Monday, May 30, 2005

The Great War

Whereas today is Memorial Day, I thought I would explain how history is with us always. The efforts of those who fight live on long after they have gone to their rest.

I learned history (mostly) from people who - in their youth learned it from people who - were bored by it. Thus, their teaching of it was uninspired and their boredom and dislike of the subject came through far more than did the subject they were teaching.

It took a couple of history professors at the Pennsylvania State University in the late 80's to show me how history is with us every day and is therefore as interesting as any current event.

To wit:

With all the recent hoopla over the end of the Second World War as well as the ongoing bickering about our mission in Iraq and Afghanistan and the anti-American sentiment of the Middle East I was struck by the fact that all of these things
are linked inextricably to the First World War - and in large measure were caused by it. Thus, the legacy of WWI is very much still with us - every day.

World War Two:

No PhD in history is required to see how Hitler's rise is due in large part to the treatment of Germany after the end of the war. Germany was humiliated and economically crushed by the Allies - largely France (surprised?). It is no wonder then that when a man claiming to be able to raise Germany back to the status of a world power came on the scene, he was accepted immediately and given the keys to the Reichstag. Japan's rise to militarism certainly got a boost from watching Europeans bleed themselves white, leaving a newly emergent Japan few challengers.


After WW2, the Soviets (whose leaders came to power in the vacuum created by the collapse of Imperial Russia following its disastrous showing in WWI), while suffering grievously, were left standing; and because of the threat the USSR posed to a prostrate Europe the cold war ensued.

Afghanistan was a poster-child for the cold war. Invaded in 1979 by the Soviets, it had been a long-standing pawn in the East-West struggle. During the 1980's the U.S. armed and trained many Islamic fundamentalists to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Once the Soviets left, we largely forgot about Afghanistan. We, therefore, bear some responsibility for the emergence of the Taliban.


"Iraq" was cobbled together from the regional remnants of the Ottoman Empire after it was defeated in WWI. Created by diplomats (like W.S. Churchill) who were more interested in maintaining Imperial influence than a stable state, an antagonistic minority, the Sunnis, were installed as rulers and kept their collective boot on the throat of the majority Shiites until - under the Sunni Saddam Hussein - Iraq posed an unknown - and therefore unacceptable - risk to the security of the U.S. in the aftermath of 9/11.

Islamic Anti-Americanism:

The September 11, 2001 atrocity - which is emblematic of the anti-Americanism of the Middle East - is an indirect consequence of World War One.

First, with the demise of the Ottoman Turks as rulers of the region in 1918, tribal and religious factions created states such as Saudi Arabia. Unstable creations, they were frequently held together only by repressive regimes and a nationalistic, xenophobic form of Islam.

Second, the Imperial powers reneged on promises of self-determination after WWI...and the U.S. is seen as the inheritor of the "Imperial" mantle from the Europeans.

Third, following WW2, the Middle Eastern States were used as pawns in the Cold War. Autocratic leaders and their repressive regimes were winked at - so long as they stayed in the West's camp.

Finally, the seeming preference for Israel over Islamic countries convinced many in the region that the U.S. was an enemy.

In summary, it is no exageration to say that World War One is not a matter of "history" in the academic sense, but is a matter of current events. In fact, the conflicts that spread out from its root causes are still being fought today - almost ninety-one years on.


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