Destroy the old world, forge a new world: Posters and the Cultural Revolution

In China today, one can find posters for sale in stores and on the street from the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. The Cultural Revolution was a time of turmoil, in which so many Chinese people still alive today participated, but seem to prefer to forget about. To them, sorry. I simply find the subject a fascinating example of so many phenomena: mass movements and groupthink, propaganda and personality cult, imaginary enemies and violence.

When the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, it called on revolutionaries (so everyone that did not want to get humiliated or killed) to write big-word posters (大字报) with images and slogans that appeal to Marxist ideals. This is a brief look at the posters of the Cultural Revolution and how they, like so much propaganda for revolution or war, whipped up public fervour for violence.

Of the posters I have seen, there are a few noticeable themes. (The captions, where there are captions, are translations of each poster. Where there is no caption, the words are my own interpretation.) First is gathering support for the revolution. Second is children. Third is military and defence. Fourth is reverence for Chairman Mao. I have added a poster of Red Guard taking down “counter-revolutionaries” and photos that illuminate the reality behind the posters.


Some points of note:

Mao Zedong is always smiling. The people are smiling at Mao, unless they are busy destroying counter-revolutionaries.

The colour red is employed more than any other. Red is not only important in Chinese culture (symbolising joy and good fortune) and communist culture (the blood of the workers), the colour red draws people in and elicits emotion from them (see more in this video on Nazi propaganda). Mao wanted his last revolution to channel the energies of his cult, and red helped ensure he did.

The first poster is of destroying the relics of the old world. Under the revolutionary’s foot are, among other things, a crucifix and a Buddha statue. The photo next to it is of a public burning of Buddha statues.

Many of the posters show people with guns next to people with farming implements. Mao’s Little Red Book is usually there, either in the hands of everyone or in the hands of those at the head of a long line. The book itself seems to be leading the way.

The animosity displayed during the Cultural Revolution was not only directed at internal bourgeois enemies but also at external ones, such as the Soviet Union, whoever planned to invade China and whoever was occupying Taiwan. I saw the poster reading “destroy the Soviet Union” when I lived in Beijing; it actually read “destroy [or ‘smash’] the Soviet Union” on the left and “destroy imperialist America” on the right. This photo was taken at Beijing University.

The posters depict masses of people all aligned behind Mao, as if all the people of China were following his every word. Millions, of course, were.

For similar posters, see these other sites:
http://benross.net/wordpress/cultural-revolution-propaganda-part-3/2009/01/17/
http://www.iisg.nl/landsberger/
http://chinaposters.org/themes/themes
http://www.docspopuli.org/ChinaWebCat/gallery-01.html
or this site for more photos:
http://chinaspot.org/some-photos-about-cultural-revolution/

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Public Opinion: Afghanistan and Vietnam

Currently, my greatest interest is in how public opinion legitimises war. There is considerable evidence that, although military decisions are made behind closed doors by small groups, wars would not get fought if the people were vehemently opposed to them. Public approval, disapproval, demonstration for and against, discourse and apathy all factor into political calculations in a democracy (and to an extent in other forms of regime as well), and wars have major political consequences. Far from being inherently peaceful, democracies are sometimes more violent against non-democracies, turning wars into crusades against evil. The Cold War is one example: the Western public was convinced of its justifications for fighting the godless communists and their evil empire. World War Two was perhaps an even clearer example. The mythology of those quests remains to this day, continuing to influence culture.

The Leader of the Free World’s most destructive war since WW2 was the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War started and escalated with strategic decisions but ended with a public decision. The American people had had enough. Approval for the Vietnam War among American voters was highest in 1965, a year after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and Lyndon Johnson’s landslide electoral victory. It fell nearly every year after that. Although American soldiers usually defeated the Vietcong, the American government did not defeat the antiwar movement at home. Why did support drop?

One obvious reason is that Vietnamese and Americans were dying in the thousands. By the end of the war, nearly 60,000 US troops and some two million Vietnamese people died. The people could not see why American soldiers should be drafted just to die. Coffins with flags on them are a major cause of war weariness.

Another is some of the spectacular embarrassments the US war effort incurred. 1968 was particularly bad. In January was the Tet Offensive. Though a tactical victory for the US and its South Vietnamese allies, it was a propaganda victory for Ho Chi Minh. A spectacular surprise attack by the communists, the Tet Offensive marked a turning point in the war that reversed US escalation in Vietnam. Soon after the Tet Offensive came the massacre at My Lai. The US Army brutally killed some 400 or 500 Vietnamese villagers, all civilians and mostly women, children and elderly. When the news of My Lai came out, Vietnam war protests increased, as more moderates became vocal objectors.

By 1973, the US was out. Thirty years later, it was back in; except this time, it found itself in Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack is pulling most troops from Iraq but he is placing more in Afghanistan. The American public’s attention has largely refocused on what the president likes to call a war of necessity. The US public initially agreed with a US invasion of Afghanistan, but it could be waning.

There are differences between the two wars, but here we are concerned with public opinion. Americans are lukewarm on Afghanistan, about half approving of their country’s presence there. 60% of Canadians would choose not to extend the Canadian military’s role in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled 2011, even though there is no reason to believe a mere one more year will stabilise the country. About two-thirds of Germans want to bring the troops home. 64% of Britons polled think that the war is unwinnable, and 69% that the government has not done all it can to support its soldiers. With an election coming up, these figures are crucial.

Soldiers in Afghanistan and even Iraq have not died in nearly the same numbers as in Vietnam. But we are of a different generation. We are living in a time of fast food, high speed internet, immediate results and easy victories. If the Western allies who are again fighting an opponent they do not entirely understand do not show markedly improved results soon, governments will fall and the war in Afghanistan will end.

How long will the public approve of this war? Will they care enough about its stated goals to continue to support it? Is there any chance public opinion on the war will rise in the US, UK, Germany or Canada, even with some tactical victories? History suggests that, if there is an Afghan Tet Offensive or a Pakistani My Lai, the West will suffer another humiliating defeat in another faraway land.

Imagined Communities and the End of Lebanon

Lebanon had so much potential. Once lauded as the Switzerland of the Middle East, its collapse in 1975 was confusing. How could it happen?

This essay examines the short history of Lebanon before the 1975 civil war to identify the factors that led to the breakup of the state. It argues that Lebanese citizens’ loyalty to the state above their own ethno-religious group was so weak that when the outside world introduced catalysts of polarisation, namely pan-Arabism and, to a much greater extent, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians on Lebanese soil, the Lebanese state collapsed.

Much of the literature on war examines the role the elites play in precipitating it. However, many or most wars could not happen without the approval of the people in whose name they are waged. Loyalty to the state of Lebanon may have existed in 1975, but not among political opportunists and the militias they led. While the elites may have played the key roles in the crisis, the people were sufficiently loyal to their sects and disloyal to the state as a whole that they were wiling to kill and die for their group.

Toying with history is a dangerous game

This post is largely based on Dangerous Games: the Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret Macmillan.

The recent history of history

During the Cold War, history was not considered as interesting as it is now. The capitalist and communist systems were about building a new world, not looking back; and old rivalries, such as Croats vs. Serbs, were supposed to have been lost in the swirling mists of time.

The 1990s therefore surprised everyone by ushering in a more complicated, international order. The ethnic conflicts that had so characterised the pre Cold War world had not perished but simply frozen, just under the surface. But an equally inaccurate reading of history led some to think that the new fighting was based on age-old conflicts, rather than, to go back to the example of Yugoslavia, on Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tuđman’s ambitious opportunism in carving up Bosnia between themselves. A merely superficial understanding of history meant that whether to intervene to end the war in Yugoslavia was a question that cost thousands of lives to answer.

Bad history hides answers

There is a mass of bad history out there, sometimes recognisable by its sweeping generalisations. It is conventional wisdom that the Treaty of Versailles led directly to World War Two. However, this account overlooks the fact that treatment was not as severe as many Germans claimed at the time. Germany only paid a fraction of the bill, and Hitler cancelled it outright. The Weimar Republic government’s mismanagement of its economy was far more damaging. Germany also had bad leaders, who thought they could control Hitler once he got into power. Hitler’s ambition and fierce nationalism were much more influential on the outbreak of the second war.

The manipulation of history is increasingly pervasive in our world. Many governments have departments devoted to commemorating history or “heritage”. They vet history text books to ensure their compliance with the approved version of the story. They believe the past should be used as a tool to create patriotic citizens.We hear one-sided or false histories employed to justify anything in the present. Though history, like the present, is very complicated, painting very blurred lines between good and evil, the abuse of history reduces the complicated to a simple pattern of our good deeds and their criminality. History can thus be an escape to a simple, innocent world from a Norman Rockwell painting. (A romantic past is also good for tourism.)

The descendants of the allies of World War Two believe it was the last clearly, unambiguously good war–even though they were allied with one of the most murderous regimes in history. In North America, Churchill is remembered as the hero who soldiered on alone against Hitler, rather than the author of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of World War One. And the romantic past can remind citizens who do not know history very well why they should support current leaders. George Bush compared himself to Churchill (the great commander, not the Gallipoli guy) and Truman (the unpopular one whom history has vindicated nonetheless); Stalin compared himself to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, the iron-fisted rulers who made Russia strong; Saddam Hussein compared himself to Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria who fought crusaders; and Mao Zedong liked to draw parallels between himself and the Qin Emperor who united China after the Three Kingdoms Period. Analogies draw pretty pictures of ugly faces.

History and collectivism

Publishers and TV stations profit from idealised versions of history because they make us feel good about ourselves and our ancestors. Our approach to history strongly affects our collective self-image. Most people are collectivists: they feel they belong to a group that is bigger than they are, and that everyone else does too. They look to history books to provide not the truth but meaning. We tell and retell stories about ourselves and our groups, and since we do not want to feel bad about anything we associate ourselves with, our stories inevitably make us look good and feel proud.

That leads us to ask, what is history for? Is it to know the truth? To learn lessons for our lives? To create a community? To create patriots? To legitimise current government policy? Or to understand how we got here?

Why is truth important in history? Because only then can we understand the present, understand ourselves and most importantly, understand others. That means a) why our group is no more moral than any other group, b) why others are angry with us, c) what we should do to make things right. If we do not learn, or at least seek out, the truth in history, we will write off everyone else’s anger as irrational. We have given you so much and this is how you repay us? Without truth, or at least a consensus on what the truth is, we have only yelling.

Army regiments have official histories because they are unifying, but they are usually one sided or simplistic. Organisations and ethnic groups have their own heroes. We like heroes and we want our heroes to be pure, so we take inspiration in their good deeds, sometimes exaggerating or even inventing them to create a role model, and ignoring or painting out their faults. The public, and thus politicians, suggest huge honours for soldiers alive and dead, even though the veterans themselves are often non committal. Commemorating soldiers can be good for unity around values that politicians like: nationalism, war, duty, and so on.

History has taken the place of religion as our source of myth. Our group came before and will outlast us, and in a time where fewer believe in an afterlife, our group is a source of immortality. But if the essential features of history, context and causality, are absent, we can see history as an inevitable progression toward a glorious present or future for our group, when in truth it is much less clear. Please also see my book for a discussion of the futility of chasing our identity.

Whose fault is it?

Politicians are quick to make apologies: the pope apologised for the Crusades, for instance; Bill Clinton for slavery; Tony Blair for the Irish potato famine. Apologies are easy. But how do any of them help things? Dwelling on past events like slavery and the Holocaust can make it harder for us to deal with the here and now.

We usually see history through the lens of the present. After the imperialist Suez campaign of 1956, WW2 became seen as the time when all British came together and fought off evil. They felt nostalgia and pride. Churchill’s account of WW2 suggested that the war cabinet was unanimous that Britain must fight on alone. However, the historical account shows that there were long debates in the cabinet, sometimes exploring how to avoid war. A similar debate went on in the American administration over dropping the atom bomb on Japan. When historians began to show that the allies were not always united, and made some morally questionable moves, they were attacked in the press. The US Air Force itself even took offence. Many critics, some who never even read the books they were attacking, said that the historians could not possibly know what happened because they were not there. Margaret Macmillan was even told that, as a woman, what could she know about military affairs anyway?

“Being there does not necessarily give greater insight into events,” writes Macmillan; “indeed, sometimes the opposite is true.” Memory is highly flawed. We think we remember but our memory is often very inaccurate. It is selective and malleable, not set in stone, not recoverable. As Primo Levy, a prominent scholar of the Holocaust, said with a sigh after interviewing Holocaust victims, when a memory is evoked too often, it becomes set in stone, stereotyped, adorned and embellished. And collective memory is stronger because it lasts longer, adorned and embellished over generations. Some nations date their nationhood, or their great win that unified them and expanded their land, or their great defeat since when they have always struggled to regain their land, back hundreds or thousands of years.

The danger of nationalist myth

Israelis and Palestinians dispute every aspect of their history. Both sides tell and retell their own official histories. Since history lies at the heart of their identity and claim to the land, it is impossible for ideologues and hardliners on either side to agree on anything. They seem to believe that proving the length of their claims to the land would be a title deed to it. Fortunately, there are moderates on both sides working together to correct the mistakes and write fairer versions of history books for students to learn about each other, rather than the grievances of their own side and the evils of the other. Unfortunately, few teachers are using them.

Archaeology has assumed a central role in the land debate. But real scientists are not ideologues. Israeli archaeologists have found no evidence at all that Moses or Abraham ever existed, that either the Kingdom of Solomon and David or the Jerusalem of old were anything more than a town, and that there were any Jews in Egypt. Science threw the whole Old Testament into question. In fact, the Old Testament had never been meant as historical record. It was only in the past two hundred years or so, with the wide acceptance of science as a means of discovering the truth, that anyone tried to link religion with science. Nonetheless, Jews, Christians and Muslims repudiated everything the archaeologists found. The truth is a threat to identity.

Israel was founded by creating myths. The fathers of Israel looked back into Jewish history to sculpt their new country. They found Masada–the great defeat and martyrdom of Jewish zealots. But Masada was never particularly important in Jewish history until the modern era. Now, it has become a symbol for Israeli unity in the face of hostility: never again shall Masada fall. In practice, this has meant that no amount of brutality is too much to protect Israeli lives.

But Israelis are only newcomers to the idea of nationalism. Until the past few centuries, and in many cases until WW2, Europeans did not consider themselves part of a “nation” but part of a religion, or guild, or clan. Yet, nationalist historians claimed to have found evidence that there have been discernible German, French, Polish and other nations within recognisable borders for hundreds of years, ignoring the migration and intermarriage between groups. While some myth might make us feel good, we need only look at the nearly one hundred million people who died in the two World Wars, along with Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Tibet, Chechnya, Turkey and Sudan to see nationalist myth in its purest form.

History painfully challenges the assumptions of sensitive people, but to accept the truth is a sign of maturity. In the pre Civil War South of the United States, history books used to show a very simple and beautiful history. Life was easy, polite, cordial, even between slaves and their owners. Textbooks in the South played down slavery and made Africans seem fortunate to have been given the chance to come to America, though they were clearly not clever enough to rule themselves. After desegregation, museums, monuments and textbooks, embarrassed, rescinded most of their mistakes. In France, debate continues about the implications of the French Revolution, Napoleon’s conquests and France’s involvement in Algeria. French historians have tried to make people understand that Napoleon was more a racist dictator than a national hero; others want to erase the prior downplay of the brutality of the Algerian War of Independence; still more dispel the untruth that all French were united in resistance to the Nazis in World War Two. However, in the United States and France, like everywhere else, not everyone appreciates an even view of the past.

Nationalists use dreams of a Golden Age, a time when our nation was great, to motivate people to violence. Mussolini led Italians to believe in a new Roman empire, which led them to disaster in World War Two. Religious fundamentalists are much the same, wanting to restore the Golden Age when all the faithful lived in harmony, until pagans arrived to end it. In the hands of populists, history becomes prophecy. Each nation has a creation myth. Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, used the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge to promote a more militaristic view of history–pride in Canada’s military accomplishments, rather than a critical look at them. China’s government is very selective about history. It cannot repudiate Mao completely because his legacy is their party, and thus their legitimacy rests on his memory. They order “patriotic education”, emphasising how patriotic all Chinese people have always been. They morphed socialism, which the Chinese no longer believe in, into patriotism by calling it “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The past few hundred years of Chinese history is one long line of humiliation that is entirely the fault of foreigners, and conclude that the humiliation will never end until Taiwan is permanently reunited with the mainland. But stories of past glories or wrongs come at the cost of abusing history.

The rise of Hindu nationalism in the 1990s saw the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya by Hindu nationalists who claimed it had been built on the birthplace of the god Rama. More than 2000 people were killed in subsequent riots around the country. In part of a drive to peg India as a strictly Hindu nation, whose worthwhile accomplishments were all made by Hindus, those who destroyed the mosque declared they would destroy more Muslim buildings around India. Of course, believing that one’s civilisation could ever be one pure religion, ethnicity or culture is nonsense: civilisations, societies, cultures and nations are very fluid constructs, as any balanced reading of history can tell us. But the communal violence India has suffered since Ayodhya is testament to the power of historic myth.

Playing the game

One factor that made the Cold War so dangerous was that neither side understood the other. Cold War policymakers paid little attention to the lessons they could learn from history about the other sides. US governments took the USSR’s threats and revolutionary utterances at face value, and the Soviet and Chinese communists believed that the capitalists were willing to go to war in their imperialist quest for wealth. American experts on China predicted the Sino-Soviet Split but were drowned out by Soviet-watchers and hardliners, who said that Mao was under Stalin’s control even after 1961. Russian and Chinese governments believed (and still do) that Western talk of human rights is a mere excuse to meddle in those countries’ internal affairs. “If you do not know the history of another people, you will not understand their values, their fears, and their hopes, or how they are likely to react to something you do.

“There is another way of getting things wrong,” continues Macmillan, “and that is to assume that other peoples are just like you.” Robert Macnamara worked hard after retiring from the US State Department to understand what went wrong in Vietnam. He believed that Americans pasted a portrait of themselves on Vietnam, believing they saw a thirst for freedom akin to the American experience. American officials also thought they could escalate the bombing campaign and raise the pain on the North Vietnamese to force them into a cost benefit analysis that would lead them to conclude it was time to throw in the towel. If they had looked more carefully at the war the Vietnamese fought against the French, they may have realised the determination of the Vietnamese independence movement. They failed to understand the culture and the politics of Vietnam and the personalities of its leaders. The US government has still not learned history very well, as evidenced in George Bush’s uses of the word “crusade” to refer to his manichean foreign policy, his lumping together of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and his administration’s belief that Iraqis would welcome the foreign powers as liberators.

History can show us who made different, better decisions. President Barack is in a similar situation to that of Nixon contemplating the war in Vietnam. Nixon opened relations with America’s enemy, China, which helped him manage Vietnam and the USSR. Barack might be wise to do the same with his Maoist China, Iran. Cooperation with Iran could mean help in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than hindrance of America’s efforts. (Please see my post on why Iran is the bad guy.) Ah, but of course, we should be learning not from Nixon in Nam but from Munich and the foolish Neville Chamberlain.

Talk of appeasement and Munich is bandied about as if to mean one should never talk to one’s enemies. Disregarding the fact that it was not at all clear what else Chamberlain should have done in 1938, the assumption behind allusions to Munich seems to be that everyone other than us knows only the language of force. It is necessary to treat the claims made in history’s name with skepticism, or leaders will use it to bolster claims about the present. Saddam was likened to Adolf, and we all know how to deal with Adolf. George Bush and American neoconservatives have invoked Munich as a clear signal that we should not talk to but isolate or even attack Iran and Syria. But are Iran and Syria Nazi Germany? Is talking to their leaders a sign of weakness? The Munich analogy has been applied liberally since World War Two: Anthony Eden used it to justify a disastrous episode of gunboat diplomacy in 1956, for example.

Learning history is important. We can learn about the world, learn about how to be successful and how to fail, how we should act and how others might react. But manipulating history for political purposes, or ignoring inconvenient parts of history, do not help make better decisions or forge a better future. We must learn to be thorough and think critically about history, to avoid believing the lies about history and its lessons, or we will be doomed to repeat it.

A Short History of the Six Day War, part 3

Causes

Finally, we come to the question, how did the war start? It is fair to say that the seeds for this war were planted in 1949, when the Arab armies trying to destroy the nascent Israel were routed, and that the Suez Crisis of 1956 raised tensions in the region even more. But to call those things causes of the Six Day War is like saying World War One caused World War Two; and since the Franco-Prussian War caused World War One, and the Napoleonic Wars caused the Franco Prussian War, we can say that the French Revolution caused World War Two. This is too much of a stretch. Without going back to far, the buildup to the Six Day War started three years earlier, in 1964.

In that year, Levi Eshkol, Israel’s prime minister, and Yitzhak Rabin, its chief of staff agreed on the aims of Israel’s defence policy for the first five year plan for the military. The plan said that the State of Israel did not wish for more territory. Israel would not initiate conflict with an Arab state but if war were imposed on it, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) would move swiftly into the enemy’s territory and destroy its war infrastructure.

More significantly, it was the year border clashes with Syria got deadlier. There were three sources of tension on the border: the demilitarised zones, water and Palestinian guerrillas. Moshe Dayan, Defence Minister during the Six Day War, said that in at least 80% of the clashes with Syria, “We would send a tractor to plow someplace where it wasn’t possible to do anything, in the demilitarised area, and knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance farther, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot.” The Israelis were provoking the Syrians.

In addition, the water issue began in 1964. Israel began withdrawing water from the Jordan River. At a conference, the Arab League approved a $17.5m plan to divert the Jordan river at its sources, drastically reducing the quantity and quality of Israel’s water. Knowing that Israelis would not sit back while their country dried up, the same conference also created a United Arab Command to protect the project and prepare for an offensive campaign. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation, or PLO, was yet another outcome of the conference. The Arab League began construction on its diversion plan the next year. The IDF attacked the diversion works in Syria in 1965, exacerbating the border tensions that led to the war.

In February 1966, an extreme left wing, anti-Zionist Baath regime took power in Damascus. It called for a popular war to liberate Palestine and sponsored Palestinian guerrilla attacks on Israeli targets. These guerrilla attacks were not about to wipe Israel off the map, but they fanned the flames of mutual hostility between Israel and Syria.

Palestinian guerrillas, mainly Arafat’s Fatah, carried out 122 raids between January 1965 and June 1967. They were mostly staged from Lebanon and Jordan, but the guerrillas were largely armed, trained and run by Syrian general staff. In response to one such attack, the Israeli Defense Forces attacked the village of Samu on the West Bank. Dozens of Jordanian soldiers were killed. The attack shocked King Hussein and exposed his military weakness. On April 7, 1967, following a border skirmish, the Israeli Air Force shot down six Soviet-made Syrian MiGs in an air battle. The Syrian government was in a rage. The countdown to the Six Day War had begun.

Because the survival of the Baath regime was important to the USSR, the Soviets sent a report to Nasser that Israel was concentrating its forces on its northern front and was planning to attack Syria. The report was false. Some who were observing at the time said that, although the Soviet warning about Israel’s amassing troops on its northern border was wrong, the Israeli cabinet was planning to attack Syria and the Soviets had gotten wind. Nasser knew the report was untrue but he felt that, as the Arab world’s leadership was in question, he could not fail to act. Syria already had a defense pact with Egypt. There is general agreement among historians that Nasser neither wanted nor planned to go to war with Israel. What he did was brinkmanship: pushing Israel to the brink and hoping war would not be necessary.

He did so for several reasons. First, he could not afford to look weak in front of his restive public. A major share of his army was already in the Sinai, and it would have been humiliating to pull them back. Second, the other side of the coin, continuing the troop buildup would enhance his status at home and in the Arab world. Indeed, reactions to the move were, in Michael Oren’s words, “enthusiastic, even ecstatic”. Finally, if there was no imminent threat to Syria, Nasser could take credit for increasing Egypt’s troop presence in the Sinai without fear Israel would attack. After all, he had already been assured it would not.

Nasser sent a large number of troops into the Sinai, removing the UN troops already there, and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. The Straits were important because, although few Israeli vessels actually transversed the Straits, it was where Iranian oil tankers exporting to Israel sailed. But more importantly, according to Aharon Yariv, Israel’s chief of intelligence, failure to act to end the blockade of the Straits would make Israel lose its credibility and deterrent capacity. These tools have been essential for Israel ever since.

In all countries, the masses were whipped into a war frenzy. They heard about the hourly radio reports from Arab countries about Israel’s impending doom, and the general feeling was of a noose tightening around the nation’s neck. Israel’s Holocaust survivors were particularly scared when Israeli newspapers likened Nasser to Hitler. According to Charles Krauthammer, “It is hard to exaggerate what it was like for Israel in those three weeks [before the war]. Egypt, already in an alliance with Syria, formed an emergency military pact with Jordan. Iraq, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco began sending forces to join the coming fight. With troops and armor massing on Israel’s every frontier, jubilant broadcasts in every Arab capital hailed the imminent final war for the extermination of Israel. ‘We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants,’ declared PLO head Ahmed Shuqayri, ‘and as for the survivors–if there are any–the boats are ready to deport them.'”

Everyone predicted a war. Eshkol was expecting a war; Cairo Radio said “our forces are in a complete state of readiness for war”; Syria’s government said “The war of liberation will not end except by Israel’s abolition.” Israel’s preemptive strike on its enemies was justified to end the tension and the fear–to stop waiting to die and start fighting to survive.

On May 12, in a newspaper interview, Rabin said “the moment is coming when we will march on Damascus to overthrow the Syrian government”. On May 19, Rabin told his generals, “[t]he politicians are convinced they can solve the problems through diplomacy. We have to enable them to exhaust every alternative to war, even though I see no way of returning to things the way they were. If the Egyptians blockade the Straits, there will be no alternative to war.” Nonetheless, Rabin also did not think Nasser wanted war.

On May 30, King Hussein flew to Cairo to sign the mutual defense pact with Nasser. An Egyptian general was appointed commander of Jordan’s army. On June 3, two Egyptian commando battalions were flown to Jordan, and on the following morning an Iraqi mechanised brigade crossed into Jordan and moved to the Jordan River. Egypt and Iraq, traditional enemies, signed a mutual defense pact.

Israel attacked when it did because it obtained approval from the US. Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defence, gave Israel a green light to attack Egypt. However, Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, said he was outraged that Israel attacked at all.

What was the most important factor in starting the Six Day War? At a glance, it would appear to have been Nasser and Egypt’s amassing of troops in the Sinai and closing of the Straits of Tiran and Gulf of Eliat. The closing of the Straits was an act of war in itself. But historians disagree with this explanation. First, there is evidence that Nasser did not want war. His public was highly belligerent but he knew Egypt could not simply defeat and occupy Israel. He had learned from the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Second, there are alternative explanations. Avi Shlaim says that border skirmishes with Syria were the main cause of the war. “Israel’s strategy of escalation on the Syrian front was probably the single most important factor in dragging the Middle East to war in June 1967”. Israel had been forced to abandon its plan to divert water from the Jordan in the central demilitarised zone to the Negev desert (southern Israel) in 1953. The Arab states, led by Syria, poked and prodded Israel by diverting the Jordan River. Israeli and Syrian troops clashed and Israel gained the upper hand. “Having been defeated in the water war,” says Shlaim, “the frustrated Syrians began to sponsor attacks on Israel from their territory by Palestinian guerrilla organisations.” The violence escalated.

Michael Oren believes that, because (arguably) water politics led to fighting on Israel’s northern border, more than anything else, “the war would revolve around water.” The Arab League’s plans to take most of Israel’s water was provocation bigger than its threats, and the dry noose was the catalyst for Israel’s decision to strike.

Diplomacy came to naught. Tempers were not defused, the noose was not given any slack, and the push to war continued. At 07:45 on June 5, Israel attacked Egypt, beginning the Six Day War and setting in motion all the conflicts and killings Israel has suffered or delivered since.

Bibliography

Oren, Michael: Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Finkelstein, Norman: Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict
Shlaim, Avi: The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World
Morris, Benny: Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001
Charles Krauthammer: Prelude to the Six Days: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/17/AR2007051701976.html

The complete Short History of the Six Day War can be found at http://www.scribd.com/doc/22787004/A-Short-History-of-the-Six-Day-War.

A Short History of the Six Day War, part 2

Conduct

Why did Israel win the Six Day War? There are a few reasons. First, it attacked preemptively. Israel’s attack may or may not have been justified (though, as I will explain in the third section, the historical record implies that it was) but it was a surprise. Surprise attack is a good strategy. Second, Israelis generally felt that their backs were against the wall. The prevailing feeling in Israel before the war had been one of fear (which, again, we will go into in the final section of this account), and when fear is translated into fight (as opposed to flight) it is deadly. The prevailing feeling among Arabs was hubris. Third, Israel had superior forces, and relied on air power at the beginning of its campaign. Fourth, the Arab armies had poor leadership and organisation, and were not as prepared, as numerous or as mighty as they had thought. This section will expatiate on the most important events of the war.

By 07:30 on June 5, 200 Israeli planes were aloft and heading to Egypt. A Jordanian radar officer noticed and radioed his commanding officer in Amman. The officer in Amman relayed the information to Cairo. However, the Egyptians had, just the day before, changed their codes and had not notified the Jordanians. The Israeli aircraft destroyed most of Egypt’s air force and antiaircraft weapons on the ground.

Now in control of the air, Israel sent tanks across the Sinai desert. They suffered many casualties but still did better than the Egyptians. Major General Ariel Sharon, prime minister during the Second Intifada, was commander of one of the most powerful of the armoured divisions that took the Sinai. Battles continued and Israeli tanks kept advancing. By day 4, there was no more doubt that the Egyptians were defeated and that Israel had taken the Sinai.

A few hours after the attack on Egypt, the US consul-general in Jerusalem mused that Jerusalem might have been spared the violence that was raging around the region. At first, things were calm. King Hussein of Jordan, which controlled East Jerusalem and the West Bank, received a phone call from Nasser saying that Israel had suffered great losses. The Iraqis told him their aircraft were already engaging with Israel’s. Hussein ordered the attack.

Bombs from planes and cannons shook Israel for a few hours but then Israel performed two lightning strikes that destroyed Jordan’s planes and airfields. They took other positions in Jordan, and over the next two days occupied much of the West Bank. This new territory included the Old City–East Jerusalem. Jews were ecstatic. This was a big cause of their feeling at the end of the war that God was truly on their side: not only had they triumphed over seemingly (but not actually) overwhelming odds, but they had taken back the holy lands of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and the now united holy city of Jerusalem.

On day 2, Nasser declared, erroneously, that the US was actively aiding Israel in the fighting. He asked the USSR for equal assistance to ward off the Americans. Radio stations in Syria, Jordan and elsewhere claimed, also erroneously, that American or British planes and ships were causing all kinds of trouble. As a result, mobs attacked American embassies throughout the Middle East. Ten oil-producing Arab states including Saudi Arabia and Iraq limited or banned oil shipments to the US and Britain. This began the 1967 oil embargo and the use of the “oil weapon”.

The United States continued monitoring the conflict from a distance. The USS Liberty, breaking with the 6th Fleet, came close to the Sinai coast. Yitzhak Rabin, then Israeli chief of staff (later prime minister), had warned that all unidentified vessels traveling at high speed would be sunk. The Liberty was not identified fast enough, and Israeli jets and boats attacked it. The ship was badly damaged and 34 American crewmen died. The US and Israeli governments both conducted inquiries and found that the attack was an accident. However, some US diplomats and officials say it was not. The Israeli government later paid nearly $13m in settlements. To this day, there are many unanswered questions about the USS Liberty incident.

Back to the front. Syria had also believed the reports that Israel was nearly defeated but nonetheless moved with some caution. When the Israeli Air Force was finished with the Egyptian Air Force, it turned its attention to the Syrian Air Force. In the evening of the first day of the war, the Israelis destroyed two thirds of Syria’s fighter jets. Several Syrian tanks were put to rest as well. Syria’s army began shelling positions in northern Israel but were soon pushed back again. By day 5, the battle for the Golan Heights was raging. The Golan Heights are a plateau bordering Israel, Syria and Lebanon. In two days, they became an occupied territory and in 1981 were annexed (like East Jerusalem but unlike Gaza and the West Bank) by Israel.

After the last gun had been fired over the Heights, the war was over. The ceasefire was signed the next day, on June 11th. Israelis proved to the world that it took more than some local bullies to bring it down. But its troubles were not over.

Yesterday, we saw the consequences of the Six Day War. Part 3 will show us how we got to June 5.

A Short History of the Six Day War, part 1

On June 5, 1967, Israel went to war with its neighbours. By June 10, Israel had more than tripled in size. In a decisive victory in six short days, Israel defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan, who in turn had help from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan and Tunisia. Soon dubbed “the Six Day War”, this short, regional conflict would go on to have enormous implications for Israel, the Middle East and the peace and security of the world.

This series of posts will summarise, in three parts, the causes, conduct and consequences of the Six Day War. It attempts to give a simple but not simplistic account of the facts, inasmuch as the facts can be ascertained from noteworthy historical accounts of the war.

This account will begin with the consequences, followed by the conduct of the war in its most important events and finally, the war’s causes. We start with the consequences of the Six Day War in order to show the reader the enormous impact this small war has had, and why he or she should continue reading.

Consequences
The Six Day War’s consequences were numerous and far-reaching, and some of them plague the region to this day. The changes of perceptions of threats in the area, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and subsequent Egypt-Israel peace accord, the hostage massacre at the Munich Olympics and the increased importance of the Middle East as a Cold War hotspot are some of the war’s short term outcomes. I will attempt to outline the longer lasting ones here. They are the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the occupation the Palestinian territories and military and nonmilitary conflict.

First, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, or Islamism, or jihadism, or whatever you want to call it, is an indirect consequence of the Six Day War. Before the Six Day War, Pan-Arabism was the motto of the day. Egypt, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, had become the leader of a kind of anti-colonial, anti-Israeli, socialist movement in the Arab world. This movement was a source of unity and the reason why Arab states combined their armed forces on the eve of the Six Day War. In a very unusual act as governments go, Egypt and Syria had even united under one state to form the United Arab Republic, though only for three years. Nasser was very charismatic and popular and, in the lead up to the Six Day War, was assured a win by those around him.

One year before the Six Day War, in 1966, Nasser ordered the execution of Sayyid Qutb, a leading intellectual member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb was not a terrorist (and the Brotherhood is not a terrorist organisation), but he played a big role in the rise of Islamic terrorism. When he was executed, he was made a martyr. His ideas spread and “jihadist” organisations like al-Qaeda followed them.

The transnational Islamist movement arose in a vacuum. After the Six Day War, the Arab leaders (the losers) bickered and fought. Each heaped culpability on the others and suddenly, unity was no longer a priority. Some leaders, such as Jordan’s King Hussein, wanted a peace accord with Israel, while Nasser engaged Israel in the pointless but deadly War of Attrition. Pan-Arabism thus discredited, Islamic fundamentalism became the new ideology of the Muslim world. While most Muslims do not fall under this banner, Islamism has attracted people from countries as diverse as Indonesia, Morocco, India, Iraq, Britain and Spain. And the main target of anger and terrorism in the name of Islam has been Israel.

In the second lasting consequence of the Six Day War, Israel acquired the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank of the Jordan River, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. It occupies the last four of these to this day. The return of the Sinai to Egypt was the major reason that Egypt and Israel were able to sign a peace agreement in 1978. Israel and Jordan signed a peace accord in 1994 but return of the West Bank was not part of the deal. It was believed that the Golan Heights could be returned to Syria and the West Bank to Jordan for peace accords, but they were not. The Heights were not of sufficient importance to Syria and peace with Syria not of sufficient interest to Israel to ever make the exchange. And no one wants the Gaza Strip. What problems these territories have caused.

The acquisition of territory by conquest and the settling of it with the conquering state’s citizens are both strictly prohibited by international law. With the exception of East Jerusalem, which the vast majority of Israelis refuse to give up, the government of Israel once hoped that the occupied territories could be returned for peace treaties (“Land for Peace”). At the same time, however, it was allowing Jewish settlers into all areas of the territories. Settlements began springing up everywhere. Settlements in the Sinai were uprooted to return the land to Egypt, and settlements in Gaza were removed in 2005 for reasons we will not go into here. But there are still half a million Jewish settlers in all the occupied territories. Going into all the trouble they have caused for both Israel and the Palestinians is the subject of the book “Lords of the Land” by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar; suffice it to say, the occupation and settlement are the primary reasons the Palestinians are angry.

Third and most important, and related to Israel’s territorial gains, it may be fair to say that all major violence against Israelis and Palestinians since June 1967 has been due to the consequences of the Six Day War. One consequence of the 1948 war, the first Arab-Israeli war, was the beginning of the Palestinian refugee problem. The Six Day War exacerbated it. The Palestinians were pushed in greater numbers into refugee camps in places like Lebanon and Jordan. Palestinians were a big presence in western Jordan, and around 1970 had almost carved out an autonomous enclave on the East Bank of the Jordan River. The Palestinian organisation Fatah, led by Yasser Arafat, conducted border raids on Israel and fought with Jordanians as well.

In September of 1970 (“Black September”), Palestinians attempted to assassinate King Hussein. They also hijacked airplanes and, after removing the hostages, blew them up on television. The Jordanian army attacked and, after a year of fighting, drove them out of Jordan to Lebanon.

The Six Day War is also known as the third Arab-Israeli war; the fourth one was in 1973; and the fifth one was Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, and after a short time staying out, Arafat’s guerrillas entered the fray. The Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF, entered Lebanon in an attempt to shore up a friendly government and take out the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. For some time it occupied Beirut, but was forced to retreat to a small part of southern Lebanon that it held as a buffer. Israel’s invasion is generally held as the progenitor of Hizbullah, which prodded Israel into violence several times since, most evidently in the 2006 Lebanon War. In what many Israelis saw at the time as unprovoked and unnecessary violence, in 1982, the IDF killed several thousand Lebanese, enabled the massacre of more than 800 Palestinian refugees and suffered more than 600 casualties.

The occupation of the territories turned the IDF from a defense force into a police force, setting up checkpoints, defending settlers and bulldozers, arresting and shooting Palestinians for violating curfews. This oppressive policing of Palestine led to the first Intifada. The typical image of the Intifada is the Palestinian boy throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. The first Intifada was an uprising against Israeli control of the Palestinian territories and lasted for six years. The second Intifada, characterised less by stones and more by suicide bombings, also lasted several years (when it ended is disputed) and a third one may be in the works.

Contrary to what many Israelis believe, the Intifadas were spontaneous, not planned. They were not the attempted destruction of the State of Israel by the Palestinians but may be likened more to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis: people were herded into terrible conditions and handled with violence. Only the most sheeplike people would not consider fighting back. Things have not gotten any better in the occupied territories and there is no solution in the works. The Palestinians were the real victims of the Six Day War, a war that, in the minds of too many people, has never been resolved.

Tomorrow, we will look at the conduct of the war itself.