Saturday, November 13, 2004

Armistice Day

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

A belated note about a day most Americans ignored this year, Veteran's Day. Even if you stopped for the official two-minutes of silence at 11 am, do you truly know its significance?

It was originally Armistice Day, the day that the cease-fire took effect, bringing to an end World War I: the costliest--both in money and in lives--conflict in human history until that time. It cost the Allies $125,690,477,000 and the Central Powers $60,643,160,000 (neither sum adjusted for inflation), as well as 22,104,209 and 37,508,686 casualties, respectively. America got off relatively easily, with only 364,800 casualties, and, as in the Second World War, Russia paid the heaviest cost in human casualties, at 9,150,000.

World War 1 is mostly forgotten today, because of the greater cataclysm of World War II which followed it. But the First World War is more important than any war in human history, for it marked the beginning of the modern era. Airplanes, submarines, tanks, chemical weapons, machine guns, all of these were used for the first time in this war. On April 22, 1915, Germans were the first to use chemical weapons, employing mustard gas against Allied troops at Ypres, Belgium. This created a huge gap in the Allied line, but the Germans were unable to exploit it, because the wind suddenly shifted, blowing the poison gas back on the German lines, killing the very soldiers who had unleashed it. Now if that isn't divine justice, I don't know what is! In all theaters, poison gas caused 1,296,853 casualties, including 91,198 deaths.

The First World War even saw the advent of the first ballistic missile: the Paris Gun. This weapon was used by the Germans to shell Paris. It could launch a 264-pound projectile "70 miles in about 170 seconds reaching a maximum altitude of 24 miles - quite a feat of German engineering for 1918. On the down side, the payload was only 15 pounds of explosive, accuracy was non-existent (you could hit Paris but not a specific target in Paris), and the whole gun would have to be rebored after 65 firings," according to

"Only 367 shells were fired by August of that year, and the gun's aim was often wild. Barely half the shells hit the city. Even so, the Paris Gun caused 256 deaths, a third of those when a shell struck the church of St. Sepulchre during Good Friday services.Though the Paris Gun had little impact on the outcome of World War I, it was a high-priority target for Allied troops. Yet none of the guns [There were 7 made] were ever found, even after the armistice," according to The purpose of the gun was not to score a military victory, but simply to terrorize the inhabitants of Paris. No man-made object would reach that height until the next generation of the Paris Gun--the V-2--was first employed in 1942.

More important than the weaponry employed were the political developments. The war began after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a terrorist group advocating for Serbian-majority areas in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to be incorporated into the upstart nation of Serbia. The Austrian government had every right to teach Serbia a lesson (when a nation or its leaders are attacked by another nation, the first nation has a right--indeed an obligation to its citizens--to respond, but all the other nations of Europe leapt on the assassination as an excuse to go to war to easily conquer whatever territory they had long been desirous of and be back home "before the leaves have fallen from the trees," in the immortal words of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Because so few died in the war-within-a-war, the original war between Austria and Serbia, its consequences are often overlooked, but at Versailles, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Dual Monarchy, was broken up into many independent states based on ethnicity, but not entirely (there were still many ethnic Germans in Sudetenland, part of Czechoslovakia, and other Balkan nationalities sprinkled arbitrarily in many other states) thus leading to the "appeasement at Munich", as well as efforts in the post-Cold War era to "unify all Serbs everywhere in a Greater Serbia", causing the bloodiest genocide since the Holocaust.

Ditto for the Middle East. News commentators often say things like, "the ancient animosities in the Middle East go back to the time of Abraham in the Bible", usually used as an excuse to do nothing about the conflicts in the region. But Jews, Muslim Arabs, and Christian Arabs lived side-by-side in peace for centuries (except during the Crusades) under the Ottoman Empire, which, while it was brutal in attempting to wipe out the Armenians during World War I, maintained stability and, for its time, a high deal of equality in dealing with its subjects of all nationalities. The European powers, namely France and Britain, divided up the Ottoman Empire into "mandates"--colonies--based on arbitrary lines that did not correspond to nationality, ethnicity, historical precedent or the preference of the inhabitants.

Thus the constant conflict in Iraq, for instance, a land cobbled together from three separate Ottoman provinces: Basra (majority Shia), Baghdad (majority Sunni), and Mosul (majority Kurd). These varied peoples had associated little in previous history and had nothing in common to bond them together as "Iraqis" or to distinguish them from "Syrians" or "Iranians". These arbitrary lines, combined with the unbelievably stupid (or callously cynical) move of the British promising the entire land of Palestine first to the Palestinians and then to the Jews to win their support in the First World War and then taking Palestine as a British "mandate" and giving it to neither, are vastly more directly responsible for the past 80 years of unrest in the region than anything in the Bible or the Qu'ran.

The German government of Wilhelm II, seeking to destabilize Russia, gave safe passage across the front lines from Switzerland into Russia to a certain ideologue named Lenin. We all know how this story ends. The Bolsheviks won the hearts and minds of the Russian people, not because of the appeal of their ideology (which was not actually all that popular at the time), but because they promised an immediate end to the war, something Russians, weary from the horrible costs they had incurred from the Czar's incompetent prosecution of the war, were desperate for. The treaty they signed with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk was draconian. As the German Army was deep into Russia, even further than they made it into Russia in World War II, the Russians lost the Baltic states, Finland and the Ukraine, as well as additional Russian territory in the Caucasus. The treaty of Versailles nullified this treaty.

The Kaiser's ill-conceived plan had consequences he could not have imagined. Without Lenin, there would have been no Stalinist purges and no Cold War. No Cold War, no Korean War, no Vietnam War, no nuclear arms race, no "Iron Curtain", no Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe (they wouldn't have been there in the first place without Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union), and no Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to give the Islamic extremists like Osama bin Ladin a training ground for their "jihad" against the West.

The "what-ifs" continue. As I said before, there were 91,198 deaths due to poison gas in the First World war. If only there had been one more death. In the last month of the war, a young corporal in the German Army was gassed at the last Battle of Ypres. For a while, he hung between life and death. He went on to recover, to the great misfortune of all humanity. The corporal's name: Adolf Hitler. We tend to think of history in terms of inevitable historical trends. From that perspective, whether the final total of those killed by poison gas was 91,198, or 91,199, whether one individual lives or dies, is of little consequence. But that one man living meant that millions more would die in the Second World War and the accompanying Holocaust.

But perhaps the Second World War would have happened anyway, without Hitler, you say. The bitterness of the Germans at being defeated and the severe economic hardship brought on by the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, might have led to some sort of far-right reactionary nationalist regime arising in Germany, although it hard to imagine all of this happening in the absence of the uniquely charismatic figure of Hitler. The bitterness of Italy and Japan at not gaining as much territory as they had wanted at war's end was utilized by Mussolini in Italy and the militarists in Japan to plunge the world into war, just as the pain and indignity of defeat was utilized by Hitler in Germany.

Either way, had there been no First World War, there would have been no Second. No Second World War, no Cold War; no Cold War, none of the post-Cold War nationalist conflicts due to the suppression of national identity during the Cold War. In short, had there been no First World War, had the Allies acted responsibly in 1914 and allowed Austria to clobber Serbia, all of the other conflicts of the 20th Century would have been avoided. Think of all the lives lost in all the wars of the 20th Century. How many future artists, musicians, poets, philosophers, writers, computer programmers, politicians, statesmen, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughers, would have lived on to enrich all of humankind?

That is the true lesson of Armistice Day. By calling it Veteran's Day and celebrating it like we do, as just another "Hooray for patriotism!" day (just like Memorial Day, Flag Day and the Fourth of July [By the way, why do we call it that? We're commemorating our independence; calling it the "Fourth of July" just trivializes it]), it loses its meaning. We have enough flag-waving "Hooray for Patriotism" days. We should commemorate Armistice Day the same way the rest of the world does: as a day of somber reflection on man's inhumanity to man and the true cost of war; reflecting on the greatest tragedy in human history, the First World War, and what we lost because of it.

Lest we forget.