On Empires, Nation-States, Terrorism, and State Crimes
Some things will always remain in the dark. Nothing that can be written today or in the future can give a full account of the cost of modern warfare to humankind and to the flora and the fauna.
One of the many reasons for this is that it is impossible to calculate the `opportunity cost’ of the resources and lives that were squandered in the preparation for the wars, the waging of the wars, and the resources and lives that were wasted in the aftermath of the wars.
Even some people who recognize the many unknowables surrounding the cost of warfare (will) find it safe to argue that World War I was one of the two costliest wars in human history. After all, it had much to do with the spread of the 1918-1920 flu pandemic, the so-called Spanish flu. It is also commonly accepted that World War II (the costliest war in human history) was started by one of the losers of World War I.
World War I also provides unforgettable examples of state-sponsored crimes. No doubt, many states engaged in much that can be labeled criminal, or criminally stupid, during the decades that preceded World War I. That said, the event that is generally regarded to be the `trigger’ of the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
The assassin, Gavrilo Princip and his several co-conspirators were helped by the Black Hand, a secret Serbian organization. This organization either received material and other support from the Russian Empire, or was expecting such support. Undeniably, the Russian Empire had backed certain Pan-Serbist organizations in the past.
It may be hard to establish today whether or not the Tsar himself had given a `green light’ to the assassination, or any specific terrorist act that members of Black Hand were contemplating. Then again, states and empires often sponsor criminal actors and organizations in `general ways,’ giving them enough latitude to choose their specific acts and methods. Sometimes, such actors and organizations misinterpret the expectations of their `sponsor’/ally, and engage in crimes that the latter could not have foreseen. Beyond this, there is also the fact that many crimes have unintended consequences.
Another major example is the German Empire sponsoring V. I. Lenin’s train passage to Russia from Switzerland. This support is undeniable. Arthur Zimmermann (1864-1940), who was State Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the German Empire, is known to have been instrumental in convincing the German General Staff, if not Kaiser Wilhelm II himself, that supporting the Bolsheviks could help undermine the Tsarist regime in Russia. (This is the same man behind the Zimmermann Telegram that was sent, hoping to forge an alliance between the German Empire and Mexico.)
This sponsorship did end up successfully delivering Lenin into Russia; and Lenin did play a major role in bringing an end to Russia’s engagement in World War I. Some would object to the characterization of the Bolshevik regime as a terrorist organization, but their many acts of state-sponsored terror continued for decades.
Despite successfully obtaining a `separate peace’ from Russia, some of the German sponsors of the Bolshevik regime may have felt that their investment brought many unintended consequences. The rise of the Nazis in Germany may be seen as one such consequence. Also, some of the German sponsors of Lenin (or at least their children) may have lived long enough to see the invasion and partitioning of Germany by the armies of the U.S.S.R.
Several countries were formed, and some were divided or obliterated, in the aftermath of the two world wars. Hundreds of millions of people living today suffer the consequences of some of the state-sponsored crimes of the past century. Some are direct descendants of past victims or victimizers (as is well known, the two groups are not mutually exclusive).
Millions of young men and women perished in wars in the last century, not being able to leave any descendants…
State-sponsored crimes and assassination attempts certainly continued throughout World War II. In the war’s aftermath, the victors cooperated toward the formation of an `international system,’ receiving considerable help from some of the citizens of vanquished countries.
The United Nations was established to prevent state crimes of certain magnitude. Even if we acknowledge the many improvements in international relations, can we say to the children and youth of today that members of the (so-called) Greatest Generation have done enough to bring an end to state crimes, or to put an end to international/interstatal anarchy?
One terrorist organization active in our time, Hamas, is known to have received early support from Israel. It also receives much support from Iran. Today, it may be hard to find out if Iran had prior knowledge of Hamas’s attack on October 7, 2023 -joined by other Palestinian armed groups.
As a general policy, many states prefer to offer financial and material support to terrorist organizations, and encourage them to `be creative.’
They do not even wish to be informed about what the latter are plotting. Some other states rush to offer support to terrorist organizations, once the latter prove themselves to be capable of shedding much blood and generating considerable terror. In other words, some states become accessories to crimes after the fact, befriending `enemies of their enemies.’
I have no doubt that there are millions of people in Iran who consider the current regime their `enemy’ or oppressor. They are not consulted when the Iranian rulers release state funds to terrorist organizations. (Just as many Israelis had no knowledge that their rulers chose to offer initial support to Hamas.) Sadly, some of the former pay in tragic ways for the decisions made by their oppressors.
I was born and raised in Turkiye. There are millions of people in Turkiye who never voted for the current president. I am one of them. There are no checks and balances in Turkiye that can keep the president from offering shelter to members of Hamas, nor indeed to common criminals, drug kingpins, and others.
If challenged by international courts and the media, he can certainly point to the `time-honored’ practices of other political leaders and governments, such as several U.S. administrations’ support of dictatorships throughout the world, and terrorist groups and regimes in Central America.
President Erdogan can also point to the decades-long support that terrorist organizations in Turkiye received from the U.S.S.R., Greece, and Syria. Several European countries presently offer support to P.K.K., or offer political asylum to some of their members. Nor is President Erdogan too shy to complain about the U.S.’s continuing support to Y.P.G.
It cannot be denied that states regularly use diplomatic methods, offer economic incentives, form alliances, etc., to avoid bloody conflicts. There is also considerable effort, especially by the major players in the international arena, to preserve the status quo.
Then again, nor can it be denied that such efforts do not suffice, and never did suffice, to put an end to interstatal anarchy, which means that multiple `players’ keep trying to upset the status quo.
When it comes to shedding blood, no terrorist organization can come close to the records of any one of the Permanent Five (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council). The Indispensable Nation (so described by Madeleine Albright) has indeed played a major role in preventing many wars; but the United States is also the undisputed champion of dropping bombs on civilians. Countless people throughout the world hope, and many of them pray, that the U.S.’s record of dropping bombs will never be broken for the rest of human existence on this planet.
Beyond offering material support to terrorist organizations, many states channel immense resources to the manufacture of the kind of weapons that terrorists and common criminals eventually use.
In fact, some of the `soft power’ that the U.S. has in diplomacy, including in preventing armed conflicts, has to do with the fact that it is the major provider of weaponry and war-related know-how. (Some states may obey U.S.’s orders, not because they see the wisdom in keeping peace, but because they are trying to be better prepared for future conflicts with their local enemies.)
Even when powerful states try not to share their weapons systems and their know-how, they end up demonstrating the possibility that certain technologies can be developed. As one inexpressibly tragic example, the Manhattan Project proved to the rest of the world that nuclear weapons can be made to `work.’
By continuing to invest in nuclear weapons, and occasionally threatening to use them, nuclear powers also send the message to the rest of the world that such weapons are effective deterrents.
One nuclear power, Israel, appears to be determined to break local records by its attacks on civilian targets. Many countries offer Israel material support, and/or turn a blind eye to their war crimes. At the same time, many Israeli citizens and Jews in other countries actively oppose such crimes.
Like most civilians, I am only an outsider with no insider information about past or planned state crimes. I was never a `fly on the wall’ when state agents decided on military decisions, etc.
Despite that, as a philosopher, I conjecture that there is much uncertainty surrounding the decisions of world leaders.
It seems to me that many leaders make decisions hoping that they will be met with public approval. They may or may not know that they are gambling when they do so. Sometimes, they end up making heroes and rivals of their most successful generals. Sometimes, they end up `giving ammunition’ to their political opponents.
The climate of interstatal anarchy ensures that some actors will choose to act in unpredictable ways; that there will be much secrecy and diversionary tactics; that many decisions will have to be made based on imperfect data; that accidents, diseases, and natural forces will upset human endeavors; and that there will always be people who inject false hopes and foolish optimism.
State agents, supporters of terrorism, (self-appointed) religious and ideological leaders, `weekend warriors’ of all walks of life will keep feeding such a thick fog of misinformation and misguidance.
Put differently, many world leaders give orders, and react to others’ decisions, in ways that they themselves do not fully understand. Even if they were forced to be truthful (which is seldom possible), they could not explain why they made certain choices. Nor could we understand why they did not choose certain possible alternatives. Many such alternatives may not have been made clear to them.
Sometimes, as they `dare’ to send thousands of their citizens to battlefields, leaders fall prey to irrational fears surrounding less destructive alternatives. With half-baked notions of `national honor’ and imaginary scenarios of `losing face,’ they make choices that lead to the gradual loss of the power that they might have, extinguishing many innocent lives in the process.
The two World Wars provide ample examples of tactical and strategic mistakes. With or without familiarity with such examples, some of us grown-ups embrace the responsibility to stand up to belligerent forces.
Disarmament, demobilization, and de-escalation in human antagonism are options that are within our collective powers. At the same time, we are ill-prepared to combat invisible and perennial enemies like viruses, bacteria, contagious diseases, as well as natural disasters. Much of our present-day underpreparedness in the face of such enemies and threats is due to the folly and crimes of our ancestors. If we fail to make coordinated global efforts, future generations will be condemned to pay for our failures.
Many volumes can and should be written about state crimes, terrorism, and human-made threats of various kinds. This brief essay is just one introduction to some of my writings in this field. There are many struggles that I am willing to join without demanding to see any hope of `victory.’ When murderers, mass-murderers, their supporters and apologists are joining forces, continuing their attacks on innocent people, I will not be a fence-sitter.
I will continue…
Banner Image: Devastation of war. Image Credit – Jordy Meow