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March 06, 2014 8:13 am

AMEND CORNER: Where have all the flowers gone?

Written by Don Amend

If you’ve ever taken English classes, and most of you have, you probably know of  “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

For those of you who have never read this poem or have forgotten it, it commemorates a hopeless British cavalry charge into the teeth of Russian cannons holding the high ground. It celebrates the unimaginable courage of the men who made that charge while decrying the fatal blunder that sent them down the valley in the first place.

Who blundered is uncertain. I’ve read two entire books on the battle as well as other commentaries, and I still don’t know the answer.

The poem came to mind this week as troops from Russia invaded Crimea, that oddly shaped peninsula on the Black Sea over which the Crimean War was fought 160 years ago. That war doesn’t have much in common with what’s happening today, but there are facets of the invasion that sound familiar.

Take, for example, Russia’s official reason for invading Crimea. Ethnic Russians in Crimea were supposedly in terrible danger from anti-Russian Ukrainians.

This is roughly the same reason Hitler cited for moving on Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, to protect Germans who lived there, and deep in his wishful thought, he had to rescue persecuted Germans in America once he had secured Western Europe.

It may anger Republicans to point this out, but the Reagan administration also used this reason in 1983, when we invaded Grenada to save Americans studying there. And, just to be bipartisan, I must add that the Johnson administration’s excuse for sending troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965 was similar, although Johnson broadened the endangered crowd to include other nationalities besides Americans.

Obviously, these four examples aren’t directly comparable, but it is rather discouraging to see the same old excuses repeated time and time again.

There was a religious excuse for the Crimean War as well. Russia went to war with the Turks ostensibly to secure the rights of Orthodox Christians living in the Islamic Ottoman Empire. France entered the war because Napoleon III wished to curry Catholic favor by opposing special treatment for Orthodox Christians, even though Catholic Austria sided with the Russians.

Religion still plays a role in conflict today. We have Muslims warring, not only against America and Israel on supposedly religious grounds, but also among themselves as Sunni and Shi’a compete for control in the region. There are both Islamic and Christian Arabs in Palestine and both object to the Jewish state of Israel, and Orthodox Jews are in conflict with more liberal and secular Jews within Israel.

The real motivation for Russia in 1853, though, was expanding the empire at the expense of  weak Ottoman Empire and gaining control of the Black Sea. The British entered to protect their colonial interests in the region and the French were out to curb Russian influence in Europe.

The same motivations, advancing national influence and control, national security and economic interests, motivate wars today, as Iran and Saudi Arabia struggle for influence in Iraq and the Russians seek to expand their influence and possibly acquire territory at the expense of a weaker neighbor.

In 1853 the war drew in other nations and expanded far beyond Crimea. Britain entered to protect its interests in the Middle East, and used its navy to blockade the Baltic Sea and shell Russian cities in the Far East. France, then the leading power in Europe, fought to maintain its position, and Greeks took advantage of the situation to retake territory lost to the Ottoman Empire.

A similar chain reaction created the fiasco that was World War I.

The disaster of the Light Brigade actually exemplified the entire Crimean War. Nations blundered into it and blundered their way through it. World War I was similarly stumbled into more than half a century later.

In World War II, Allied mistakes caused heavy casualties at the Dutch town of Arnhem and in the Hürtgen Forest in a prelude to the Battle of the Bulge, and Hitler’s blunders are too numerous to list.

In the end, the Russians, who started the war, were the losers and it marked the beginning of the decline of the Tsarist empire, a decline that culminated in the disastrous Russian defeat in World War I and the resulting Bolshevik Revolution. Along the way, many soldiers, sailors and civilians lost their lives.

Since then, Japan, Germany, the USSR and the USA have all found that starting a war may not come out the way you planned, and might do as much damage to yourself as to your enemy.

So while the current Russian adventure has little in common with that old war over the Crimea, their reasons for embarking on it echo their motivation in 1853. Time will tell, but the consequences of this action may well end up echoing the past as well.

It’s those parallels that call to mind another poem. You probably never read it in English class, but if you were around in the ’60s you probably heard the late Pete Seeger sing it.

The last line of that poem asks an appropriate question, “When will they ever learn?”

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