William Marvel / Intervention Magazine – 2006-07-08 23:05:14
Call it by any other name, the end of empire is always the same.
(June 29, 2006) — This past spring marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the Crimean War. For most of those who have even heard of it, that deadly conflict is remembered today mostly for the Tennyson poem about the disastrous charge of a brigade of British light dragoons against a solid wall of Russian artillery.
Tennyson’s much-memorized stanzas may have been intended as a tribute to the courage of the common soldier, but they also epitomized the sheer stupidity of pompous generals who mismanaged that campaign and wasted their men’s lives.
The Earl of Cardigan led the light brigade, and the order for him to make that useless attack against the defenses of Balaklava came down from Lord Raglan. The inevitable failure was followed by a long siege fraught with numbing cold and rampant disease. Their troops’ scorn for those generals and for their objective suggests a touch of mockery behind the coining of terms like raglan, cardigan, and balaklava for improvised woolen clothing with which British soldiers tried (often unsuccessfully) to survive the bitter Crimean winter.
It all began when the Russian czar Nicholas I invaded what is now Romania, then claimed by the Ottoman (that is, Turkish) Empire. France and England ultimately came in on the side of the Turks, all of whom steamed across the Black Sea to chastise the Russians.
The war could have been represented, as so many are, as another struggle between freedom and tyranny: the Russian aggressors had the largest army in the world, maintained by the feudal tradition of conscription, while the British prided themselves on a smaller, all-volunteer army.
In fact, the Russian and Turkish empires earned deservedly matching reputations for despotism and cruelty, while the British filled their army from the losing classes of industrial society. The war might be more accurately characterized, as so many can be, as a contest between fools and scoundrels.
The Russian fleet consisted entirely of sailing ships, while other nations were turning their navies to steam. The massive Russian army carried antiquated arms and suffered from the distraction of earlier imperial impositions.
Nicholas had to garrison the Caucasus, for instance, with a quarter of a million men to deal with rebels who refused to be dominated, the most prominent (and evidently the most persistent) of whom were Muslim mountain folk known as Chechans.
The Crimean War ended in 1856 with a humiliating Russian defeat, but competing imperial ambitions continued to fuel each other, crushing independent cultures in the process. Six decades later things had changed a great deal, and yet they had not changed at all.
Reaching into the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire gobbled up the little Balkan states that included Serbia, leading a Serbian nationalist to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand and thereby ignite a whole new cataclysm. This time Britain sided with the Russians against the Turks, and after months of devastating casualties on the Western Front the British adopted the unthinkable Russian doctrine of compulsory military service.
The war shifted back toward the Black Sea, but this time the Brits didn’t even make it that far, and the survivors of their decimated expedition returned in abject defeat. The battered French army descended into understandable mutiny in 1917. Expansion, war, and an authoritarian disregard for the consequences to the people brought Russia to rebellion and ruin.
The citizens of each of the empires that took part in those futile slaughters learned to think of their homeland as the center of the universe — the “best country in the world,” if not the only one. Yet all those empires have since ceased to exist: only the home countries remain, greatly reduced in global power and far happier as a result. All the imperial soldiers who thought they sacrificed their lives for the glory of the queen, the emperor, the sultan, or the czar literally died for nothing.
The mania to extend influence, control, and possession nonetheless survives. In Africa it takes the more honest if brutal form of tribal or ethnic antagonism. In the Far East, the Middle East, and middle America, the quest for religious domination provokes conflicts conducted with violence, vituperation, or varying admixtures of the two. In a diminishing number of western capitals, military aggression is disguised as a crusade for democracy.
These states and sects — all the “best” countries in the world, and all the one-and-only true religions — will also shrink, evolve, or disappear altogether, and all their devoted martyrs will, once again, have died for nothing.
William Marvel is a free-lance writer and US Army veteran living in northern New Hampshire. He is the author of Andersonville: The Last Depot and, most recently, Mr. Lincoln Goes to War.
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