Tuesday, March 4, 2014

War, Crimea, and Removing the Mask of Faith

As Putin's Russia takes the post-Olympic opportunity to seize a hunk of terrain it's been hankering for since the fragmentation and dissolution of the Soviet Union, it was hard not to go back in time and look at the last time Russia went a-stomping around in that Black Sea peninsula.

It's been a while, a century and a half, since the blood and mess of the Crimean War, and the players have changed a little bit.

Our editorial pages hop about and fulminate about who is doing what, and why whatever it is we are doing is wrong.  Roll it back to 1854, the last time Russians went stomping into Crimea, and the United States couldn't have cared less.  It wasn't our problem.

Oh, there was plenty of editorial page fulmination.  Talkin' heads gotta talk, after all.  There was lots of diplomatic wrangling.  And there were lots of opportunities to get involved for a buck, as Samuel Colt did when he travelled to Russia to see if he could sell them weapons to fight the Brits and the French and the "heathen" Ottomans.

But ultimately?  America did nothing.  As this fascinating historical essay notes, we had no meaningful strategic interests there, and our response was to send a commission.  This involved three guys, whose sole task was to observe and report back on how the Europeans and Russians fought one another.

Of course, things are more global now, and our place in the world is different.  But still, it seems a little difficult to see a direct interest.

Another interesting feature of the first Crimean War?  Its inescapable futility.  It was an unnecessary war to have fought in the first place.  Totally meaningless, brought about by diplomatic bumbling and indecision.  The war itself was much the same, just a fumbling about, filled with miscommunication and utterly pointless loss of life, with victory being determined not by greater nobility, but by lesser incompetence.

This was, after all, the war that gave us the legendary Charge of the Light Brigade, in which a British cavalry brigade received muddled orders.  Knowing the pointlessness of what they were doing, they dutifully charged right into the wrong target...in this case, a known deathtrap surrounded by artillery.  Theirs was not to question why, theirs was to do and die, as Tennyson described it.  Or as a French commander pointedly observed, "It is magnificent, but it is not war.  It is madness."

That Crimea was once synonymous with the complete futility of war should not be lost on us.

And as we sit here again, Europe on one side, Russia on the other, and Crimea in the center, there's another, interesting variance.  Back then, in the middle of the 19th century, the conflict in Crimea was putatively about religion.

Russia's nominal reason for entering Crimea midway through the 19th century was to protect the rights of Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land, which was at that point controlled by the Ottoman Empire.  It was all about faith, and the rights of faith, at least if the pronouncements to the people were to be believed.

But underlying that?  It was just what war has always been, the stuff of national power, tribalism, and the egos of despots.  Over the pride and territorial hungers of human beings was painted a gloss of religion, for the sole purpose of stirring the masses.  Back in the nineteenth century, it was the odd conflict of Slavic Orthodox Christianity versus the tag-team of Catholicism and Islam.

What is interesting, this time about, is that the veneer of faith is entirely missing.

God has been removed as a pretense, and eliminated as a justification.  Faith has faded from Europe, and never has there been a soul who cared less about God than Vladimir Putin.  But there's still tribalism, and the clash of cultures, and the naked power aspirations of despots.

Those things, quite apparently, will happily stir conflict all on their own.

Just as they always have.