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David Cameron plans to celebrate “British values” by spending £55 million to commemorate the centenary of the first world war.
This money is being carefully used to present a particular account of that conflict. Out is the popular narrative of the war as useless industrial-scale slaughter to feed human greed. In its place, WWI is presented as a “necessary sacrifice” to defeat German militarism.
Britain, it is argued, even in the heyday of empire, was a beacon of tolerance and fair play and simply wanted to spread the benefits of civilisation and democracy.
The truth, of course, was very different. Our colonial empire was far from civil and the very antithesis of democracy. It was ruled, garrisoned and policed with ruthless efficiency. The slightest hint of dissent was crushed mercilessly.
WWI was a war between the great powers to redivide the world. Although Britain’s global power had already started its slow decline, the immediate outcome of the war was the expansion of its vast empire, especially in the Middle East and Africa. Indeed, the seeds of virtually all the current problems in the Middle East go back to that conflict.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) claims it has abolished the borders left by the secret Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916, which — in the middle of WWI — carved up the crumbling Ottoman empire between Britain and France in the event of victory for the Triple Entente.
Lines were drawn on the map which disregarded tribal identity and ignored deep ethnic differences between Kurds and Arabs and Shia and Sunni. France would get Lebanon, Syria and a part of Turkey, while Britain would control three eastern Ottoman provinces (now Iraq) as well as Transjordan and Palestine (now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza).
The following year (1917) Lord Balfour pledged British support for a zionist Jewish state in Palestine making it clear that Britain had no intention of honouring its promises of post-war self-determination to the Arabs whose uprising was crucial for the British victory.
Then, as now, careless and arrogant military intervention in pursuit of empire was to have huge and unforeseen impacts on millions of people in the Middle East for generations to come.
Today we are witnessing the decline of another empire — that of the United States. The main task of the peace movement is to manage that decline without resort to war at a time when the US still possesses overwhelming military power.
The omens are not good. The US is leading a deliberate campaign to destabilise Ukraine and expand Nato and the EU up to the borders of Russia. In the Asia-Pacific a new network of US military bases and alliances is being built to confront China.
And in the Middle East, the rapid advance of Isis has exposed once again the abject failure and irresponsible folly of the Anglo-American wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya — wars that were intended to eliminate terrorism but, as we predicted, ended up spreading it across vast swathes of Africa and the Middle East.
On July 5 Glasgow CND is holding a conference to discuss these issues. It will point to the alarming similarities between the run-up to World War One and the international crisis today and the way in which these events are linked in the pursuit of empire.
It will focus on the growing danger of a major war in eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific drawing in neighbouring states. In particular it will consider the strategic options facing the US and Britain.
How far can the Obama administration use its military might to confront this crisis on three fronts and halt the development of its rivals — above all China and Russia? What is the “pivot” to Asia and why is it a threat to peace? What is the role of Nato and the EU and how do we interpret recent developments in Ukraine and Venezuela? What is the role of nuclear weapons in all this and how best can we build the peace and solidarity movement in Scotland, Britain and across the world?
Alan Mackinnon is secretary of Scottish CND.
An event, World War I: Opposing Wars Of Empire Then And Now, will be held on Saturday July 5 from 10.30am-1.30pm at the Renfield Centre, 260 Bath St, Glasgow. Speakers include Kate Hudson, Jenny Clegg and Neil Findlay MSP.
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