By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
Most Americans don’t give much thought to the First World War. Much like the Korean War, WWI may be considered a ‘forgotten’ conflict. Of course, both of these conflicts have one other thing in common; they have been overshadowed by the Second World War. WWII is the struggle Americans are most usually obsessed with; from movies and television shows, to our dubiously titled ‘History Channel’, to national best-seller monographs, WWII gets most of the coverage. And why not? The war radically altered the world, and America’s place in it.
But, to understand our wider world, with it’s complexities and it’s many tragedies, we need to look back even further than 1945. After all, to understand the world created by WWII, we must investigate the World War that preceded it.
We live in a violent, confusing world. The last couple weeks have proven this to any Pollyannas who may have forgotten such a hard truth. For many Americans, the events unfolding in Ukraine, Iraq and Israel/Palestine are difficult to comprehend. As outside observers, we often simply throw our hands up in dumbfounded frustration. I fear such frustration leads many people simply to label the people and politics of these regions as ‘crazy’.
Of course, such an ‘explanation’ explains nothing.
True explanations are difficult. True explanations are complex. True explanations are unsettling.
But, true explanations are desperately needed. If we are to understand what is happening in Iraq, or grasp why the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is so persistent, or why such bad blood exists between the Ukraine and Russia, we must go to the history books. Specifically, we must investigate the First World War.
Let us begin with Iraq.
As we all know, the American intervention in Iraq beginning in the Spring of 2003 did not go as planned. Though the United States quickly won a technical victory on the field of battle, the ‘rebuilding’, or ‘occupation’ of the nation was marred by, for Americans, seemingly inexplicable violence, sectarian strife, and near civil war. The reasons for such violence are many and complex. One unarguably important cause was American policymakers’ ignorance regarding the complexity of the Iraqi past. Such ignorance, willful or innocent, is even more shocking when it is understood that the Americans had a predecessor they could have learned from. In 1918, at the end of WWI, the British made many of the same mistakes Americans made in 2003.
During the First World War, the British were not just fighting the Germans in the fields of France. They also were at war with the ‘Sick Man of Europe’, the Ottoman Turkish Empire. In this Middle Eastern war, the British looked to rile up the Arab peoples of the area, hoping the Arabs would be interested in throwing off the yoke of their Turkish overlords. The British promised the Arabs of the region national autonomy. According to Scott Anderson however, the British did this without understanding the complexities of the area.’For nearly 400 years prior to World War I, the lands of Iraq existed as three distinct semi-autonomous provinces, or vilayets, within the Ottoman Empire. In each of these vilayets, one of the three religious or ethnic groups that predominated in the region – Shiite, Sunni and Kurd – held sway, with the veneer of Ottoman rule resting atop a complex network of local clan and tribal alliances. ‘
After defeating the Turks, the British, and the French made two troubling decisions. First, they reneged on their deal with the Arab populations of the Middle East, basically replacing Ottoman rule with European Imperialism. Second, much like in Europe in 1918, the victors of the war redrew maps, and went about ‘state building’. Out of this came the imperial holdings of Palestine, Syria, Trans-Jordan and Iraq.
This situation was not only tragic, it was absurd. Last year, The Daily Show wonderfully captured the absurdity of the situation:
As John Oliver hilariously illustrates, the mapmakers took no account of the ethnic, tribal and religious disparities of the region. Iraq was transformed into a simmering land of tension controlled by a crumbling British Empire. Scott Anderson points out that this was a disaster waiting to happen, and the British did not have long to wait: Iraq’s history of the 1920’s-1950’s ‘would be marked by a series of violent coups and rebellions, with its political domination by the Sunni minority simply deepening its sectarian fault lines. After repeatedly intervening to defend their fragile creation, the British were finally cast out of Iraq in the late 1950s, their local allies murdered by vengeful mobs.’
British decisions from 1918 seem to have never-ending repercussions in Iraq. With this in mind, it seems ISIS is simply another chicken coming home to roost.
(My next blog post will deal with Israel/Palestine and the First World War. After that, Ukraine and The First World War)