Published on 14 Oct 2014
President Obama is sending thousands of U.S. troops to West Africa to fight the deadly Ebola virus. Their mission will be to construct treatment centers and provide medical training to health-care workers in the local communities.
But is it really a good idea to send soldiers to provide this sort of aid?
Here are 3 reasons why militarizing humanitarian aid is a very bad idea
October 14, 2014
October 13, 2014
David Axe on what he describes as the weirdest ship in the Royal Navy:
The British Royal Navy is deploying the auxiliary ship RFA Argus to Sierra Leone in West Africa in order to help health officials contain the deadly Ebola virus.
If you’ve never heard of Argus, you’re not alone. She’s an odd, obscure vessel — an ungainly combination of helicopter carrier, hospital ship and training platform.
But you’ve probably seen Argus, even if you didn’t realize it. The 33-year-old vessel played a major role in the 2013 zombie movie World War Z, as the floating headquarters of the U.N.
The 575-foot-long Argus launched in 1981 as a civilian container ship. In 1982, the Royal Navy chartered the vessel to support the Falklands War … and subsequently bought her to function as an aviation training ship, launching and landing helicopters.
Argus’ long flight deck features an odd, interrupted layout, with a structure — including the exhaust stack — rising out of the deck near the stern.
Weirdly, the deck’s imperfect arrangement is actually an asset in the training role. Student aviators on Argus must get comfortable landing in close proximity to obstacles, which helps prepare them for flying from the comparatively tiny decks of frigates and other smaller ships.
August 14, 2014
We’re edging ever close to the start of the Great War (no, I don’t know exactly how many more parts this will take … but we’re more than halfway there, I think). You can catch up on the earlier posts in this series here (now with hopefully helpful descriptions):
- Why it’s so difficult to answer the question “Who is to blame?”
- Looking back to 1814
- Bismarck, his life and works
- France isolated, Britain’s global responsibilities
- Austria, Austria-Hungary, and the Balkan quagmire
- The Anglo-German naval race, Jackie Fisher, and HMS Dreadnought
- War with Japan, revolution at home: Russia’s self-inflicted miseries
- The First Balkan War
- The Second Balkan War
The Balkans were the setting for two major wars among the regional powers (Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Rumania, and the Ottoman Empire), but the wars had not spread to the rest of the continent. This run of good luck was not going to last much longer. We turn our attention to Britain, France, and Russia … as unlikely a set of allies as you’d find in the 1880s, now in the process of discovering a common threat in Europe.
Sir Edward Grey and Britain’s progress from “splendid isolation” to official ambivalence
The British government had spent most of the previous century staying out of continental disputes, only rarely becoming politically or militarily involved. Late in the nineteenth century, this began to change, and Britain started paying closer attention to what was happening on the continent and moving slowly toward re-engagement. While the British and the French had spent more time as enemies or as mutually distrustful neutrals, France was now looking across the Channel for much more than mere neutrality.A key figure in negotiating Britain’s relationship with France was Sir Edward Grey, who was Foreign Secretary from 1905 onwards (despite the minor difficulty of speaking no other languages and having no interest in visiting other countries). In retrospect, the degree of freedom he was allowed in this role is amazing, especially as he didn’t seem to think he was required to let the prime minister, the cabinet, or parliament know what he was doing until he’d arranged things largely to his own satisfaction. Huw Strachan assigns most of the responsibility for the deepening relationship with France to Grey:
Sir Edward Grey had become foreign secretary on the formation of the Liberal government in December 1905, and remained in post until the end of 1916, so becoming the longest-serving holder of the post. Sir Edward brought diplomatic gravitas to his work in 1914. He had already convened the meeting of ambassadors that had contained and concluded the two Balkan wars of 1912-13. When the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on June 28 prompted a third Balkan crisis, it seemed unlikely to have any direct effect on British interests, but Sir Edward might still prove central to its resolution. If the “concert of Europe”, the international order created in 1814-15 after the Napoleonic wars, still had life, the foreign secretary was the person best placed to animate it.
Sir Edward’s qualifications for such responsibility were of recent coinage. Notoriously idle as a young man, he had been sent down from Oxford, but returned to get a third in jurisprudence. He entered politics as much through Whig inheritance as ambition. He spoke no foreign language and, when foreign secretary, never travelled abroad – or at least not until he had to accompany King George V to Paris in April 1914. He seemed happier as a country gentleman, enjoying his enthusiasms of fishing and ornithology. His first wife increasingly refused to come to London, remaining at Fallodon, the family seat in Northumberland. Their life together was chaste and childless, but not unaffectionate.
Soon after becoming Foreign Secretary, Grey was careful to assure Russian ambassador Count Alexander Benckendorff that he wanted a closer and less fraught relationship with St. Petersburg. Britain’s long-running dispute with the expanding Russian Empire in Asia stood in the way of any co-operation between the two great powers: the “Great Game” across central Asia had been in progress for nearly a century and neither side trusted the other. British concerns that any advance of Russian interests across that vast swathe of land were part of long term plans to destabilize the Indian frontier and eventually to absorb India. Whether these fears were realistic is beside the point: they had driven Raj policy in India despite the low chance of them turning into actual dangers. The disagreements were partially settled with the Anglo-Russian Convention in 1907, where both Russian and British regional interests were codified:
Formally signed by Count Alexander Izvolsky, Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire, and Sir Arthur Nicolson, the British Ambassador to Russia, the British-Russian Convention of 1907 stipulated the following:
- That Persia would be split into three zones: A Russian zone in the north, a British zone in the southeast, and a neutral “buffer” zone in the remaining land.
- That Britain may not seek concessions “beyond a line starting from Qasr-e Shirin, passing through Isfahan, Yezd (Yazd), Kakhk, and ending at a point on the Persian frontier at the intersection of the Russian and Afghan frontiers.”
- That Russia must follow the reverse of guideline number two.
- That Afghanistan was a British protectorate and for Russia to cease any communication with the Emir.
A separate treaty was drawn up to resolve disputes regarding Tibet. However, these terms eventually proved problematic, as they “drew attention to a whole range of minor issues that remained unsolved”.
While the convention did not resolve every outstanding issue between the two imperial powers, it smoothed the path to further negotiations on European issues. One of the things the two had to consider was the expansion of German activity in Ottoman territory, especially the Baghdad Railway project, which threatened to extend German influence deep into the oil producing regions of Mesopotamia just as Britain was contemplating switching the Royal Navy from coal to oil. German engineers and financiers had already proven their worth to the Ottomans by building the Anatolian Railway in the 1890s, connecting Constantinople with Ankara and Konya.
Vernon Bogdanor’s recent History Today article explains Grey’s role in bringing Britain into the war alongside the French and Russians:
The growth of German power posed a challenge to an international system based on the Concert of Europe, developed at the Congress of Vienna following the defeat of Napoleon, whereby members could call a conference to resolve diplomatic issues, a system Britain, and particularly the Liberals in government in 1914, were committed to defend. Sir Edward Grey had been foreign secretary since 1905, a position he retained until 1916, the longest continuous tenure in modern times. He was a right-leaning Liberal who found himself subject to more criticism from his own backbenchers than from Conservative opponents. In his handling of foreign policy his critics alleged that Grey had abandoned the idea of the Concert of Europe and was worshipping what John Bright had called ‘the foul idol’ of the balance of power. They suggested that he was making Britain part of an alliance system, the Triple Entente, with France and Russia and that he was concealing his policies from Parliament, the public and even from Cabinet colleagues. By helping to divide Europe into two armed camps he was increasing the likelihood of war.
On his appointment in December 1905 Grey had indeed maintained the loose Anglo-French entente of 1904, which the Conservatives of the previous government had negotiated. He extended that policy by negotiating an entente with France’s ally, Russia, in 1907. In 1905 France was embroiled in a conflict with Germany over rival claims in Morocco. The French had essentially said to Lord Lansdowne, Grey’s Conservative predecessor: ‘Suppose this conflict leads to war – if you are to support us, let us consult together on naval matters to consider how your support can be made effective.’ The Conservatives had responded that, while they would discuss contingency plans, they could not make any commitments.
Grey continued the naval conversations and extended them to include military dialogue. He informed the prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman, and two senior ministers of these talks, but not the rest of the Cabinet. Nevertheless, Britain could not be committed to military action without the approval of both Cabinet and Parliament. In November 1912, at the insistence of the Cabinet, there was an exchange of letters between Grey and the French ambassador, Paul Cambon, making it explicit that Britain was under no commitment, except to consult, were France to be threatened. In 1914, furthermore, the French never suggested that Britain was under any sort of obligation to support them, only that it would be the honourable course of action.
Romancing the bear, romancing the lion: France breaks out of imposed isolation
As I discussed back in part four of this series, the French had been left diplomatically isolated in Europe by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, but that began to change as Kaiser Wilhelm II took the throne and started imposing his will on German foreign policy. French money opened opportunities for French diplomacy, to the long-term benefit of French security. The Franco-Russian alliance was signed in 1894, signifying the end of French encirclement (Bismarck’s policy) and the start of German encirclement (Kaiser Wilhelm’s nightmare).Anglo-French diplomatic efforts took longer to come to fruition, but by 1904, the Entente Cordiale was more than just a pleasant diplomatic nicety, although it fell short of the full alliance France had hoped for. Among other things, the agreement traded French acceptance of Britain’s position in Egypt for British acceptance of France’s position in Morocco, along with some border adjustments in west Africa, fishing rights off the coast of Newfoundland, and other issues. The Entente also allowed the two great powers to avoid being involved in the Russo-Japanese War (discussed in part seven), where they were each allied to the opposing powers. Each side saw the agreement in rather different terms, with the French believing it was the next best thing to an alliance, but as British foreign ministry staffer Eyre Crowe expressed it: “The fundamental fact of course is that the Entente is not an alliance. For purposes of ultimate emergencies it may be found to have no substance at all. For the Entente is nothing more than a frame of mind, a view of general policy which is shared by the governments of two countries, but which may be, or become, so vague as to lose all content.”
French public opinion was still ambivalent at best about Britain — the PR and humanitarian disaster that was the Boer War had only just faded from the headlines, and there was still much resentment over the Fashoda incident — but the French government recognized the importance of gaining British support (and the British government was conscious of how low their international reputation had gone). Huw Strachan:
The previous Conservative government had in 1895 moved from “splendid isolation” to embrace the need to form alliances. But it was Sir Edward who narrowed these options by excluding the possibility of a deal with Germany. As a Liberal Imperialist, concerned by the evidence of British decline in the South African war, Sir Edward increasingly fixed Britain to France and then to Russia. The latter relationship may have looked frayed by 1914, but that with France was buttressed by military and naval talks. The result was not so much a balance of power in Europe as the isolation of Germany.
Moroccan crises and using the Kaiser as a bargaining chip
The First Moroccan Crisis of 1905-6 was a potential flashpoint between the Entente Cordiale and the German Empire. Germany was hoping to split the Entente or at least to gain territorial concessions in exchange for a resolution. Kaiser Wilhelm was on a cruise to the Mediterranean and had been intending to bypass Tangier, but the situation was manipulated by the Foreign Office in Berlin so that he eventually felt he had to put in an appearance. In The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan describes the scene:
Although Bülow had repeatedly advised him to stick to polite formalities, Wilhelm got carried away in the excitement of the moment. To Kaid Maclean, the former British soldier who was the sultan’s trusted advisor, he said, “I do not acknowledge any agreement that has been come to. I come here as one Sovereign [sic] paying a visit to another perfectly independent sovereign. You can tell [the] Sultan this.” Bülow had also advised his master not to say anything at all to the French representative in Tangier, but Wilhelm was unable to resist reiterating to the Frenchman that Morocco was an independent country and that, furthermore, he expected France to recognize Germany’s legitimate interests there. “When the Minister tried to argue with me,” the Kaiser told Bülow, “I said ‘Good Morning’ and left him standing.” Wilhelm did not stay for the lavish banquet which the Moroccans had prepared for him but before he set off on his return ride to the shore, he found time to advise the sultan’s uncle that Morocco should make sure that its reforms were in accordance with the Koran. (The Kaiser, ever since his trip to the Middle East in 1898, had seen himself as the protector of all Muslims.) The Hamburg sailed on to Gibraltar, where one of its escort ships accidentally managed to ram a British cruiser.
Tension rose so high that both Germany and France were looking to their mobilization timetables (France cancelled all military leave and Germany started moving reserve units to the frontier) before the diplomats were able to agree to meet at the conference table rather than the battlefield. The Algeciras Conference lasted from January to April, 1906, and the French generally had the better of the negotiations (with support from Britain, Russia, Italy, Spain, and the United States) while the Germans found themselves supported only by the Austro-Hungarian delegation. France ended up making a few token concessions, but overall retained their position in Morocco.
The Agadir Crisis of 1911 was the second incident in Morocco, where Germany tried a little bit of literal gunboat diplomacy with the gunboat SMS Panther. The port of Agadir was closed to foreign trade, but the Panther (and later the light cruiser SMS Berlin) was sent to “protect German nationals” in southern Morocco from rebel forces. A minor problem turned out to be that there were no conveniently threatened Germans in the region. Margaret MacMillan:
The Foreign Ministry only got round to getting support for its claim that German interests and German subjects were in danger in the south of Morocco a couple of weeks before the Panther arrived off Agadir, when it asked a dozen German firms to sign a petition (which most of them did not bother to read) requesting German intervention. When the German Chancellor, Bethmann, produced this story in the Reichstag he was met with laughter. Nor were there any German nationals in Agadir itself. The local representative of the Warburg interests who was some seventy miles to the north started southwards on the evening of July 1. After a hard journey by horse along a rocky track, he arrived at Agadir on July 4 and waved his arms to no effect from the beach to attract the attention of the Panther and the Berlin. The sole representative of the Germans under threat in southern Morocco was finally spotted and picked up the next day.
France reacted to the German provocation, despite efforts by Sir Edward Grey to restrain them: eventually he recognized that “what the French contemplate doing is not wise, but we cannot under our agreement interfere”. German public opinion, on the other hand, was ecstatic:
After its setbacks earlier on in Morocco and in the race for colonies in general, with the fears of encirclement in Europe by the Entente powers, Germany was showing that it mattered. “The German dreamer awakes after sleeping for twenty years like the sleeping beauty,” said one newspaper.
In Germany, public opinion, which had been largely indifferent to colonies ten years earlier, now was seized with their importance. The German government, which was already under considerable pressure from those German businesses with interests in Morocco, felt that it had much to gain by taking a firm stand. [...] The temptation for Germany’s new Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Holweg, and his colleagues to have a good international crisis to bring all Germans together in support of their government was considerable.
Eventually, after negotiations, France and Germany signed the Treaty of Fez, which granted France Germany’s recognition of her rights in Morocco in exchange for ceded French territory in French Equatorial Africa (which was annexed to the existing German colony in Togoland), including direct access to the Congo River. In addition, Spain was granted rights to a portion of northern Morocco which became Spanish Morocco.
Not part of the treaty terms, but of rather greater significance in the near future, France and Britain agreed to share responsibility for the naval defence of France: the Royal Navy took on the responsibility for defending the north coast of France, while the French navy redeployed almost all ships to the western Mediterranean with the explicit agreement to defend British interests in the region.
I’m finding each successive part of this blog series to be taking longer to put together, and not from a lack of material! I’m hoping to have the next installment posted sometime this weekend or early next week.
August 13, 2014
Matt Ridley is somewhat uncharacteristically concerned about the major Ebola outbreak in west Africa:
As you may know by now, I am a serial debunker of alarm and it usually serves me in good stead. On the threat posed by diseases, I’ve been resolutely sceptical of exaggerated scares about bird flu and I once won a bet that mad cow disease would never claim more than 100 human lives a year when some “experts” were forecasting tens of thousands (it peaked at 28 in 2000). I’ve drawn attention to the steadily falling mortality from malaria and Aids.
Well, this time, about ebola, I am worried. Not for Britain, Europe or America or any other developed country and not for the human race as a whole. This is not about us in rich countries, and there remains little doubt that this country can achieve the necessary isolation and hygiene to control any cases that get here by air before they infect more than a handful of other people — at the very worst. No, it is the situation in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea that is scary. There it could get much worse before it gets better.
This is the first time ebola has got going in cities. It is the first time it is happening in areas with “fluid population movements over porous borders” in the words of Margaret Chan, the World Health Organisation’s director-general, speaking last Friday. It is the first time it has spread by air travel. It is the first time it has reached the sort of critical mass that makes tracing its victims’ contacts difficult.
One of ebola’s most dangerous features is that kills so many health workers. Because it requires direct contact with the bodily fluids of patients, and because patients are violently ill, nurses and doctors are especially at risk. The current epidemic has already claimed the lives of 60 healthcare workers, including those of two prominent doctors, Samuel Brisbane in Liberia and Sheik Umar Khan in Sierra Leone. The courage of medics in these circumstances, working in stifling protective gear, is humbling.
August 6, 2014
We’re getting closer to the end of the series now … you can catch up to the earlier posts here: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, and part seven. The previous post touched on Russia’s disaster in the far east and the dangerous domestic situation it faced after the war. In this post we discover that Italy could be at least as perfidious as “Perfidious Albion”, and that the Balkans are a hell of a place to wage a war.
Italy tips the first domino … in Africa
In The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark talks about a war I don’t think I’d ever heard of … an Italian campaign against the Ottoman Empire:
At the end of September 1911, only six months after the foundation of Ujedinjenje ili smrt! ["Union or death!" aka The Black Hand], Italy launched an invasion of Libya. This unprovoked attack one one of the integral provinces of the Ottoman Empire triggered a cascade of opportunistic attacks on Ottoman-controlled territory in the Balkans.
Italy’s attack on the Ottoman Empire was literally planned to steal what is now Libya and incorporate it into a new Italian Empire. Although the formal war was over in thirteen months, indigenous Arabs were still fighting back twenty years later. This attack broke the public-but-informal international understandings about leaving the remaining parts of the Ottoman Empire alone to prevent the risk of great power struggles breaking out. Britain and France had gone to war in 1854 to ensure that Russia did not gain access to the straits and thus a warm-water route to the Mediterranean and the coastlines of southern Europe, but the outcome of both the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War (and the secret Reinsurance Treaty with Germany) meant that Russia’s hands were largely free as long as Constantinople and the straits were not directly attacked. Italy’s attack broke with that understanding, and could be said to have started the most recent (and also most fatal) scramble for territory in the Balkans.
However, Italy did not act completely outside the norm for a would-be great power: they had an understanding with the French government that was formalized in a secret treaty in 1902 — Italy would not oppose French designs on Tunisia in exchange for French acceptance of Italy’s similar hopes for Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (modern day Libya). Italy’s attack was only possible because of the anomaly of the British position in Egypt: although still formally part of the Ottoman Empire, day-to-day Egyptian affairs were run by or overseen by British officials. Egypt was militarily occupied, but not a colony of the British Empire, and the country was — in theory — still run by the government of the Khedive. The Ottomans could not move formed bodies of troops through Egypt, and the Ottoman navy did not have the ships to transport them from Anatolia directly to Libya. This gave Italy the opportunity to concentrate against the weaker Ottoman forces.
The otherwise obscure Italo-Turkish War was interesting for several reasons, as the Wikipedia article notes:
Although minor, the war was a significant precursor of the First World War as it sparked nationalism in the Balkan states. Seeing how easily the Italians had defeated the weakened Ottomans, the members of the Balkan League attacked the Ottoman Empire before the war with Italy had ended.
The Italo-Turkish War saw numerous technological changes, notably the airplane. On October 23, 1911, an Italian pilot, Captain Carlo Piazza, flew over Turkish lines on the world’s first aerial reconnaissance mission, and on November 1, the first ever aerial bomb was dropped by Sottotenente Giulio Gavotti, on Turkish troops in Libya, from an early model of Etrich Taube aircraft. The Turks, lacking anti-aircraft weapons, were the first to shoot down an aeroplane by rifle fire.
It was also in this conflict that the future first president of Turkey and leader of the Turkish War of Independence, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, distinguished himself militarily as a young officer during the Battle of Tobruk.
Although Italy ended up with possession of the disputed land, it did not come easily or cheaply:
The invasion of Libya was a costly enterprise for Italy. Instead of the 30 million lire a month judged sufficient at its beginning, it reached a cost of 80 million a month for a much longer period than was originally estimated. The war cost Italy 1.3 billion lire, nearly a billion more than Giovanni Giolitti estimated before the war. This ruined ten years of fiscal prudence.
After the withdrawal of the Ottoman army the Italians could easily extend their occupation of the country, seizing East Tripolitania, Ghadames, the Djebel and Fezzan with Murzuk during 1913. The outbreak of the First World War with the necessity to bring back the troops to Italy, the proclamation of the Jihad by the Ottomans and the uprising of the Libyans in Tripolitania forced the Italians to abandon all occupied territory and to entrench themselves in Tripoli, Derna, and on the coast of Cyrenaica. The Italian control over much of the interior of Libya remained ineffective until the late 1920s, when forces under the Generals Pietro Badoglio and Rodolfo Graziani waged bloody pacification campaigns. Resistance petered out only after the execution of the rebel leader Omar Mukhtar on September 15, 1931. The result of the Italian colonisation for the Libyan population was that by the mid-1930s it had been cut in half due to emigration, famine, and war casualties. The Libyan population in 1950 was at the same level as in 1911, approximately 1.5 million in 1911.
The war ended well — at least geographically speaking — for Italy, having gained title not only to Libya but also to the Dodecanese: a group of twelve large and about 150 small islands in the Aegean Sea. The largest and most economically valuable island was Rhodes, which became a useful base for Italian forces for more than 40 years. The treaty ending the Italo-Turkish War required Italy to vacate the islands, but due to both fuzzy wording and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, Italy managed to retain possession.
The Ottoman tide ebbsThe remaining Ottoman territories in Europe were under constant pressure both from external forces (Austria and Russia) and internal linguistic, religious, and cultural separatist movements. Austria preferred to view the separatists as potential new provinces for the Dual Monarchy, while Russia saw the possibility of new independent Russophile political groupings that might allow indirect Russian access to the Mediterranean, bypassing Constantinople (or, perhaps more realistically, additional bases from which to launch an attack against the straits).
Italy’s attack was the first domino falling. Christopher Clark writes:
The First World War was the Third Balkan War before it became the First World War. How as this possible? Conflicts and crises on the south-eastern periphery, where the Ottoman Empire abutted Christian Europe, were nothing new. The European system had always accommodated them without endangering the peace of the continent as a whole. But the last years before 1914 saw fundamental change. In the autumn of 1911, Italy launched a war of conquest on an African province of the Ottoman Empire, triggering a chain of opportunistic assaults on Ottoman territories across the Balkans. The system of geopolitical balances that had enabled local conflicts to be contained was swept away. In the aftermath of the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, Austria-Hungary faced a new and threatening situation on its south-eastern periphery, while the retreat of Ottoman power raised strategic questions that Russian diplomats and policy-makers found it impossible to ignore.
Margaret MacMillan, in The War That Ended Peace:
It was in the Balkans [...] that the greatest dangers were to arise: two wars among its nations, one in 1912 and a second in 1913, nearly pulled the great powers in. Diplomacy, bluff and brinksmanship in the end saved the peace but although Europeans could not know it, they had had a dress rehearsal for the summer of 1914. As they say in the theatre, if that last run-through goes well, the opening night will be a disaster.
The First Balkan War of 1912 — A Pan-Slavic triumph
To some, the Balkans were a comic opera assemblage of exotic uniforms, passionate actors, indecipherable languages, a bit of bloodshed, but no real source of international danger or worry. Margaret MacMillan explains that much happened beneath the surface of the above-ground culture: much that portended danger to the entire region and beyond.
To the rest of Europe the Balkan states were something of a joke, the setting for tales of romance such as the Prisoner of Zenda or operettas (Montenegro was the inspiration for the The Merry Widow), but their politics were deadly serious — and frequently deadly with terrorist plots, violence and assassinations. In 1903 King Peter’s unpopular predecessor as King of Serbia and his equally unpopular wife had been thrown from the windows of the palace and their corpses hacked to pieces. [...] The growth of national movements had welded peoples together but it had also divided Orthodox from Catholic or Muslim, Albanians from Slaves, and Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Bulgarians or Macedonians from each other. While the peoples of the Balkans had coexisted and intermingled, often for long periods of peace through the centuries, the establishment of national states in the nineteenth century had too often been accompanied by burning of villages, massacres, expulsions of minorities and lasting vendettas.
Politicians who had ridden to power by playing on nationalism and with promises of national glory found they were in the grip of forces they could not always control. Secret societies, modelling themselves on an eclectic mix which included Freemasonry, the underground Carbonari, who had worked for Italian unity, the terrorists who more recently had frightened much of Europe, and old-style banditry, proliferated throughout the Balkans, weaving their way into civilian and military institutions of the states.
In addition to the ethnic, proto-national, cultural, and religious aspects of Balkan conflict, it was also an inter-generational conflict:
Comic opera states or not, they proved to be more than a match for their Ottoman overlords. Taking advantage of the Italian attack on Libya, Serbia allied with Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro to invade and capture much of the Balkan peninsula, stopping just a few miles outside Constantinople. The First Balkan War triggered vast population shifts, as nearly half a million Muslims fled from the conquered territory to escape religious persecution (and many thousands died through privation, disease, and starvation. Between the actual combat between military forces, forced evacuations, and the early use of genocidal policies, several million people were forced out of their homes and moved at gunpoint to wherever the armed groups wanted them to go. Cultural patterns nearly a millennia old were uprooted and dispersed to suit the tastes of local warlords and jumped-up military leaders.
The younger generation who were attracted to the secret societies were often more extreme than their elders and frequently at odds with them. “Our fathers, our tyrants,” said a Bosnian radical nationalist, “have created this world on their model and are now forcing us to live in it.” The young members were in love with violence and prepared to destroy even their own traditional values and institutions in order to build the new Greater Serbia, Bulgaria, or Greece. (Even if they had not read Nietzsche, which many of them had, they too had heard that God was dead and that European civilization must be destroyed in order to free humankind.) In the last years before 1914, the authorities in the Balkan states either tolerated or were powerless to control the activities of their own young radicals who carried out assassinations and terrorist attacks on Ottoman or Austrian-Hungarian official as oppressors of the Slavs, on their own leaders whom they judged to be insufficiently devoted to the nationalist cause, or simply on ordinary citizens who happened to be in the wrong religion or the wrong ethnicity in the wrong place.
And there it might have ended, but the unexpectedly successful campaign by the Balkan League left just a few too many loose ends, which almost immediately led to conflict among the victorious allies. Since I’ve already tipped you to the fact that there was more than one Balkan War, you probably won’t be surprised to find that the Second Balkan War happened quite soon after the first one. But that’s a tale for another day.
June 26, 2014
In Vice News, Jordan Larson reports on the plight of a self-declared atheist who has been confined to a mental institute in northern Nigeria because denying belief in God is a mental illness:
A young Nigerian man is being forcibly held in a mental institution for identifying as an atheist, according to charity organization International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).
Mubarak Bala, 29, who holds a degree in chemical engineering and is a resident of the primarily Muslim Kano state in northern Nigeria, has been held and medicated against his will at the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital since June 13.
According to IHEU, Bala was committed to a mental institution after he told his Muslim family that he did not believe in God.
His family then sought the advice of two doctors; the first gave him a clean bill of health, while the second chalked up his atheism to a “personality change.”
In one of his emails, Bala wrote, “And the biggest evidence of my mental illness was large blasphemies and denial of ‘history’ of Adam, and apostacy [sic], to which the doctor said was a personality change, that everyone needs a God, that even in Japan they have a God. And my brother added that all the atheists I see have had mental illness at some point in their life,” according to a statement on IHEU’s website.
“Kano is a Sharia state and there are many similar cases occurring, where people are forcefully oppressed just because of their beliefs or for conservative religious reasons, or for the ‘honour’ of their family,” Bamidele Adeneye, secretary of IHEU member organization Lagos Humanists, told IHEU. “Often though you only hear about it afterwards, if at all. This is a rare chance to intervene while someone is in dire need and is still alive.”
June 24, 2014
Following up on an article from earlier this month on Fairtrade’s business and ethical problems, Rossa Minogue talks to Professor Christopher Cramer who lead the investigation on which the report was based:
I ask Cramer if he was surprised by the study’s findings. ‘Yes and no’, he says. ‘[Fairtrade] perpetuated this fantasy of rural Africa being full of small, family farmers with roughly the same amount of land as each other. Unless there was an extraordinarily benign trickle-down effect, you wouldn’t really expect things to be much better [on Fairtrade farms]. But to find that the wages were worse and that most of the working conditions were worse, that did surprise me — and it’s a puzzle.’
The study’s findings were certainly disconcerting for Fairtrade’s supporters. They showed that farm labourers often make less on Fairtrade farms than non-Fairtrade farms, while many smallholders live in abject poverty. So, does Fairtrade benefit anyone in Third World agriculture? Cramer tells me that, during his four years of field research, his team realised that what Fairtrade defined as ‘smallholders’ covered everything from owners of farms of half a hectare to 130 hectares. The owners of bigger farms, he tells me, ‘are the ones who capture most of the direct benefits. They also tend to control the leadership of the cooperatives.’ So it seems that the larger farms, the ones that would presumably be doing alright anyway, are the only ones that reap the rewards of Fairtrade — a programme allegedly aimed at helping the poorest of the poor.
Cramer’s report is definitely a damning indictment of Fairtrade, which is why Fairtrade is doing all it can to smear its findings. When I wrote about Cramer’s findings a few weeks ago, I was informed that people who had tweeted my piece received direct tweets from Fairtrade UK, dismissing the article as sensationalist and untrue. Naturally, Cramer has borne the brunt of this hostility: ‘There was a legal threat made against us when [Fairtrade officials] saw the first draft of our press release’, he says. ‘They’ve also sent me hostile letters.’
In the West, people are often puzzled as to why rural Africans give up what is sometimes perceived to be a poor but idyllic existence in the countryside to live in the slums on the outskirts of cities. However, this puzzlement ignores the harsh realities of rural poverty. For many, moving to the city, where they can at least eke out a living, is the only rational choice. So what is the best path out of poverty for the farmhands of Africa?
‘That’s a big question. The focus must be on increasing agricultural productivity and that involves a lot of things, including infrastructure and investment. I don’t buy into the small-is-beautiful paradigm. My research shows that if you’re interested in driving up quality and enhancing productivity, as well as the lives and prospects of the poorest people, large-scale production has its advantages. Betting on the strong can also be betting on the weak.’
June 3, 2014
Rossa Minogue on the image and reality of Fairtrade:
The world’s ethical shoppers are still reeling this week after a report revealed that Fairtrade programmes are of little benefit to those working on farms in the developing world.
The government-funded study published by SOAS, a part of the University of London, was conducted over a four-year period in Uganda and Ethiopia. It showed that labourers on farms that are part of Fairtrade programmes are usually paid less and are subject to worse working conditions than their peers on large commercial farms, and even other small farms that are not part of Fairtrade programmes. Professor Christopher Cramer, the study’s main author, said: ‘Fairtrade has not been an effective mechanism for improving the lives of wage workers, the poorest rural people.’
The study also found that the ‘social premium’ incorporated into the price of Fairtrade products, which is meant to be used to improve infrastructure in poor communities, is often misspent. In one instance, researchers found that modern toilets built with this premium were in fact for the use of senior farm managers only. The report also documented examples of health clinics and schools set up with social-premium funds that charged fees that were too high for the labourers they were intended to benefit.
Of course, nobody needed the clever people at SOAS to tell us all this. From its very inception, the concept of Fairtrade was rooted in maintaining low ‘sustainable’ horizons for the poor by those who consider people in Africa and other parts of the Third World to be intrinsically different to the rest of us. The movement did not originate with the poor farmers of the developing world, but with Western NGOs and their army of gap-year do-gooders intent on imposing their reactionary ‘small is beautiful’ values on an Africa desperate for change.
May 26, 2014
In the Ottawa Citizen, David Pugliese outlines what we know (or at least, what we’ve been told) about the extent of Canadian participation in the search for the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls:
Geoff York at the Globe and Mail had an interesting article a couple of days ago about what Canada may or may not be doing in Nigeria to help in the hunt for school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram.
The Canadian government has claimed that it has sent personnel, both in a liaison and advisory capacity. The government has said it has sent surveillance equipment but has offered no other details for security reasons. Government officials privately claim that Canadian special forces have been sent.
York interviewed a number of Nigerian military and government officials who question whether Canada is involved or say they don’t have any information about the involvement because they have yet to see any presence of Canadians.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan expressed his gratitude to the countries helping search for more than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls. As York writes he specifically singled out four countries for special praise — France, Britain, the United States and Israel — but made no mention of Canada.
The two most likely explanations seem to be a) we’re doing nothing particularly useful but our politicians want to be seen to be doing something or b) we’ve got special forces troops in Nigeria, but for operational security reasons, don’t want it advertised even by the host country. Or possibly a little from column A and a little from column B: JTF2/CSOR or CSEC have a small number of operatives in Nigeria, but they’re not considered a major contribution by the Nigerian government (or, more charitably, Nigeria is keeping mum about it by Canadian request).
May 25, 2014
Mark Steyn posted this earlier in the week, but I only read it today. It’s a very sad tale of slow moving bureaucracy that may result in a woman being executed for the crime of becoming a Christian:
… Meriam Ibrahim [has] been sentenced by a Sudanese court to hang for the crime of being a Christian and refusing to “revert” to Islam (she was turned in to the authorities by her brother, apparently). Judge Abbas Mohammed Al-Khalifa has ruled that the convicted woman, who is eight months pregnant, will be permitted to give birth to her child before he executes her. Her two-year-old son Martin is currently imprisoned with her.
I would like Meriam Ibrahim not to be hanged — for several reasons. First, I’m not in favor of hanging women for apostasy. However, I recognize that, in a post-imperial age, barbarous despots are free to terrorize their subjects, and no matter how many pouty-faced hashtags we do we can’t save them all. However, there are compelling reasons why the United States Government ought to be making an effort to bring back this girl in particular.
As I’ve discussed here and on air, Meriam Ibrahim is the wife of a US citizen, Daniel Wani. Mr Wani lives in Manchester, New Hampshire, a couple hours south of SteynOnline corporate HQ. He has lived in the Granite State for 17 years. He has been a US citizen for almost a decade.
I don’t think it’s in the interests of Americans for thug states to learn they can execute the spouses of US citizens with impunity. That will not improve the security of Americans and westerners as they move around the world. As I said the other day, the spouse of a US citizen is entitled to US citizenship herself: It’s essentially non-discretionary. So Mrs Wani is in effect an American-in-waiting.
However, the sclerotic, dysfunctional and utterly shameful US immigration bureaucracy takes years to process these routine spousal applications. And that is why Daniel Wani’s wife was languishing in Khartoum: she was waiting for “permission” from the United States Bureau of Inertia to travel to New Hampshire and join her husband. And, while she was waiting, the Sudanese decided to kill her.
The reason Mr Wani was in Manchester and Mrs Wani and their son Martin were in Khartoum is because they were trapped in the processing hell of US immigration:
Soon after Ibrahim and Wani were wed, in December 2011, Wani applied to his government, the United States government, for a spousal visa to bring his wife to America.
As I said, a spousal application is essentially non-discretionary: An American has the right to fall in love with a Belgian or an Uzbek or a Papuan and bring her to his home, but US immigration has gotten into the habit of dragging it out, for three years, a half-decade, and even longer if the paper-shufflers are minded to really screw you over. In this case, for poor Mrs Wani, US bureaucratic torpor has proved fatal.
So this is a tale not just of a rotten worthless Third World basket-case tyranny, but of US bureaucratic incompetence, too. The late Christopher Hitchens, who died a US citizen, summarized his dealings with American immigration thus:
There was a famous saying, I think it’s by the Roman poet Terence. Nihil humanem alienurm puto — Nothing human is alien to me. The slogan of the Department of Homeland Security is nothing alien is human to them.
And so an expectant mother and her two-year old American son are chained to a wall. Britain’s Daily Mail (which is now America’s most-read newspaper website — because American newspapers have entirely lost their nose for news) reports:
Martin was born in Sudan and may be entitled to a US passport because Daniel in a naturalized American citizen, though the process is complicated and not certain.
“The process is complicated and not certain”: There’s another epitaph for the republic.
May 18, 2014
Victor Davis Hanson on the limitations of #hashtag activism to combat real-world evil:
Nigeria’s homegrown, al-Qaeda linked militant group, Boko Haram, brags openly that it recently kidnapped about 300 young Nigerian girls. It boasts that it will sell them into sexual slavery.
Those terrorists have a long and unapologetic history of murdering kids who dare to enroll in school, and Christians in general. For years, Western aid groups have pleaded with the State Department to at least put Boko Haram on the official list of terrorist groups. But former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s team was reluctant to come down so harshly, in apparent worry that some might interpret such condemnation as potentially offensive to Islamic sensitivities.
Instead, Western elites now flood Facebook and Twitter with angry postings about Boko Haram — either in vain hopes that public outrage might deter the terrorists, or simply to feel better by loudly condemning the perpetrators.
But if we are postmodern and sensitive, what do we say or do about premodern racists with nuclear weapons, like the North Koreans?
A recent article from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency suggested that President Obama “does not even have the basic appearances of a human being … It would be perfect for Obama to live with a group of monkeys in the world’s largest African natural zoo and lick the bread crumbs thrown by spectators.”
How does the West deal with a mentality like that, originating from a country armed with nuclear weapons? Pyongyang owns no television show that we can boycott, no sports team that we can root against.
What do we do in the face of 19th-century evil that is unapologetic, has lethal weapons at its disposal, and uses savage rhetoric to goad us? Tweet it to death?
What about the sultan of Brunei, who just enacted sharia law that orders stoning for women found “guilty” of adultery or for homosexuals engaged in sex acts? That is a different sort of war on women than that invoked by Sandra Fluke, who lamented that she did not have free birth control from the government.
May 4, 2014
In the Guardian, Nick Cohen says that the girls have not been “abducted” — they’ve been enslaved:
Terrorists from a religious cult so reactionary you don’t have to stretch the language too far to describe it as fascistic attack a school. The assault on a civilian target, filled with non-combatant children, has a grotesque logic behind it. They call themselves “Boko Haram”, which translates as “western education is forbidden”. The sect regards learning as oppression. They will stop all teaching that conflicts with a holy book from the 7th century and accounts of doubtful provenance on the life and sayings of their prophet written hundreds of years after he died.
A desire for sexual supremacy accompanies their loathing of knowledge. They take 220 schoolgirls as slaves and force them to convert to their version of Islam. They either rape them or sell them on for £10 or so to new masters. The girls are the victims of slavery, child abuse and forced marriage. Their captors are by extension slavers and rapists.
As you can see, English does not lack plain words to describe the foulness of the crimes in Nigeria, and no doubt they would be used in the highly improbable event of western soldiers seizing and selling women.
Yet read parts of the press and you enter a world of euphemism. They have not been enslaved but “abducted” or “kidnapped”, as if they will be released unharmed when the parties have negotiated a mutually acceptable ransom. Writers are typing with one eye over their shoulder: watching their backs to make sure that no one can accuse them of “demonising the other”.
Turn from today’s papers to the theoretical pages of leftwing journals and you find that the grounds for understanding Boko Haram more and condemning it less were prepared last year.
Without fully endorsing Boko Haram, of course, socialists explained that it finds “resonance in the hearts of many poor and dispossessed” people, who are revolted by “the corruption and flamboyant lifestyle of the elites”. Islamism is recast as a rational reaction to local corruption and the global oppression of “neoliberalism”, one of those conveniently vague labels that can mean just about anything.
January 22, 2014
Published on 20 Dec 2012
……and snappeth the spear in sunder.
Short film detailing how this great film was made.
With contributions from Lady Ellen Baker, James Booth, Glynn Edwards and others.
Update: Zulu was primarily the story of the defence of Rorke’s Drift by B Company of the 24th Regiment under temporary command of Royal Engineer Lieutenant John Chard (who was senior to Lieutenant Bromhead of the 24th). Less well-known is the larger battle of Isandlwana which happened earlier the same day, where Zulu forces defeated a much larger British force. This show investigates the site of the battle, discussing some of the reasons why the battle was quickly forgotten, as one of the worst British defeats of the Victorian era:
Published on 8 Sep 2013
We are all familiar with the famous story of a handful of British redcoats fending off thousands of Zulu warriors, made famous by the film starring Michael Caine, but this did well to mask another battle just a few miles away where 1,300 British were slaughtered by the natives in just two and a half hours. This fascinating programme looks at what went wrong for the British Empire builders on that fateful day.
December 11, 2013
In the Guardian Simon Jenkins discusses the way the media covered Nelson Mandela’s funeral:
Enough is enough. The publicity for the death and funeral of Nelson Mandela has become absurd. Mandela was an African political leader with qualities that were apt at a crucial juncture in his nation’s affairs. That was all and that was enough. Yet his reputation has fallen among thieves and cynics. Hijacked by politicians and celebrities from Barack Obama to Naomi Campbell and Sepp Blatter, he has had to be deified so as to dust others with his glory. In the process he has become dehumanised. We hear much of the banality of evil. Sometimes we should note the banality of goodness.
Part of this is due to the media’s crude mechanics. Millions of dollars have been lavished on preparing for Mandela’s death. Staff have been deployed, hotels booked, huts rented in Transkei villages. Hospitals could have been built for what must have been spent. All media have gone mad. Last week I caught a BBC presenter, groaning with tedium, asking a guest to compare Mandela with Jesus. The corporation has reportedly received more than a thousand complaints about excessive coverage. Is it now preparing for a resurrection?
More serious is the obligation that the cult of the media-event should owe to history. There is no argument that in the 1980s Mandela was “a necessary icon” not just for South Africans but for the world in general. In what was wrongly presented as the last great act of imperial retreat, white men were caricatured as bad and black men good. The arrival of a gentlemanly black leader, even a former terrorist, well cast for beatification was a godsend.
Mandela was crucial to De Klerk’s task. He was an African aristocrat, articulate of his people’s aspirations, a reconciler and forgiver of past evils. Mandela seemed to embody the crossing of the racial divide, thus enabling De Klerk’s near impossible task. White South Africans would swear he was the only black leader who made them feel safe — with nervous glances at Desmond Tutu and others.
South Africa in the early 90s was no postcolonial retreat. It was a bargain between one set of tribes and another. For all the cruelties of the armed struggle, it was astonishingly sparing of blood. This was no Pakistan, no Sri Lanka, no Congo. The rise of majority rule in South Africa was one of the noblest moments in African history. The resulting Nobel peace prize was rightly shared between Mandela and De Klerk, a sharing that has been ignored by almost all the past week’s obituaries. There were two good men in Cape Town in 1990.
December 8, 2013
Salil Tripathi met Nelson Mandela and finds the frequent comparisons between Gandhi and Mandela to do less than justice to both men:
The South African freedom struggle was different from India’s, and the paths Mandela and Gandhi took were also different. That did not prevent many from comparing him with Gandhi. But the two were different; both made political choices appropriate to their time and the context in which they lived.
Gandhi’s life and struggle were political, but securing political freedom was the means to another end, spiritual salvation and moral advancement of India. Mandela was guided by a strong ethical core, and he was deeply committed to political change. At India’s independence, Gandhi wanted the Congress Party to be dissolved, and its members to dedicate themselves to serve the poor. But the Congress had other ideas. Mandela would not have wanted to dissolve his organization; he wanted to bring about the transformation South Africa needed, but he also wanted to heal his beloved country.
This is not to suggest that Gandhi wasn’t political. He was shrewd and he devised strategies to seek the moral high ground against his opponents — and among the British he found a colonial power susceptible to such pressures, because Britain had a domestic constituency which found colonialism repugnant, contrary to its values.
Mandela’s point was that he didn’t have the luxury of fighting the British — he was dealing with the National Party, with its Afrikaans base, which believed in a fight to finish, seeking inspiration from the teachings of the Dutch Reformed Church which established a hierarchy of different races, which led to the establishment of apartheid. “One kaffir one bullet,” said the Boer (the Afrikaans word for farmer, which many Afrikaans-speaking South Africans were); “One settler one bullet,” replied Umkhonto weSizwe, the militant arm of the ANC.
And yet Mandela’s lasting gift was his power of forgiveness and lack of bitterness. He showed exceptional humanity and magnanimity when he left his bitterness behind, on the hard, white limestone rocks of Robben Island that he was forced to break for years, the harsh reflected glare of those rocks causing permanent damage to his eyes. And yet, he came out, his fist raised, smiling, and he wrote in his memoir, Long Walk To Freedom, that unless he left his bitterness and hatred behind, “I would still be in prison.”
By refusing to seek revenge, by accepting the white South African as his brother, by agreeing to build a nation with people who wanted to see him dead, Mandela rose to a stature that is almost unparalleled.
Calling Mandela the Gandhi of our times does no favour to either. Gandhi probably anticipated the compromises he would have to make, which is why he shunned political office. Mandela estimated, correctly, that following the Gandhian path of non-violent resistance against the apartheid regime was going to be futile, since the apartheid regime did not play by any rules, except those it kept creating to deepen the divide between people.
H/T to Shikha Dalmia for the link.