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First World War

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How To Remember The War

“If they are not remembered, was the sacrifice they made even worthwhile?” asked an American veteran of the Iraq War who named his son after a fellow soldier who was killed there. It’s quite common, actually. My brother-in-law is named after a member of his father’s bomber crew who was killed over the Balkans in 1944. But the Second World War is still just within the reach of living memory.

This week we are asked to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War. That is no longer memory; it is history. The images are familiar and some families have names and even pictures of relatives who died in the war, but very few people now alive ever knew them personally.

So how should we commemorate the war? There’s not too much rhetoric about glory any more, thankfully – we have grown up a bit – but a lot about sacrifice. That’s a safe subject, although the majority of the soldiers who fought in the war had no choice about being there.

Just under the surface, however, almost everybody now realises that the First World War was a huge, pointless waste of at least 11 million lives. Many people knew that even at the time. Yet nobody knew how to stop it at the time, and we in the present don’t really know what to say about it.

The best use of the brief interval of contemplation about war on 11 November, therefore, is to try to understand what kind of phenomenon it is. Start with a simple question: where does war come from? The answer is equally simple. Human beings didn’t invent war; they inherited it.

Our branch of the primate family has always fought wars. If there is an original sin, it goes back beyond the time when the chimpanzee and human lineages split 5 million years ago. (Chimpanzees still fight wars too.) So forget about the ‘causes of war’ in the history books. Every kind of human society, with every imaginable kind of economy, has fought wars.

Second question. How did war get so big? The First and Second World Wars were far more destructive than previous wars, and the Third World War (if the Cold War had ever turned hot) would have been at least ten times bigger than that.

When the size and resources of a society grow, it ends to fight bigger wars just because it can. The issues at stake are not bigger than before, but losing a war is so unappealing that countries generally won’t quit until they have thrown all their resources into it.

And finally, how can you tell when some stupid little thing like an assassination in Sarajevo is going to blow up into a ‘world war’ with all the trimmings. Answer: you can’t. Which brings us to the Power Law.

People want a big disaster to have a big cause and a recognisable villain, so people writing about the outbreak of the First World War try hard to find some country to blame. If they are writing in English or French they generally blame Germany, which allegedly wanted the war and made it happen. But that’s nonsense.

The Power Law describes how so-called “critical systems” like those that produce earthquakes and forest fires are completely undiscriminating about the scale of the event. Most events will be on the smaller side, but you don’t need special causes to get a huge one: literally any size of event can happen at any time.

A critical system is one that is inherently unstable, and locks in more and more instabilities as time goes by. Think of the accumulating stresses along a fault line between two continental plates, or the accumulation of inflammable debris on the forest floor. From time to time there will be earthquakes and forest fires, but most of them will be small. The Power Law says that any one of them could be the Big One.

To know if a particular class of events is subject to the Power Law, you just graph the scale of the events against their frequency. If it turns out to be a straight relationship where doubling the size of the event decreases the frequency by half – or makes it four times less likely, or sixteen times, or any other power of two – then you are dealing with a critical system.

In that case, you can forget about seeking major causes for bigger events. A random pebble is sixteen times less likely to cause a huge avalanche than a little avalanche, but it can cause either.

Jack Levy, in a massive 1983 study entitled War in the Modern Great Power System, measured the size of every war in the past 450 years by its casualties, and found that doubling the size exactly halves the frequency.

This means that great wars do not need great causes. Once sufficient strains have accumulated in a critical system, a world war can strike out of a clear blue sky, as it did in the summer of 1914. Or now, for that matter.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“People…nonsense”; and “A critical…One”)

The Armenian Genocide

It is with great reluctance that I write about the Armenian genocide, as I know from experience that what I say will infuriate both sides. But it is the hundredth anniversary of the catastrophe this month, and Pope Francis has just declared that the mass killing of Armenian citizens of the Ottoman empire in 1915 was indeed a genocide. Turkey, predictably, has responded by withdrawing its ambassador from the Vatican.

Well, surprise! We’ve been listening to this argument for several generations now, and it rarely gets much further than “Yes, you did!” “No, I didn’t!” Unfortunately, I know a lot more about it than that.

Ages ago, when I was a history graduate student doing research about Turkey’s role in the First World War, I got into the Turkish General Staff archives in Ankara and found the actual telegrams (written in the old riqa script) that went back and forth between Istanbul and eastern Anatolia in the spring of 1915.

Later on I saw the British and Russian documents on their plans for joint action with Armenian revolutionaries in the spring of 1915, so I also know the context in which the Turks and Armenians were acting. And I can say with some confidence that both sides are wrong.

There was an Armenian genocide. Of course there was. When up to 800,000 people from a single ethnic and religious community die from violence, hunger or exposure in a short time, and they are under guard by armed men from a different ethnicity and religion at the time, it’s an open-and-shut case. (Today’s Armenians say 1.5 million died in 1915, but that’s too high. It could be as few as half a million, but 800,000 is plausible.)

On the other hand, the Armenians desperately want their tragedy to be seen in the same light as the Nazi attempt to exterminate the European Jews, and won’t settle for anything less. But what happened to the Armenians was not pre-planned by the Turkish government, and there was provocation from the Armenian side. That doesn’t remotely begin to justify what happened, but it does put the Turks in a somewhat different light.

A group of junior officers called the Young Turks seized control of the Ottoman empire in 1908, and their leader, Enver Pasha, foolishly took the empire into the First World War at Germany’s side in November 1914. He then led a Turkish army east to attack Russia, which was allied to Britain and France.

That army was destroyed in the deep snow around Kars – only 10 percent of it got back to base – and the Turks panicked. The Russians didn’t follow right away – poor generalship – but the Turks had almost nothing left to stop them if they did. The Turks scrambled to put some kind of defensive line together, but behind them in eastern Anatolia were Christian Armenians who had been agitating for independence from the empire for decades.

Various revolutionary Armenian groups had been in touch with Moscow, offering to stage uprisings behind the Turkish army when Russian troops arrived in Anatolia. Learning that the Turks had retreated in disarray, some groups assumed the Russians were on their way and jumped the gun.

Similarly the Armenian revolutionary groups further south, near the Mediterranean coast, were in contact with the British command in Egypt, and had promised an uprising to coincide with planned British landings on the Turkish south coast near Adana. Quite late in the day the British switched their planned invasion much further west to Gallipoli, but once again some of the Armenian revolutionaries didn’t get the message in time and rebelled anyway.

Enver Pasha and his colleagues in Istanbul simply panicked. If the Russians broke through in eastern Anatolia, all the Arab parts of the empire would be cut off. So they ordered the deportation of all the Armenians in the east to Syria – over the mountains, in winter, on foot. (There was no railway yet.) And since there were no regular troops to spare, it was mostly Kurdish irregulars who guarded the Armenians on the way south.

The Kurds shared eastern Anatolia with the Armenians, but the neighbours had never been friendly. So many of the Kurdish escorts assumed they had free license to rape, steal and kill, and between that, the lack of food, and the weather, up to half the deportees died. To the extent that the Turkish government knew about it, it did nothing to stop it.

More Armenians died in the sweltering, disease-ridden camps they were confined in once they arrived in Syria. It was genocide through panic, incompetence and deliberate neglect, but it cannot be compared to what happened to the European Jews. Indeed the large Armenian community in Istanbul, far from the military operations in eastern Anatolia, survived the war virtually unharmed.

If the Turks had only had the sense to admit what really happened fifty or seventy-five years ago, there would be no controversy now. The only duty of the current generation is to acknowledge the past, not to fix it (as if they could). Instead there has been a hundred years of blank denial, which is why the issue is still on the international agenda. It will stay there until the Turks finally come to terms with their past.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 4 and 10. (“Well…that”; “Later…wrong”; and “Similarly…anyway”)

The Legacy of the First World War

“It was not worth even one life,” said Harry Patch shortly before he died in 2009 at the age of 111. He was the last survivor of the 65 million soldiers who fought in the First World War, and by the time he died it was a normal, quite unremarkable thing to say. But he would never have said it in 1914.

Very few people thought that war was a bad thing in 1914. LOSING a war could be a bad thing, but the obvious solution to that problem was to be very good at war. Human beings had always fought wars, military values were deeply embedded in our culture, and nobody expected those attitudes to change. And then they did change.

The First World War was a human tragedy, of course, but this was when the human race began to question the whole institution of war: how useful it is, but also how inevitable it really is. And the answer to both questions is: not very.

There are still a few countries that owe everything to their ability to win wars: Israel comes to mind at once. But most countries, and most people, now see war as a very undesirable last resort. We have the First World War to thank for this great change.

The thing most people miss about the First World War is that it was a perfectly normal political event. Ever since the rise of modern centralised states in 16th-century Europe, they had all gone to war with each other in two big alliances at around half-century intervals. The wars were effectively about everything: borders in Europe, trade routes, colonies in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

The great powers fought other, littler wars as well, but these big events – the 30 Years’ War, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Seven Years’ War and so on – were like a general audit of their status. Who’s up, and who’s down? Who can expand, and who must yield?

It was a perfectly viable system, because the wars mostly involved small professional armies and did not disturb civilian populations much. The casualties were low, and hardly any major player ever crashed out of the system entirely. Naturally enough, most people did not see this system as a problem that had to be solved. It was just another fact of life.

The only diplomatic difference in 1914 was that the great powers coordinated their moves better than before. Almost all of them were at war in a few days, where it would have taken months or even a few years in the old days. The armies could move quickly to the frontiers by rail, so now you created your alliances BEFORE the war – and everybody had the telegraph , so the final decisions were made fast.

But once the war started, everything was different. The armies were ten times as big as they used to be, because these were now rich industrialised countries that could afford to put most of the adult male population into uniform. That meant that the soldiers getting killed were fathers, brothers, husbands and sons: part of the community, not the wastrels, drunks and men on the run who made up such a large part of the old professional armies.

And they were getting killed in unprecedented numbers. The new weapons – machine guns, modern artillery and so on – were very efficient killing machines, and within a month the soldiers had to take shelter in trenches from the “storm of steel”. They spent the rest of the war trying to break through the trenches, and by the end of it 9 million of them had been killed. THAT is what changed everything.

One response to the ordeal, inevitably, was to demonise the other side and define the war as a crusade against evil. That way, at least, the ghastly sacrifice of lives could be seen as necessary and meaningful. But many people saw through the propaganda, and some of them were in high places.

The senior politicians and diplomats of 1918, living amid the wreckage of the old world, could see that the old international system was now delivering catastrophe, and had to be changed. So they set out to change it, by creating the League of Nations. They outlawed aggressive war, and invented the concept of “collective security” to enforce the new international rules.

They failed, at first, because the legacy of bitterness among the losers in the First World War was so great that a second one came only twenty years later. That one was bigger and worse – but at the end, everybody tried again. They had to.

The United Nations was founded in 1945, with slightly more realistic rules than the League of Nations but the same basic goal: to stop wars among the great powers, for those are the wars that kill in the millions. Stopping other wars too would be nice, but first things first – especially now that there are nuclear weapons around.

All you can say is that it hasn’t failed yet in its main task: no great power has fought any other one directly for the past 69 years. Ignore the headlines that constantly tell you the world is falling apart. The glass is more than half-full.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 4 and 11. (“Very…change”; “There…change”; and “One…places”)

Poison Gas and Red Lines

19 June 2013

Poison Gas and Red Lines

By Gwynne Dyer

Fool me once, shame on you. (The Taliban regime in Afghanistan helped al-Qaeda to plan 9/11. We must invade.)

Fool me twice, shame on me. (Saddam Hussein is building weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We must invade.)

But fool me three times… (The Syrian regime is using poison gas against the rebels. We must help them with arms supplies.) There’s nothing left to say, is there?

President Barack Obama’s administration announced last Thursday (13 June) that it will now arm Syrian rebels, since it has proof that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been using chemical weapons against them. He clearly doesn’t want to do this, but he has been trapped by his own words.

“The president … has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons or transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a red line,” said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, expanding on Obama’s statement. “He has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has.”

But in a further statement on Tuesday, Obama fretted that it is “very easy to slip-slide your way into deeper and deeper commitments,” ending up with full-scale US involvement in the Syrian civil war.

“If (the arms aid to the rebels) is not working immediately,” the president pointed out, “then what ends up happening is six months from now people say, ‘Well, you gave the heavy artillery; now what we really need is X, and now what we really need is Y.’ Because until Assad is defeated, in this view, it’s never going to be enough, right?”

Quite right. So how did this very reluctant warrior wind up at risk of being dragged into yet another Middle Eastern war? By making a threat that he never thought he would have to act on.

Last August, faced with constant allegations that the Assad regime was using poison gas, Obama announced that such an event would cross a red line and trigger US intervention in the war. He was just trying to fend off demands at home for instant intervention, and made his promise in the confident belief that the Syrian regime would never be so stupid as to do such a thing.

Poison gas is not really a “weapon of mass destruction,” although it is technically classified as one. It is a purely tactical weapon, vastly less indiscriminate in its effects than nuclear or biological weapons. It is not even very effective in conventional warfare. It was widely used by both sides in the First World War, but was responsible for only one percent of the military deaths in that conflict.

Chemical weapons were banned after the First World War, partly because they were horrible but also because they made battle even more unpleasant without producing decisive military results. And despite occasional subsequent uses – by Egypt in the Yemen in the 1960s, by Iraq against Iran in the 1980s – the ban has mostly held ever since.

It would clearly help the rebel cause in Syria if they could prove that the Assad regime was using chemical weapons. Indeed, they would make such accusations whether they were true or not.

On the other hand, it was most unlikely that the Syrian regime would actually use its chemical weapons. It has such weapons, of course, like practically every other country in the Middle East, but using them would have no decisive effect in the kind of war it is fighting against the rebels. It would simply give the rebels a better argument for demanding foreign military intervention against the regime.

So ten months ago, when he made his “red line” statement, President Obama was confident that Syria would never cross it. It would be particularly foolish for it to use poison gas to use in the manner that is now alleged: in small amounts, in four relatively unimportant places, causing a total of 100 to 150 deaths. It just doesn’t make sense, either militarily or politically.

In all likelihood Obama’s calculation remains correct today: Assad’s regime has probably NOT used chemical weapons. Yet the American intelligence services, or at least some of them, are telling him that this has indeed happened. Why would they do that?

They may have just been sucked in by the steady flow of rebel allegations that Assad’s troops are using poison gas. Even good analysts can succumb to the line of thinking that holds that if there’s enough smoke, then there must be fire. You think that can’t happen? Remember Iraq?

It can happen especially easily when the analysts or their superiors want it to be true. The rebels in Syria have been losing all their battles recently, undermining the widespread conviction in American government and media circles that the fall of the Assad regime is just a matter of time. So the desire grows in those circles to reverse that trend by helping the rebels directly.

Even if Obama disbelieves the intelligence he is being fed, he cannot reject it openly, and he is shackled politically by his ill-advised “red line” commitment of ten months ago. All he can do now is talk a tough line, while dragging his feet as much as possible on actual action.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“If…right”; and “Poison…conflict”)