In the years immediately preceding that great calamity of Western civilization--the First World War--French railway wagons bore this marking: "40 men or 8 horses." That was a military marking, evidence of a fateful military doctrine--and not just a French doctrine. Other nations' railway wagons bore similar markings. The story of these markings demonstrates--as the Falklands crisis does--that military measures acquire a logic of their own.

A.J.P. Taylor, a British historian of distinction (and, granted, some perversity) wrote a slender book that should be placed in the briefcase of every statesman: titled "War by Timetable: How the First World War Began."

It was supposed to be impossible for a big war to begin. The Franco-Russian alliance was balanced by the Austro- German alliance. Both were defensive, operative only in case of an attack. So, as you can plainly see, the First World War (and, hence, the Second World War) could not happen. It was impossible. In theory.

But in 1914, all the continental powers used conscription to generate huge standing armies. Military planners knew they could have millions of men moving to some front quickly. And they had to plan for such movements. A general wrote, "Improvisation when dealing with nearly three million men and the movements of 4,278 trains, as the French had to do, is out of the question."

Because mobilization was such a gargantuan undertaking, it had never been undertaken: it could not be practiced, so no nation knew how to begin mobilization and then stop short of war. Planners assumed that civil life would proceed normally during a mobilization, so they devised incredibly intricate railroad timetables for the movements of millions of men. No one planned how to modulate mobilization, or how to prevent the convergence of millions of men on a particular front from making war all but inevitable.

A few days before the war actually began, the Kaiser believed diplomacy might prevail, so he told his military commander to stop the mobilization against France. The commander said that would be impossible because it would require rerouting 11,000 trains.

German planners had this problem, according to Taylor: "Four armies must pass through Aachen, the only railroad junction. . . . It was impossible for all four armies to mobilize in Aachen and then wait for the declaration of war. The first army must mobilize and be on its way before the second arrived, and so on." So physical facts made a "successful" mobilization flow into--almost depend on--war. The European powers were trapped by the ingenuity of their mobilization preparations. The ingenuity was necessitated largely by railway systems.

It is idle to dwell upon how different --and better--the world would be if Europe had not had such a meshing of military doctrines and transportation capabilities--the quick movement of huge infantries, "40 men or 8 horses" in a car. For one thing, a Romanov might sit in the Kremlin. But it is not idle to study such examples of logic of military events.

For example, a fleet dispatched is apt to reach its destination, and then is apt to use force to do what it was dispatched to do--project power to work the will of those who dispatched it. Then the dialectic of force puts diplomacy at a disadvantage.

The British have been right to use force; Britain's critics have been wrong to be surprised that Britain has done so. But there is an understandable sense of unease about the seeming autonomy of events.

In the Falklands crisis, the analogy with 1938 has been pressed, with reason: dictators must be resisted. But another analogy is 1914, when events in a (then) distant corner of Europe--the Balkans--allowed small countries to unleash large events that enmeshed large nations.

Events today must make the two superpowers feel something short of super. The United States has been a hostage of events around the Falklands. And only those events are distracting world attention from the stirrings of the Polish nation against its tormentors.

The Soviet Union must be presumed to be still governed, in some sense, by a tyrant so feeble that he must periodically totter into public view just to silence speculation that he is dead. He heads a regime that is 65 years old and has not yet had what could be called a legitimate succession.

It used to be said that the Balkans produced more history than they could consume locally. The same might be said today of Eastern Europe--where both world wars began--and the Falkland Islands.