World War 1, Historical Revisionism & the Distortion of the Horrors of War

The 28th of July, 2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1. I was born 35 years after the end of WW1 and 8 years after the end of WW2, so both major world conflicts, along with the Korean War and the Vietnam War have figured significantly in my education and personal history. My father, a WW2 veteran, suffered from a number of illnesses associated with returning serviceman today- depression and post traumatic stress disorder-but was not diagnosed in 1945, or thereafter, as these were not accepted as medical conditions developed as a consequence of war for WW 2 veterans at that time. My cousin, an officer in the Vietnam War, also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and eventually took his own life many years after that conflict-despite being happily married with a number of children and grand children.

As an Historian and teacher of history I take a keen interest in how the history of war is written, remembered and the kinds of narratives, social discourse and debates which emerge overtime around and on these major conflicts. Recently the BBC online new service published in its magazine an article by Dan Snow titled ‘Lions and donkeys: 10 big myths about World War 1 debunked’ (Snow, 2014). In it Snow argues that most of what we know today about World War 1 is wrong-quite an extraordinary assertion to make, and I’d go further and say it is an erroneous claim too given the diverse amount of informative historical literature available about the Great War. He argues that no other war in human history has “attracted more controversy and myth” (Snow, 2014) than World War 1. The basis for these contentions is unclear, nonetheless this doesn’t stop Snow from proclaiming that by studying and examining WW1 as a separate conflict we are “blinding ourselves to the reality of not just WW1, but war in general” (Snow, 2014). To support this unorthodox and historical revisionist view, he offers a comparative analysis with the 14 year Taiping rebellion in China from 1850-1864 in which 20-30 million people were known to have died. He casually ignores the morality and ethics associated with war to argue that the casualties of any conflict are only relative to the historical period they are fought in, and infers that we shouldn’t be overly concerned about the number of deaths in WW1. Moreover he downplays the number of dead from the conflict by arguing that given the ratio of men from the UK who enlisted and those who died, the UK got off lightly with as little as “ 11.5% killed” (Snow, 2014).
His account of trench warfare is heavily romanticized too and suffers from the same kind of historical revisionism as his previous claims. He is untruthful when it comes to describing the conditions in the trenches and mentions how “cold and wet” they could be, but fails to explain anything about the freezing weather, rats, lice, shell shock, unsanitary conditions, regular illnesses and the overall effects on the morale of the troops and the psychological stress of the individual soldiers. Moreover, a majority of the trenches were little more than ditches and dug out made hastily during a war-there were no architectural ‘trench designers’ as his account would lead us to believe. Trenches only provided a measure of protection. Even the more ‘sophisticated’ dug outs were subject to regular flooding, and mud slides, and many soldiers became trapped in mud and some died through drowning. His claim that “during moments of crisis, such as big offensives, the British could occasionally spend up to seven days on the front line, but were far more often rotated out after just a day or two” is simply wrong and a distortion of the historical truth. One soldier recounts the horror of it all:
“It was 9 a.m. and the so-called trench was full of corpses and all sorts of equipment. We stood and sat on bodies as if they were stones or logs of wood. Nobody worried if one had its head stuck through or torn off, or a third had gory bones sticking out through its torn coat. And outside the trench one could see them lying in every kind of position. There was one quite young little chap, a Frenchman, sitting in a shell-hole, with his rifle on his arm and his head bent forward, but he was holding his hands as if to protect himself, in front of his chest in which there was a deep bayonet wound. And so they lay, in all their different positions, mostly Frenchman, with their heads battered in by blows from mallets and even spades, and all around rifles, equipment of all kinds and any number of kepis. The 154th had fought like furies in their attack, to revenge themselves for the shellfire.” (Trueman, 2013). Soldiers were often deployed for up to two weeks and longer in the trenches during WW1. His assertion that the upper-class military did their fair share may work for the rank below Lt. Col, but not many above this rank suffered a similar fate to their underlings. (Daniels, 2013)
But, his most offensive interpretation of the Great War is his mis-interpretation and deliberate omission of the facts about the role the ANZACS played at Gallipoli. It is an historical fact that both the UK and France lost more men at Gallipoli than the ANZACS; however he fails to mention how the ANZACS were ambushed by the Turks after landing two miles north of the original planned landing, because Churchill and his Generals in charge of the campaign failed to take into account the changing tides and a command in disarray. (Atkinson, 2012) They mismanaged the campaign through environmental and geographical ignorance. The ANZACS faced steep almost unnavigable terrain and an encamped Turkish army simply gunned them down. The ANZACS went like lambs to the slaughter.
Snow’s glorification of the technology of war is as equally as disturbing as his re-writing of the conflict. His claim about an overabundance of weaponry when juxtaposed to Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth” is a chilling reminder of the horrors and travesties which occurs when technologies are used to kill and maim rather than to heal and grow:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
–Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds. (Owen, 1917)

Snow goes on to assert that “in a narrow military sense” the allies won the war, denying any aspect of the moral culpability which comes with waging war. But the most perfidious account of his rewriting of the history of The Great War is his declaration that “most soldiers enjoyed WW1” (Snow, 2014). This is simply wrong and projects an almost deluded romantic view of war at the front, through claiming that “for the British there was meat everyday -a rare luxury back home-cigarettes, tea and rum…and much greater sexual freedom than in peace time Britain” (Snow, 2014). These assertions run counter to all the historical evidence available to any historian with a sense of integrity about their craft. In addition they run counter to the first hand experience of the many fallen soldiers who served in ‘The War to end all Wars:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. (Owen, 1917)

References:

Atkinson, N. (2012, December 20). 25th April 1915 The Gallipoli Campaign. Retrieved January 23, 2014, from New Zealand History Online: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/the-gallipoli-campaign/25-april-1915
Daniels, P. (2013). Trenches in World War 1. Retrieved January 23, 2014, from About. Com 20th Century History: http://history1900s.about.com/od/worldwari/a/Trenches-In-World-War-I.htm
Owen, W. (1917). Modern History Sourcebook: World War 1 Poetry. Retrieved January 21, 2014, from Modern History Sourcebook: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1914warpoets.html
Snow, D. (2014). Lions and Donkeys: 10 Big Myths about World War One debunked. BBC news online Magazine, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25776836.
Trueman, C. (2013). Life in the Trenches. Retrieved January 23, 2014, from History Learning Site: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/life_trenches.htm

The Age of Apocalyptic News and the Gleeful Hope of End Times

As I scanned my daily International news websites, especially BBC and CNN for a glimmer of hope in what they all seem to describe and report as an age of hopelessness with ever increasing mega storms, wars, disasters, mega crime rates, mega sexual abuse cases and social, political and sex scandals; I began to wonder whether I had mistakenly surfed into the Internet Movies Data base website (IMDb) and was reading a summary of ‘2012 Ice Age’ (2011), or The Day After Tomorrow (2004) or Krakatoa East of Java (1969), Magma-Volcano Disaster (2006) ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991), or Psycho (1960).
The last two days have seen the BBC news service headline such graphic pessimistic stories like, ‘Polar Vortex Grips North America’ (BBC News World Service, 2014), the possibility of Yellowstone National Park erupting and obliterating North America and sending the rest of the globe into an apocalyptic climate change nightmare (BBC News World Service, 2014), and a timeline of the future from 1000 years to 10 quadrillion years, which details the ultimate destruction of all human civilizations as we know them today along with all life and the current known universe (BBC World News Service, 2014). CNN didn’t offer much more hope either; ‘Deadly Winter Blast Spreads Wider’ (CNN, 2014), ‘Merkel Fractures pelvis’ (CNN, 2014), ‘Is Globalization Over?’ (CNN, 2014), ’10 Things You’ll Pay More For’, (CNN, 2014).
Not all news is good, but neither is all news bad. The point is any random surf through major news websites or online broadsheets will result in around 80% of the stories in the negative and fewer than 20% with a resounding glimmer of hope for humanity. For example, the stories relating to discoveries in the IT industry and the health sciences which show how humanity is making progress in fighting disease and improving the quality of life are seldom headlined. Furthermore, given the 7 billion plus people on the planet, statistically I’d hazard a guess that 90% of the world’s population try to earn an honest day’s living (even on $2:00 a day!) and don’t commit serious crimes, like murder, grand theft, fraud, abuse children, slap babies, torture animals, and bully children, teenagers and other adults, or commit hate crimes and bully those who are different, or rob banks or steal from one another as a way of life. Yes, we all have problems, we love and hate, and life evolves as an endless cycle of joys and sufferings never seemingly allowing us to find a balance where we think we’ve grasped a lesson or two here or there from anyone or anything.
Similarly, winters come and go, as do spring, summer and fall all with a wide range of weather patterns and subsequent problems associated with the seasons, some of which are man made. Also, war sadly is still a feature of human life in the 21st century-because emotions of rage and anger seem not to have been harnessed or managed in a humane way like say our genetic make-up through the human genome project, or our ability to give joy to childless parents through human surrogacy. Yes, bad things do unfortunately happen and overtime the weather and the natural elements like earthquakes and tsunamis act out their fury regardless and in defiance of all life on earth.
But creating a climate of fear through an endless parody of news reporting on the negative aspects of life on earth and overstating these is just as irresponsible as not reporting them at all. A balance is needed and a more honest way to communicate in way which sees a light at the end of the tunnel, not a series of super volcanoes about to explode and obliterate all life on earth or the planet about to enter a new ice age through the rapid growth of a massive polar vortex!

References
BBC News World Service. (2014, January 7th). North America arctic blast creeps east. Retrieved January 7th , 2014, from BBC.CO.UK: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-25632586
BBC News World Service. (2014, January 6th). Supervolcano eruption mystery solved. Retrieved January 7th, 2014, from BBC.CO.UK: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25598050
BBC World News Service. (2014, January 6th). Timeline of the far future. Retrieved January 7th, 2014, from BBC.CO.UK: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140105-timeline-of-the-far-future
CNN. (2014, January 7th). CNN Set Edition US. Retrieved January 7th, 2014, from CNN.Com: http://www.cnn.com/

The Pope, Politics and the Seductive Power of the Free Market

In an opinion piece written for The Nation, a Thailand broadsheet newspaper, Bloomberg columnist Ramesh Ponnuru argued that Pope Francis misunderstands the power of the free market. He goes further and lambasts the Pope for commenting on politics, economics and other problematic social issues which are the negative side effects of free market capitalism, claiming that the Pope is misguided when it comes to offering a point of view on the social ills of the free market era and the general decline in democratic freedoms throughout the developed world. He goes so far as to say that the Pope’s thoughts and comments are “frustratingly vague, imprecise or poorly considered” (Ponnuru, December 21st 2013). Clearly he hasn’t read the full text of the Apostolic Exhortation: Evangelii Gaudium.
Ponnuru isn’t the only ‘free marketeer’ to criticize the Pope for his forthright comments on the growing inequalities in an age of unbridled wealth and riches throughout the world. In the November 2013 issue of the right wing Australian Magazine Quadrant, Mervyn Brendle argued that “there are moments when the new Pontiff can sound very much like a spokesman for the Occupy movement, but his philosophy and goals are likely to go beyond the mere propagation of slogans” (Brendle, 2013). Brendle goes on to further discredit the man by arguing that prior to being elected Pope, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a conflicted fascist/ leftist leaning Jesuit radical; and likened him to the leader of “a secret order characterized by obedience, intellectual rigor and ascetic discipline—the Jesuit virtues—but whose intellectual influences were a mish-mash of Lenin, the mystic Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade and the sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci” (Brendle, 2013).
For those who hold advanced capitalism as their overarching secular pseudo-theological view of the universe a Pope with a social conscience can be very disturbing and very threatening (China bans religion for this very fundamental reason-to avoid anyone expressing or using their social conscience to challenge or disagree with the mantra that ‘socialist greed is good’).
Yet it is the right time to have a leading world Statesman comment on the malignant cancer of greed which attacks the body politic of humanity today. Barrack Obama attempted this but has been held captive by his own country’s inert and ineffective political dialectic, and has made little progress since the massive economic depression triggered through the greed and dishonesty of the financial practices of banks, traders and investors in 2008. And other Western political leaders have long forgotten about the concept and usefulness of having a social conscience; they never utter more than a word or two about the plight of the poor, dispossessed and alienated in their countries and in other Nation States throughout the world.
The new Pope is right to condemn greed and excess. He is right to comment that the death of a homeless man is completely disregarded while a 2% downturn on the stock market makes headlines. He is right to argue in Evangelii Gaudium that “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded (Bergoglio, 2013). He says that we have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading”; and that “we have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (Ex. 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” He goes on to explain how “ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision… In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response, which is outside the categories of the marketplace.” (Bergoglio, 2013).
Pope Francis has reminded the world in Evangelii Gaudium that the old aristocratic version of Christianity inherited from the Byzantium era, and upheld in all of its corrupt splendour by his predecessors, lacks relevance in 21st century Christendom, and that living the Gospel virtues, as taught by Jesus will bring us into conflict with a rampant advanced capitalistic, free market with little regard for those with no ready cash on hand. The Pope challenges us all to think more deeply about our priorities and about what is right and wrong in the world and take a stand. I for one am glad of this timely reminder of how to live a more relevant and virtuous life.

References
Bergoglio, J. (. (2013). APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION EVANGELII GAUDIUM. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Brendle, M. (2013, November 6th). Pope Francis, Liberation and Integralism. Quadrant, pp. 12-18.
Ponnuru, R. (December 21st 2013). Pope Francis Misunderstands the Power of the Free Market. Bangkok: The Nation.