Monday, December 10, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The New Hundred Years War (and counting)

 As we approach the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I
(July, 2014), we can consider one more time how this modern worldwide
conflict and its aftermath continues to insinuate itself into contemporary life
on our planet, and how, in spite of the famous armistice signed at the 11th
minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, that war
has not ever really ended.

The inability of the victors, the U.S., Great Britain, France and the other
allied nations, to create adhesive and lasting stability at its 1919 Paris
Peace Conference has caused immense consequences ever since. Not
only did this failure lead to another and even larger war merely 21 years
later, it led rather directly to most of the international conflicts which
dominate human civilization today.

It was not World War II that created the Soviet Union and the international
communist movement. It was World War I. Nicholas II, a superficial but
autocratic and cruel tsar, allowed himself to be duped to bring the vast but
undeveloped Russian empire into the conflict, a move which only gave
excuse to the aggressive and monomaniacal German kaiser to mobilize
with his Austro-Hungarian allies. These Central Powers forced the hand
of the British and French governments to join in against them. With defeat
on the battlefield and starvation at home, the totalitarian Russian kingdom
was soon overthrown by a small but determined totalitarian Soviet state

The most significant casualty of the aftermath of World War I perhaps was
the Weimar republic of Germany which could not overcome the reparations
conditions of the Paris treaty. nor deal with its new democratic institutions
in a period of economic and political distress. This enabled the rise of a
pathological criminal fringe group to power, a group whose fascist leader
took Germany, the rest of Europe, and Asia soon into  the carnage of
World War II.

Just as World War I redesigned the map of Europe and Africa, so did World
War II, adding Asia to its cartographical labors. Attempting  to protect itself
from what it believed would be another western European incursion, Soviet
Russia, at the insistence of its dictator Joseph Stalin, overran most of the
formerly sovereign nations of eastern Europe, and installed its own puppet
regimes. At the same time, international communism declared a Cold War
against the world’s democracies, and this conflict lasted from 1946 until
1990 when the Soviet regime collapsed. In this same period, the world’s
remaining colonial powers, including France, Britain, Belgium and the
Netherlands, lost or gave up control of their colonial territories in Africa,
Asia and South America (as had imperial Germany, Spain and Portugal
lost their colonial possessions in the 19th and early 20th centuries), and a
large number of new (and in many cases, small) independent states were
created, most of them economically undeveloped, non-viable and fragile
with conflicting populations artificially thrown together.

The period between 1918 and 1995 was a golden age for mapmakers and
the cartography business because so many nations appeared, disappeared,
and reappeared; and borders were so often drawn, redrawn, and redrawn

In the fury of nationalisms, religious passions, and the discovery of
valuable natural resources all over the world in the past 100 years, it has
been forgotten by nearly everyone that the origin of today’s conflicts
began when a few pistol shots were aimed at an open carriage in downtown
Sarajevo, Serbia, and threw the whole world irreversibly into an endless and
violent age. The carriage driver had accidentally had taken a wrong turn,
exposing the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne to an assassin. and the
violent conflicts that followed have not yet, almost a century later, been

The details of all of this properly require one or more long books, and
countless books have already been written on World War I and its origins,
but I want to focus  here on just one consequence that has, like an open sore,
persisted and grown to be one of the world’s most damaging wounds.
That consequence is the Middle East.

Depending on who is examining the history of this region, the modern and
seemingly perpetual crisis of the Middle East had its origins at different

The oldest narrative, of course, begins in the Judeo-Christian Old
Testament bible when, after their forced diaspora from the ancient land
of Israel in the first century, the Jewish populations were dispersed all
over the world, first sailing along the Mediterranean to both early
southern European and northern Arab ports. From these initial
settlements, the Jews emigrated throughout Europe and Asia, and
from there to North and South America. After almost two thousand
years of persecution in this diaspora, however, a return to the Jewish
homeland became increasingly an urgent component of Jewish religious
observance and political practice in the late 19th century.. A Zionist
movement formally began in 1897, and soon its leaders obtained a
commitment from Great Britain, the victorious World War I power with
the mandate to rule temporarily the territory of Palestine, to create a
Jewish state. The United Nations, an organization of most of the
then-established nations on earth, formally recognized a partition of
Palestine to enable this state in 1947,  a partition plan intended to have
this tiny land divided between Arabs and Jews.

Other narratives assert different historical claims on the relatively tiny
area of land which is today the State of Israel.

Although some Jews had settled back into Palestine for hundreds of years
before the creation of the state of Israel, many Moslem and Christian Arabs
had settled there, too. Until the 20th century there was no Arab state. Most
of the these territories were controlled either by the Ottoman Empire ruled
by a Moslem caliph, or by European colonial powers. In the 1919 Paris
Peace Treaty, France and Great Britain divided the mandate over the Middle
East region, with France receiving Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Syria, and Great
Britain received Palestine. In the area now known as Saudi Arabia, the
largest Arab tribe was given sovereignty under a king and his family.
Similarly, Egypt was given its independence under a monarchy
in 1922, Monarchies were also re-established or set up in Persia, Iraq,
Syria, Libya and Trans-Jordan.

Soon after new borders were set in the Middle East following 1919, vast
oil fields in Persia and adjoining areas became critically important. This
was due to a decision by the British navy, then the most powerful maritime
force in the world, to use oil instead of coal to power their ships. (Curiously,
it was as First Sea Lord that Winston Churchill, then a young man,
made this momentous decision.) At the same time, the mass production
of automobiles was first taking place in the United States, and the airplane
was beginning to emerge as a major military and domestic form of
transportation. Oil fields had only been first discovered in 1839 in
Titusville in northwestern Pennsylvania near the lake port of Erie, but its
strategic and massive use in the evolving industrial revolution only became
clear in the early 20th century. British, American and continental European
investors moved quickly to exploit the Middle Eastern oil reserves, and as
the various nations created by the Versailles treaty increased their
sovereignty over decades, the tremendous economic wealth created by oil
quickly transformed this impoverished desert region into an economic

After World War II, the nations which had oil reserves, i.e., Persia (now Iran),
Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the various Gulf States increasingly asserted their
leverage over the commodity, culminating in a huge advance in oil prices
worldwide, even as new reserves were found in Venezuela, Mexico, Norway,
Russia, Scotland,  Brazil, Nigeria, Alaska,, Indonesia and several offshore
areas around the world. Employing the enormous economic receipts from the
sale of oil, Iran and Iraq built huge military forces and bought a great deal of
military aircraft, tanks, missiles and other weaponry. Allied with non-oil
producing states such as Jordan and Lebanon, and with Syria, a relatively
minor producer of oil, these nations became totalitarian states turning their
aggression not only towards Israel, but often against each other. Libya,
Tunisia, and Algeria, oil-producing nations  also became totalitarian Arab
states which expelled or forced out their substantial Jewish populations that
had lived peaceably in these nations for about 500 years, and they also united
in a conflict against Israel, as did Saudi Arabia, then the largest oil producer in
the Middle East. Egypt, the largest Arab state, provided much of the military
forces in two Arab Wars against Israel in 1967 and 1973 before a
U.S.-engineered truce was put into effect that included substantial foreign aid
from the U.S. to Egypt. The anti-Israel attitudes were perhaps most virulent in
Syria and Iraq where their modern ruling Ba’ath Parties had been founded in
the early 1940s when Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels through his agents created
them after the  Germans, who had just defeated the democratic French
government and had inherited their territories, moved into the Middle East.
The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a virulent anti-Semite, spent the war years in
Berlin as a friend and follower of Adolph Hitler, and when he returned to
Palestine after the war, led the efforts to prevent the partition of Palestine.
After the United Nations voted for the partition, he became one of the leaders
of the Arab forces which attempted to overtake Palestine and drive out its
Jewish settlers. This effort failed, but Israel’s Middle Eastern neighbors became
permanent enemies, and Israel was a pariah in its own neighborhood.

All of this is well-known and wearyingly controversial, but my point is that the
conflicts of the Middle East had their modern origins not in World War II,
Joseph Goebbels notwithstanding, but in World War I and its aftermath when
the victorious European powers, especially Great Britain and France, ignoring
commitments and promises made before and during World War I, created a
new artificial map of the Middle East to placate their own and favored
Middle Eastern interests and parties. British leaders particularly made
commitments to Jewish and Arab leaders before and during World War I that
could not be kept after the war.

The Middle East is only one region of the continual conflict and political
violence which resulted from World War I, and its murderous offspring of
World War II, that is implicated in the present day. Conflicts within the
European Union, in the Balkans, in Africa, in southeast Asia, in Russia, in
U.S. foreign policy, and elsewhere can be traced to the “Great War.” begun
almost a century ago.

The first Hundred Years War took place from 1337 and 1453 in Europe. The
second Hundred Years War (1914 to  ???) is still going on with no end in sight.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

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