John Keegan: We Are Forgetting Our History ... Wars Usually End in a Mess





John Keegan, in the Telegraph (UK) (June 1, 2004):

History is useful. That, at any rate, is the theme of Alan Bennett's new play, The History Boys. History gets you into a good university. History gets you a good job. History is a key to cracking the secret of life.

Or is it? I have been a dedicated history boy for 50 years but these past few months I have begun to wonder if history is any use at all. Britain and the United States have got into a difficult situation in Iraq and the entire Western media are reacting as if an unprecedented disaster is about to overwhelm their armed forces and governments.

A popular American President is, according to the media, threatened with defeat at the polls. An exceptionally successful British Prime Minister has suddenly become a liability to his party. The American army is not only painted with war crime but is apparently unable to mount an effective minor operation against a small Iraqi city. The British Army has only with difficulty extricated itself from other charges. The British and American media retail with evident satisfaction every scrap of information that implicates its service people in wrongdoing, casts doubt on their operational efficiency and undermines any expectation by readers and viewers of a successful outcome to the Iraqi involvement.

The media's message is clear: Iraq is a mess that should never have been allowed to happen. Yet media people are precisely the sort who know perfectly well that wars usually end in a mess.

Many of them, by training, are history boys or history girls. Moreover, they have been trained to perceive reasons why some wars end neatly and others do not.

The Second World War, which has largely formed Western attitudes to war termination, ended neatly for simple reasons: both the Germans and Japanese had had the stuffing knocked out of them. Their cities had been burnt out or bombed flat, millions of their young men had been killed in battle, so had hundreds of thousands of their women and children by strategic bombing. The Japanese were actually starving, while the Germans looked to their Western occupiers both to feed them and to save them from the spectre of Soviet rule. Two highly disciplined and law-abiding populations meekly submitted to defeat.

Because we in the Atlantic region remember 1945 as the year of victory over our deadliest enemies, we usually forget that the Second World War did not end neatly in other parts of the world. In Greece, the guerrilla war against the Germans became a civil war which lasted until 1949 and killed 150,000 people. Peace never really came to Japanese-occupied Asia. In China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma, the Second World War became several wars of national liberation, lasting years and killing hundreds of thousands. In Burma, the civil war persists.

The aftermath of the First World War was worse. On Armistice night, Lloyd George, leaving the House of Commons with Winston Churchill, remarked: "The war of the giants is over. The war of the pygmies is about to begin." The pygmies, in civil wars in Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Baltic states, Finland and above all Russia, went on fighting for years, killing or starving to death millions. A full-blown war of conquest by Greece against Turkey ended in a Greek humiliation but also 300,000 deaths....

If those who show themselves so eager to denounce the American President and the British Prime Minister feel strongly enough on the issue, please will they explain their reasons for wishing that Saddam Hussein should still be in power in Baghdad.


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