January 23, 2018 – Arsenal For Democracy Ep. 211

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Topics: The final year of the World War One centennial; Medicaid and welfare work requirements. People: Bill, Rachel, Nate. Produced: Jan 21st, 2018.

Episode 211 (54 min):
AFD 211

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AFD 211 Links Discussed/Recommended and Detailed Notes on Work Requirements (PDF)

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Music by friend of the show Stunt Bird.

Trench warfare comes to eastern Syria

Trench warfare largely fell out of favor when aerial bombing became more commonplace and it wasn’t so rare for one or both sides to possess aircraft with serious ground attack capabilities. (Paratroopers didn’t help matters either, if you were trying to defend a location via front-facing trenches.)

But in a conflict where neither side has its own air force, such as the war between Kurdish YPG fighters and ISIS in eastern Syria, extensive trench complexes still make sense for slowing offensives and for securing territory. The New York Times sent reporters to the Kurdish front lines and reported back on the scale and complexity of the earthworks there:

[Kurdish] fighters hold most of the more than 280-mile-long front line with the Islamic State. Parts of it have come to resemble an international border, with deep trenches and high berms running for miles, lined with bright lights to prevent jihadist infiltrators. The whole line is dotted with heavily sandbagged positions to protect against machine gun and mortar attacks by the jihadists.

 
The geo-ethnic divisions wracking Syria, Iraq, and Turkey today were largely drawn during World War I and the five or so years that followed it, so it’s interesting to see massive earthworks and trench networks like that war re-emerge a century later in the waging of this conflict.

Approximate front line of the southward push by Kurdish YPG forces against ISIS in eastern Syria, as of October 26, 2015. (Map via Wikimedia community.)

Approximate front line of the southward push by Kurdish YPG forces against ISIS in eastern Syria, as of October 26, 2015. (Map via Wikimedia community.)

The Russian Revolution & the 1918 Massachusetts Convention

I’ve been reading very heavily from the “Debates in the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention 1917-1918” (particularly Volumes III and IV) — published by Wright and Potter Printing Company (the state printers) in 1920 and freely available today from Google Books — and it’s pretty fascinating for both its detailed discussions of political theory and practice and its time-capsule-like preservation of the tumultuous historical time period in which the convention occurred.

The convention was convened in early 1917, before the U.S. entered World War I and as Russia was beginning to collapse. By the time it ended in mid-1918, the U.S. intervention was in full swing — as was the Bolshevik October Revolution and the Russian Civil War. The delegates in the heat of debates toward the end of the convention could not help but be swept along by the momentous history unfolding around the world.

While there are many historical points I hope to explore more, the convention’s discussions of the Russian Revolution interested me for a first post. Just a few selections are included below.

One important Somerville delegate thought ballot initiatives were as bad as the Russian Revolution:

Mr. Underhill (Somerville): I may be unduly alarmed. The initiative and referendum are not in operation in Massachusetts as yet, and possibly the recent publicity given to the chief backer of the initiative and referendum, Mr. Hearst, and his newspapers may cause the people of Massachusetts to pause and consider whether anything advocated by that gentleman or his newspapers is for the best interest of the community, and it will be defeated. But, sir, if it should be adopted, I should like to remind you that since the Convention passed the initiative and referendum, we have had an illustration of the will and rule of the majority, in Russia. We have had an example of popular government without restraint and without restrictions, which could occur in Massachusetts as well as in Russia. And, sir, it seems to me that if we are going to open the doors wide, we are going to have every demagogue from Cape Cod to the Berkshire Hills telling the people “All you have got to do now is to vote for a homestead and the Government the State or the municipality is going to give it to you.”

 
In reality, contrary to Delegate Underhill’s belief at the time, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia proved to be a coup by a small minority faction, rather than an expression of majority will. He made repeat appearances in the convention debates labeling every left-leaning constitutional proposal a Bolshevik plot, including the idea of having state-subsidized housing as a right for every citizen. Another point of contention in the debates was when Underhill implied that the Russian immigrant population in Brockton at the time was a Bolshevik sleeper cell.

Ironically, a Boston delegate argued that ballot initiatives might actually help conservatively counteract the (what he believed to be) undue militant leftist influence upon state legislators, who he felt would actually be easier to pressure behind closed doors than the whole electorate:

Mr. Herbert A. Kenney (Boston): What do we find in this situation? President Wilson has called the initiative and referendum “a gun behind the door.” My distinguished friend from Brookline (Mr. Walker) spoke very forcibly on those lines. Suppose, for instance, that the House and the Senate say that the minimum wage shall be, – as they do in Russia under the Bolsheviki, – say, $100 a week. Now the Legislature must vote for that; why? Because if one single member of the Legislature votes against that the labor element will center its fire on that man. They might not get him in one year but they can get him in two years or three years or perhaps ten years. He is a marked man. The same way with the Senate.

 
In a discussion of the minimum wage (and whether to guarantee it under the Constitution), one of the more leftist delegates argued that it was a necessity to avoid a revolution or takeover by industrial labor — and described his own evolving viewpoints on the future of labor politics in the U.S. over the momentous course of 1917 and early 1918: Read more

Remembering East Africa’s WWI fallen

Did You Know: World War I included battles in East Africa by local conscripts and produced widespread famine in the East African colonial system…

More than one million people died in East Africa during World War One. Some soldiers were forced to fight members of their own families on the battlefield because of the way borders were drawn up by European colonial powers, writes Oswald Masebo.

 
There are still guns and other battlefield artifacts in place since 1916.

John Iliffe’s archival research suggests that Germany had about 15,000 soldiers in south-west Tanzania in 1916 out of whom about 3,000 were Germans and the remaining 12,000 were Tanzanians whose names are not recorded.

The Tanzanian carrier corps also played a central role in sustaining the war. Their story should be recovered.

It is estimated that during the peak of military operations in 1916 the German colonial state conscripted some 45,000 African carrier corps.

 
After the German colonies collapsed or were seized, many who had benefited from German colonization or had been forced to serve it had to hide their identities or change their stories to avoid being branded collaborators by fellow locals and the new British authorities.

Afterwar: The Armistice That Didn’t End Europe’s War

The popular retelling says that on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the guns of August 1914 finally fell silent, ending “The War to End All Wars.” The popular follow-up joke is to point out that the Second World War, which began nearly twenty years later, proved that label false. Today the date remains a holiday in many of the Allied countries – including the United States, where it is now called Veterans Day.

In fact, not only did the war not really end on November 11th 1918, but the continuing fighting actually sprawled even further across the world. In many ways, it’s the wars “after the war” that really shaped what was to follow and the world we live in today, far more than almost any battle in World War One itself on the original fronts in Europe.

A shattering, rolling wave of secondary war, which began with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia 369 days before the Western Front Armistice, triggered five “bonus” years of very heavy fighting that reformulated the modern world after the supposed cease-fire. These were waged in part by various revolutionary and counter-revolutionary local armies in a dozen countries, by anti-colonial forces against Western colonialists, and by the same Allied Powers that would continue to insist the war had ended in November 1918.

The famous Versailles Treaty was preceded and followed up by round after round of accompanying treaties frantically attempting to bridge the widening gap between the “ideal” boundaries envisioned by the victorious Allied Powers and the facts on the ground. One of these side treaties was so delusional it purported to divide Ottoman territory under Allied directive by agreement with the Ottoman sultan, who no longer had the effective power to sign any deals, and with the borders to be drawn by a nearly incapacitated Woodrow Wilson less than a year after his stroke. It was, of course, never implementable.

From the Russian Civil War … to the border battles of the former Russian imperial territories against each other … to the wars exploding across the former Ottoman Empire … to the far-flung European colonies around the world, World War One continued to grow, metastasize, and envelop country after country well beyond November 1918.

When it was all truly over, Europe had a half-dozen new states, a half-dozen others had already come and gone, the Middle East was carved up along the arbitrary lines of today’s conflicts, Turkey had declared independence from itself and the 16th century, a Communist government solidly held power in Russia and Ukraine after defeating the same military forces that had just broken the German Empire, Ireland had departed from Britain by force and civil war, several African and Pacific colonies had been arbitrarily reassigned to Western rulers speaking entirely different languages from the earlier colonizers, and existing colonies were laying the groundwork for mass resistance and violent separation.

Compared to the glacial, inch-by-inch pace of the four-year battle for control of highly strategic Belgian mud, the wars that followed often seemed to shift and create national borders faster than ocean tides.
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How to respond to Russia (safely)

Arsenal Essay: This isn’t Neville Chamberlain in 1938. It’s the world NOT taking the bait of Serbian gunmen in 1914.
nato-logo-200The Crimea annexation has raised a crucial question: What is the world to do when a country with a large military and nuclear weapons decides to end a (voluntary, it turns out) period of non-aggression toward its neighbors?

For a while, the Soviet Union and Russia was so bogged down by the 1980s Afghanistan debacle and economic problems of the 1990s that it wasn’t in a strong position to intervene militarily in its European neighbors’ political affairs as it had once regularly done.

But by the mid-2000s, Russia’s military was back up and ready. The United States and the wider Western world appears to have mistakenly convinced itself that Russian non-intervention in Eastern Europe was due to universalizing of norms against such interference and some sort of implicit global check against it.

Putin doesn’t appear to feel bound by any of those norms, after all (though the United States has had an extremely iffy track record on that as well since 1999). For some time now I’ve been firmly in the camp that this has more to do with restoring the pre-1914 Russian Empire and little to do with restoring the USSR. I think Putin’s vision of Russia is a lot like the Russia that was a European power with an inferiority complex and a Peter the Great-inspired desperation for Europe’s respect but not its approval.

It also calls to mind the arrogant Russia that saw itself as the older brother (and divinely chosen leader) of all Slavs everywhere, whether they liked it or not — and the White Man’s Burden Leader of the near abroad (especially Central Asia, as we’ve seen flashes of again recently). We’ve seen the revived patronizing attitude of Russians who simply can’t comprehend why Ukraine wouldn’t want to be part of Russia again.

Of course — as I’ll return to later in this essay — that was the same “Older Brother Russia” with the largest land army in the world that invaded the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in response to an Austrian police action in Serbia following the Serbian assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 (and Serbia’s alleged refusal to hand over the terrorists).

Rather than the Slavic World-Tsar liberating the Yugo-Slavs (the Slavs of the South), it brought the world into a devastating war that collapsed four empires, including Russia’s.

But let us return to Putin’s neo-imperial Russia of today. The lack of Russian invasions in Eastern Europe in the past nine years — apart from the disputed circumstances of Georgia in 2008 — seems now to have been more out of the “goodness” of Putin’s heart than out of any real commitment to respecting the independence of the Federation’s neighbors.

Putin’s revelation is that the 1956 rules still apply no less than they did in 1956, when the Soviet Union violently invaded Hungary (an anti-NATO Warsaw Pact member) to preserve communist rule there, and NATO was forced to watch passively because it could not risk a nuclear war over the matter.

Does the current Russian leadership, like the Soviet leadership of 1956, have enough sense to realize that it can only get away with interventions in its “sphere of influence” or will he press his luck? At the end of the day, it’s at least partly a matter of voluntary forbearance, as to how far Russia pushes. But partly as the hawks are telling us, it’s also about whether NATO and the United States are a credible umbrella for NATO members in Eastern Europe. As in: Is NATO really prepared to honor its defense obligations to the Baltic Republics if Russia intervenes there too?

I don’t know for sure if we’d actually launch a war if Russia invaded Estonia, say, but I do know that the United States isn’t twiddling its thumbs either — and is working to make sure that doesn’t happen in the first place, so that we never have to find out. Contrary to Republican belief, President Obama has been taking strong measures to shore up NATO allies in Eastern Europe against Russian aggression. Here’s the New York Times on the moves:

Since President Vladimir V. Putin ordered troops to seize Crimea, Mr. Obama has become increasingly engaged, blitzing foreign leaders with telephone calls, imposing sanctions and speaking out more frequently.

To reassure nervous allies, he sent six extra F-15C Eagles to Lithuania and 12 F-16 fighter jets to Poland. Mr. Obama, who met here with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, will further bolster defenses in Eastern Europe by rotating more ground and naval forces for exercises and training in Poland and the Baltic countries; update contingency planning; and increase the capacity of a NATO quick-response force.

“Putin just declared war on the European order and it’s demanding that the United States focus on Europe again as a security issue,” said Damon Wilson, a former national security aide to Mr. Bush and now executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. While some Republicans have pushed the president to be tougher, Mr. Wilson praised Mr. Obama’s response. “I don’t think I’ve seen the president more personally engaged on any foreign policy crisis in a concerted way as he has been on Ukraine.”

 
This might not do much to help or re-assure non-NATO members such as Ukraine, Moldova, or Sweden, but we haven’t ever legally bound ourselves to defend them in the event of a foreign attack. The administration is striking a balance by re-affirming our existing commitments and alliances without drawing us into fresh entanglements that risk a World War I-style avoidable meltdown into war between major powers.

world-war-1-map
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Repeating Collective Failure, Long After the Great War

wwi-italian-frontAlmost a century after the start of World War I, Italy is still recovering bodies of those killed in action high in the Alps. Starting in the 1990s, the Earth’s mounting temperatures melted enough ice to free some of those long-frozen souls.

In recent weeks, Britons got to read in their newspapers a war of words between Education Secretary Michael Gove and actor Sir Tony Robinson, over the latter’s TV representation of the first world war as a colossal, tragic mistake.

Sadly, that was indeed a fairly accurate summary of a war that began almost accidentally and rapidly involved every European country that had nothing to do with it.

A local assassination, excessive hubris, illogical military plans and a general unwillingness to stop a war’s wheels from grinding into action let things get out of control faster than any diplomats could rein in it – even if they wanted to.

Soon, officers were ordering wave after wave of young men into barbed-wire-tangled moonscapes, as machine guns raked across their ranks and shells exploded around them. The metric for victory became a few feet of meaningless dirt.

It is a cliché to note that the “War to End All Wars” was certainly far from the last conflict, but it seems to have become accepted wisdom that no countries could be so foolish a century later as to initiate a cascade of mistakes on that scale.

The irony, of course, is that the recently recovered Austrian and Italian bodies from the mountain front were likely only disgorged due to the melting of glaciers and once-permanent snow packs as a result of man-made global warming. Will unrestrained climate change be 2014’s tragic answer to the epic, collective failure of 1914?

The phenomenon has until recently been, in effect, a slow-motion collision of the different economic plans of nations everywhere. Our diplomats had more warning this time – but again had no support from their home governments to negotiate a solution that might head off the impact.

Every vanishing glacier that once served millions with drinking water now serves only as a catalyst for more squabbling over limited resources. Every new factory in one nation must be answered with a factory in its competitor. There is no partial mobilization of resources when economic primacy is at stake.

The world’s marginal places – the societies literally living on the margin between existence and extinction from one harvest to the next – are finding themselves drier and more prone to catastrophe than ever. They are an ecological and human powder keg that rivals last century’s Balkans.

The rapidity of South Sudan’s recent collapse – or that of nearby Central African Republic – or northern Mali in 2012 – even the wheat-driven Arab Spring – should be seen as a bigger warning of what is yet to come than any anarchist bomb or gunshot.

This warming is upon us and we are its primary cause. We can ignore the signs until an avoidable global tragedy is fully unleashed once more or we can commit our diplomats, strategists and resources to a collaborative counter-effort that will benefit all mankind.

This summer, as Europe swelters through commemorations of the Great War, we should heed the heavy cost of 1914’s chain of errors or past will again be present.

 
This essay originally appeared in The Globalist.