& The latest reports from any number of war correspondents say that the U.S. effort to wipe out Libya’s air defenses have now done their job, and the French are now prowling over the deserts in those nasty-looking, armed-to-the-wingtip Mirage jet fighters, all as part of an internationally-backed effort to protect civilians against the massacre-minded modern-day sultan named Qaddafi. Which is interesting, if for no other reason than to prove, once again, that history really does repeat itself.
Exactly 99 years and 11 months ago yesterday, French troops were rushing into Fez, about 900 miles across the North African sands from Libya — then called Tripolitania. Their purpose then, according to my big thick book called 20th Century Day by Day, was to respond to a revolt brewing in Morocco and protect French citizens, of whom there were quite a few, given that France had been mucking about annexing parts of Morocco for itself. But unlike today, the purpose of the French military action of 1911 was not to protect the citizenry against the ruling government, but against the rabble who were revolting against big dude Sultan Mulai Hafid. “Cominzee here,” said the Sultan in his broken French, “and protect zee French seetizens from zee mob in zee streets. And by zee way, you can aussi help protect zee Royal Palace.” Or something like that.
News reports at the time made mention of the fact that although French involvement (like today) “had stopped short of full military action”, it was not at all clear “what the international repercussions will be.” As it turns out, there were repercussions. Oh boy were there repercussions.
The Germans got mad at the French for grabbing territory in Morocco, saying the action could have “consequences that are difficult to imagine.” They were right. After the French occupied Fez a month later, the Spanish — not shy when it came to looting other lands — popped across the Straight of Gibraltar and deposited some of their own troops on the Moroccan beach. That got the French out of joint. In June, Germany — whose Kaiser had his eye on the rich resources of southern Morocco, not to mention his need for a warm place to spend the winter — sends a battleship as its ante into this high-stakes game of grab-what-you-can-while-the-grabbin’s-good. The arrival of the battleship, however, gets the English knickers in a twist, so much so that the Brits, for possibly the first and last time in history, actually agree with the French. The Spaniards, probably with some trepidation, choose up sides with the Germans, all of which creates a highly volatile pot of political hot potatoes, which becomes a boiling borscht when Russia gets into the act, supporting the French. As the month of July ends, the British beef up the Atlantic fleet and rattling sabers can be heard as far away as Sumatra. By the middle of August, rumors are rampant that Germany and France are about to declare war on each other (so what else is new? They’re always about to declare war on each other.)
In September, the French, having had to forego the summer holiday and actually do some work in the month of August, and the Germans, faced with a bunch of belligerent anti-annexers at home, are ready to deal. The French offer a piece of the Congo to the Germans; the Germans agree to play nicey-nicey with the French. Also benefitting from the French largesse are the Spaniards, who get a piece of Morocco for some kind of consideration lost to the annals of history. But it’s not over: At the end of September, Italy having been left out of the North African fracas and itching to flex its military muscles, declares war on Turkey over who gets to divvy up our old friend Tripolitania.
And here’s the rub: “The conflict,” says my book, “leaves many Europeans to speculate that a vast Mediterranean war will break out… The chief concern is to localize the fighting, confining it to [the city of] Tripoli.” (Is this sounding familiar?) But, the “vast war” had to wait a few more years. By October the Italians had taken control of Tripoli and were bombarding Bengazi and about to beat back the Turks. “Italy’s success,” it is reported, “seems to prove her claim that she is a military power.”
Of course the bit about Italy’s military prowess didn’t quite turn out to be true. But what about the rest of that history? I think I just heard that Russia and China are strongly criticizing the current “international” adventurism in Libya. Are the Germans about to show up in a battleship? Just how vast will this Mediterranean war become?
& Wondering, when you’re watching your leg fly away in the airborne debris of a bomb blast, if you can distinguish between a limited military action and an all-0ut war, I’m outta here.