Monday, July 20, 2009

Declines and Falls 1: International Power

I mentioned in a recent post (about eugenics), that I was something of a sceptic on the “decline and fall” understanding of certain events in history. This inspired me to re-read a modern reprint of Michael Grant’s 1976 book in “The Fall of the Roman Empire”, which I picked up a copy of second-hand in Cambridge a few weeks ago. It contains a convincing argument that the Roman Empire did in fact in decline and fall, largely due to its own interior politics.

Now the decline component is almost unarguable, as we have so many readily accessible measures that relate directly to decline. The Roman civilization was definitely in decline, just from the fact that civilization - from the Greek word ‘civitas’ which means city - can be measured by the size and stability of the city’s. At its peak the Roman Empire had hundreds of cities in the hundreds of thousands of people class, and several pushing the million mark. Those numbers had usually halved by the time the Roman Empire was staggering to its doom; and with a couple of centuries after that collapse it would have been difficult to find many cities in western Europe with more than 40,000 people. De-civilisation in its most simplistic form of de-city-isation.

There are many other samples that convince but the Roman civilization declined. Trade, measured by the number of shipwrecks, was in steady decline for the last few centuries of Roman rule. Productivity, measured by production of pottery - a vital component of any trade or storage item we currently use plastic for - was also in steady decline: and completely collapsed along with the Romans. Even the size of cows in places like Britain went down for a couple of consecutive centuries during the period of collapse.

So it is possibly fair to argue that the Roman Empire did in fact decline and collapse. However, it is not so simple to argue that more recent empires have suffered the same thing. This would be a case of comparing apples and oranges.

From the Australian perspective, the greatest focus is on the “decline” and “fall” of the British Empire. This may seem a given concept, considering that the British Empire did in fact fold itself up and depart the scene. However when you look at the statistics to back up the so-called decline, there is no real evidence that anything like what happened to Rome was relevant in the circumstances.

There was for instance, no decline in city-isation through the British Empire as it was wound up. On the contrary, population, productivity, and city-isation were all running ahead by leaps and bounds in the lead up to the independents granted to most parts of the empire. This is as true for Kenya in the 60s, and India in the 40s, as it was for the original Dominion’s in the 1890s. There is no measurable decline in this so-called fall.

Nor is trade much of an issue - though on sheer statistics of shipwrecks, there is a certain amount of somewhat unavoidable evidence that the first and second world wars had a major negative effect on imperial trade - or indeed world trade. Despite those blips, productivity and trade rose through out all components of the Empire, except for the motherland, which did in fact suffer greviously from carrying a much of the burden of the world wars. A large part of the assumptions that people have made about the decline of the British Empire is based on the theory that Britain could not recover from the financial effects of the two greatest wards mankind has ever seen, and that therefore the collapse of her empire was inevitable. (This is not particularly related to the facts, which seemed to show was in the 1930s British international trade and commerce was undergoing a staggering revival, particularly in non-imperial countries such as the South Americas.) Judging by the increased health of the rest of the Empire and Commonwealth, it is hard to imagine that Britain could not have recovered much of her financial position, had the maintenance of the empire been of importance to its components. ( Many people would argue for instance, that London has reasserted itself as the financial capital of the modern world.)

Certainly there are no records of living conditions collapsing to the point that cows get smaller!

In fact, at the end the maintenance of the empire was not an important issue for its components. Every country with in the Empire or Commonwealth came out of the war without no an obvious external threat on its horizon (internal threats from racial subdivisions, or communist insurgencies may have been another matter). The main purpose of the Empire and Commonwealth - mutual protection - was now a distant need, and one that seems to be covered by the new United Nations. In fact the naval supremacy of the United States, Britain, and France (the good guys), made the prospect of international peace and safe trade almost inevitable. Unlike an Empire required for defence, a Commonwealth to encourage good international relations and good trade, seemed to be more than adequate.

A key point about the so-called collapse, was the fact that Britain abandoned the remaining colonies as fast, or faster, than was practical (or decent). Not only the countries which had already been prepared to independence - such as India which had long been established with a good stable bureaucracy and internal elections of parliaments; but even countries which were not remotely prepared with an infrastructure ready for independence. Everybody was thrown out on their own as quickly as possible.

This was the decision of the British taxpayer and governments, neither of whom were willing to pay the costs of remaining in the role of “the world’s policeman”. Frankly, they felt that they had done enough, and if the Americans wanted to have a go, good luck to them. (The refusal of the British taxpayer and government to pay this price is fairly clear from the interwar period as well. Modern analysts point out that Britain during the interwar period could, for approximately a 1% fee on their overseas trade, have had the largest navy and air force in the world, with a modern mechanized army as well... Which compares to normal insurance rates on peacetime trade that were actually 3% It was not so much that Britain couldn’t afford the cost of Imperial Defence, but that the British taxpayers didn’t want to pay it.)

This is not a measure of an empire declining and falling. It is an indication of an empire that has successfully achieved much of what it wants, and now feels safe to move on to new internal reconstructions and reorganizations. An argument for decline and collapse, should hopefully have a few indications of falling population, collapsing industry and commerce, and shrinking trade. The British Commonwealth of Nations had none of those indications (except to the localized effects of the two world wars on Britain herself). Instead the Commonwealth was evolving into stronger, better organized, and more competently run independent regions, that usually fully deserved to graduate to independent rule.

Indeed, although it has only been 50 - 100 years (or 200 if you count the United States, possibly longer - see for instance Dominion of Virginia before 1776), since the Anglo-sphere started hiving off independent seed cultures, there has never been a more successful example of a culture growing and expanding; stabilizing and becoming the norm; and successfully dominating the international landscape.

Whereas the collapse of the Western Roman Empire left behind shattered remnant states with reduced populations and impoverished economies; the conversion of an Empire into a Commonwealth of Nations left behind more than 50 stable and independent nations with good infrastructures, growing populations, expanding industries, and ever-increasing trade opportunities. (Unfortunately it also left behind the 15-20 prematurely abandoned undeveloped states, particularly in Africa, which have in fact fallen into chaos since. But the key point here is that their collapse was largely self-inflicted after independence, rather than the product of a collapsing empire.)

Hardly a good way to define a decline and fall.

Perhaps it would be possible to argue that the successor states to the Roman Empire maintained a semblance of Roman administration and law, or even that the Roman language and cultural heritage played an important part for centuries to come. This is still a far cry from being able to state that the English language is now the international standard for communication; that the rule of law and habeus-corpus is now the international standard applied by the UN and by all non ‘rogue states’ (yes, don’t look too closely at China); that some form of Westminster style Parliament is the dominant form of government aspired to by ‘modern’ states; that democracy is the international goal; that universal franchise regardless of sex or race is an international requirement; that free trade is considered by most to be a universal good; that freedom of religion is considered important; and that freedom of speech is considered vital.

Where did these concepts come from if not the British Empire? (I will acknowledge that a less stable form of unfettered democracy was also French in origin... but not necessarily that their version was a good thing.)

If the decline and fall of an empire is a bad thing for its citizens, and for those in the world around them: then it is not really sensible to say that the British Empire had a decline or a fall.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Eugenics in the contemporary world

I was attending and presenting at the History Teachers of Australia National Conference today, and finished by going to an amusing little session by a teacher called Kate Quin, called: 'Eugenics: how a pseudo-science changed the world'.

The background was excellent, with a detailed discussion of eugenics as a logical outcome of Darwinism, and the precursor (and direct inspiration of) the development of modern concepts of DNA. (Though one of the attendees commented that the history books seem to carefully skirt the fact that a lot of the inspiration behind DNA studies came from the 'scientific studies' associated with the Nazi death camps!) The presenter made particularly good use of Victorian (State of), archives, to demonstrate how everyone who was anyone in the intelectual elite in Melbourne in the late 19C to early 20C was a eugenics enthusiast. It was just so modern let everyone was into it, including all the great names in law, education, government, business, and charity (even including the founder of the Brotherhood of St Lawrence).

The talk tied in extraordinarily well with the Darwin exhibition I had seen at the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge the week before.

She then showed the famous eugenics tree visual, and commented that a good sign of a pseudo-science was how desperately hard people tried to justify it by bringing in every conceivable piece of evidence on matter how irrational (and unsuitable). I am afraid that I then raised a good laugh by commenting that this made eugenics last century somewhat like global warming this century.

(I wonder how many of them realised I was not being entirely funny. We had already discussed the problem of getting students to accept that people genuinely believed something that we now know is rot... How much better it would be to draw some modern concepts that 'everyone knows' and then ask" but what if we find out we are wrong? If global warming - sorry, climate change - is too sticky, try chemotherapy as an easy sample which you can't help but think future scientists will be appalled by!)

But an interesting side light of the whole presentation was the assumption that Eugenics is a Western concept, and died out in the sixties and seventies. Was it? Did it?

On the 'did it die out' thing, I pointed out that the World Health Organisation still officially hopes to improve the third world by discouraging breeding - though preferably through education as much as birth control; and Lorenzo pointed out that one of the big criticisms of Sarah Palin as a candidate for Vice Presdent of the US, was that she had knowingly brought to term a disabled child.

On the 'Western concept' part, I immediately brought up India's forced sterilisations, and China's forced one child policy.

I did like her suggestion that eugenics was tied to martial enthusiasm, and tended to die out when the West got over colonialism in the sixties and seventies. (Though I have doubts over whether the US is really 'over' it's imperial phase.) So I made the counter point that India and China may be at a similar level of political development at the moment. Indeed relations between the Han and the Uighers in China could be considered a more direct interpretation of traditional eugenics than even the one child policy.

In fact racial purity, and breeding for superiority, has been a pretty constant pattern throughout history. I can even suggest when it has been most prevalent!

Healthy and energetic societies on the way up do not stop to worry about such things. Phrases like 'cosmopolitan' and 'melting pots' tend to layer through the history books. But societies suffering the first strains of defeats after centuries of success do tend to worry. Our presenter tied the outbreak in eugenics in Britain and the Commonwealth to dismal failures of troops in the early stages of the Boer War. (She made the good point that they did not stop to consider the generally poor diet and health of the new industrial suburb recruits into the armies.) If you are a Gibbons fan, you could make similar arguments for Ancient Rome. Certainly Germany got heavily into eugenics AFTER the Great War (leading inevitably to the great death camp debates which make everybody so nervous about talking about eugenics in the modern world). The United States (which, if you believe the "decline and fall" world perspective, is probably on the decline), was doing some very unethical forced sterilisations right through the Cold War.

So what does that say about India and China today?

Nonetheless, it was very interesting how the discussion inevitably became bogged down in issues of Nazism, while ignoring the equally prevalent practices in Marxism and Communism (in fact in any 'ism' that inevitably feels that social engineering is a good thing - see Joss Weedon's "Serenity"). There was also some fairly nervous pussyfooting around issues of racism in modern Asia, until one of the Asian teachers in the room leaped in to state that she was quite happy to talk about Asian racism, and could actually get away with it only because of her race. (Which I found a nice comment on modern racism in itself).

Just as the discussion was getting bogged down, again, in issues of definition of racism, Lorenzo interrupted once more to point out that the real issue from most cultures and societies is the xenophobia not racism. He followed that up by pointing out that throughout most of history, particularly pre-modern history, religious divisions have been far more important than race; with skin colour only been an issue in the last few centuries. He suggested that the most embedded 'ism' in human affairs would probably be sexism.

I have rarely been to an academic conference session that I have enjoyed more. Yet I cannot help but be aware, that this is partly because it was so easy to stir up a lively debate: and one that so beautifully revealed various people's preconceptions, and the boundaries of their moral 'comfort zones'.

From my perspective, eugenics is just as shorthand term for a particular presentation of the sort of behaviour and belief which is prevalent in most societies through out much of history. The fact that it sometimes takes a political importance beyond just being a general background assumption that everybody knows, probably has more to do with the stage of self-conscious navel-gazing which inevitably follows a stage of unselfconscious expansion and aggrandising for any society. Nor do I really believe that Australia has completely avoided this issue in the modern world. Think for a moment about the attempted social engineering policy that we have called "multiculturalism". Consider the goals of multiculturalism, from the perspective of 'improving the species'. Now consider a future history teacher setting an essay to compare and contrast between the Social-Darwinian goals of ethnic cleansing and multiculturalism?

Personally, my main issue with the entire topic, is to call eugenics a pseudoscience. Eugenics was a genuine attempt to answer some questions, and was therefore a real science. If we can agree that science is a matter of theories, and not perfect knowledge, then all science could technically be described as pseudoscience. In reality it appears that the term pseudoscience might be attached to anything that we now like to think of as politically incorrect. In which case eugenics has been tarred with the Nazi brush, while people simply fail to assess the good and bad concepts it may have added to our understanding about the modern world. Realistically, it is no less scientific than many other things that have classified themselves as sciences, including Darwinism, communism, and in all probability economics.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Teaching History versus Re-Enacting it

Our company is called 'Multisensory Education' for a reason... we believe in education, not show and tell.

There is a great distinction between, on the one hand: a well thought out teaching program which demands the students feedback, and assesses their understanding as part of each session – which is not just interactive, but participative; and on the other hand, a show and tell activity which talks a lot and touches a lot - but which is not really interactive, or even really assessable.

I have spent the last three weeks on one of my regular 'on year' trips to check the latest Interactive and Multisensory displays and exhibits - this time in the UK. (On the 'off years' I tour, and sometimes present at, teaching venues and seminars.)

Naturally when I am looking at the latest ideas for Australian history classrooms, I concentrate on Medieval, Ancient, Renaissance, or Early Modern sites - particularly in Europe and Japan. Equally importantly though, I am always seeking the best new Interactive teaching displays, and the best re-enactment displays.

So as well as the normal round of castles and abbeys and cathedrals and guild halls, checking out audio tours and touch screens and children's try-on or try-out activities; I also go wherever (and whenever) I can see the latest concepts developed by others.

This trip included the Imperial War Museum's air museum at Duxford interactions; Kentwell Hall's Tudor Manor re-enactments; Caerphilly Castle's reconstructions and seige equipment; Sutton Hoo's Saxon re-constructions and re-enactments; the Wheald and Downland's children's centre activities; and Llangollen's nineteenth century 'two ladies of Llangollen' 'participative're-enactments'.

Generally the displays fell into the two types mentioned above. 'Show and Tell' or 'Interact'. The bias is now moving towards proper 'interact’, but there is now an exciting application of ‘participative’ discussion with the audience.

About time.

At Multisensory Education we decided ten years ago that show and tell was not adequate for modern education. This was partly caused by my background teaching interactive techniques in Education Faculties; and partly by a careful examination of the effectiveness of our own programs at hundreds of schools over the years. Thousands of feedback forms from teachers and students showed that the line between 'touching and listening' and proper 'multisensory interaction' was even more profound than I had believed. We have spent the last several years trying to make our sessions as ‘participative’ as possible.

Training your staff NOT to stand and lecture, with a few props passed around; or NOT to run students through activity after activity without discussion of meaning or purpose: is difficult and time consuming. In the end we had to sack several presenters who - no matter how many times we tried to teach them new techniques - were incapable of running a session that was not the worst style of lecture delivered from on high: bad university lecturer technique applied to 8 to 13 year olds! (Some of those we sacked run their own activity days now... hope they remember some of what we drilled them in so many times.)

Which is what makes it so satisfying to me to see the re-enactments in the UK moving towards what we think of as ‘our style’ of presentation.

There are still plenty of displays on the basis of ‘try on these things’, or ‘feel the weight of these things’, and I believe they have a purpose… but only as part of a well structured display. There are still plenty of ‘set spiel’ performers, who just reel of their lines regardless of the reactions of their audience… I hate that. There are still plenty of multiple-choice displays, which in ‘the old days’ (you know, five or ten years ago.) would have been considered interactive. But now, there are real multisensory, and interactive, and even participative, displays.

Possibly the best displays I came across were Kentwell and Llangothlen. Kentwell because the family who own the estate are the sort of enthusiastic nutters who have their portraits in period costume in the great hall, and have spent thirty years developing the sort of comprehensive environment that gets hundreds of enthusiastic re-enactors to come to their weekends for the public; and Llangothlan because they pay professionals to do the same thing.

The performers at Llangothlan had some basic scripts to set scenes. But the rest of it was done using effective interaction and participation with the visitors. They were willing to drop character for a serious discussion of sources or references when needed (a skill beyond most of the amateurs who simply have to keep character to maintain consistency); but they mainly interacted as period performers talking to visitors about whatever interested the visitors about their environment and lives. And they did it well. They were particularly good at asking what the visitors thought about X, and drawing them into a discussion. Participative discussion!

The amateur re-enactors at Kentwell attempted to keep character, and usually did fairly well. (They at least avoided the ‘Foorsooth young masters my trews are quaking’ rubbish that I have heard from Australian re-enactors. Words from several centuries combined with fanciful made up ‘Olde-English’ in a manner best described as embarrassing.) There were inevitable slips of phrase and context, but the key element was that they interacted with the visitors – not just lectured them as they might have done a decade ago. In fact they allowed interaction, at least on a question and answer basis, though not actual participation.

Partly this works because of the almost perfect environment these performances are held in. I will not let my presenters use Olde-English in Australian, because A) they are generally not knowledgeable enough to do it very well, and B) without the context, the result is embarrassing. Frankly, unless you are working a Sovereign Hill like environment, the concept of attempting Olde-English in the standard classroom detracts from what is being taught. Slips in the right environments can be passable. Slips in the wrong environment are just silly and distracting. ((I have written articles for the HTAV and others in the past about how students remember only two or three things from any session, so you better not make those things unintended funny mistakes, or, you would be better not to have done a session at all.)

This brings up the whole issue of accuracy. Presenters MUST be extremely cautious how they phrase things. Once again, I will not let my presenters say, “this is what they did, and this is why they did it”. Instead I want them to say, “this is what we think they did… now why do you think they might have done it that way?” (Again, I have had to sack those who insist on preaching. Challenging the students’ assumptions is fine and good, but telling them how you personally believe people in a different culture thought is neither fine nor good.)

Complete accuracy is just not a realistic possibility intellectually. Repeatedly I have heard so called professionals pass on, as the Word of God, some out of date concept which even the most basic of modern children’s books will reveal to be disproven by modern research. (If ‘My First Book of Knights and Castles” can get it right, why should your school or my company be paying incompetent presenters to get it wrong?) The correct phrasing is “some research believes they did this… can you think why?”

Even worse is the concept of completely accurate props. Many re-enactors strut around in props copied from what they think is accurate interpretations of historical equipment. Most are working – often inaccurately - on the most basic theories. (The French Military Museum has FOUR pieces of armour pre 1300, and any suits pre 1400 are composites. Complete suits still in existence are almost exclusively high nobles parade armour, not equipment of common knights and soldiers.)

If one more re-enactor comes out of their COTTON tent to proudly shows me their STAINLESS STEEL version of what we think was THEORETICALLY worn by A FEW of the wealthiest people of their time, and tells me that ALL medieval knights wore this, I will scream. (It is almost certain that there were less 'medieval' people who could have afforded high quality parade ‘white plate’ armour, than modern people who can afford a private helicopter!)

Tents are a particular bugbear of mine. Most re-enactors will defend as accurate, often to the death, cotton tents made by reference to pictures drawn before perspective was invented. (You know, the sort of medieval paintings where people are taller than the town walls.) The problem is that these pretty pictures seem to show proportions not reflected by the remaining documents. (I would recommend the ‘Royal Rolls of the Tentmaster’ to Henry VIII a the field of Cloth of Gold for instance, except that I cannot find it online, and my photocopy is via an obscure academic journal from the 1980’s.) Those re-enactors who insist tents would have two thirds of their height in the roof and one third in the walls again appear to be going on a couple of surviving royal display tents clearly not designed for common living. The rolls clearly describe tents with roofs between one quarter and one half of the total height, and there is a probability that roof pitch reflected rank (which would suggest that all those re-enactors are pretending to be royalty).

Then there are the descriptions of weight. Medieval people did not have fine, water-proof, machine produced cotton, to reduce weight. I sometimes marvel about what the tent designs that re-enactors often put together would weigh if made of leather or wool. (Again silk tents become possible late in period… but guess who can afford them?) The same rolls describe the problems of transporting – by river boat only – the 13” across the base 60’ long poles that were the centre pieces for the large display tents that Henry VIII used as impressive feasting pavilions at the Field of Cloth of Gold (tents which do have the incredible 2/3 rooflines, but which were the size and considerably heavier than many modern circus tents!)

I have indulged in a bit of experimental archaeology myself. I once made three -collapsible into a chest size box - travel beds, to a mediaeval concertina design. On in the mediaeval world, chests such as this are carried between two donkeys. I of course, made my experimental models from cuts of modern 12 mm milled pine planks, with modern lightweight brass stampings. But they of course, used hand sawn 18 mm oak with caste iron fittings. My experimental models, could be easily lifted by two people: but that is not the description we get of the period ones.

Possibly the funniest example of this sort of thinking that I have come across was the now apocrophal and legendary story of a re-enactor who raised her own sheep; sheered them; spun the wool; wove the materiel; hand sowed the costume to what she thought was the best researched pattern available; and proudly presented it as ‘perfect’ example of period costume. “They didn’t have Merino sheep”, was the immediate sniffed comment from one periodicity fanatic.

The point is ridiculously nit-picking, but nonetheless valid. I think I have seen perhaps two re-creations – of the many thousands I have been shown – that actually used the correct materials from the correct place with the correct methods. Otherwise we are talking compromises here. The best we can do in Australia is ‘this a modern attempt at a period design using modern materials which do not have quite the same properties’. Again, good presenters will not pretend that this is exact, or that it was the standard. (As an example, if we are doing three Medieval Arms and Armour presentations at one school, each kit will have slightly different bits… there was NO standardization in period. Likewise our costumes and armour are not pretty and shiny, as we kick them around a sandpit to get the proper ‘hard used’ effect. Most medieval ‘plate’ armour was probably laminated black for functionality, instead of the pretty shiny display stuff we have now.)

But I digress…

The key element of my research is NOT to find the ideal presentation to copy. Instead I am constantly searching for the best TECHNIQUES that can be applied, given the limitations of the environments and equipment we have available for teaching in Australia.

My conclusions have been consistent for many years. Re-enactment is rarely good teaching. In fact it is usually counter-productive in the Australian classroom. (There have been a few Australians I have met who can make it work are usually only doing Australian history which is much easier to contextualise. Unfortunately most Australians attempting re-enactment for other periods are entertainers only, and definitely shouldn’t pretend they are undertaking useful teaching.)

Re-enactment can be effective teaching, but only if done exceptionally well by a good actor with lots of research, and a great willingness to be flexible beyond their script to make it properly interactive. If you meet anyone who can do that, send them to me!

Unfortunately re-enactment usually doesn’t work out of context, and often not even in context unless the person is very good (which far to many are not). This is certainly the case for the vast majority of people I have seen attempt it in Europe and Australia. (Japan is a more interesting question, as I do not have the knowledge or language skills to pick the mistakes easily… but lets not talk about America.)

As far as good education goes, I am fairly confident that re-enactment is not the way. The correct approach is to present representative samples, and then to engage the students by inviting discussion and feedback. Not just show and tell, but interaction and participation. We have been attempting to do this for years. I am delighted to see that the best presenters in Europe are now using the same techniques.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Historians trapped by their Preconceptions.

It is of course, impossible to completely detach yourself from the study of history. Endless books of theory have discussed how many preconceptions even the most pure minded bring to their examination of any historical problem. (See E. H. Carr's 'What s History') Nonetheless, many historians like to believe that they can identify their own preconceptions, and the least flag the warning signs to their readers.

This concept was bought forcefully to mind few days ago, when I picked up a copy of John Keegan’s book “Six armies in Normandy”. This is a very good book, and one of the early attempts to investigate the battlefield from the perspective of the individual soldiers who are fighting on it. Most importantly though, Keegan stresses in his introduction, it is the intention is to demonstrate that the soldiers from six armies (American, English, Scottish, Polish, German, French) were pre-conditioned by their own societies as to how they would handle battlefield conditions.

This exploration went well beyond the media commentators who repeatedly statemed that German soldiers are unusually flexible at counter-attacking, or British soldiers dour in defence. These had been heightened in the Second World War, by the concept that a militaristic society such as the Nazis or the Japanese had an advantage in the aggressive indoctrination of the men who became troops, over those of soldiers from more laissez-faire democracies.

The book is well worth reading for its own sake, but for me the most interesting thing is Keegan’s losing battle with his own preconceptions.

Keegan begins his introduction by talking about his childhood war years, and his automatic assumption of their invincibility of the British Empire, which he later had to rethink. Unfortunately he then does a big speel about how much he was impressed by the American troops who turned up, and blown away by American power.

I read the rest of the book with interest, to see where he would realize that his secondary childhood perspective was as inaccurate as his first, but came away with a firm impression that he based the rest of his writings on his secondary indoctrination. Which made me consider how the world looked form the perspective of that child.

The initial perspectives are fair enough. Keegan was stuck in a backwater where he rarely saw anyone but Home Guard – second line ones at that – to compare with the arriving waves of newly trained and equipped American troops. He had rarely seen first line British equipment or troops, and had no idea how American equipment behaved in combat (by comparison with how it looked shiny and new in a field).

It made me think for a minute about how wartime propaganda clips focus on the best looking stuff, regardless of how useful it is. There are some very cute photo’s from the Sitzkreig period showing British troops proudly displaying the pretty 25mm anti-tank guns they had bought from the French. These guns proved to be totally useless. But then I thought that one through a bit further. By comparison the American troops who arrived in Britain in 1942 were equipped with 37mm anti-tank guns… which were completely useless by that stage in the war. Later they were re-equipped with nice 57mm anti-tank gun (copies of the British 6 pdr), which were quite good when they first arrived for the British in 1942 (not really until 1944 for most American units), but fairly un-useful by the time the Americans got to the front line in Normandy. By that time the British had long since been using 17 pdr’s for as many as possible of their tanks and anti-tank units, (guns which the Americans felt they could do without at the time… until events proved them wrong). In the particular case of anti-tank guns then, the Americans relied on British equipment, and were constantly years behind the British in their use.

I then thought for a few minutes about what Keegan wasn’t seeing. He presumably didn’t get pictures of the badly equipped American troops in the Phillipines, who would have made his local second rank Home Guard look pretty good by comparison. He presumably didn’t get pictures of the Marine troops on Guadalcanal, in their British style helmets, lacking any modern armoured vehicles or landing craft: and generally less well equipped than the British units in Malaya.

Most commentaries are scornful about the British using the hopeless American Brewster Buffalo fighter in Malaya. (The Buffalo had been sent to Malaya because it was not remotely capable of fighting in the European campaign.) The Brewster Buffalo remained the Americans front line fighter at home, in the Phillipines, and throughout the Pacific right up until the Midway battles and beyond. It was being replaced by the P39 Airocobra for the American forces in Europe – a plane also not suited for high level European combat, and which the Russians felt was best used for low level fighting and ground attack. It was also starting to be replaced by the P40 in the Pacific and Middle East – a plane still felt to be so far behind German or Japanese standards that the joke amongst the Commonwealth forces was that only Australians would be stupid enough to fly it. Apart from the P38 Lighting (which was still having significant engine problems at this stage), the Americans would not get a proper front rank fighter until well into 1943. (March ’43 for the first P47 Thunderbolts, and November ’43 for the first effective P51 Mustangs upgraded with the British Merlin engine.)

I then considered what he was ‘hearing’ about, but not seeing. There are lots of radio reports in the early months of the war about what American cruisers are up to, but not many visuals. Have a look at the front line cruisers the American’s are discussing in these reports from the Phillipines, or Java, or Guadalcanal. The Omaha Class (much referred to at the start of the war) were constructed in the 1920’s. If you want to compare them with British or Japanese vessels, then you should try and find samples of their vessels built before the First World War. (Actually the Japanese had similar designs at the battle of Tsushima in 1905.) None of the British, or Japanese, or Italian, WW1 vessels in operation were as obsolete as this. In fact the most archaic vessel in the fleets of the British Commonwealth (the old HMAS Adelaide in the Australian navy, which the Australians were trying to keep well away from front line operations) looks, and is, positively modern compared to this interwar design.

I paused for a minute here. All right, there are endless examples of how bad American equipment was in 1942 and for much of 1943. (Their front line destroyers were still predominantly the old WW1 ‘four stackers’ until 1943 - the sort of ships which the British immediately converted to ‘long range escorts’ because they felt them completely unsuitable for front line operations. Any American escort carriers passed to Britain even in 1944 and 1945 were immediately put into dockyards for 6 week to be lifted to British standards of safety and fire control.) But an impressionable boy could not be expected to know that. Surely what he saw when the American ground troops which turned up in early 1944, was an army exceptionally well equipped for action?

Well no. Certainly they had lots of shiny new vehicles, and some very useful new ones like bulldozers. But as for the rest? Much of their equipment looked pretty, but was not up to battling the Germans. I have mentioned their anti-tank weapons. Their main semi-automatic rifles had a nasty habit of loudly ejecting the clip and announcing ‘I am out of ammunition’ to their opponents. Their main squad support weapon was the dreadful BAR. Their Armoured Personnel M3 half-tracks – which had worked well in the desert – were now inadequate for Normandy (the British had to convert battle tanks into ‘Kangaroo’ carriers at this stage). The main battle tank was the Sherman, which had looked efficient for a few months in 1942 - until it met the first Tiger’s, but was woefully under-gunned and under-armoured by 1944. (The British had up-gunned a Sherman with a 17 pdr, and offered the Americans equal numbers, but the Americans felt they didn’t need it. Even the Firefly was not a good tank – like the rest of the Sherman designs the German’s called it a ‘Tommy Cooker’ and the British a ‘Ronson’… lights first time every time.)

Don’t get me wrong, none of the Allied tanks were up to taking on the Germans at this stage, but for very good reasons to do with governmental response times. The key problem for the British seems to be that once the new Panzer IV demonstrated that the British needed to react the way the Germans had responded to the Matilda, they moved to a 6 pdr tank. Unfortunately someone decided that a 6 pdr tank would do it to see out the war. (The crucial memo apparently came from Eighth Army, though Montgomery denied ever seeing it.) So when the German responses to the T34 turned up, it took as long for the British to respond as it had taken the Germans to respond to the T34. (The Challenger and Sherman bodge jobs arrived in early 1944, the Comet improvement in late 1944 , and the Centurion in 1945.) The Americans were in the same boat. The Sherman seemed successful when it first arrived, so someone decided it would see out the war. Up-guns or replacements were started to late (the 90mm Sherman bodge up in late 1944, the new Pershing in early 1945). The Wehrmacht repeatedly had this problem with Hitler themselves.

Now none of this is to say that a boy of Keegan’s age should have known this at the time. But most of it suggests that Keegan the man is incapable of applying the dispassion to his second childhood fantasy that he believes he applied to his first. From my perspective it makes it probable that the ‘dispassion’ he claims he applied to his first misconception was more bitterness and dismissal than real insight. Likewise the perspective of his ‘rebound relationship’ is highly suspect.

This reinforces a suspicion that I have had about many writings to do with World War Two (or other conflicts). Emotional enthusiasm outweighs a dispassionate review of the facts. Self justifying claims – or whinges – lead to an inaccurate interpretation of reality. Despair - or relief - lead to overblown responses. You get an entire generation of historians whose interpretation of the evidence has to be carefully assessed. Maybe it is just not possible to be dispassionate about events you have lived through? Perhaps it is less that studying history influences what you study, and more that the studiers personal history influences their interpretation?

I love Keegan’s work - and those of many other people of his generation - for the vivid and informed reporting. But I have strong reservations about the emotional contents of many of their conclusions. The more analysis I do of the evidence, the more carefully I have to rethink the value of most of the trite statements that many books reel off, about how the world worked.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The United States and the Dictators

I was re-reading about the Indian National Army that co-operated with the Japanese during the Second World War. The one largely raised by Subhas Chandra Bose, the self proclaimed leader of the free India movement. Many of the 40,000 members of the INA were recruited from amongst the 50,000 Indian POW’s from the Malayan and Burmese campaign (most of them appeared to be hoping to escape back to British lines, and several thousands - when they found they couldn’t – asked to be returned to the POW camps). But Bose actually believed that his vision of India entitled him to try and form alliances with Hitler and Tojo (presumably on the theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend). Later he tried Stalin as well.

It made me wonder again about the sort of people who think that the ends justify the means. Some are so single minded in their pursuit of their goals, that they will blinker themselves to what the real effects of their actions are. (One campaigner for ‘Welch Nationalism’, commenting on the bomb campaign leading up to the 1969 investiture of the Prince of Wales, said “campaigns of violence always damage the society they are supposed to protect”.)

In his pursuit of ‘freedom’ for India (presumably ‘proper’ Hindu India, lets forget the Muslim League, or the Untouchable classes, or anyone else who didn’t count), Bose was willing to ignore the truth about his ‘Allies’. It is not clear whether he actually believed that the Japanese, who had 'raped' Nanking, would be delighted to grant independence to a newly conquered India; whether he knew he was cast in the role of a Quisling; or whether he was so fanatical he just didn’t care that he was playing a dupe.

This sort of thing occurs repeatedly through history, and it is notable that the more pompous people are about their motives, the more they are kidding themselves. Take the United States of America.

In their pursuit of ‘freedom’ for the 13 Colonies (presumably ‘WASP’ America, lets forget Yellow, Red or Black skinned people, or anyone else who didn’t count - like Catholics), American’s were notorious for making claims about ‘freedom’ that are impossible to justify. (Samuel Johnson made the lovely comment “we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the slave drivers of the Negro’s”.) It is not clear whether the collective of pirates, smugglers and slave traders (see another post), who largely made up the founding fathers were serious about freedom being only for ‘people like us’; whether they knew it was only propaganda for the ignorant masses; or whether they were so fanatical they didn’t care that they were spouting hypocrisy.

I do not want to discuss the pro’s and con’s of the American War of Independence at this point (that also comes in another post), but I will point out that American victory was hardly inevitable. Despite the fact that none of the better British generals or admirals were willing to serve in a confrontation that they did not approve of, American military leaders were hardly of the quality to make success much better than even odds.

What made the difference was choosing the right allies. American independence only became a serious possibility when two other European powers put their money and military power into the equation (and even then had more to do with the British public seeing the whole thing in the light of how a later American public would perceive a similar style conflict in a place called Vietnam). Those two powers were Spain and France.

Consider the irony of the American ‘Republicans’ requiring for their success that support of Louis XVI of France – that great pillar of Absolute Monarchy – and Charles III of Imperial Spain – that great exponent of Enlightened Absolutism. (Hitler and Tojo would have been so proud.) Consider that only a few years earlier the Americans had pretty much coerced Britain into fighting the Seven Years War against these two powers – again largely to further their own political and economic power. (And that one of the excuses for the War of Independence was refusing to pay taxes designed to help pay for that war) It is hard to imagine a more cynical example of the end justifying the means.

The next attempt at American expression of outrage in the pursuit of freedom (this time at least theoretically of sailors of confused citizenship), was called the War of 1812. Again the American’s had no real hope of achieving anything unless their glorious ally could do most of the work, but this time they picked an even better proponent of ‘freedom’, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. (Who had recently conquered most of Europe, and instilled himself, or his relatives, as monarchs of many countries.)

Unfortunately for the Americans, their great ally was soon in exile in Elba, and they were left to face Britain alone again. Despite the fact that the British were no more motivated about the America’s than previously, there is probably little doubt that they could have used their newly beefed up military machine to re-conquor the country had anyone been interested. They weren’t. (Many British politicians at the time discussed the conflict in terms similar to later American discussions of the Vietnam War. The British public had been at war for 20 years and were definitely not interested in opening another front. The few half hearted efforts to swat the new annoyance were not particularly serious by the standards of the victorious Napoleonic war machine Britain had developed.) The British limited themselves to wiping out the US marine fleet and trade, and a few punitive expeditions to burn many of the US coastal cities – such as Washington DC.

If you want a really entertaining half hour, follow back the various postings about the War of 1812 on Wikipedia to see what various American’s have claimed about this war. Some American's say they lost, but admit they can't say this in Wikipedia; most like to act as if it was a draw; and some think they won! Many like to think that the War of 1812 was nothing to do with the Napoleonic Wars. You have to laugh… if you took it seriously you would even more worried about American’s understanding of how the world works.

As far as I can see from the various arguments, the claims for victory are based on capturing some Spanish territory (oh the irony), and finishing the chances of the American Indians forming a safe nation. (Which was probably the 'war aim' that the British failed to achieve... the British had being trying to protect the Indian treaties they had signed since 1776.) The claims for a draw are based on the argument that the British didn't want the war; that they didn't take it very seriously; and that some of their erratic punitive expeditions went other places if given a serious fight anywhere. The claims for losing are based on the fact that the US merchant marine was wiped out, and the last few naval vessels laid up in blockaded ports; that trade had collapsed - except for those states doing deals to still trade with the British; the economy was in chaos; the British were burning coastal cities at will, and sometimes - apparently with little organised plan - occupying bits of US territory here and there; and that some states were discussing seceding from the union. Even ignoring whether the Americans were serious about trying to conquor Canada - a weird debate in it's own right considering what the American President said a the time ('we will march in and be welcomed') - it is hard to see any problem with the everybody else in the world dismissing the whole exercise as a failed attempt by the Americans to take advantage of the situation. A footnote of the Napoleonic Wars.

The whole thing is a bit silly really.

The key thing to note here, is that the United States was founded with the help of dictators. The US then contributed to the war efforts of other dictators, for little better reason than ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. (Fortunately for them their efforts failed, and British style parliamentary democracy became the international standard despite their best efforts.)
Like Subhas Chandra Bose, or indeed those who called themselves Irish Republicans during the Great War: the early American politicians never stopped to consider the probable effects of their ‘allies’ actually succeeding over their ‘enemies’. They adopted the most short sighted and insular viewpoint imaginable, ignored the reality of their allies real goals completely, and fought as hard as they could on the side of the dictators. (As they have done many times since, particularly during the Cold War - but that too is another post.)

Hurray for principles!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Problems with Democracy

One of the debates in Britain during my working holiday seems to be a continuation of my earlier post about politicians distracting people with witch hunts. Specifically, Gordon Brown has followed the well trod path of trying to refocus voters onto a non-issue. This one is called 'democratising' the House of Lords.

The theory that democracy is good, all the time, regardless of the costs: is frankly scary. Even more scary is that the media and voters have fallen for this line enough to assume that it is a natural law, with no need for explanation or justification. The truth of course is vastly different.

One of the lead articles in British newspapers today discusses how the opposition in Iran is campaigning to have their recent election overthrown as a fake. I do not know whether this is true or not, though lots of informed people seem to be suggesting that it is (let us ignore motives for a minute). In that case, their argument is fair enough. And fair enough that the internatioinal media is supporting them, and the international community is putting on pressure. (Again I will put aside the many reasons that this might be seen as a convenient cause for the international community, and pretend that we might still be interested just on the basis of seeking justice.)

The problem with this is that 'we' feel the right to express outrage that the popular will is being ignored, despite the 'official' election results saying something different. In other words, we will reserve the right to assess election results to suit our own purposes... or so it seems if you move on a couple of pages in the papers...

THe Times Editorial is called 'No Banana Republic', and is pleased to support the international outcry against the Honduras military chasing President Zelaya out of the country. It gloats that Central and South America, previously annual competitors in the 'find yourself a new dictator' stakes, have had a fall off in the military imposed dictator business. (They claim that the last was in Guatamala in 1993, and that Honduras has been all of 20 years without one.) They are delighted that Spain and France have withdrawn their ambassadors, and that the EU has announced that it will have no contact with the 'post-coup' leaders. Once again, it all sounds fair enough... until you look at the details.

Apparently the reason the military felt 'forced' to chase Zelaya out had a bit more to do with him acting unconstitutionally than with a rush of blood to the military rulership lobe. Zelaya's plan to stand - illegally - for a second term, has been ruled unconstitutional by the countries highest court. When he tried to get around that with a 'referendum', the army refused to 'assist; at which point he tried to dismiss the chief of the army. When congress voted unanimously to remove Mr Zelaya for "apparent misconduct" and violation of the constitution, he ignored them. Only then did the army chase him out.

So let me get this straight. Popular opinion - that sacrosanct animal in Iran - is being ignored here? Or is it? The 'referendum' that Zelaya wanted would have been 'official enough'? Or wouldn't it? The fact that the army acted (only after having been attacked for failing to act un-constitutioinally), in support of the Congress (who had responded to a ruling from the courts that Zelaya was being un-constitutional), means that it is the army who is in the wrong? Or is it?

Are our media as stupid as our politicians?

Why does the excuse that someone once got enough votes to be elected, mean that they should be supported regardless of what they then do with or to their country? Hitler was elected. Mussolini was elected. Should we have been supporting Mussolini's regime against the evil move of the Italian Army - backed by the Italian King, Parliament, and even Fascist Council - to get rid of him?

A similar problem has occurred recently in the Pacific. I visited Fiji soon after the latest round of 'restore democracy' campaigns by the Australian and New Zealand governments. They too were outraged at (yet another) military takeover in Fiji, and appalled that the constitution was being 'rethought', and elections 'delayed'. And once again, that sounds fair enough... until you look a bit deeper.

First, the outraged democrats in the large and relatively stable Dominions - with their century long history of independance, backed by another half century or more of carefully trained apprentice democracy under British colonial supervision - don't seem to understand that some of the hastily 'freed' new nations of the post war period have trouble coping with a system where an un-practised, and largely illiterate electorate, have to make something as difficult as a Westminster democracy actually work. (They seem to have missed the fact that since independance it is ONLY the regular coups in Fiji that seem to lead to the next attempt at genuine democratic elections, rather than just straight out civil war.)

Second, the constitution that the military believe needs 'rethinking', can hardly be called 'democratic'. It is race based, both in intention, and result. (It was fascinating to watch the kind and charming Fijian's who ran our little island resort completely fail to notice the wife of one of the Australians staying there with us. Off course, she was that most evil of creatures, an Indian.)

Stop me if I am wrong, but don't I remember Apartheid being a 'bad' thing only a few years ago. Since when does 'one vote, one value' become irrelevant to so called 'democracy'. (Or am I just falling into the Yes Minister trap... "Yes but he's against persecution by black governments as well as white ones"... "You mean he's a racist?".)

Personally I believe that 're-instating' the 'old' Fijian constitution (which has now had more rethinks than the French Republic), is unlikely to be a victory for 'democracy'. I would not be willing to claim that I know the answer, but I am pretty sure I can spot the irrationality of my governments approach to 'realpolitik' in the Pacific.

To return to the Honduras, I think The Times should be a bit more cautious about their enthusiasm for the outrage of the 'Organisation of American States'. They do acknowledge that some of the South American leaders who have vowed to support Zelaya are hardly squeeky clean. (President Chavez of Ecuador seized power unconstitutionally, and when removed by an abortive coup, attempted to fiddle the constitution.. sound familiar?) However I think they overestimate the 'democracy' credentials of the entire organisation they are acclaiming in this case. (Surely if Ecuador and Argentina and Nicaragua and others are apparently threatening to re-impose Zelaya on his Congress and Courts by force, the entire concept becomes a bit farcical?)

A more recent comment on teh effects of the Yanks imposing a dictator back on teh country that exiled him is here.

Which brings us back nicely to the unrealistic fascination with 'democracy', that allows someone who has fought his way up through something as institutional, bureaucratic, and frankly tribal, as the UK Labour Party, to claim that he thinks the government system needs making more 'people friendly'.

I accept that ALL party lackeys want more control, and less restraint on their activities, when in government. I accept that they are confident that if they can get an elected upper house, they can make it just another extension of their self indulgent party structure. What I can't accept is that any voter, or even any journalist, could believe that this is a good thing.

A very good letter to the editor in the same issue of The Times sums this up fairly well. It points out that the present House of Lords is made up of a selection of the very best examples of "men and women of outstanding achievement and knowledge, who between them represent practically every area of human endeavour; be that medicine, scientific research, trade union affairs, and industry, to quote but a few". If you add in the charity-runners and entrepreneurs, the ex-judges and generals to this list; it is hard not to agree with his follow up statement that it is hard to imagine that we would be better served by replacing them with another group of professional politicians chosen by party committees.

(As an amusing aside, I have previously commented on the way the Blair government started offering 'Peerages for loans to the British Labour Party', and on how disastrous I thought that would be for the average Briton. I was amused to see on the news the other night that the body which approves new Lords is blocking Brown's latest lapdog appointment on the basis that he faces a law case which might demonstrate his 'unsuitability' for such a position of respect. Apparently he is accused of being sexist and offensive to female executives. Sounds a good excuse to me. I hope they get away with it. Can we apply it to certain Australian Prime Ministers who abuse Air Force hostesses?)

'Democratising' the house of Lords? Could we be forgiven for suspecting that this increase in 'democracy' might have the effect of giving us even less control of our politicians? Would we be paranoid to imagine that the politicians proposing it know exactly how much more control it will give them.... and remove from us? Hurray for democracy.

My own belief is that there is nothing worse than falling for the appalling concept that unfettered democracy is a good thing. (See my post: Australian Republicanism, in pursuit of a failed model?) A belief only reinforced by reading sanctimonious dribble about the internal affairs of countries that our politicians and media neither understand, nor really care about. The world is too complex a place for 'democracy at all costs' to be the default answer. Particularly when the people proclaiming such 'solutions' apparently don't really understand, or believe in, democracy.