A good read...

Reply Sat 12 Jun, 2004 05:51 am
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2004/06/01/do0101.xml I read this, and I thought it was very interesting. Thought I'd share.

"History tells us that most conflicts end in chaos
By John Keegan
(Filed: 01/06/2004)

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.

And there was, of course, a war in Iraq, caused by Britain's attempt to enforce the mandate to rule granted by the League of Nations. Britain eventually prevailed, but at the cost of 6,000 Iraqi deaths and 500 in its own forces. British casualties in this war scarcely exceed 100. Then, as now, the occupiers complained that "every Iraqi has a rifle".

History boys can explain easily - and convincingly - why some wars, as that against Germany in 1945, end in unopposed occupation of enemy territory and why others, as in Iraq in 1920 and 2004, do not. In the first case, the defeated nation has exhausted itself in the struggle and is dependent on the victor both for necessities and for protection against further disaster - social revolution or aggression by another enemy. In the second case, the war has not done much harm but has broken the power of the state and encouraged the dispossessed and the irresponsible to grab what they can before order is fully restored.

What monopolises the headlines and prime time television at the moment is news from Iraq on the activity of small, localised minorities struggling to entrench themselves before full peace is imposed and an effective state structure is restored. The news is, in fact, very repetitive: disorder in Najaf and Fallujah, misbehaviour by a tiny handful of US Army reservists - not properly trained regular soldiers - in one prison. There is nothing from Iraq's other 8,000 towns and villages, nothing from Kurdistan, where complete peace prevails, very little from Basra, where British forces are on good terms with the residents.

I have been recovering from major surgery for the past few weeks and so have overdosed myself on daytime television - Richard and Judy, Crucible snooker, I Want that House, A Place in Greece. Most of it is entirely forgettable. There is, however, an undeniable fascination in watching Jon Snow, of Channel 4 News, energise himself for his early evening denunciation of Anglo-American activity in Iraq. About 5.30 he comes on to rehearse his sense of outrage. At 7pm we get the full display of apoplexy and hysteria - raised voice, flushed face, physical trembles.

I do not know whether Jon Snow is a history boy who has decided to suppress what he knows in favour of his commitment to drama studies. I do know that he, and the serried ranks of self-appointed strategic commentators who currently dominate the written and visual media's treatment of the Iraq story, have a duty to stop indulging their emotions and start remembering a bit of post-war history. Iraq 2004 is not Greece 1945, not Indochina 1946-54, not Algeria 1953-62 and certainly not "Vietnam".

It is a regrettable but not wholly to be unexpected outcome of a campaign to overthrow a dangerous Third World dictator. 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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Reply Sat 12 Jun, 2004 05:57 am
John Keegan is one of my favorite historians. Thanks for the posting.
0 Replies
Reply Sat 12 Jun, 2004 07:44 am
Re: A good read...
L.R.R.Hood wrote:
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."

John Keegan is more than an excellent historian. He is one of those scholars who have changed the way other scholars look at the historical record and frame their questions. But he is letting his politics sway his analysis in this case. The reason Iraqi occupation ended in chaos in both 1920 and 2004 is that in both case the occupying powers tried to do it on the cheap. Keegan assumes that 1) the only way to be rid of Hussain was to stage a full scale invasion and 2) the Iraqi's were going to run around and shoot the place up in the end because that is their nature. Neither assumption is valid. The US and Britain managed to get rid of both the Soviet Empire and the South African aparteids' without resorting to war. Having chosen the later course they did not place a sufficiently large force in the country to control it. They had no plans in place to replace Hussain. They did not make contact with internal opposition, have lists of likely internal allies or even a basic understanding of Iraqi culture and society. As a result event quickly moved beyond their control. The chaos is of our own making, it was not a historical inevitability.
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L R R Hood
Reply Sat 12 Jun, 2004 02:00 pm
Interesting points.
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Reply Sat 12 Jun, 2004 02:21 pm
Thanks for the post. It is definitely a good read. And spot on accurate.
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Reply Sat 12 Jun, 2004 02:29 pm
It assumes that opponents to the war wish for Saddam to return to power. What sort of nonsense is that? I didn't read the whole thing.
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Reply Sat 12 Jun, 2004 04:25 pm
Well I think it's more a shout-out to the media than it is anything else. The media seems very focused on only covering the bad parts of the war and it's aftermath. The "chaos" in Iraq in limited to a very few parts of the country - and as Keegan states himself, why not focus on some of the good things that are happening in Kurdistan or southern Iraq?
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L R R Hood
Reply Sun 13 Jun, 2004 05:12 am
That's true. I've known a handful of soldiers who have been over there for a good amount of time, and they are happy to share all the positive stories about the improvements.

I was pleased to hear that children were now attending school... boys AND girls!!! I never heard that on the news.
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Reply Sun 13 Jun, 2004 08:27 am
Well in fairness to the naysayers, girls were attending school before this fracas. But because of Saddam diverting the food for oil funds to his own comforts and to pay off or bribe his cronies (that chapter of history remains to be written), the schools had fallen into serious disrepair and children were not being properly educated.

A personal friend was part of a detail that was helping restore power and water to an outlying area of Iraq and that included helping restore the school. He says the gratitude of the people and knowing that something very good was happening was one of the most rewarding experiences of his life.

(I know girls were attending school in Baghdad during Saddam's dictatorship. I think maybe that was not the case in the outlying areas where visitors were not allowed to go, but I'm not sure.)
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L R R Hood
Reply Sun 13 Jun, 2004 08:30 am
That's awesome, Foxfyre. I wish that had been on the news Smile
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Reply Sun 13 Jun, 2004 08:46 am
Girls have been attending school in Iraq for at least 50 years. Iraq has been a secular state for as long as it as existed. For an interesting look at a small rural village in southern Iraq in the mid 1950's you might read " A Guest of the Sheik : An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village" by Elizabeth W. Fernea , Anchor Books 1965. It is still in print as I have used it in my classes. Fernea focus exclusively on the role of women in rural Iraqi society and was one of the first anthropologist to seriously study women's issues from an anthropoplogical perspective. It is also a very readable book, no jargon.
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Reply Sun 13 Jun, 2004 09:01 am
More and more courageous historians are stepping up to the plate to register the realities of WW II and how it is difficult to honestly say it was any more noble or humane than what is happening in Iraq. It is almost as if improper acts by the occasional rogue soldier is a modern phenomenon unknown to the first half of the century. At the same time, the courage and humanity of American and British troops far outweighed the infrequent disgrace.

In time historians will write the objective truth of the war in Iraq as well. Meanwhile, it is unfortunate that there are those who seem to wish for the effort to fail to justify their opposition and/or contempt for the national leaders of both the U.K. and the U.S.A.

Meanwhile I think the experience of my friend is far more the norm than what we usually read in the newspapers.
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