The Martyr of Palmyra

Three years ago on August 18th, Syrian archaeologist Khaleed al-Assad—no relation to the Syrian dictator—was publicly beheaded by ISIS for refusing to betray the location of ancient artifacts he had hidden. He was 83 years old.

Al-Assad was the head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra, which was founded in the third millennium B.C.E. During his over forty-year career, he engaged in the excavations and restoration of the site, serving as its primary custodian and protector. He worked with archaeological missions around the world, and helped elevate Palmyra to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was so dedicated to his profession that he learned the ancient extinct language of Aramaic, helping to translate texts.

When ISIS took control of the Palmyra region, al-Asaad helped evacuate the museum and hide most of its artifacts, knowing that the fanatics would destroy them for being idolatrous, as they had done to so many others. After resisting torture intended to get him to reveal the hidden items, he was executed, and his decapitated body was strung up first in the town square, then in the ancient site. Among the list of “crimes” posted on his body was serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran”, and attending “infidel” conferences.

Al-Assad willingly paid for this dedication with his life, considering the ancient heritage of humanity—and standing up to thugs and zealots seeks to destroy it—to be worth the cost. He is survived by eleven children; six sons and five daughters, one of whom was named Zenobia after a famous queen of Palmyra.

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Wikimedia Commons

 

The Massacre of Sabra and Shatila

On this day in 1982, a Christian Lebanese militia known as the Phalange carried out a massacre in the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, killing between 460 to 3,500 civilians. The killings went on for three days, under the watch of various forces, including the Israeli and Lebanese armies, which did nothing.

The Palestinians were wrongly blamed for assassinating newly elected Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel, the leader of the Kataeb Party, a Christian party close to the Phalange. (Just about every political party had an affiliated armed wing.) For their part, the Israelis, who were allied with the Phalange other Lebanese militas, were keen clearing out the camp of fighters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, even though the vast majority of those killed were noncombatants. Continue reading

The Kellogg–Briand Pact

On this day in 1928, the first three of over sixty nations signed the Kellogg–Briand Pact, in which states promised not to use war to resolve “disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them.”

Named after the U.S. Secretary of State and the French Foreign Minister, who together authored the proposal, it was ratified with overwhelming legislative support by both nations plus Germany; a year later, 62 countries — most of the world’s independent states at the time — signed it.

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Germany signing the Pact. Wikimmedia Commons.

To call the Pact a failure would be an understatement: barely a decade later, the bloodiest and most barbaric conflict in history would erupt, instigated by one of the earliest signatories (and involving most of the rest). Even before then, several bloody conflicts broke out, such as the Japanese invasion of China (1931) and the Italian-Ethiopian War (1935).

Subsequently, the Pact is considered irrelevant at best, and dangerously idealistic and moralistic at worst, yet another example of the failures of globalism. Though it failed to live up to its ambitious aims, the Pact did have some successes.

For starters, it laid the legal foundation for the concept of a “crime against peace“, for which the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals tried and executed the top leaders responsible for starting the Second World War. Its provisions were incorporated into the U.N. Charter and other treaties, and it set in motion the historically radical idea that war is a bad thing that nations should avoid. As it happens interstate warfare has been exceedingly rare since WWII, and is actually the lowest it has been for millennia.

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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.

Continue reading

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?