The Power of Stumbling Blocks

A stolperstein (German for “stumbling block”) describes one of several monuments created by German artist Gunter Demnig that commemorate a victim of the Holocaust. Stolpersteine are small, cobblestone-sized memorials for an individual victim of Nazism. The idea apparently arose from an old custom among non-Jewish Germans, who, upon stumbling over a protruding stone, would say, “There must be a Jew buried here.” A stolperstein is intended to similarly divert one’s attention. 

Demnig manufactures a concrete cube of four inches that he covers with a sheet of brass and stamps with the following details: the name, year of birth, and fate, if known. The stolperstein is then laid flush with the pavement or sidewalk in front of the last residence (or sometimes workplace) of the victim. The costs are covered covered by donations, collections, individual citizens, contemporary witnesses, school classes, or communities.

Stolperstein in Bonn for Ida Arensberg “Here lived Ida Arensberg. née Benjamin *1870 – deported 1942. Murdered in Theresienstadt on 18.9.1942″. Via Wikipedia.

As one historian noted: “It is not what is written [on the stolpersteine] which intrigues, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person. It is the emptiness, void, lack of information, the maw of the forgotten, which gives the monuments their power and lifts them from the banality of a statistic.” Simply seeing them in pictures, I can concur. 

Here are a few more examples, many of which can be found in cities across Europe — a grim reminder of the Holocaust’s scope and scale.

You can read more about these powerful artistic works here.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

To mark the centenary of the First World War, tens of thousands of blood-red ceramic poppies will be planted around the Tower of London, each representing a life lost in the bloody four-year conflict.

The installation called ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ was created by artist Paul Cummins and set designer Tom Piper with the help of a team of around 8,000 dedicated volunteers. Planting began on August 5, the start of the war, and will continue until November 11, Armistice Day (also known as Remembrance Day), which marks the end of the war.

By then, the iconic monument will have 888,246 poppies, a somber reflection of the staggering death toll. Both British and Commonwealth soldiers are represented, including around 74,000 troops from the Indian subcontinent who gave their lives to the empire.

At barely 120,000 or so poppies as of this post, it already looks sobering:

Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London. Between 5th August (start of the war) and 11th November (Remembrance Day), there will be a poppy planted for each death. Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London III Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London IV

It is hard to imagine that each poppy represents a single human life, an individual with a name, identity, dreams, ideas, fears, loved ones. To think that all this is but a fraction of the over 16 million people who died, nearly half of whom were civilians (I can only imagined the scale of this project if it entailed all those lives.

The poppy became a symbol of remembrance in Britain during the First World War, inspired by a 1915 poem called “In Flanders Field” by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, which recalled the fragile flower melding with the dead in Flanders, Belgium (the site of many horrific battles).

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The ceramic poppies do an excellent job of visualizing just how many individuals died in this senseless conflict. Each took three days to make and were put up for public sale; after the last poppy is planted in November, the small sculptures will be sent to buyers and the proceeds will go to British charities such as the Royal Legion and Help for Heroes, which serve British veterans.

Source: The Independent

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

If you look at the Pentagon’s official list of how many nuclear weapons accidents, serious accidents, we have — what they call “broken arrows” — the list contains 32 accidents. But I was able to obtain a document through the Freedom of Information Act that said just between the years 1950 and 1968, there were more than 1,000 accidents involving nuclear weapons. And many of the serious accidents I found don’t even appear on the Pentagon’s list. So I’m sure there were many more that I was unable to uncover that occurred.

The problem today is that we have very aging weapons systems — both in the United States and Russia. It’s very old technology. Our principle nuclear bomber, the B-52, hasn’t been built since John F. Kennedy was president. Our principle land-based missile, the Minuteman III, was put into the ground originally in 1970. [It] was supposed to be retired in the early 1980s, and the infrastructure is aging — the wiring, the computers in our Minuteman launch complexes use 9-inch floppy discs. There’s all kinds of potential for problems there — and in Russia, the same thing.

—  Eric Schlosser, in an interview with NPR about his new book on nuclear weapons.

Video — Superpower for Hire: Rise of the Private Military

Today’s post will be light but no less interesting. Vice Media, known for covering many interesting but neglected cultural and sociopolitical topics, has a short documentary on the controversial private military industry, which has risen in both influence and popularity across the world. Though its only 14-minutes long, it offers a pretty good look at this largely hidden world.

Given the rising number of low-intensity conflicts in many parts of the world, and the preference for dealing with through non-governmental means, this will certainly not be the last we hear of PMCs. What are your thoughts and reactions regarding this video?

Check out other Vice videos here.

A Sobering Centennial

On this day 100 years ago, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, thus triggering the First World War, one of history’s deadliest conflicts.

The war lasted a little over four years and lead to the deaths of 16 million people (nearly half civilians), the wounding of 20 million more, and the end of four empires (Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, and Ottoman). Its political, social, and cultural impact remains to this day, with many of its unresolved consequences contributing to the even bloodier Second World War just 21 years later.

Time does not permit me to write as extensively about the topic as it deserves, but I advise you to scour the web for all the great articles and reflections concerning this seminal event in human history. Though often overshadowed by the much larger war that followed, its legacy remains strong to this day.

The Real First World War

In my recent post about the First World War, I alluded to there being a previous conflict that had been global in scope, which, while not as bloody and costly, had nonetheless spanned the globe long before the better known war of the early 20th century. The Economist conveniently went through the trouble of highlighting history’s first true global conflict in a recent post:

Though fighting did not start in Europe until 1756, and for this reason the conflict is known as the Seven Years’ War, it was truly global. Every inhabited continent except Australia saw fighting on its soil, and independent powers on three of those continents were active participants.

The first action of this first global conflict involved a young officer whose name may be familiar to some readers. On May 28th 1754 a small group of soldiers from the British colony of Virginia, under the command of a man called George Washington, engaged a group of French troops who were interloping from New France (ie Canada) into territory the British considered theirs. Instead of peacefully repelling them as he had been instructed, Washington ended up killing several of them, including their commanding officer. This campaign in North America then continued, with both sides in alliance with local Indian nations, until, two years later, Britain’s ally Prussia attacked the small German state of Saxony, bringing Saxony’s ally Austria, and thus Austria’s ally France (and therefore France’s enemy and Prussia’s ally, Britain), into the conflict. It is a sequence of events eerily similar to the way that in 1914 an attack by Germany’s ally Austria on the small Balkan state of Serbia brought in Serbia’s ally Russia, which then threatened Germany, which then declared war on both Russia and Russia’s ally France.

The war rapidly globalised. Both Britain and France reinforced their colonial troops in North America, and started attacking each other’s colonies in the West Indies and trading stations in Africa and India. In India, some of the princely states which had recently emerged from the dying Mughal empire also got involved, and Britain ended up taking over one of them, Bengal. The war came to South America when, near its end, Spain joined the French side and attacked one of the American colonies of Britain’s ally, Portugal.

Like the first world war, this global conflict reshaped the globe. Indeed, it is the reason why the modern world is an English-speaking one. As a colonial power, France was destroyed, and did not return seriously to the business of overseas conquest until it attacked Algeria in 1830. All of North America east of the Mississipi became British, save the city of New Orleans, which became Spanish. And the foundations of British rule in India were laid as well. As for George Washington, he ended up leading a rebel army put together by colonials who, freed from fear of French encirclement, unwilling to help pay for the war that had given them that freedom, and frustrated by British protection of the lands of their Indian allies from encroachment by colonial property speculators (including Washington himself), decided that they would rather go it alone.

While counterfactuals are always difficult to speculate on, I suspect that if the technology and military innovations of the early 20th century been available, the Seven Years’ War would have likely been as destructive and bloody as its 20th century successors.

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Calling the invasion and slaughter that followed a mistake papers over the lies that took us to Iraq. This assessment of the war as mistake is coming mostly from well-intentioned people, some of whom spoke out against the war before it began and every year it dragged on. It may seem like a proper retort to critics of Obama (who inherited that war rather than started it). But it feeds a dangerous myth.

A mistake is not putting enough garlic in the minestrone, taking the wrong exit, typing the wrong key, falling prey to an accident.

Invading Iraq was not a friggin’ mistake. Not an accident. Not some foreign policy mishap.

The guys in charge carried out a coldly though ineptly calculated act. An act made with the intention of privatizing Iraq and using that country as a springboard to other Middle Eastern targets, most especially Iran. They led a murderous, perfidious end run around international law founded on a dubious “preventive” military doctrine piggybacked on the nation’s rage over the 9/11 attacks. An imperial, morally corrupt war. They ramrodded it past the objections of those in and out of Congress who challenged the fabricated claims of administration advisers who had been looking for an excuse to take out Saddam Hussein years before the U.S. Supreme Court plunked George W. Bush into the Oval Office.

The traditional media did not make a mistake either. They misled their audiences through sloppiness and laziness because it was easier and better for ratings than for them actually to do their jobs. For the worst of them, the misleading was deliberate. They fed us disinformation. Lapdogs instead of watchdogs.

Meteor Blades, “Stop pretending the invasion of Iraq was a ‘mistake.’ It lets the liars who launched it off the hook“, Daily Kos. 

Read the linked article above and decide for yourself. Personally, I think it makes a compelling case, although even if it were genuine ineptitude, there’d be just as much culpability given the horrific scale of the consequences.

Don’t Call The Iraq War A Mistake

Victory Day

Russia’s iconic “Iwo Jima” moment — the raising of a flag over the Reichstag, during the seminal Battle of Berlin (2 May 1945).

Yesterday, May 9th, was Victory Day (also known simply as the Ninth of May) a holiday that commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany by the  USSR, which ultimately ended the Second World War in Europe. Although celebrated by most former Soviet republics (especially Belarus and Ukraine, which bore the brunt of the conflict), it is an especially big event in the Soviet Union’s successor state, Russia, where it is known as the “Great Patriotic War.”

Victory came at a tremendous cost: the Eastern Front was by far the largest and bloodiest theatre of World War II, and the deadliest conflict in human history, claiming the lives of over 30 million people (half or more being civilians). The USSR lost at least 9 million soldiers — a third of them in Axis captivity — and just as many civilians, if not more. Some sources suggest that as many as 17 to 27 million Soviet citizens were killed, while others have calculated that perhaps as many as 20 million Soviet civilians lost their lives.

By comparison, the United States lost over a quarter of a million men for the entire war, and fewer than a 3,000 civilians, while the Germans lost 5 million troops on the Eastern Front (and perhaps another one to two million civilians when the Russians invaded). So many young men were killed that the USSR’s population was nearly 50 million less than it should have been, given the families that these men would’ve had. To this day, many former Soviet states have an imbalance between men and women, having not fully recovered from the scale of dead men.

This is a scale of carnage and death that is difficult to grasp. Think of all the pain and suffering caused by loss of several thousand troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans). Now amplify that anguish by several million, with nearly 20% of some countries wiped out (namely Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Poland). The human mind simply can’t process that level of death. How the Soviets managed to move on and rebuild is beyond me.

And while the Soviet Union came out of the war victorious, was economically and structurally devastated. Much of the combat took place in or around densely populated areas, and the brutal actions of both sides contributed to massive loss destruction. The property damage inflicted on the USSR by the Axis invasion was estimated at a cost 679 billion rubles, probably a trillion or more dollars by today’s standards. The siege of a single city, Leningrad, alone cost 1.2 million lives, while the fight over another city, Stalingrad, cost a similar number of lives and by some accounts became the single largest battle in history — not to mention a turning point in the entire war.

In all, the combined damage consisted of complete or partial destruction of 1,710 cities and towns, 70,000 villages/hamlets, 2,508 church buildings, 31,850 industrial establishments, 40,000 miles of railroad, 4100 railroad stations, 40,000 hospitals, 84,000 schools, and 43,000 public libraries. Over 20 million sheep, goats, horses, and other cattle were also slaughtered or driven off. Western Russia, as well Ukraine and Belarus, still bear signs of this devastation (in some cases, fragments of bone and metal have been dug up, though that also happens in Western Europe occasionally).

There is no denying that this sacrifice was instrumental in winning the war. The Russians were dealing with around 85 percent of Axis forces, and German armed forces suffered anywhere from 80 to 93 percent of its military deaths in the Eastern Front. If the USSR had capitulated, Allied forces would have had to contend with a lot more resistance. The war would have been far bloodier and more drawn out. The Russians nearly bled themselves dry in our place.

But this wasn’t merely the result of bravery and stereotypical Russian resoluteness (though those were certainly factors). The markedly brutal nature of warfare on the Eastern Front was the result of the often willful disregard for human life by both sides: Hitler and Stalin each used terror and mass murder to further their aims, and had no qualms about leading millions to their deaths in the name of victory. This included victimizing their own troops and civilians, through mass deportation, threats of execution for cowardice, and human wave attacks.

And keep in mind that all this is in addition to atrocities carried out by the Nazis, including routine massacres of civilians and the brick-by-brick destruction of entire communities (and their inhabitants). There was simply no parallel to this on the Western Front. According to Time:

By measure of manpower, duration, territorial reach and casualties, the Eastern Front was as much as four times the scale of the conflict on the Western Front that opened with the Normandy invasion.

The fact is, as monstrous as Stalin was, and as brutal as the Soviets tended to be (before, during, and after the war), we arguably needed that kind of viciousness on our side in order to win. To put it crudely, Soviet Russia was the bad cop in the war. It took playing Hitler at his own cruel game to put a stop to him, and only the USSR was willing and able to do so. Such is the nature of war. The horror and destruction of the Eastern Front proves exemplifies, in the most extreme example, the fact that most conflicts are hardly black-and-white, nor are they matters of honor and glory. It’s simply about winning in whatever way you can, period. There’s no romanticizing that, although we can certainly do so for the average Soviet soldier who was mixed up in all this, and fought valiantly to the end.

All this stands in contrast to the Allied experience. We Americans would remember the conflict very different, simply because our conduct and memory of the war was much cleaner – we were a democracy fighting a conventional conflict against a fraction of the enemy’s forces. We weren’t occupied and invaded.* We didn’t need to use heartless and self-destructive tactics (nor could we, given the vast differences in the ethics of our political and military leadership).

I’m in no way denigrating the U.S. contribution to the war effort (nor that of other Allied members), especially considering that America helped prop up the USSR during the earlier stages of the way until it could recover its own industrial output.  Moreover, the U.S. did much of the heavy lifting in the Asian theatre — although the Russians, not to mention the Chinese, played a much underrated role in that effort as well (indeed, the latter’s costly resistance to the Japanese was instrumental to weakening them).

I’m simply noting the obvious fact that World War II could not have been won without the Soviet Union, at least not without investing far more of our own blood, money, and time. It’s very unfortunate that few people outside of Russia seem to realize that – as if the sacrifice itself wasn’t horrific enough, it’s barely even acknowledged.

So while the Russians, as well as other Europeans, celebrate their hard-fought victory over Nazi oppression, there’s a level of somberness that underlies all that glory that we can barely relate with. They’ll keep on romanticizing of course, as humans are wont to do. And indeed, the typical soldier deserves it. But we mustn’t forget just how messy and gray most of these conflicts tend to be. With all that said, my heart goes out to the tens of millions of men, women, and even children who fought and died in the single most horrific conflict in human history.

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.