Happy First Anniversary, The Boomerang!

On June 5, 2013, I published the first post on my new and first-ever blog, The Boomerang. The post was a short but sweet thought-piece about Rihanna’s album Rated R, the songs of which have spawned several science fiction stories revolving around a recurring group of characters. Hopefully, you will soon be able to read these stories in some kind of publication near you.

The Boomerang got its name from a catch phrase used by a Swedish comedy team in the 1990s. Each episode ended with the host sitting in an armchair, holding a boomerang. He said, “In the words of my friend, the Australian, I will be back.” I have taken that catch phrase, changed it slightly to not sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, and made it my sign off phrase after each blog post I publish.

I chose the name and the catch phrase because I love these comedians and because my blog was intended to be a place to where I could return to express my thoughts.

So, how has The Boomerang been doing during its first year?
Here are some stats that might be of interest.

Number of views June 2013: 131.
Number of views May 2014: 708.

The Boomerang experienced a spike in views when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, separating the region from Ukraine, and information on the history of the region was scarce. I was happy to see that The Boomerang could fill a part of that void.

Over the course of this first year, these are the three most popular posts on The Boomerang.
Most popular post: HG Wells The Time Machine and the Issue of Race.
Second most popular post: Iron Maiden and the Crimean War.
Third most popular post: Five Reasons You Should Go to Mississippi.

I started The Boomerang as a place where I could find my voice as an historian and as a writer. I am grateful to all of you who have decided to give me and my posts a piece of your time and your thoughts.

I am looking forward to a second year with The Boomerang.
I hope you will join me.

In the word’s of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

World War Z and the Definition of War

THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Zombies are all the rave and no one knows the zombie apocalypse better than Max Brooks, lecturer on zombie apocalypse survival skills and author of the best-selling books The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. An Oral History of the Zombie War.

World War Z is a compelling read, inspired by the journalism of Studs Terkel. But there is something that bothers me with this book and that is how the story brings the zombie apocalypse to an end. The brave, new post-apocalyptic existence is difficult to believe in because the solution to end the war is not plausible.

As an historian I study what it is that makes us human. One of the things that separates human beings from other living creatures is that we wage war against one another. In other words, a big part of an historian’s job is to study warfare.

World War Z chronicles the world war against a zombie infestation through survivor testimonials. We follow the spread of the global epidemic from its outbreak until its fragile containment through stories told by all kinds of people, from the teenager who watched her parents’ reaction to the outbreak to the government representative who was given the task of finding a solution to an insoluble situation.

To understand the problem we must first look at what war actually is. On the surface level “war” is two entities fighting each other with lethal means by using specialized groups. In other words, war is soldiers, guns and ammo.

PEO_Fires_Inaugural_Light_Machine_Gun_Shot
Source: http://www.pica.army.mil/PicatinnyPublic/news/images/highlights/2011/Maddux_gunrange.jpg

But for there to be soldiers, guns and ammo, there needs to be a society whose sole purpose is to support the ongoing war. That is to say, a society’s entire economic and political structure needs to be geared towards war. Industrial production, food distribution, financial investments and recruitment of the work force need to be adjusted to provide a steady supply of soldiers, guns and ammo until the conflict ends. This is why we talk of a society being in a “state of war”.

The turning point of the zombie war in North America comes when the government decides to change its war tactic. Backed up against the wall of the Pacific Ocean, what remains of the United States of America decides to strike back by supplying unlimited guns and ammo to those of the remaining population who are willing to fight. Piece by piece the lower 48 are reconquered from the zombies and the United States then goes on to offer other countries help in their fight against the plague.

The problem with this end to the war is that the zombies have turned North America into a wasteland. In other words, there are few soldiers and there is no industry, no agriculture and no financial sector to secure the production of guns and ammo.

Brooks admits this to be the case but goes ahead with the solution anyway, drawing a parallel to World War II. According to one of the testimonials, during the zombie apocalypse, the United States were in the position of the Axis Powers (Japan, Germany, and Italy) whose resources were limited in comparison to the Allies (mainly the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the Soviet Union), here represented by the zombies. However, this parallel is not sustainable since the Axis Powers did have resources to maintain an offensive war strategy as long as the United States and the Soviet Union stayed out of the conflict. The Axis Powers ran into trouble after 1941 when new strength and new resources (combined with Italy defecting to the Allies) were added to the already ongoing conflict. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that the Allies took over or destroyed Japanese and German industrial facilities, some of which were located in areas taken by force and staffed with slave labor.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  WORLD WAR II/PERSONALITIES
The leaders of the Allies — Winston Churchill (UK), Franklin Roosevelt (USA), Joseph Stalin (USSR) – at Yalta, Crimea, 1945.
Source: DefenseImagery.mil (US Department of Defense)

In World War Z, it would be as if the North American reconquest began at the point in time when the Red Army was knocking on the door to Berlin and the United States were about to launch their final offensive against Japan. By that time the days of the Axis Powers were numbered and everybody with their heads screwed on right knew it.

It is obvious that Brooks has a passion for history and I’m glad that he has chosen this way of expressing it because World War Z is a good book. But still, as a writer of fiction you can’t skip over certain facts. In this case that the state of war engages a society’s entire structure and that soldiers, guns and ammo are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Note:
Images have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

The 20th Anniversary of the Democratic Constitution of Belarus

During the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine, one European former Soviet republic has kept a low profile. I am talking about Belarus. Belarus borders on Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland and is a dictatorship run by Aljaksandr Lukashenka. But twenty years ago, Belarus was headed in the direction of democracy and on March 15, 1994 adopted a constitution to fulfill that goal. What happened?

Belarus is approximately one third of the size of Ukraine and has a population of 9,441,000 (2013), 1.9 million of which live in the capital Minsk. Belarusians constitute the largest ethnic group, followed by Russians. Before World War II, Jews were the second largest ethnic group in Belarus. The Belarusian language is the official language but Russian is used on all levels of society.

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The location of Belarus is marked in red.
Source: Nationalencyklopedin

Throughout history Belarus has been a region located in between the cultural and economic regions of the Baltic and the Slavs. From the middle of the ninth century, the area that was to become Belarus was part of the state of the Kievan Rus, originating in present-day Ukraine. Kievan Rus collapsed when the Mongols invaded and during the thirteenth century, Belarus constituted the western-most part of the Mongolian realm. Meanwhile, Lithuania on the Baltic increased in political power and during the course of the fourteenth century, Belarus instead became a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which in 1386 entered into a political union with Poland. This political union lasted until the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795) when the Polish-Lithuanian area was divided in accordance with Russian interests.

Due to Polish-Lithuanian governance, Belarus became integrated into the Polish-Catholic cultural sphere while distancing itself from the Slavic-Orthodox. This development is confirmed by the fact that during the Middle Ages, Belarusian towns and cities adhered to the so-called Magdeburg Law. The City of Magdeburg, today located in east Germany, was an important trading place at the intersection of the Germanic and Slavic regions. Towns and cities of lesser importance and stature adopted the city laws of major cities to be able to participate in European trade and exchange. Magdeburg was a city whose law was adopted by several other cities. Lübeck, on the German Baltic coast, was another such city. The fact that Belarusian cities adopted the Magdeburg Law indicates their affiliation with the European continent rather than the landmasses ruled by Kiev and Moscow.

Following the partition of Poland, Belarus became part of the Russian Empire and continued as such until the Empire’s collapse during the Russian Revolution and the ensuing Russian Civil War (1918–1920). During this period, Belarus, together with Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, declared independence. Belarus became part of the Soviet Union, once again after being divided, this time in accordance to the borders between Russia and Poland as constituted by Poland’s First Partition in 1772. The new borders of Belarus was determined by the Treaty of Riga, signed by Russia and Poland in 1921. Of these new-born independent states, Finland was the only one not to become part of the Soviet Union.

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Current flag of Belarus.
Source: Zscout370

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Flag of Belarus, 1918–1921, 1991–1995.

The Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991. The reason why the Soviet Union collapsed was because the Soviet Republic of Belarus, together with Ukraine and Russia, agreed to create a Commonwealth of Independent States instead of the Soviet Union. Belarus, Ukraine and Russia were soon joined by other Soviet Republics and the CIS began functioning on December 21, 1991, with its administrative center located in Minsk.

Soon after independence work on drafting a constitution began. While working on the new constitution, the legislators looked towards the legal foundations of sovereign states such as the United States, France, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden, while constructing a legal system based on the principle of the Russian Federation. The constitution was adopted on March 15, 1994.

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Constitution of Belarus. Title written in Belarusian, followed by Russian.
Source: Zscout370

The constitution created the office of President as the new nation’s leader. In July 1994, Aljaksandr Lukashenko was elected to the post and has ruled the country ever since, amending the democratic constitution through two non-transparent and highly criticized referendums in 1996 and 2004, respectively.

Today, Belarus is the only dictatorship in Europe. The country has no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press, no freedom of organization and its domestic economy is in shambles. Its prisons hold political prisoners and the government has executed several of its imprisoned dissidents.

To stay in power Aljaksandr Lukashenko needs both Ukraine and Russia. Lukashenko needs Ukraine because that country is one of Belarus’ main trading partners. Therefore, Lukashenko needs to stay on friendly terms with whomever is in power in Kiev.  Lukashenko needs Russia because Russia is one of his few supporters. But Russia’s support of the Lukashenko regime is based on strategic interests. If Russia loses interest in Belarus as an ally, Lukashenko’s days are numbered.

And that is why no voice on the Ukrainian crisis is heard from Minsk.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Nationalencyklopedin Vitryssland
Nationalencyklopedin Litauen: den ryska tiden
Nationalencyklopedin Magdeburg
Britannica.com Belarus
Britannica.com Commonwealth of Independent States
Wikipedia Constitution of Belarus
Belarusbloggen Varför tiger Lukasjenka om Krim?

Note:
There is no standard set for transcribing Belarusian names in English.
Images of Belarusian flags and constitution downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

When the Russians Beat the Swedes in Ukraine

A news broadcast on Russian TV has claimed that Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt was recruited by the CIA in the 1970s and that Sweden now, together with Poland and Lithuania, seek to take revenge on Russia for losing the Battle of Poltava in 1709. This statement is an example of what I have discussed on this blog before, namely that history is political. No other science or academic discipline is used for political purposes the way history is used.

So what is the Battle of Poltava?

Poltava is a city in central Ukraine with a population of 303,600 people. In 1709, Poltava was the scene of a military battle between the Russian forces of Czar Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725) and the Swedish forces of King Karl XII (r. 1697–1718). The battle was part of the Great Nordic War (1700–1721) which was fought over supremacy in the Baltic and eastern Europe.

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Map of Ukraine with the city of Poltava marked in red.
Source: Skluesner

During the 17th century, Sweden was the dominating force in the Baltic, controlling most of the coastline from the Gulf of Bothnia to Germany. Russia had no port to the west other than Archangelsk in the Arctic. The capital was in landlocked Moscow.

During the reign of Peter the Great, Russia gained ground in the region. One important aspect of the increased Russian influence is the foundation of the city of St. Petersburg in 1703. St. Petersburg was founded at the location of a Swedish fortress, Nyen, which Peter the Great had conquered. The purpose of St. Petersburg was to become Russia’s new capital and to secure Russian access to the Baltic.

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The Swedish Empire in the Baltic after 1658. The location where St. Petersburg was later founded in the Gulf of Finland is controlled by Sweden.
Source: Fenn-O-maniC

The Battle of Poltava is arguably Sweden’s most crushing military defeat. The Swedish army consisted of 29,000 men while the Russian army consisted of 45,000 men. For the Swedes, the Battle of Poltava ended in carnage with 8,000 men killed and 3,000 men taken as prisoners of war. The victory enabled the Russians to march to the Baltic and take control of what remained of the Swedish territories there. When Karl XII died in battle at Fredrikshald in Norway in 1718, all Swedish possessions in the Baltic were lost and Russia dominated the region. This domination would continue until the declaration of independence of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia in 1991 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992.

400px-Karl_XII_Kungsträdgården_December_2012_01    Peter_der-Grosse_1838
Statue of Karl XII pointing east, by     Peter the Great. Portrait by Paul Delaroche.
artist Johan Peter Molin,                   Source: Anathema
Stockholm, Sweden.
Source: AvildV

The current crisis in Crimea demonstrates the importance of knowing history. The relationship between Russia and Ukraine on the one hand, and Russia and the Baltic with Sweden on the other, go back several centuries and is both complicated and complex. It is a near impossible task to explain the historical process within the confines of a news broadcast, a newspaper article or a blog post for that matter.

The first casualty in a conflict is the truth.
The prime instrument in a propaganda campaign is history.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
SVT Russian News Broadcast Accuses Carl Bildt
Nationalencyklopedien Poltava
Nationalencyklopedien Stora nordiska kriget

Note:
The maps of Ukraine and the Swedish Empire as well as the portraits of Karl XII and Peter the Great were downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Iron Maiden and the Crimean War

British heavy metal band Iron Maiden is arguably one of the biggest and most influential bands in the world of the past four decades. Founded in London in 1975 by bassist Steve Harris, the band has not only changed the musical landscape and helped define an entire genre of music, they continue to appeal to several generations of fans all over the world. Moreover, Iron Maiden is a band proud to be British and they do not hesitate to incorporate British history into their songs.

One such song is “The Trooper” from the band’s third album, Piece of Mind (1983). “The Trooper” is written by Steve Harris. When writing the lyrics, Harris took inspiration from the poem Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892). A Light Brigade in the British army consisted of cavalrymen on fast horses. They were lightly armored and their weapons consisted of lances and sabres. Due to a miscommunication during the Battle of Balaclava (1854) this cavalry unit was ordered to charge a heavily defended Russian position. The charge ended in disaster. Tennyson wrote his poem in honor of the fallen men.

Iron Maiden “The Trooper” Live Rock in Rio, 2001

The Battle of Balaclava was one of many battles during a war called the Crimean War. In itself, the battle achieved very little. The Russians attempted to take the city of Balaclava, which served as a supply port on the Crimean Peninsula for British, French and Ottoman Turkish forces. They did not succeed. However, the British supply route from Balaclava to the Russian-held city of Sevastopol, also on the Crimean Peninsula and which was under siege by British forces, was cut off.

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Map showing the location of the Black Sea and some of the large or prominent ports around it. Source: User:Norman Einstein
Note: the Crimean Peninsula is the large peninsula in the northern part of the Black Sea where Sevastopol is located.

In our twentieth-century centric view of history, we focus most of our attention on the larger military conflicts of that century, World War I (1914–1918) and World War II (1939-1945). However, these two conflicts were not the first to involve several different countries and to play out in different parts of the world. Arguably, the first world war could  have taken place already in the eighteenth century, when Britain and France with their allies fought each other in Europe, North America and the Caribbean. European historians call this war the Seven Years War (1756-1763) while in North America it is known as the French and Indian War (1754–1763). During the first decades of the nineteenth century were the Napoleonic Wars. The Napoleonic Wars is a collective name for a series of wars during the period 1792 to 1815. These conflicts, too, involved parts of the world where France, Britain and their allies had political and military interests. In the 1850s, the Crimean War broke out between Russia and Britain, France, the Ottoman Turks and Sardinia. The Crimean War has been given its name due to the fact that most of the military action took place on the Crimean Peninsula in present-day Ukraine. The war was caused by the power struggle between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Turks in the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans. Probably due to the fact that the cause of conflict was unresolved at the end of the war, today the Crimean War is one of the least known major military conflicts, but we still live with some of its consequences. Here are five of those.

The first consequence of the Crimean War is how we consume news from war zones. The Crimean War was the first military conflict to use the telegraph and photography to spread information. In other words, one could say that on the battle fields of the Crimean Peninsula the profession of the war correspondent was born.

The second consequence of the Crimean War is the use of railways in war logistics. Later on, railways played an integral part in both World War I and World War II. For example, in implementing the Final Solution, today more known as The Holocaust, the Nazis relied heavily on the use of railways to move Jews between ghettos and labor camps.

The third consequence of the Crimean War is military hospital hygiene. During the conflict approximately 250,000 soldiers died on both sides. Most of these casualties did not occur in battle but in the hospitals and camps where soldiers succumbed to various hygiene related deceases. Due to the hard work of nurse Florence Nightingale the number of deaths caused by poor hygiene decreased significantly during the course of the Crimean War and set the standards for military conflicts to come.

Florence Nightingale brings us to the fourth consequence of the Crimean War, which also constitutes the birth of yet another professional group: the war-time nurse. During World War I, working as a nurse in military hospitals became an important aspect of women’s war effort. In time, it proved to be one of the important stepping stones towards women’s liberation later in the twentieth century.

And finally, the fifth consequence of the Crimean War that we live with today: the demilitarization of the Åland Islands. The Åland Islands is a small group of islands located in the Baltic between Stockholm (Sweden) and Turku (Finland). The Åland Islands came under Russian rule in 1809 when Sweden lost the grand-duchy of Finland to Russia as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. Contrary to what had been agreed, Russia built a garrison on the Åland Islands, known as the Bomarsund garrison. During the Crimean War, the Bomarsund garrison was destroyed by British and French forces. In the peace treaty signed in 1856 it was decided that the Åland Islands would become a demilitarized zone, which they are to this day. When driving east on the Åland Islands toward the island of Vårdö the road passes through the still remaining ruins of the garrison.

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Bomarsund, Åland Source: MrFinland

Lord Tennyson is considered to be one of the most prominent poets of the Victorian Era. When comparing the poem The Charge of the Light Brigade with the lyrics of “The Trooper” not much of Tennyson’s mode of expression remains. However, had Tennyson been a heavy metal bass guitarist in Great Britain during the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps the outcome would have been similar to Harris’ mode of expression.

The first stanza of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade reads as follows:
Half a league, half a league
Half a league onward
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns! he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred

The first verses of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” reads as follows:
You’ll take my life but I’ll take yours too
You’ll fire your musket but I’ll run you through
So when you’re waiting for the next attack
You’d better stand, there’s no turning back

The bugle sounds the charge begins
But on this battlefield no one wins
The smell of acrid smoke and horses breath
As I plunge on into certain death

Credit should be given to Steve Harris for historical accuracy. While Tennyson in his poem only refers to the Russian cannons, Harris’ lyrics are more detailed, specifically naming the musket, which was the standard issue fire arm of the Russian forces during the conflict.

Sources:
Iron Maiden “The Trooper” Piece of Mind (1983) Lyrics and music: Steve Harris
Alfred, Lord Tennyson Charge of the Light Brigade (1855) http://poetry.eserver.org/light-brigade.html
http://www.britannica.com Charge of the Light Brigade
http://www.britannica.com Battle of Balaclava
http://www.britannica.com Crimean War
http://www.ne.se Bomarsunds fästning
http://www.ne.se Krimkriget

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return

Note:
The live performance of “The Trooper” is linked to YouTube http://www.youtube.com
The map of the Black Sea and the photograph of Bomarsund have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.