“Governments like it that way. They want their people to see war as a drama of opposites, good and evil, “them” and “us,” victory or defeat. But war is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit.”
-Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation
Amid media coverage of the centenary of the Gallipoli landings on April 25th, two other important centenaries gained less attention: April 24th, the beginning of the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire; and April 22nd, the first use of chemical weapons by German troops against Allied forces at Ypres in Belgium.
The Armenian Holocaust was the first coordinated genocide in modern history. The Ottoman Government, military, and allied Kurdish tribesmen coordinated mass rape and executions, and death marches from Turkey to camps in Syria to remove what they deemed to be a Russian-allied threat, in which up to 1.5 million died.
The use of chemical weapons by German troops at Ypres killed about 1,200 French troops instantly. The Allies soon developed chemical weapons of their own, which resulted in over 1 million casualties including almost 100,000 deaths during the War.
Together, the Gallipoli landings, Armenian Holocaust, and first use of chemical weapons symbolised both new lows in human suffering, and foreshadowed new realities whose consequences reverberate today.
Though the Gallipoli campaign failed, the eventual defeat and division of the Ottoman Empire by the British and French provide the roots of the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts today. After 1918, Britain broke promises of a single Arab state to divide northern Arabia between the British and French. France created Syria and Lebanon, while Britain carved the states of Jordan, Palestine, and Iraq – all irrespective of ethnic and religious history. Their tactic of favouring minority religious groups in the army and politics – the Alawites in Syria and the Sunnis in Iraq – exacerbated inter-religious tensions. The Alawites in Syria dominate the Baathist regime, including the Assad family. Sunnis in Iraq ruled via the Sunni monarchy, military then Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. The inevitable vengeance of the post-Saddam Shia-dominated regime has helped assist the rise of the Sunni extremist-dominated ISIS – whose actions include mass rape and execution of Christian minorities.
The Armenian Holocaust provided a blueprint for 20th century genocides and mass killings. Journalist Robert Fisk argues in ‘The Great War for Civilisation’ that the presence of German military observers who recorded events and later became prominent Nazis likely aided organisation of the Jewish Holocaust. (Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation’, p. 404-405) Hitler, on numerous occasions including German expansion, the invasion of Poland, and deportation of Hungarian Jews, cited the Armenian Holocaust as a precedent for means to an end. (Fisk p. 405) The Armenian centenary also coincided with the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penn to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, which led to the ‘Killing Fields’ regime that resulted in both coordinated and arbitrary deaths of up to 3 million Cambodians by 1979. This is yet another example of lessons collectively learned and used by leadership to murder ‘undesirable elements.’
Chemical weapons became a normal part of 20th century warfare, including against civilians. All powerful nations at some point stockpiled chemical weapons and some assisted allies to develop these weapons – including Iraq and Syria, which until recent decades has largely been ignored. Despite Obama’s ‘red line’ over Syrian chemical weapons use, last Saturday’s chlorine gas attack against a suburb of Damascus reconfirms a continued ambivalence except for political expediency.
If ANZAC Day is to be properly commemorated, there is a need to consider the entire context and consequences of World War One – then and now. The connection between past actions and present consequences needs to be evaluated, especially as the NZ Government sends troop trainers to assist against ISIS. Is this intervention a World War II-style necessity to address the failures of a previous war (the Iraq War 2003), or the repetition of history? While we might take solace in the notion that our ancestors fought bravely and nobly sacrificed themselves in the tens of millions, this must be balanced by considering what was achieved. Did World War I really defend freedom and enhance democracy, or did it merely foreshadow new geopolitical realities and the consequential rise of extremist ideologies? If we considered this, we might begin to question whether current military actions are noble or merely geopolitical games no different to 100 years ago and whose consequences may be felt in another 100 years.