Every month, it seems, brings a new act in the Trump administration’s war on the media. In January, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo exploded at National Public Radio reporter Mary Louise Kelly when he didn’t like questions she asked -- and then banned a colleague of hers from the plane on which he was leaving for a trip to Europe and Asia. In February, the Trump staff booted a Bloomberg News reporter out of an Iowa election campaign event.
Some time ago I wrote a book about one of the great crimes of the last 150 years: the conquest and exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium. When King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa was published, I thought I had found all the major characters in that brutal patch of history. But a few weeks ago I realized that I had left one out: Tarzan.
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.
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Veterans Day Celebrates Warriors From Our Disastrous Wars, But the Day Was Established for Peace and the End of War's Destruction
[The illustrations in this piece come from Joe Sacco’s The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme with the kind permission of its publisher, W.W. Norton, and the slightly adapted text, which also appears in that book, comes originally from Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 and is used with the kind permission of its publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.]
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Adam Hochschild's extraordinary history of WW1 is in hardcover now. Click here for a copy of "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918."
If we needed more evidence that those surrounding President George W. Bush have a tin ear for the lessons of history, it came ten days ago when National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley referred to increasing the number of American troops in Iraq as "the big push" that would bring victory closer.
"The Big Push" is a phrase that came into the language with another troop surge that was supposed to bring another war to victory. For months beforehand, the Big Push was how British cabinet ministers, propagandists, generals, and foot soldiers talked about the 1916 Battle of the Somme. (It is even the title of a later book on the subject.)
The First World War had been in a deadly stalemate for the better part of two years. A string of horrific battles had revealed the huge toll of trench warfare: Defenders could partially protect themselves by building deeper trenches, concrete pillboxes, and reinforced dugouts far underground. But when you went "over the top" of the trench to attack, you were disastrously vulnerable -- out in the open, exposed to deadly, sweeping machine-gun fire as you clambered slowly across barbed wire and bypassed water-filled artillery-shell craters.
So, what did the Allies do? They attacked. At the time, in numbers of men involved, it was history's largest battle. The plan was to break open the German defense line, send the cavalry gloriously charging through the gap, and turn the tide of the war. The result was a catastrophe.
The British army lost nearly 20,000 killed and some 40,000 wounded or missing on the first day alone. German machine gunners, after waiting out the long preliminary bombardment in their fortified bunkers underground, returned to the surface in time to mow down the advancing soldiers. After four and a half months of fighting, British and French troops had suffered more than 600,000 casualties. The Big Push had gained them roughly five miles of muddy, shell-pocked wasteland.
Like the Big Push of the Somme, the Big Push in Iraq is a reapplication of tactics that have already proven a calamitous failure. As the outspoken retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, puts it, it's like finding yourself in a hole and then digging deeper.
Every piece of evidence from these past nearly four bloody years makes clear that many Sunnis and Shiites alike are driven to rage by the very presence of American soldiers walking Iraqi streets, barging into Iraqi homes, and arresting or killing people who may or may not be insurgents. Furthermore, the people arrested or killed, however unsavory, are sometimes the only force protecting their communities against attacks from the opposite side in an extremely bitter civil war.
Therefore, as sociologist Michael Schwartz explained the matter some six weeks ago, a previous joint U.S.-Iraqi counterinsurgency drive in Baghdad, of exactly the type now being planned, actually increased civilian casualties.
There are huge differences, of course, between the First World War and the current fighting in Iraq. But, even beyond the optimistic talk of the Big Push, there is another eerie resemblance between the two conflicts. In both cases, a great power was itching to launch an invasion, and seized on a handy excuse to do so.
For the Bush administration, of course, the excuse was September 11th. From a long string of insider revelations, we know that its top officials were hungry to invade Iraq, looked eagerly for the most far-fetched connections between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, and -- even then not finding them -- invaded anyway, while continuing to vaguely imply the connections were there.
Something remarkably similar happened in 1914. Austria-Hungary was a shaky empire of restless ethnic minorities ruled by a German-speaking elite in Vienna. Nearly half the population was Slavic, including many Serbs. As a result, the imperial rulers in Vienna felt threatened by the very existence on their border of the independent nation of Serbia, small though it was. They were determined to invade it, possibly partition it, and so stamp out pan-Slavic and Serb nationalism once and for all.
They drew up detailed invasion plans. Then, most conveniently, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, the Emperor's nephew and heir to the throne, was assassinated while on a visit to the provincial city of Sarajevo. Like the White House after 9/11, the imperial palace in Vienna promptly began an eager search for a connection to the Serbian government.
Frustratingly, however, the Archduke had been killed on Austro-Hungarian soil by Gavrilo Princip, an Austro-Hungarian citizen. The assassin, an ethnic Serb, had indeed had help from a shadowy secret organization of Serb nationalists, but no connection to the government of Serbia was ever proved. No matter. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia anyway. Other countries quickly jumped in on both sides, and a conflagration began that remade the world.
Part of that remaking, ironically, was the post-war cobbling together of three provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire into what was first a British protectorate and then, after 1932, independent Iraq.
There is a final resemblance between the present bloodshed there and the First World War. Both conflicts were fought for a curiously shifting set of noble-sounding goals. With Iraq, the Bush administration has tried on for size finding weapons of mass destruction, liberating the Iraqis, combating Islamist terrorism, and installing democracy in the Arab world. In the First World War, the Allies initially talked of coming to the defense of innocent, invaded little Belgium, then of defeating German militarism and defending the British and French way of life. Once Woodrow Wilson brought the United States into the conflict, he spoke of "the war to end all wars."
It didn't. The humiliation of the losers and the catastrophic loss of life on both sides did nothing to end all wars and much to light the fuses of later ones -- especially the Russian Civil War and the Second World War. The longer the war in Iraq goes on, and the more American troops are planted by Big Pushes in a highly combustible part of the world, the more we will continue to stoke a widespread humiliation and anger whose consequences are already guaranteed to haunt us for decades to come.
Every Briton knows that the Magna Carta, which placed some of the first limits on the absolute power of kings, was signed in 1215 by a reluctant King John and his barons in a meadow at Runnymede, beside the Thames. Every American knows that the Declaration of Independence was adopted in Philadelphia in 1776, in the building later known as Independence Hall. But another such milestone, equally worth celebrating, too few people remember.
The document involved is merely the minutes of a meeting. And if you go today to the spot where the meeting took place, 2 George Yard, a small courtyard in London's financial district, you will find no monument, no plaque, no troops of schoolchildren – only the service entrance to an office building.
Yet the reverberations from what happened on this spot, on the late afternoon of May 22, 1787, eventually caught the attention of millions of people around the world, including the first and greatest student of what today we call civil society. The result of the series of events begun that afternoon in London, wrote Alexis de Tocqueville decades later, was "absolutely without precedent. ... If you pore over the histories of all peoples, I doubt that you will find anything more extraordinary."
The building that once stood at 2 George Yard was a bookstore and printing shop. The proprietor was James Phillips, publisher and printer for Britain's small community of Quakers. On that May afternoon, after the pressmen and typesetters had gone home for the day, 12 men filed through his doors. They formed themselves into a committee with what seemed to their fellow Londoners a hopelessly idealistic and impractical aim: ending first the slave trade and then slavery itself in the most powerful empire on Earth.
The interests they were taking on were entrenched and influential. Britain dominated the Atlantic slave trade. Roughly half the slaves taken across the ocean to its lucrative West Indian sugar islands, to the United States and to other European colonies were transported in British ships. Starting an anti-slavery movement in Britain in 1787 was like starting a renewable energy movement in Saudi Arabia today.
The minutes of that historic meeting, preserved in a leather-bound volume at the British Library, are only a single page long, in the clear, flowing handwriting of the committee's firebrand organizer, Thomas Clarkson.
They begin simply: "At a Meeting held for the Purpose of taking the Slave Trade into consideration, it was resolved that the said Trade was both impolitick and unjust." Throughout history, of course, slaves and other oppressed people have periodically staged uprisings. Given the conditions under which they lived, that was only to be expected. But what made the movement that grew out of the George Yard meeting so unprecedented was this: It was the first time that a large number of people in one country became outraged – and stayed outraged for many years – over the plight of other people, of another color, in other parts of the world.
The movement took off immediately, in a way that earlier scattered abolitionist efforts, in both Britain and North America, never had. Petitions flooded Parliament, which the following year took the timid first step of regulating conditions on the slave ships. Slavery became the prime topic of the London debating societies. Anti-slavery books and posters flooded the country. In a seven-year period, Clarkson rode 35,000 miles by horseback through England, Scotland and Wales, setting up local anti-slavery committees.
No one was more astonished than the powerful slave owners' lobby, which previously had only concerned itself with sugar tariffs and the like. "The Press teems with pamphlets upon this subject, and my table is covered with them," Stephen Fuller, London agent for the Jamaican planters, reported in despair to his employers. "The stream of popularity runs against us."
The outpouring, moreover, defied economic self-interest. From Sheffield, famous for making knives, scissors, razors and the like, 769 metalworkers petitioned Parliament against the slave trade, saying that even though their wares had routinely been purchased by slave-ship captains and then traded to buy slaves in Africa, they nonetheless "consider the case of the nations of Africa as their own." Fuller was amazed that the petitions pouring into Parliament were "stating no grievance or injury of any kind or sort, affecting the Petitioners themselves."
It took the movement more than 50 years from that first meeting to end slavery in the British empire. That goal was finally reached in 1838, a full quarter of a century before slavery died in the United States. No more chained slaves cross the Atlantic today, but the spirit that crystallized at George Yard is with us in a different way. In the idea that those who suffer "no grievance or injury" have the obligation to speak up for those who have suffered them lies the birth of the vision that human rights are universal.
In this very unequal world of ours, where decisions made in our own country – on subjects including military intervention, the sanctioning of torture and the complex economics of globalization – connect us morally to the farthest corners of the Earth, this is an idea that seems more relevant than ever. In that sense, the process born on that long-ago afternoon in 1787 is not only incomplete, it has barely begun.