The International Arms Market

The Economist’s #Dailychart  from yesterday revealed the countries that buy and sell the most weapons. The United States, Russia, Germany, China, and France accounted for three-quarters of international arms exports over the past five years, with the first two taking the lion’s share of the export market (largely a legacy of the Cold War, which led both nations to build up a massive and still influential indigenous arms industry).


Other major arms dealers include the U.K., Spain, Ukraine, Italy, and Israel. Only 10 other countries, mostly in the developed world, have some sort of presence in the global arms market.

Notably, China — which was once a net importer of weapons, mostly from the U.S.S.R. — has tripled its share of exports in that time, overtaking France and set to surpass Germany as the third largest arms dealer (it still receives almost as many weapons as it sells, however). Germany’s significant role in arms dealing is interesting given the country’s otherwise pacifistic and low-key foreign policy, which is characterized by a reluctance to intervene in international affairs.

Some of the bigger importers include rising powers like India, China, and to lesser degrees Pakistan and South Korea. The Persian Gulf nations of the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia also top the list, as does the tiny but influential city-state of Singapore (which is said to have one of the most advanced and well-trained armed forces in the world). Australia’s fairly high import rate likely reflect’s its growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region and its desire to play a bigger role therein.

Needless to say, this is revealing stuff. Read more about it here.

Violence Against Knowledge

Aside from the obvious and horrific loss of human life that’s intrinsic to warfare, one of the most awful and frequent victims of humanity’s habit for violence is knowledge: for as long as war has been around, libraries, archives, universities, and other repositories of information have been destroyed. Usually, this occurs through collateral damage, but more often than not, it’s a deliberate act on the part of conquerors.

The following image from Global Data Vault, a business that provides data protection, gives a somber idea of only a handful of the many instances in which human progress has been stifled by the destruction of so much knowledge. In addition to listing the raw number of books, scrolls, or other mediums destroyed, it calculates the data based on gigabytes, which helps give a good idea as to the scale of the loss in a modern context (this was determined from the fact that the Amazon Kindle 3 can store about 3,500 books per 4GB).

The summary of this historical tragedy is as follows:

Throughout the ages, it has happened again and again. Whole libraries of clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, bark codexes and paper books have been destroyed by natural disasters, fire and war. The Royal Library of Alexandria, where the accumulated knowledge of ancient scientists, physicians and philosophers was stored, was destroyed by fire. The destruction likely started during Caesar’s Civil War when Julius Caesar purposefully set his own ships ablaze, and many scholars believe the library suffered numerous other tragic fires throughout history. More than 120,000 volumes written by classical Greek and Roman authors were lost when fire destroyed the library at Constantinople in 473A.D.. Virtually all of the codexes recording the history, beliefs and sciences of the Maya were intentionally destroyed by the Spanish as works of the devil. In World War II libraries containing millions of books were destroyed as strategic acts of war.

During the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s, the 17,000 volumes of the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo were directly targeted, along with the National Museum and National Library. The Iraq War saw the destruction of more than 400,000 books in the Iraq National Library, including priceless records of the world’s first urban, literate civilization. On 9/11, 21 libraries inside the World Trade Center, the records of 3,000 to 4,000 active cases before the Securities and Exchange Commission, files belonging to the CIA and EEOC, U.S. trade documents dating back to the 1840s, the offices and archives of Helen Keller International, $100,000,000 in privately owned artworks, thousands of photo negatives of JFK and more than 900,000 archaeological artifacts were all lost.*

Note once again that these are just some of the many high-profile cases of houses of information being destroyed. Other well-known instances for which there is no reliable date include The Library of Antioch in 363B.C., The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in 600 B.C., Imperial Library of Ctesiphon in  754 A.D., The Library at Nalanda University in 1193 A.D., and the House of Wisdom in Abbasid-era Baghdad, Iraq, 1258 A.D.

One can only wonder how different the world would be had so much knowledge not been periodically destroyed over so many generations. It’s just another example of how our barbaric nature can often get the best of human progress.

No Glory For Killed Soldiers

The following was a very interesting read, although I wonder if the issues described in the excerpt and wider article are really anything new in American history (or for that matter, military history in general).

Throughout history, our nation’s greatest leaders have understood on a deeply personal level that however honorably a soldier acquits himself, he can die in vain, and that it is the responsibility of the leaders and citizenry to see to it that they don’t. Our country has lost its sense of that responsibility to a horrifying extent. Our generals have lost the capability to succeed and the integrity to admit failure. Our society has lost the courage and energy to hold them accountable. Over the last decade, our top leaders have wasted the lives of our sons, daughters, and comrades with their incompetence and hubris. After each failure, our citizens have failed to hold them accountable, instead underwriting new failed strategies as quickly as their predecessors with our apathy and sense of detachment. And then we use the tired paeans of “never forget” and “honor the fallen” to distract ourselves from our guilt in the affair. When we blithely declare that they did not die in vain, we deface their honor by using it to wipe the blood from our hands.

Thomas E. Ricks, Yes, Marcus. They Did Die in Vain.

What are your thoughts?

Price Tag for the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars: $6 Trillion

According to a recent Harvard study reported in The Guardian,  the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could potentially cost the U.S. a total of $6 trillion, which includes the cost of veterans’ care bills and the future interest on war loans.

The current cost of the conflict is around $2 trillion, with the decision to finance the war through borrowing already adding $2 trillion to the national debt – about 20 percent of the total national debt added between 2001 and 2012.

Note that this doesn’t include the various unofficial campaigns undertaken in places like Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia under similar auspices. Of course, the human costs — both currently and well into the foreseeable future — are a different and more somber story altogether.

Casualties of the First World War

Although long overshadowed by the far more destructive Second World War, it was World War I (then known as the Great War) that first gave humanity a bloody taste of large-scale, industrialized warfare. Indeed, the unresolved conflicts of the First World War is what largely gave rise to the second.

All that aside, the amount of death wrought by this aptly proclaimed “War to End All Wars” is staggering, as the following chart from The Economist soberingly displays. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves.

An entire generation was ground up in a senseless war that everyone thought would be over in no time. Every single one of those men was a distinct human being with his own identity, personality, dreams, fears, and loved ones. It’s hard to believe tens of millions more would join them just two decades or so later — and many more have since, albeit in far less visible conflicts.


The Plight of America’s Veterans

I hope everyone has a safe and enjoyable Veterans Day. For my previous discussions of the subject, click here and here. Today I’ll simply share some sobering but important facts to keep in mind as we honor our veterans.

  • Every day, 22 veterans commit suicide, and the number is continuing to rise (moreover, active-duty soldiers are also seeing a dramatic increase in suicide rates).
  • Currently, 12 percent of recent veterans are living in poverty. Indeed, around 900,000 veterans live in households that rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (a.k.a food stamps).
  • Veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have nearly double the poverty rate of those from previous wars. Young vets are the hardest hit: 21 percent of service men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 (who make up 80 percent of recent veterans) are poor

It’s bad enough to send our soldiers off to die in fruitless wars, but to neglect upon their return is further insult to injury — and often just as deadly.

Witold Pilecki: Forgotten War Hero

Witold Pilecki

Witold Pilecki (May 13, 1901 – May 25, 1948) was a soldier of the Second Polish Republic who founded Poland’s first resistance groups, the Secret Polish Army, shortly after German occupation of the country in 1939. He was also a prominent member of the underground Polish Home Army, another resistance group that was one of Europe’s largest. He is best known as the author of the vital Witold’s Report, the first intelligence report on the Auschwitz concentration camp, which enabled the Polish government-in-exile to convince the Allies that the Holocaust was taking place.

He volunteered for a Polish resistance operation in order to get imprisoned at Auschwitz, gather intelligence, and escape. While in the camp, Pilecki organized a resistance movement, and as early as 1941, informed the Western Allies of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz atrocities. He escaped from the camp in 1943 after nearly 3 years of horrific imprisonment. Shortly after, Pilecki nonetheless took part in the brave but failed Warsaw Uprising in August 1944.

He remained loyal to the Polish government-in-exile, and for this was executed in 1948 by the Stalinist secret police (who had since taken over Poland) on charges of working for “foreign imperialism.” Until 1989, information on his heroism and fate was suppressed by the Polish communist regime.

As a result of his deeds, he is considered to be “one of the greatest wartime heroes” of World War II. Prominent British historian Norman wrote that “if there was an Allied hero who deserved to be remembered and celebrated, this was a person with few peers.” At the commemoration event of International Holocaust Remembrance Day held in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on 27 January 2013 Ryszard Schnepf, the Polish Ambassador to the US, described Pilecki as a “diamond among Poland’s heroes” and “the highest example of Polish patriotism”

Read more about Poland’s virtuous but underappreciated exploits here.


China’s Forgotten Contributions to World War II — And How it Affects Relations to This Day

Rana Mitter at Foreign Policy offers an interesting reason why China-US relations seem so fraught: a historical slight that goes back seventy years. 

There has been a wider recognition that China went to war with Japan in hugely difficult circumstances and with little foreign support. The early 20th century saw a growing confrontation between rising nationalism in China and an ever-more aggressive Japanese imperialism, with the occupation of Manchuria in 1931 the clear signal that Tokyo had aggressive designs on China. On July 7, 1937, fighting broke out between Japanese and Chinese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing, and within weeks, China and Japan were locked in full-scale conflict. Over the next eight years, some 14 million Chinese would be killed, some 80 to 100 million would become refugees, and the flawed but real modernization of roads, railways, and industry that had been under way in the 1920s and 1930s would be utterly destroyed.

Today, many Westerners know little or nothing about China’s role in the war. Yet China was fighting Japan two years before Britain and France went to war with Germany, and four years before Pearl Harbor. By holding down more than half a million Japanese troops, China made a significant contribution to the overall Allied strategy. By early 1941, the Nationalists and their uneasy Communist allies were the only major forces opposing the Japanese in East Asia. If they had surrendered then — or even earlier, in 1938 — China would have become a Japanese colony, and Tokyo could have moved much earlier against Southeast Asia or even British India, making Allied victory in the Pacific far more difficult.


The Western Allies needed China to remain in the war. But because China was last in the queue for Allied assistance, it was repeatedly asked to bear burdens that would have been hard even for a much better-resourced country, rather than allowances being made for being an impoverished, isolated country that had already resisted Japan on its own for over four years before Pearl Harbor. The price the Nationalists made their people pay to maintain the war effort was the increasing corruption and repressiveness of the regime. Yet the profound effects of the war on China itself, and the increasingly poisonous alliance with the United States and Britain, have not been fully appreciated as a product of the terrible pressures placed on the wartime Chinese regime both by its enemies and by its allies. On Feb. 28, 1943, in a moment of supreme frustration, Chiang wrote of the three other Allies: “It’s as if China has met a hooligan, a bully and a kidnapper.” Even Clarence Gauss, the U.S. ambassador to wartime China, and no friend of Chiang’s, noted in a message to Washington in June 1944 that critics might upbraid the United States because “we have not supplied the Chinese with arms” and “that the excursion into northern Burma was a mistake.”

What are your thoughts? 

Formal and Informal War

Congress has formally declared war only 11 times in US history, the last six instances pertaining to World War II alone (one declaration against each member of the Axis). So technically, America hasn’t fought an “official” war since 1945. Additionally, Congress has authorized the use of force overseas 11 times, which includes the conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq (both 1991 and 2003).

It’s been estimated that presidents have used force abroad without congressional approval over 200 times. Notably, every modern president has at some point claimed that the War Powers Act of 1973 — which was intended to restrain their power to unilaterally involve the US in foreign conflicts — is an “unconstitutional infringement upon the power of the executive branch.”



It’s Time to Show the Horrors of War

From Foreign Policy:

The question I want to ask is more visceral: Do Americans really understand what war is? Do we know what it really looks like? Do Americans understand what it feels like to live in a war — or to enter into one?

The answer, almost certainly, is “no.” There’s one exception: the relatively small group of past and present members of the United States military who have participated in conflicts around the world. (Strictly speaking, we’d also have to add the private contractors who were involved in some of the country’s more recent wars.) Altogether, this a group that doesn’t amount to more than a tiny fraction of the American population, meaning that their experiences remain relatively detached from the rest of the citizenry. Most of their compatriots don’t have a clue. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the U.S. military is still fighting a war in Afghanistan — not that you’d know from scanning a newspaper, these days.

One might argue that history itself is partly to blame. Aside from Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks, the American homeland has had little direct exposure to armed conflict over the past century and a half. That has made war an arms-length phenomenon, something known only at a safe distance. This is something that also distinguishes Americans from people in many other parts of the world that have experienced war more immediately.

This has left it up to the news media to convey some sense of the reality of armed conflict. And the record here — the recent record, at least — has been dismal.

Would the American public be so accepting or casually indifferent to war if we actually saw the intimate and awful details of it? Or are we too desensitized regardless? Read the rest of the article and share your thoughts.