruled by one Mohammed-Shah. Khwarismia was then at the height of its confidence and prosperity. Mohammad had inherited the flourishing Islamic culture that was centred around the lower Oxus and its ancient cities of Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand. He ruled a vast area that extended from Kurdistan and the Persian Gulf in the west north to the Aral Sea, east to the Pamirs and south to the Indus. Khwarismia itself was noted for its great fertility. Its intricate system of canals and dykes fed an extensive network of fields, orchards, and vineyards. This irrigation system had also created rich pasturelands that supported huge herds of cattle and sheep. In addition, its position as an international crossroads had made it an important centre of commerce. The Khwarism Empire was wealthy, and it was powerful. Mohammad-Shah was able to muster an army of a quarter of a million well-equipped men if the need arose.

Sometime in 1218 a caravan of a hundred camels, laden with goods, entered Khwarismia from the east. It had been sent by a hitherto unknown nomad chief who had recently acquired the desolate territory to the east. In an accompanying message he offered peace and trade, and assured his neighbours of his good intentions towards them. It was true that he had been involved in expanding his own territories, but his ambitions were now fulfilled, he wished to establish the River Jaxartes as the natural boundary between their respective lands. He would treat the Lord of the West as he would his own son ...

The drama that followed turned on the interpretation of this word 'son': it became the dislodged stone that was to start an avalanche. The Khwarismians became suspicious of the communiqué. What exactly did this upstart mean by 'son'? Was he suggesting that he regarded Mohammad as his vassal? They became enraged at the suggestion. They would show him who was master. The goods were seized and those accompanying the caravan were put to death. When he got to hear of this the nomad chief was extremely disappointed. He felt that there must have been a misunderstanding, and despatched a second caravan. He repeated his intention to stay on good terms with his neighbour and this time, to make sure the message got through, he sent a close aide as a personal envoy. But the Khwarismians responded to this new overture in the same manner. The goods and animals were taken, the accompanying merchants killed, and the envoy was sent back with his head shaved. It was a calculated insult - and one of the most dreadful mistakes in the whole of history. For the nomad chieftain was a certain Temujin, known by future generations as Genghis Khan.

There is something of a consensus now among historians, that Gengis Khan was probably sincere in his wish to establish good relations with his western neighbour at this time. He had taken much of northern China, but the conquest was far from complete, fighting was to continue for many years to come. It was not in his interest to initiate fresh hostilities so far afield, when his armies were tied up in the east. But the reckless arrogance of the Khwarismians made war inevitable. In this way the Mongols were drawn to the west; it was a momentous turning point in history.

The campaign against Khwarismia, mounted in 1219, was completed in just five months. The Mongol tactics involved the deliberate and systematic use of terror. The Muslim army was swept away. The scale of the looting, murder, rape and destruction that accompanied these conquests were without parallel in history. City after city met the same dreadful fate. After Khwarismia the Mongols turned south to eastern Iran and continued their ravages. They left an estimated 15 million corpses and created deserts where there had once been flourishing civilisations. The region has never, to this day, recovered. Mohammad, the Khwarism-Shah, was relentlessly hunted down and finally murdered in northern India.

After the conquest of Khwarismia and Iran Genghis returned to his base in Mongolia. He died a few years later in 1227, but the Mongols had not finished with the new western world that they had discovered. In 1251 Genghis's grandson Hulagu led a second wave of Mongol invasions westwards, plundering what had been left of Iran before turning his attention to the Islamic heartlands of the Middle East. Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus, the greatest and most beautiful cities in the world, with their incomparable cultural accumulations, were destroyed. At this time the very survival of Islam seemed to be in question.

Another of Gengis Khan's grandsons, Subotei, led an equally devastating assault on Europe. Russia was the first to be ravaged, Hungary and Poland soon followed. The hordes were banging on the gates of Italy and Germany when Subotei suddenly returned to Mongolia. Europe (except for Russia which bore the 'Mongol yoke' for two more centuries) was saved, not by its own efforts, but by the Mongols need to elect a new leader back in their homeland. Fortunately for Western Europe, they never returned.