The Bloodland of Belarus

Belarus, a former Soviet republic of about 10 million, is said to have the highest per capita number of World War II films in the world. Many of them are considered to be some of the finest war movies in history, most notably the 1985 film Come and See, which tells the story of a young teenager who joins the Belarusian resistance and witnesses horrific atrocities.

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The Soviet theatrical poster for Come and See.

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Noor Inayat Khan: Pacifist Muslim, British Spy, and WWII Heroine

Back in 2014, PBS aired a docudrama called Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Storywhich centered on one of World War Two’s most fascinating and unlikely war heroes: a Russian-born Indian-American Muslim who was steeped in pacifism yet went on to serve the British war effort in occupied Paris. (There’s a mouthful!)

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A British commemorative stamp, circa 2014. (Courtesy of NPR)

NPR did a feature on the film (which I still have yet to see), including an interview with its executive producer, Alex Kronemer. Continue reading

WWII’s Forgotten Allies

A lot of people forget that the Second World War, by definition, involved a lot more countries than the U.S. and U.K.

Increasingly better-known, but still underappreciated, is the role of the Soviet Union, which took on 90% of Axis forces, dealt the first decisive blow in Stalingrad, and ultimately took the fight to Berlin, ending the war at the cost of 25-27 million citizens — about half of whom were civilians.

China, which is barely acknowledged as a combatant, served a similarly morbid but crucial function: its large population, tenacity, and willingness to be as brutal as the enemy meant that it took up the bulk of Japanese manpower while losing tens of millions of people in the process, including many civilians. Hence why it is one of only five countries with permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, as acknowledgement of its role as one of the “Big Four” during the war.

Beyond these two juggernauts — whose importance was acknowledged by the Americans at the time — were dozens of other countries and factions who contributed to the Allied cause, often at great sacrifice.  Continue reading

The Countries Whose Citizens Are Most Likely Fight a War

According to a 2015 WIN/Gallup International global survey, which asked respondents in 64 countries whether they would be willing to fight for their country in a war, Japan had the fewest people willing to go to war (11%) while Morocco and Fiji tied for the highest (94%). The U.S. and Russia were at 44% and 59% respectively, while rising powers China and India were at 71% and 75% respectively.

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Regionally, Europe had fewest people willing to fight a war for their country while Asia had the most.

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A total of 62,398 individuals were surveyed globally between September and December of 2014, with roughly 1,000 men and women serving a representative sample for each country. Interviews were conducted in person, by phone, or online. I’d be curious to know how much the results have changed since 2014.

Of course, a willingness to go to war in the abstract does not necessarily mean that one will answer the call of war if it actually comes. I think Americans in particular are far more gung ho about war in theory — from which the vast majority are far removed from experientially — than in practice. (Tellingly, a lot of the higher-ranking countries in terms of willingness to go to war — such as Finland, Russia, and Turkey — have compulsory military service.)

Sources: Brilliant Maps; Gallup International

The World’s Most Canny Politician

Running an emerging global power and vibrant democracy would be hard enough without having one of the world’s most oppressive, erratic, and brutal states next door.

Yet South Korean leader Moon Jae In, less than a year into his presidency, has not only governed his prosperous country fairly well (if his stellar approval ratings are any indication), but he’s pulled off an amazing feat virtually no one though possible (much less any world leader): getting North Korea to tone down its bellicose rhetoric, suspend its nuclear program, and express willingness to participate in an historic summit between his nation and the North’s archenemy the United States — the two nations are even setting up a direct hotline between their leaders, which will not only mitigate the likelihood of an escalating conflict, but is a big symbol of the potential for normal relations (and one would hope, eventually reunification). Continue reading

Mexico’s Forgotten World War Two Posters

Mexico hardly comes to mind when one thinks of the Allied powers. But it was one of dozens of countries that joined together to defeat the Axis, doing so just months after the United States.

Following the losses of several ships — most notably the Potrero del Llano and the Faja de Oro, which are referenced in the propaganda — to German U-boats, Mexico declared war on the Axis on May 22, 1942 Though most of Latin America joined the Allied cause, Mexico was one of only two Latin American countries (along with Brazil) to send troops overseas to fight the Axis.

According to SplinterNews.com, like most countries that participated in the conflict, Mexico sought to mythologize its role with hundreds of posters and political cartoons. To that end, the government commissioned an existing artistic, Taller de Gráfica Popular, which had been founded in 1937, to glorify its role in this just war.

The most famous Mexican contribution was “Escuadrón 201“, also known as the Aztec Eagles, a group of more than 300 volunteer pilots who trained in the United States to fight against Japan. It was the first Mexican military unit trained for overseas combat, and it partook in close to 100 combat missions and nearly 800 sorties.

Mexico also signed a series of agreements with the U.S., known as the Bracero Program, which sent much-needed Mexican labor to the U.S. to support the war economy.

Even though its contributions were small in the grand scheme of things, the efforts of Mexican artists were creatively outsized.

A Cannibal’s Thoughts on WWI

During the First World War, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski had a conversation with a tribesman in Papua New Guinea who practiced cannibalism.

The cannibal asked Malinowski how the Europeans could possibly be managing to eat the millions of people being killed in the war.

Malinowski replied that they did not eat them at all, as such a practice was neither customary nor acceptable.

The cannibal was shocked, remarking that the Europeans must be barbaric to kill so many people without any intention of eating them. What was the point of all that slaughter?

The War that Never Happened

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the relatively under-reported fact that over the summer, China and India — nuclear-armed states with nearly 3 billion people and 4 million troops between them — mutually disengaged from a military standoff along their contested border that was quickly escalating towards war (as happened once before, in 1967). Although the underlying border dispute remains unresolved, it is encouraging to see a cooler-headed precedent prevail (a similar incident in the 1980s was also descalated by both countries).

For all the awful conflicts that have transpired just in our lifetimes, let alone throughout history, it is worth acknowledging and celebrating the conflicts that never happened. Fortunately, this is becoming a trend:

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If Only We Listened to De Gaulle

In 1934, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces and the French Resistance during the Second World War, wrote Vers l’Armée de Métier (Toward a Professional Army), which formulated how France should organize its military. It was ahead of its time in advocating for a professional army based on mobile armored divisions, namely mechanized infantry and tanks. Not only did he propose this as a way to keep Germany in check, but he saw it as a means of enforcing international law.

Unfortunately for France and its allies, the book did extremely poorly in its home country: only 700 copies were sold. However, it sold ten times as many copies in neighboring Germany, where even Adolf Hitler himself reportedly studied it. Sure enough, Germany employed a very similar approach to du Galle’s, with its panzer units and mobile infantry sweeping through the country in the invasion of France in 1940.

At the time, de Gaulle, who had served with distinction in the First World War, remained a colonel, due to his bold views antagonizing France’s conservative military leaders. He nonetheless implemented many of his theories and tactics as commander of a tank regiment, and during an offensive against German armor at Montcornet on May 17th, he managed to temporarily turn back enemy forces without the benefit of air support. While this ultimately proved inconsequential in slowing the invasion, it was one of the few victories France enjoyed prior to its rapid capitulation just one month later.

Whereas French collaborators and traitors would blame French society for the fall of the country, de Gaulle – who refused to surrender and extolled his countrymen to continue fighting – took the reverse stance, blaming French military and civilian leaders while believing the French people had the courage and moral stamina to keep resisting. Given the sheer size and strategic value of the French Resistance, as recognized by Allied leaders like Eisenhower, his point was validated. If only his prescient book and ideas had been heeded, or at the very least he be placed in the higher ranking he earned. World War Two may have gone very differently, if at all.

H/T to  Jean Lacouture‘s DeGaulle: The Rebel 1890-1944 (Vol. 1)

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Iraq Breaks Humanitarian Ground in Mosul

Iraq hardly comes to mind as a pioneer in humanitarianism, especially as far as warfare is concerned. Yet in the midst of its now six-month campaign to take back the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, the Christian Science Monitor reports that Iraqi armed forces are collaborating with the U.N. and other partners to deliver an unprecedented amount of care and protection to the tens of thousands of civilians caught in the middle (bolding mine): Continue reading