It happened today - March 4, 2016

The philosopher Heraclitus called war “the father of all” some 25 centuries ago. It is an unpleasant thought that armed conflict, widely regarded by humans as among humans’ most loathsome habits, could also be among our most important and, worse, effective. Over the long run ideas matter more, I am convinced. And yet it is not hard to point to specific battles and say if that had gone the other way, and it might have, the world would be dramatically different.

Take the 1238 Battle of the Sit River. Please. A showdown between the Mongol Hordes (a revealing agreed title for a socio-military enterprise) of Batu Khan and the Rus’ under Grand Prince Yuri II of Vladimir-Suzdal, it ended very badly for the latter. Trying to rally his men after the sack of his capital of Vladimir, Yuri was instead surrounded, beaten and of course killed by the Mongols.

This battle represented the end of organized resistance to the Mongols, who placed their disastrous political stamp on Russia over the next two centuries and turned it decisively away from the West with pernicious consequences we and they are still living with in the 21st century. Prior to this rupture Kievan Rus’ and the various principalities were oriented toward the West.

Now perhaps Yuri and his culture were doomed anyway, and a victory at the Sit River would merely have delayed the catastrophe by a few months or years. But perhaps not. Perhaps if the timing had been a bit different, if the scouts had reported the position of the Mongols before it was “they’re all around us”, if some obscure and desperate struggle on some frozen hill had gone the other way, the Mongols might have been beaten off and Yuri might have become the nexus of a successful resistance celebrated to this day in story and song.

If so, it would have been one more example of how war is not merely decisive, but can be a decisive force for good in a turbulent and troubled world.

Alas, it was not to be. And this war was the father of an epic disaster still haunting us eight centuries later.