Have the Politics of Territorial Influence Relegated Iraq and Kurdistan to Buffer States?

A Recap

This is the second part of my series on territorial disputes. Last time we looked at some of the territorial disputes across the world and focused specifically on territorial disputes that arose from national identity. Specifically, when members living within one entity identify with another.

Today’s post will continue looking at territory disputes, but these will be more preemptive and abstract in nature. They’ll involve more powerful nations directly  playing a heavy hand in the government of a less powerful state (or entity) in the name of protecting themselves before a threat is realized. We’ll investigate how Russia, Austria, and Prussia’s instincts to partition Poland as well as Rome and the Sassanids playing catch with Armenia closely mirror diplomacy today. Let’s see which disputes qualify:


Who Betrayed the Kurds and the Kurdish State?

A Kurdling Trust in Abbreviations

You’ve likely heard that America recently withdrew its troops from Syria, which Turkey, either honestly or deviously, took as permission to invade Kurdish controlled territory in northern Syria. As with all political events, there’s more nuance than “Turkish bad guys unapologetically  slaughter Kurdish good guys.”

The Kurds have sought to have their own state, Kurdistan, since the close of the First World War. In fact, it had even been promised to them as the Ottoman Empire was dissolved, but scrapped in the 1920 Treaty of Lausanne which defined modern Turkey’s borders. This left the Kurds stranded between five other nations, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and the southern tip of Armenia, relegating them to a minority status in all of them. The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (often referred to as the PKK) formed in the 80s with the goal of setting up a state for the Kurds. In doing so, they carried out attacks on Turkey as well as other nations. The US, the EU, and Turkey all classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.

The PKK however, is not to be confused with the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. The SDF primarily (but not entirely) comprises Kurds from the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. (Both the YPG and PKK take their abbreviations from the Kurdish names.) The YPG is the armed wing of another Kurdish party (the PYD). Turkey would have you believe that the PYD is just the Syrian branch of the PKK, but that’s an exaggeration at best. There are almost certainly links between the two, but how deep those links go is unknown. What is known is that the YPG seized territory for themselves in Northern Syria when the civil war broke out. The SDF (and the YPG by proxy) is who the United States was allied with during its fight against ISIS.

To clear that up a bit, the big takeaway is that the PKK is widely regarded as a terrorist organization that dates back decades. The SDF allied with the US to root out ISIS, and the Syrian Democratic Forces largely comprise Kurds from a group known as the YPG. Because the YPG has sought territory for themselves, Turkey would have you believe that the YPG and PKK are indistinguishable, and while they likely have some ties, it’s a stretch that they’re one in the same. Notably, the US does not support the YPG’s plans for autonomy.

Turkey invaded Syria’s Kurdish controlled territory with the intention of setting up a buffer zone between its own state and what it views as a terrorist state. It also plans to relocate 2 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees into this buffer zone in a move that some claim mirrors the demographic engineering also occurring within Syria. This buffer zone, Erdogan argues, will help keep Turks safe from terrorist attacks.

When Did Iraq Become a Satellite State?

A Sunniset for Iraq

Both Iran and Iraq have been a defining topic in international news since the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 and even more so since the United States assassinated Iran’s Major General, Qassim Suleimani (I’m going with this spelling as it’s preferred by the Economist, New York Times, Guardian and Foreign Policy, but note that Google and Wikipedia both have it as Soleimani). Each country’s history goes back further, and is also tied with the as of yet non-existent Kurdistan. In fact, all of Iraq and some of Iran are where we find some of humanity’s earliest records and is sometimes referred to as the “cradle of civilization.” The Parthians, Achaemenids, Sassanids, Safavids, and Babylonians all ruled kingdoms or empires that comprised some, if not all, of the territory of both modern day states. While I won’t try to summarize some 6,000 years of history, note that both countries have a shared history and culture, perhaps not too unlike the United States has with the United Kingdom.

Iran’s modern government has been in place since its Islamic revolution in the late 70s, and Iraq’s established their republic in 1958 after overthrowing the Kingdom that the occupying British setup after dismantling the Ottoman Empire.

An Iranian Soldier Wears a Gasmask
An Iranian Soldier Protecting Himself from Chemical Weapons During the Iran-Iraq War

In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran sparking a devastating war that lasted 8 years. This is the war that Suleimani, and many of his contemporaries grew up in. Iraq invaded Iran citing a territorial dispute, but more likely capitalizing on a recently destabilized government and fearing a stronger Iran on the other side. The fear was well founded. Iraq beat the morale out of their own soldiers (literally) while significantly underestimating the resolve of the Iranians, who would purportedly throw their bodies onto barbed wire, so their compatriots could climb across it. As a result, despite the international weapons embargo levied on Iran for taking American diplomats hostage during their revolution (what the movie Argo is based on), Iran held its ground. A ceasefire was negotiated in 1988 by the United Nations after a million people had lost their lives and both countries were weakened and destabalized.

After the death of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent rise of Islamic State, Iran and Iraq’s relationship warmed. They had a mutual interest in keeping IS at bay, and as Iran’s various exports to Iran increased, neither wanted Iraq to destabilize again. However, following the US invasion in 2003, Iran also developed an interest in keeping Iraq weak, so that it could not threaten Iran again. The US and Iran are still competing for influence in Iraq, but the US has all but lost.

Iran’s increasing influence calls into question how independent Iraq truly is. On its face, Iraq is completely independent. It has diplomatic relations with several countries, has its own government, and of course, a sense of national identity. When you look a bit deeper though, the picture is a bit more complex. For example, Iran backed militias are now a permanent feature of Iraq’s military. That of course isn’t a situation unique to Iraq. The United States has provided scores of military personnel, equipment and funding for Europe, but that comes with influence, and just as NATO has helped spread liberal democracies across Europe, prevented further conflict in Europe and with the US, and established the dollar as a global reserve currency, so too has Iran’s military protection afforded safety and economic influence in Iraq.

Iran’s influence goes yet further. The local news projects Iran as the protector of Iraq; Iranian companies pick up the trash in Iraq; Iranian sympathizers get funding for political campaigns, and Iraqi banks are encouraged to hold their funds in Iran. Where the money goes, the power goes. It goes so far that when a member of the Qatar royalty was kidnapped in Iraq, Qatar called Iran to help, completely ignoring the Iraqi government. Iran’s influence is the cause of several protests rocking the country.

There’s a religious aspect too. Iranian’s Shiite Theocracy may come into conflict with Iraq’s significant Sunni minority, which could have many parallels to some of the Protestant-Catholicism conflicts we looked at before, particularly for the Sunni Kurds who operate out of an semi-autonomous region of Iraq, the closest thing the Kurds have gotten to their own state.

This religious aspect is significant as it’s another reason for why Iran is attempting to exert so much influence on Iraq. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been jockeying for the position of regional dominance since Iran’s Revolution, and much like the French Revolution, Iran would like to expand its ideas beyond its borders. This brings it into a conflict with Saudi Arabia, who is the traditional regional power, and is ruled by a Sunni majority. Both nations have engaged in several proxy wars, most notably the Syrian Civil war (along with Turkey and Russia, one of the reasons the quagmire has gone on so long). Influence in Iraq makes Iraq a buffer state between Iran and the Saudis should their proxy-rivalry turn to direct blows.

With Turkey and Iran trying to setup buffer zones and claiming territory, either directly or through severe influence, I wanted to look at some similar instances throughout history and learn how they turned out.

The History

Ancient Arguments around Armenia

That’ll Cost you an Arm-en-a Leg 

Armenia is one of the world’s oldest countries, and has been ruled by more countries than most. It was conquered by the Greek’s Alexander the Great, the Persian’s Cyrus the Great, Rome’s Trajan, the Mongols, the Parthians, the Ottoman Empire, the Russians, the Soviets and was its own kingdom and country. The Armenians most recently got their independence in the collapse of the Soviet Union in what was their second republic, and who knows how many times they’d been independent at that point.

Today I want to focus on the ancient Armenian Kingdom and its relationship with the surrounding powers. Armenia switched its allegiance six times in 46 years. It was nominally independent, but defining independence is a little dicey considering that Armenia had its leader installed by either Rome, Pontus, or Persia for several decades.

Our story here will start with Tigranes the Great. Tigranes came on the scene around the time the Roman Republic was transitioning into the Roman Empire. In fact, he began his reign within a few years of Julius Caesar being born.

A painting of Armenian King, Tigranes the Great - King of Kings
Tigranes the Great of Armenia, King of Kings

Tigranes had actually been taken hostage by the Parthians as a child in 120BCE to put space between the Parthian Empire and subject Armenia as a buffer state between the two. This would be their “Rome strategy” until the end of their dynasty. Tigranes was eventually released and appointed King of Armenia in 96BCE, effectively making him a vassal. Even so, Tigranes greatly expanded his empire and even began calling himself King of Kings, which leads several historians to believe he let conquered monarchs continue to rule their land as vassals making himself literally a king of kings. He also allied with the Kingdom of Pontus by marrying the king’s daughter, Cleopatra. No, not that Cleopatra.

To give you an idea of where exactly in the world we’re talking about, the Kingdom of Pontus was mostly part of modern day Turkey, the Crimean Peninsula and Russia. The Parthian Empire was modern Iran (somewhat literally), but with territory extending into modern Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Armenia was, well, Armenia. Its borders extended significantly farther than present day, and it sat north of the Parthians and east of Pontus bordering the Caspian sea. I made a rough (really rough) sketch of the borders at the time to help illustrate where we are and why Tigranes might seek an alliance with Pontus. It should also help show how important Armenia would be for both Rome and Parthia once Pontus and Egypt became part of Rome:

Middle East Roughly 70BC

In 87BCE Rome began a war with the Kingdom of Pontus who continued to aggravate the Romans by annexing its territory in Asia Minor. These are known as the Mithridatic Wars named for the ruler of Pontus, Mithridates VI. Mithridates had secured an alliance with Tigranes by marrying his daughter to him. In 62BCE, Pompey the Great of Rome invaded Armenia assisted by Tigranes’ own son. Tigranes quickly surrendered and offered huge amounts of wealth in exchange for letting Tigranes continue to rule Armenia, but this time as a client state of Rome. Tigranes would rule until his death in 55BCE having ruled Armenia for 40 years and lived for 85.

Succeeding Tigranes the Great was his son, Artavasdes II. Artavasdes would flip flop between supporting Rome and Parthia several times in his 18 year reign – mostly out of necessity. When Crassus invaded Parthia and was completely defeated, Artavasdes was up against an invading Parthian force. After all, Armenia had allied Rome. This forced Artavasdes to secure a peace, and thus alliance, with Parthian King Orodes. Eventually, Mark Antony would invade Armenia in an act of revenge at Artavasdes’ betrayal, capturing him and his three sons. Antony then marched Artavasdes back in golden chains. Cleopatra (Yes, the famous Cleopatra) executed Artavasdes in 31BCE.

One of Artavasdes II’s son, Artaxias II, managed to escape and fled to Parthia. Parthia’s king then installed Artaxias II on the throne, thus gaining Armenia’s allegiance. Artaxias would rule for 13 years before his death. Artaxias, however, proved to be an unpopular leader, and before long, supposedly, the people of Armenia petitioned Augustus to install another leader into Armenia, and so Augustus installed Tigranes the III, still being held prisoner from Antony’s expedition, after Artaxias’ death. This of course flipped Armenia’s allegiance back to Rome.

Rome would continue to appoint leaders until the death of Augustus in 14CE. In fact, appointing leaders was the duty of future emperor Tiberius. Even so, several of these leaders would be dethroned as the result of native rebellions funded by Parthia. At this point it seems like the record dries up a bit with limited information other than name. The record picks up again with the war of Armenian succession in 58 where one of the weirder agreements over Armenia takes place. Going forward, the king of Armenia would be a prince of Parthia, but the ruler had to be approved by the Romans. This agreement is one of the reasons emperor Nero was so reviled by contemporary Romans. Well, that and the whole burning Rome to the ground thing. Tiridates would be the ruler of choice from 62CE (as a result of the war) to 88CE.

This would be the status quo until Roman Emperor Trajan invaded Armenia because the Parthians installed a king whom the Romans did not approve of. Trajan annexed Armenia in 113, only to have it be relinquished by his successor, Hadrian, just a few years later.

Around this point the Parthian Empire began weakening and the crisis of the third century was just around the corner for Rome. Even so, Armenia would be a point of contention for the successor states of the Byzantine and Sasanid Empire. Armenia underscores how vital a buffer state can be, and how two powers can jockey over position just to fend off the fear of an invasion. Jockeying for influence in Armenia draws parallels to Iran and the United States. It’s a form of politics as old as politics itself.

The Partitions of Poland

We Came, Warsaw, We Conquered

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was once a world power and geographic juggernaut comprising the modern states of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, and parts of Moldova and Estonia.

Their famous Winged Hussars once beat a Russian army that out-manned the Polish 5 to 1 in the Battle of Klushino in 1610, but in just over 100 years, the state would literally be erased off the map and wouldn’t reappear for almost two hundred years.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a dual state. The king of Poland also served as the Grand Duke of Lithuania and had done so for a hundreds of years starting with the marriage of Polish Queen Jadwiga to Lithuanian duke Jogaila in 1386. As time marched forward, this multi-ethnic behemoth of a country began to see its power wane as the power of Russia, Austria, and Prussia began to grow, and by the early 1700s, something had to give.

Polish-Lithuanian at its height
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s borders transposed onto current borders.

Polish-Lithuania’s government at the time could be described as both forward thinking and laughably naive. Their easily corruptible government utilized something called a Liberum-Veto. The idea is that all laws must be passed by the Sejm (effectively their parliament) unanimously. Any single member could strike down an entire piece of legislation. As you can imagine, their Sejm was made up of nobles with a wide variety of sometimes conflicting interests. As time passed, the strength of a veto got even stronger. It would no longer just apply to a law, but it could suspend an entire session, and any legislation that had already passed would become null and void. Foreign powers, particularly Russia, would often bribe members to vote no on any resolution they didn’t particularly care for. Before long, Poland’s central government had lost all its power, and its nobles were bought out by foreign interests. Any attempts to reform and strengthen the country would be vetoed. This lead to an inability to defend themselves, and ultimately the total partition of the state.

The once mighty military of Polish-Lithuania was destroyed in a string of wars with Sweden known as The Deluge in the late 1650s. These wars devastated Poland, literally killing up to a third of the country’s population. While Poland struggled to recover, its neighbors, Austria, Prussia, and especially Russia, strengthened. Peter the Great had modernized Russia and its rise was tipping the balance in Europe.

A series of Cossack rebellions in modern day Ukraine further hindered Poland’s economy and stability, and the subsequent treaties lead to territorial loss, and increased Russian influence when the Cossacks pledged allegiance to the Russian Czar in 1654.

A Winged Hussar flies into battle
The feared Winged Hussars

In 1733 the first war of Polish succession broke out when Augustus the II died. Russia and Austria initially opposed Augustus the III’s ascension, but Augustus the III secured their support by promising Russia and Austria further influence. Specifically, he agreed to install a Russian as a fief and recognize an Austrian treaty that recognized Livonia as Austria’s and confirmed Maria Theresa’s right to rule. Augustus the III fulfilled his promises, and when he died in 1763, Austria and Russia formed an alliance not only to secure the next ruler of Poland, but to limit who could rule and change the laws in Poland. A guy named Stanislaw (whose last name was also Augustus despite bearing no relation to his predecessors) came to the throne who would seek support from France to try to rekindle his country. Stanislaw had been one of Catherine the Great’s many lovers. She’d installed Stanislaw onto the throne because she thought he could easily be manipulated into doing Russia’s building. Ironically, Stanislaw attempted several reforms to strengthen the Polish government, but this resulted in a civil war known as the War of the Bar Confederation and further weakened the state.

France had historical interests in keeping Poland safe from aggressors. In fact, three Polish kings married a French princess, and Henry the III actually ruled Poland for the year of 1573. However, France was careening towards its infamous revolution following their losses in several wars combined with an impending financial collapse. Thus, their interest and ability to protect Poland eroded.

In 1773, Prussia’s Frederick the Great was wary (and by wary I mean paranoid) of the shifting balance of power in Europe against him. Specifically, he feared what an Austrian-Russian war could mean for Prussia. He, somewhat brilliantly, directed their aggression towards Poland. Frederick exhibited extreme distaste for Poles referring to them as “slovenly Polish trash.” In other words, he was super racist. Frederick engineered an agreement for all three countries to simultaneously invade and annex parts of Poland in what’s known as the first partition of Poland (though it’s not clear whether it was initially Frederick’s idea; his brother, Prince Henry’s idea; or Count Lymar’s idea).

Once they invaded, Poland could do little to stop them. Threatened with the utter desolation of their state, the Sejm agreed to the territorial concessions in 1775 causing about 2 million Poles (or about 1/4 of the country’s population) to become Russian, Prussian, or Austrian. This put Stanislaw under greater pressure and further divided opinion of him when he attempted reforms again. Poland managed to sneak in a Sejm when all of Poland’s neighbors were at war. They adopted a new constitution that strengthened and hoped to revive the Polish-Lithuanian State. However, Prussia and Russia feared exactly that, and this caused another invasion in 1793 that lead to the 2nd partition. A rebellion in 1794 against the occupiers lead to the third and final partition. Poland would cease to exist as a sovereign state for 123 years.

After the Napoleonic wars following the French Revolution, Napoleon briefly resurrected the “Duchy of Warsaw,” which was a client state of France in 1807, but after his defeat, the duchy was partitioned again in 1815. Poland would not reemerge until 1918 in the aftermath of World War 1 where Woodrow Wilson advocated for the establishment of a Polish state in his Fourteen Points – a document that would be the basis for the Treaty of Versailles. It was reestablished out of humanitarian concerns, but unfortunately with little concern to strategic geography, which made it easy pickings for the German and Russian invasion of Poland in the second World War. An event that some have called the 4th Partition.

From Poland we see that not only can territorial disputes last centuries, but also that they often can be the result of Imperialism. We also diplomacy as a way to check another nation’s power. Due to the sense of the Polish national identity, we also see that a nation’s borders are sometimes defined by the nationalities residing there than the sovereign state that rules over it, which has ramifications for how we view the Kurds and their quest for Kurdistan.

This is a lot of history for stuff that may only seem tangentially related, but these long-winded stories remind us that territorial disputes almost always have long and complex histories. An aggressor’s intentions might be more nuanced than evil for evil’s sake. Some may be preemptive strikes to reduce the influence of a perceived enemy as we saw with Poland and Armenia, and the Kurds. Others are the results of nationalities lumped together against their wish as we see with the Irish and Kashmiris. I also wanted to illustrate that territory can be effectively seized while leaving the current systems and government in place as we saw with Armenia and initially with Poland. That influence directly mirrors what we’re seeing with Iraq, and the justification is similar to that of Turkey – even if the methods aren’t exactly the same.

Territory isn’t always about imperialism. Sometimes it’s a boundary for an adversary, but of course, that comes at the cost of the right to self determination for a group of people. Might the Kurds still one day see their nation? It took the Poles over a hundred years. The Kurds may still be next.

Further Reading

On the Partition of Poland

On Iran’s Influence in Iraq

On the Benefits of NATO

On the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry

On General Suleimani

I Only Knocked, and They Built a Wall.

The United States’ Government concluded the longest shutdown in US history (however, it’s worth noting that all US government shutdowns have occurred in the last 40 years). It may shut down again in just a few days. Why have US government shutdowns become so common? Does any other country have this problem? And is it really worth shutting down the government to build a wall? Strangely, modern walls between countries are far more common than you’d imagine, but shutting down the government? Well, not so much.

Government shutdowns are a uniquely American problem. No other country has anything quite as analogous to what occurs in the United States despite China pointing to the shutdown as indicative of the failure of western democracy. No other country faces budget crises because, well, other countries planned for it in their constitution. In America, when a budget isn’t passed by congress and the funding period elapses those departments cease to function. What’s particularly odd is this wasn’t the case until 1980.

Prior to 1980, if congress didn’t pass a budget, nothing shut down. Departments just continued doing what they were doing on the same budget. Not passing a budget was about as common then as it is now. A Mr. Benjamin Civiletti, Attorney General during the Carter administration, put a stop to this reasonable practice with a legal opinion he published in 1980. In his opinion, when no funding bill is passed, there’s no funding. This set the stage for every government shutdown since.

Why don’t other countries have this issue? In most cases, the failure to pass a budget will actually force an instant election to replace the government officials in charge of passing a budget. Sweden narrowly missed this sort of election in 2014. Other countries do have shutdowns, but still pay their workers in the interim. Belgium, for example, went 589 days without a government. However, a temporary government was installed to ensure the country didn’t fall apart in the meantime.

The shutdown today is over President Trump’s campaign promise to build a border wall. For this, he’s requested 5.8 billion dollars, roughly 0.1% of the 4.4 trillion dollar budget. While it is no small number, it is a small portion of the budget. It’s also far less than most estimates, including President Trump’s, to build the wall.

When I sat down to write this post, I really wanted to compare this border wall to the great historical walls such as The Great Wall of China or Hadrian’s Wall. They’re great stories, and there’s a lot to be learned from them, but unfortunately, they have little relevance to modern walls due to our increased means of travel (such as flight), and the fundamental difference in purpose. Ancient walls were built to propel invasions. Modern walls are built to stop immigration and refugees or control movement and passage between states. I set out in search of modern walls with a few in mind, and found several more walls than I anticipated. There are currently 20 border walls between countries, with at least 6 more planned or in construction.

Berliners Become Westerners

The Berlin wall is probably the most well known modern wall. In Post World War II Germany, Germany was divided into 4 distinct districts, each occupied by one of the major allied forces: France, USA, Britain, and the Soviet Union. The Soviets took most of the eastern half, while the remainder was split amongst the other three. However, the German capital of Berlin was located deep in Eastern Germany, so Berlin itself was also split into districts amongst the four as well. Thus, there was a small western enclave in the sea of Eastern Germany:



Under this arrangement, travel was supposed to be free and unrestricted in Berlin. It didn’t end up working out that way though. The western allies poured money into repairing Europe while the Soviets extracted resources from Germany as war reparations. This rebuilding of Western Germany (and western Europe at large) was known as the Marshall plan. This caused far greater prosperity in the west, and as a result, defection from East Berlin to West Berlin was a huge problem for the Soviets. East Germans would simply ride a subway into west Berlin, and then ride a subway into Western Germany, which had coalesced into the Federal Republic of Germany. By 1961, an estimated 20% of the East German Population had defected.  The solution, as you probably guessed, was a wall. Its purpose was to stop people from leaving East Berlin and/or East Germany. They shut down several subway stops that became known as “ghost stations.” The wall was built, almost literally, overnight. On the morning of 8/13/61, East Germans found themselves cut off from the rest of Germany via 100 miles of barbed wire that would eventually become the Berlin Wall.

The wall would be constructed around the entirety of West Berlin (in addition to a separate barrier built between East and West Germany) making it an island. This wall would stand for about thirty years before being torn down in 1989. In the interim, land mines, attack dogs, bunkers, watch towers and a 100 meter strip of sand referred to as “the death strip” were laid down to prevent anyone from crossing. Even so, 5,000 people managed to flee, though thousands more were captured and nearly 200 were killed.  Some of those who escaped were simply working abroad and decided to not go home. However, many were ordinary citizens who swam across canals, dug tunnels, flew over the wall in a hot air balloon, or in one case, stole a tank and rammed it through the wall. And if those security measures weren’t enough, a secret service known as the Stasi was installed with the explicit mission of spying on East Germans hoping to uncover any planned escape attempts.

Of course, this didn’t go over well, and due to growing discontent, the Soviets relaxed visitation restrictions between the two sides on November 9, 1989, but this resulted in massive crowds at the wall. While the guards initially tried to restrain the crowds, it was too late. The crowd began tearing down the wall themselves.

There’s a lot of ways to look at this story. Using the metric of immigration, it did drastically reduce the number of crossings, but it did not eliminate them. It’s also worth noting that this wall’s purpose was to keep people from leaving rather than from entering. That difference is mostly semantic, but it is unique. The Berlin Wall stretched 93 miles and cost 16 million Marks (roughly 21 million dollars after accounting for inflation and currency change). Trump’s proposed wall would stretch about 2,000 miles.

The Wall That Wasn’t

As you may recall from last time, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, and as a result, gained control of Korea. It retained control of Korea up until their World War II defeat in 1945. In an idea that will sound oddly familiar, in the war’s conclusion, it was decided that Japan’s territories should forfeited and Korea should be occupied by the allies and split among them.  The 38th Parallel was decided on as the split point. Russia took the northern half, and the US took the southern half. Both wanted to install governments that mimicked their respective countries, so Russia created the infamously inaptly named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, while the United States installed the more simply named, Republic of Korea for South Korea.

Korea, feeling a bit nationalistic as one does when one people are divided into multiple states, were waiting for war. In 1950 North Korea invaded and set off the Korean war that would divide the peninsula until today. North Korea, backed by Russia, invaded South Korea. The United Nations backed South Korea and pushed back. China, just coming out of a civil war and needing to unite their people against a common enemy (and what better enemy than those capitalist pigs?) joined North Korea. This also gave the benefit of solidifying China’s new ideology as solidly communist, which would decrease the morale of any remaining domestic, anti-communist forces. It would also provide China a buffer zone, so it wouldn’t share a border with American forces.

In 1953, after three years of bloody war, the border between the two countries ended almost exactly where it started. An armistice was signed. As a result, the border is a 2 mile wide and 160 mile long zone ironically known as the demilitarized zone, or DMZ. It just so happens that the demilitarized zone is one of the most heavily militarized areas on the entire planet. Given that, it may not be a surprise that crossing the border is extremely dangerous. North Korean soldiers are ordered to kill anyone trying to cross. Weirdly, the DMZ is also the 5th highest rated tourist attraction in all of North Korea according to TripAdvisor. 

South Koreans, however, often take in any defecting person, even North Korean soldiers. While defection across the border does still happen, most immigration occurs through bordering China. North Koreans go to China, and then from China to South Korea. About 30,000 North Koreans have migrated using this method. Not long after the Berlin Wall fell, North Korea began claiming that the United States and South Korea had built a wall across the border to divide the Koreans in the late 70s. However, there was little proof other than distant photographs such as the one below:



However, in 2007 Reuters broke that the wall did not exist, and this wall was another odd ploy by the DPKR to rally their people and gain support against the oppressive west.

While there may not actually be a concrete barrier, the DMZ is so heavily militarized there may as well be. Similar to East Berlin, North Koreans are not allowed to leave their country. Anyone doing so risks execution. Even in the face of certain death, people defect every year, though North Korea will not release numbers regarding attempts or successes. We occasionally will get video footage of a lucky (or unlucky) person making an escape.  Even in absence of a full-fledged wall, the US-Mexico border is militarized,  and has become increasingly more militarized since 9/11 – only suffering a brief demilitarization when an 18 year old honor student, Esequiel Hernandez Jr., was shot while herding goats.

Lastly, I want to emphasize that DMZ is the only militarized border, which is what enables swaths of people to migrate through China.

 Gauze on the Gaza Strip

The following story can be a bit of a touchy subject, and it’s a subject rife with misconceptions. Because of that, I’m going to give a little more background than would otherwise be necessary to get to the Gaza Wall.

The Israel / Palestinian conflict is, contrary to popular belief, a conflict that has lasted not thousands of years, but about a hundred years. The Israelites and Palestinians have each separately been in several conflicts, but their current conflict, like all of our stories this time, has its roots in the aftermath of World War II. Maybe a little beforehand.

Prior to the first World War, Jews and Palestinians lived in relative peace within the Ottoman Empire. If you read my first post , you may recall that the Ottoman Empire actually welcomed the Jews in the aftermath of the Alhambra Decree. In the late 19th century, however, a belief known as Zionism began gaining traction amongst the Jewish people. Zionism, in short, is the belief that Judaism is not only a religion, but a national heritage. As such, Zionists wanted their own state where they can be free from the persecution they often faced in Europe. Similarly, the Palestinians were having their own surge of nationalism, which as we learned from last time is a source of conflict.

Jews began migrating into the Ottoman Empire, particularly near Jerusalem due to its significance in the Jewish religion. This was made worse by the fact that before World War I, the British had agreed to help migrate Jews into Jerusalem.

Once World War I did break out, Britain made promises to the French in what was known as the Sykes-Picot agreement. In this agreement, the Ottoman Empire would be divided into spheres of influence between France and Britain. It was carved up with little consideration given to either regional and cultural influences or the Arab desire to self govern. Jerusalem, however, was set to be an international zone. The decree also promised territory for the Jews. When the Ottoman Empire was dissolved in the aftermath of the first World War, Britain facilitated Jewish immigration into the region, and by the rise of the third Reich, the Jewish population in Palestine was 8 times what it was in the 1890s. This was viewed by the local Palestinians as another imperial colonization effort, which lead to wide spread protests and even riots. Of course the holocaust furthered emigration out of Europe and into Palestine, which further strained tensions in the region. In response, Britain put immigration restrictions on the Jews leaving Europe for Palestine, which led the Jews to revolt against the occupying British.

Deciding they were making things worse (and they certainly were), the British decided they should leave after the second World War had concluded. The United Nations declared that Israel would be a nation for the Jews and partitioned out land for the Arabs, but it was divided in a terrible way – because again, nobody knew anything about the demographics or regional considerations. The United States and Soviet Union both recognized Israel, but not every country did. Several countries, but not the United States, recognized Palestine as well. This was how the United Nations divvied up the country:

Note that Jerusalem is still an international zone.

These borders were satisfactory to no one and sparked the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. The British-backed Israelites crushed the Arabs, and I mean crushed them. The Israelites took 60% of the land partitioned to the Palestinians in the above map and forced 750,000 native Palestinians to flee their homes. This exodus is known as The Nakba, or literally, The “Catastrophe.”

In 1964 The Palestinian Liberation Organization was formed becoming both the diplomatic face and the armed rifle for Palestine. It fought for Palestine through both conventional and terroristic means. The PLO was actually regarded a terrorist organization by the United States Government despite having observer status at the United Nations. The United States removed this categorization in the 1990s.

In 1967 the Six Day War was fought – named because of how quickly Israel defeated its enemies proving itself the dominant force in the region. Israel fought against Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and the local Palestinians and crushed each of them – due in part to the western ally backing. At the conclusion of this war, Israel seized territory from Jordan, Egypt and Palestine, some of which it still occupies today. The United States brokered a peace deal in 1978 known as the Camp David Accords. Israel agreed to return the land stolen from Egypt during the conflict. The Camp David Accords were mainly significant in that it fractured the previously united Arab position against the legitimacy of Israel as a nation. Egypt was seen as a traitor to the Arab people and was suspended from the Arab League.

Israel proceeded to prevent refugees from the Six Day War from returning home. In 1971 the United Nations accused Israel of “deliberately carrying out policies aimed at preventing the population of the occupied territories from returning to their homes and forcing those who are in their homes in the occupied territories to leave.”

Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian Gaza Strip led to the first Intifada (Arabic for “Uprising”) in the late 80s. The Intifada was a series of boycotts and protests that quickly escalated into riots. Palestinians demanded that the Jews stop occupying their territory. The Jews responded with overwhelming force. A few hundred Jews and over a thousand Palestinians were killed. Many of those casualties were civilians.

Around this time Hamas was formed. Hamas is an extremest organization that seeks nothing less than the elimination of Israel. In light of the Oslo accords (peace talks administered during the Clinton Administration), Hamas believed that the PLO was too secular and playing soft ball. As such, they tried to sabotage the process with suicide bombings and raids. They were ultimately successful – though it’s worth noting that far right Israelis also fought against the Oslo accords – going as far as to assassinate their prime minister in 1995.

Violence continues on both sides and results in a second Intifada in 2000, one far more violent than the first, resulting in thousands of deaths. This Intifada convinces Israel that peace is not possible. Israel decided that to protect its citizens from these increased bombings, it must build a wall.

That’s right; we finally made it to the wall.

However, they built this wall not around the borders that the UN provided oh so long ago, but into the Palestinian land they occupied. They claimed they were protecting newly settled citizens from the persistent Palestine attacks, but to the Palestinians, this was yet another land grab.

Israel maintains that the wall is not a land grab, and that they would happily negotiate borders. This wall’s intention, like the claimed intention of Trump’s wall, is to protect its people from those with violent intentions.

The wall is a powerful symbol, but unlike the DPRK’s imaginary wall and the Berlin Wall, this wall didn’t separate a people that should be united, but separated a people that wanted to be separate. This wall has been under construction since 2002 and is still not complete. The guarded border is 340 miles long with several gaps guarded by military personnel and has already cost roughly 3 billion dollars. That’s less than 1/5 of the US Mexico border and already over half the proposed cost of the US border wall. Further complicating matters is the terrain. Israel’s wall is mostly surrounded by desert, yet the US-Mexico border is mountainous, which will make it both harder to build and harder to guard.

Even with all the above downsides, it’s hard to argue that Israel’s wall hasn’t been successful.  There’s a lot of caveats to that statement.  However, it’s also worth noting that this isn’t the only wall Israel has built. Israel’s success with border walls has been a frequent talking point for wall supporters, but its walls are not the only factor in Israel’s success in decreasing terrorism.

In Conclusion

If decreasing immigration is your goal, a wall seems like an effective, if exorbitantly expensive, way to do it. However, that doesn’t dive into whether there’s good reason to deter immigration, especially noting that immigration at the Mexico border is at a 10 year low.  Whether or not you want to encourage immigration is a value discussion. A legislative solution may prove as effective, and cost less money and lives in the years to come.

Trump’s wall seems to have a lot in common with the walls above in terms of purpose, though the United States is a very different country than East Germany, the Korean Peninsula, and Israel, and the border Trump hopes to protect is about 8 times longer than the other three combined. Walls and the countries that build them are often disparaged by the international community, and as a world leader, the United States must consider the diplomatic effects of building a wall on a border with their ally.

Further Reading:

On Trump Comparing the US-Mexico border to Korea’s DMZ

On the Palestine-Israel Conflict

On the British Promise for the Jewish Nation

On 3 different walls and their comparison to Trump’s Proposed Wall

On the similarities between the Berlin Wall and Trump’s Wall






Who Am I? What is this?

I am Travis Chapman. I’ve long had an interest in history, politics, and writing. I have an English degree from SNHU, and reside in Texas.

In watching the news and reading history books, I see us repeating ourselves time and time again. The faces and technology are different, sure, but the underlying themes are often the same. The Vietnam War caused a refugee crisis not unlike the current Syrian crisis. Migrant crises are far from modern phenomena too. The Alhambra decree forced many Jews from their homes in Spain in 1492. Many of those who fled were either persecuted in their new country (Portugal) or welcomed (Ottoman Empire), and of course the displacement of Jews was a heated topic during World War II.

That’s the spirit of this blog. I will look at current issues, see how similar issues were handled in the past and what happened as a result. Future posts will go in much further detail about context, what was the same and what was different from those scenarios, and how each country handled a situation and the result of it. It will not be looking to convince you of a certain belief, but layout some interesting stories that may help inform your perspective.

A few topics I’m particularly interested in and will likely cover:

  • Immigration
  • Religion’s role in the state
  • Abortion
  • Economic Inequality
  • Nationalism
  • Meritocracy vs Aristocracy

If I’m going to stray into writing a blog that delves into politics, it is only fair that I lay my own biases out before. While I will do my utmost to present things objectively, my experiences and surroundings cannot be fully cast aside, and if they were, I doubt I’d have anything to write about.

I identify as a classical Liberal. While there is a minefield of exceptions to any broad descriptors, in general I lean to the right on fiscal issues and to the left on social issues. That statement should only be used to get an idea of where I am politically, not as an explicit statement for or against any issue.

This blog will source when needed and give links for further reading.

Why Lighthouse? What does that have to do with anything?
I liked the name lighthouse as an apt metaphor for a few things this blog hopes to accomplish:

  1. It’s an obsolete tool that is still being used. Almost all ships today have some form of GPS. Even so, most are still in use at the time of this writing. It’s a failsafe to ensure that if what we rely on today fails, we still can lean on what we’ve used in the past.
  2. It guides lost ships to shore. Unsure how to feel about something? Perhaps history or a new thought can enlighten (haha) you and help you come to a decision.

This blog is a hobby. I will try to write a new post every two weeks, but we’ll see how that works out.