Thursday, 23 September 2010

70 years ago? Really?

Unless you've been living in a hole for the last few weeks (and 'hello' to those of you following this blog in Chile) then you've probably notice there have been one or two programmes on the tv relating to the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Apparently it's been the 70th anniversary of both.

Several things have occurred to me during this period and I thought 'what better subject to blog on' so here I go.

The first thing I should probably confront is the fact that I'm boldly venturing away from the First World War to discuss 'the other conflict'. Well this is true, I am jumping into the future but, it's my blog and I can do what I want (and I've said in the 'about me' bit that I'm interested in general warfare) and, as I'll discuss, I'm actually going to link this all in with WW1 in the end anyway and you'll all nod sagely at my insight (no you won't).

But anyway; the 70th anniversary.

Surely I'm not the only one who sees that number and thinks; really? Was it really 70 years ago. It'll sound odd for me to say it about a war that was begun, fought and won, nearly a good 40 odd years before I was born, but the Second World War seems so much more recent than 70 years ago and certainly far more recent than the FIrst World War which (in my humble opinion) is right on the cusp of passing out of 'contemporary' history altogether.

So why does WW2 feel more recent?

There's certainly the argument that WW2 still pervades our culture in more obvious ways than WW1, and I certainly think that's true to an extent. We are all familiar with what a Spitfire looks like, discussions of how such and such is like living in Nazi Germany, all of that stuff. We use the Second World War in various ways. However it's not like I see Spitfires and Hurricanes everyday when I walk down the street. I don't watch Ch5 so I rarely see tv programmes on Nazi Sharks so I don't have that much exposure to it. So why does it feel like the war was closer?

I think an element we have to consider is the fact that we have far more colour footage of WW2 than of WW1. Colour images make everything seem more contemporary (particularly those that have been digitally remastered) whereas the majority of the WW1 footage is black and white and, as a result, look like history.

There is also a blurring of the lines between fact and fiction in regards to the Battle of Britain. One of my favourite films growing up (and still now if I'm honest) is the masterpiece 'The Battle of Britain' starring Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Robert Shaw et al. It is a true tour de force of plane porn. It was filmed using planes from the war that were still flying (although many of the 'German' planes were actually their Spanish equivalent) and it looks astoundingly realistic. It is also shown on Channel 4 every 6 months or so and has totally entered visual memory.

But perhaps the most important reason why the war still seems so close, is that we still have numerous members of that generation still alive. These recent tv shows have had several living Spitfire pilots in them all available for interview. Also their children are easily still alive. My two grandfathers both served (to varying degrees) in WW2 so, therefore, my mum (and particularly) my dad provide a clearer link to the 'WW2' generation and I feel sure that this must be mirrored across society.

Which brings me to the key point. Why are we celebrating the 70th anniversary? That's not to say that we should just ignore this whole thing, I absolutely do not think that. But 70 is a bit of a weird anniversary to mark. Ok it's a decade one, but it's a bit of a random number to go all out over (and the media have really gone for it).

What I think we are seeing now, in 2010, is very similar to what was happening in the 1960s in regards to the First World War and the BBC series 'The Great War'. There appears to have been a realisation that this WW2 generation may not be around for much longer. Waiting for the 75th (a more natural anniversary) may not be sensible as many of the 'prime sources' may have sadly passed on.

We're getting such a raft of programmes now because there may not be another chance to make use of the direct memories of the pilots in the Battle of Britain (even with all the methodological issues inherent with them). We're watching the ending of an era. It's coming an awful lot later then it did with the WW1 veterans, with 'The Great War' marking the 50th anniversary in 1964, but then they also had to live through a 2nd global conflict, and advances in the welfare state etc have doubtless increased life expectancy in the population since the WW1 generation.

So whilst it does seem odd that the war really was 70 odd years ago, and that making such a show of a bit of a random anniversary date is peculiar, it does make a certain amount of sense. There will be a big 75th anniversary of course and the 100th will be really weird (a century ago? Really?) but there probably won't be many of the original combatants left in the audience by then.

It's now or never.

As it was at the time.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Too Soon?

I've spent ages trying to find a clip of this particular incident and largely failed miserably.

However I have found a transcript of it courtesy of this marvellous website and that'll have to do.

This is quite an old joke from Mock the Week but I think it's indicative of a wider trend:

Dara Ó Briain: See, the last time Britain lost the Ashes in a white wash, it was in 1921. But at least that time they had a decent excuse - the first eleven had all been killed at the Somme... {audience groans) What, too soon?"

Now the website makes a very good starting point in regards to the audience who groaned at this joke

when moments earlier the audience had laughed merrily at jokes about Saddam Hussein's execution, which had happened that week

Now there are some fairly sacred cows in Britain regarding topics of humour. Anyone who even thinks about Princess Diana in a less than respectful manner can usually expect a fairly stern letter from the Daily Mail and a full page spread in the Daily Express.

But why this particular issue?

Well obviously making jokes about dead/injured British soldiers is a bit of a societal no-no in general, (see the furore - Daily Mail again - that sprung up from Jimmy Carr's joke a while back), but this is a bit different.

The joke doesn't actually tell us much we don't know; ie - men got killed on the Somme. That's not ground-breaking information. Certainly there were more than 11 casualties on the Somme so that makes the joke plausible. Everyone knows these things, so why the groan?

The joke wasn't even disrespectful, it didn't suggest in anyway that those men had died pointlessly etc.

So what is it? Is it possible that even the mention of the Somme in a situation that isn't entirely reverent is unacceptable at the moment? It seems a little odd on the sruface but perhaps it shouldn't be overlooked.

Consider that the Somme gives us a clear example of wasted life, pointless war and noble sacrifice for an ignoble cause. Should such men not be treated with respect?

The counter to this is clearly that by focusing in on this narrow image of the Somme (and the war in general) are we not already mistreating the memory of those men? By suggesting that their lives were little more than a moral guideline for us (whatever hopes, beliefs etc they may have held erased or rewritten).

This is one of the recurring issues I have with the memorialising of the war. In order to accept the 'lessons' of the war (as outlined by the general myth) there comes aa situation where the soldiers can only have been, essentially, too stupid to realise what was happening to them, and therefore we can 'learn' from all of their simple & naieve mistakes.

People and wars are too complicated for such labels to ever sit comfortably with me.

And besides, when it comes to humour at least, it probably is time now to be able to test the ground at least.

Having read enough diaries and snippets of trench newspapers, it probably is what they would have wanted.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

The difficult sequel

If you'll forgive me I'm going to jump forwards in time from the First World War (even if you don't I'm going to anyway) to discuss the Second World War. Specifically this story that I've just read.

I don't think it'll come as any surprise that the role of Bomber Command during the Second World War is still highly contentious and has been treated as one of Britain's dirty little secrets for the past 65 years. This news that they will be receiving a memorial is, probably in its own way, more surprising than the decision a few years ago to add soldiers from the First World War who'd be executed by courts martial to war memorials. The monument to Bomber Harris didn't appear until 1992 and he was bitter for years at the way Britain had quickly tried to pretend that Bomber Command hadn't existed (or done what it had) immediately after the war.

Obviously my primary focus of study is the First World War but that doesn't mean it is the limits of my interest. I think Bomber Command and this particular memorial raise some difficult questions and divide people into an assortment of groups which are sometimes tough to reconcile.

The crux of such a situation always comes down to the issue of whether Bomber Command's assaults on German (and French lets not forget) cities was either militarily or morally justifed, and the difference between the two is often where the arguments appear.

I have to say that for most of the period 1939-1945 the term 'strategic bombing' is something of a misnomer. I don't care how good a pilot or bombadier you have, the aim of bombing missions (on both sides) involving civilian and lesser military targets was to carpet bomb the area in the hope that you'd drop enough explosives to destroy the entire area and everything within it. These heavy bombers were not Stukas, designed for a more pinpoint (but still not surgical) assault on targets. In much the same way that battleships are little more than floating platforms for the heavy guns, long-distance heavy bombers were designed to carry large amounts of highly explosive bombs to be dropped en masse.

The attack on British cities by the Luftwaffe were clearly designed to destroy the morale of the people as well as cripple Britain's industrial capacity. This was a Total War, the home front and the front line were linked (after Dunkirk they were at the same place as well). Destroying any one of; industry, military, civilian would cripple the enemy and likely lead to their defeat.

However the blitz failed to break the British people, for an assortment of reasons, and this was a lesson that was becoming apparent during the 2nd World War. Without the added threat of more direct military intervention (essentially some form of imminent invasion or capture of the city/country) bombing by itself was a limited tool. It killed people yes but it didn't capture ground. The channel and the Luftwaffe's inability to destroy the RAF meant that invasion was, at the very least, unlikely and more logically impossible.

Churchill and the War Office came to realise this as the Luftwaffe changed their focus to the USSR and the new Eastern Front. They knew that mass bombing of civilians by itself was not likely to break their spirit and lead to a defeat.

So now we come to Bomber Command. There are, in essence, 2 Bomber Commands. There is the leadership with Arthur 'Bomber Harris' and others, and then there are the actual bomber crews themselves. Identifying the difference is useful but doesn't really make it any easier to discuss the situation.

British and American bombing missions against the continent both before D-Day and then dramatically afterwards, devestated cities across Germany. The most famous of these are obviously Dresden, Hamburg and Berlin but there are just as many others.

I'm well aware of all the arguments that surround these missions. I dislike several of them, but that does not mean that I don't understand where they come from.

"The Germans had bombed our cities, why shouldn't they have to suffer?"
"The Bomber crews were following orders"
"It was a war"

You know the sort of thing I'm talking about.

To be clear there was a likely wider strategic reason for the bombing of Germany. Up until D-Day in 1944 Stalin had been demanding that the allies act to open up a second front and alleviate the pressure on the Soviet Union. Whilst the allies were either unable or unwilling to do so before 1944 the bombing of cities did show that they were doing something to take the war to Hitler. It also provided them the chance to avenge their own cities and show the British public that the Germans too must suffer the blitz.

Again I can understand the arguments, they make good strategic and military sense.

I often tell my students that one of the key skills of studying war is to learn how to suspend your 'modern morality' and to view a situation in the same context as those who were there at the time.

It is this issue that always raises the most difficult questions.

Bombing of civilian targets is wrong. We all know it's wrong. It is not civilians who make war in this way. It is leaders. Hitler was happy for everyone in Berlin to die at the end of the war for failing him. Those people had indeed reaped the rewards of the Germany's early victories, but did they deserve this other fate? Bombed from the air or left to the Red Army?

At the same time the bombing of Dresden is so contentious because the war was as good as over. The raids coming in February 1945 when the need (if there ever had been one) to destroy cities like this had passed. The battle was to be for Berlin and the German army was beaten in the field. This did not need to happen.

When people argue about things like the Bomber Command issue, I can't help but feel they're not actually arguing about the events themselves. It's not about that. It's about them as an indivudal. They are being forced to answer the question; what would you have done?

So I can only answer some of those questions.

If I'd been part of a bomber crew during the war would I have flown to Germany and bombed their cities? Yes I imagine I probably would have done.

Do I believe that the bomber crews were 'just following orders' in a manner that differentiates them from the SS? Yes, although it is difficult to fully explain why.

Do I believe the bomber crews deserve this new monument? Yes. They died in war doing what was perceived to be their duty. The Second World War is all of the terrible things that people believe the First to be and then many, many more. People and countries did things in it that defy explanation. We shouldn't run away from those events.

But that's not the big question. The big question is, as always, if I was in Arthur Harris' shoes, would I have ordered my bombers to raze Germany to the ground?

It's very difficult when you essentially have to try and answer a question that, in a sense, defines what sort of man you are. How good you really are. How many of your beliefs and morals are really concrete and how many you would trade away given the right circumstances. Would I trade the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children if I believed that it would end the most brutal war imaginable? Would I do the same even if I knew that it would not end the war, but would simply make a statement or give me my revenge?

Nobody ever said studying war was easy...

Monday, 10 May 2010

Gallipoli and Identity

This story emerged this week about an Australian TV Drama casting a caucasian man to play the part of a Chinese-Australian war hero in their upcoming Gallipoli production.

I can't help but find this story interesting, particularly in regards to Gallipoli'a role in Australia's national identity.

Armistice Day doesn't actually have much importance in Australian commemoration of the war. Instead there is ANZAC Day on April 25th which marks the day the ANZAC forces landed on the beaches of Gallipoli (for my New Zealand friends in the audience I must point out that ANZAC is short for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps - so the New Zealanders were there too). The Gallipoli campaign has become a key stone in the way Australia as a nation views itself and the qualities that it aims to embody.

So far so normal. Country uses brave military sacrifice as cultural transmitter. Lets all rush and hold the front page.

It is this latest story however that has piqued my interest.

Billy Sing (the character in question) was a renowned sniper in the ANZAC forces and ended the war with the DCM and the Croix de Guerre. His father was Chinese (from Shanghai) and his mother was, orignially, from Stratford in England. His nationality was, as has been mentioned, Chinese-Australian.

The justification for casting a caucasian man to play him in this television drama (actually the director's son!) is that they couldn't find a 60 year old Chinese man to play Billy's father. The initial reaction to such a thing is; bullshit.

Now we can't overlook the possibility that the director is simply trying to crowbar his offspring into the most prominent role of the prgramme. It wouldn't be the first time that sort of thing has happened (what ever happened to Sofia Coppola...?), but for me I don't think that's it.

To me, this looks like an attempt to entirely Australianise a man (and therefore an event) which is so important to Australia's cultural identity. By making Billy Sing "fully" Australian then he can become a modern poster boy for Australian martial values, in a way that he perhaps could not be if he is of mixed parentage.

Now too be honest that has sort of been going on for a while now anyways. Gallipoli has become an Australian adventure, because they were there in prominent numbers, but then so were troops from Britain, India, New Zealand, Newfoundland and French West Africa. In many ways they have been slightly forgotten (although in Britain the campaign does not have the same resonance as the Somme or Ypres campaigns to begin with) in favour of a more overt Australian image.

Perhaps therefore it is no surprise that the TV director made this decision. Perhaps he didn't think people would notice or care. He was wrong clearly, and it's a good job that it's been jumped upon. Perhaps this is the moment when a line starts to be drawn in regards to representations of Gallipoli in Australia. It'll be interesting to see if the director forges ahead with his choice anyway.

And if people will watch it anyway.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Ils ne passeront pas le tasse

Now I don't want to give the impression that there are no enjoyable WW1 games out there. This is completely untrue.

Warfare 1917 is a strangely addictive strategy game where you get to play as either the British or the Germans over a series of levels and smash the opposition forces before you.

There's no real story and, as such, no need for an excessive narrative or editing of the conflict. You just make sure you kill the enemy and take their trenches. If you're a Conan fan you might also want to hear the lamentation of their women, but that's not really for me.

Dogfight 1 & Dogfight 2 are a pair of rather joyous flight simulator type games. Although if you can get past the level in Dogfight 2 where you have to protect bombers from enemy fighters then you're clearly a better Red Baron than I.

However during the email discussion about WW1 games with the ISFWWS someone mentioned a table top game called '1914: Twilight in the East' and it's upcoming sequel '1914: Offensive a Outrance'.

Here's a picture.

Now I haven't really got the faintest idea how these indepth tabletop military games work. I know how to play Risk (and I love Risk) but this seems unbelievably indepth.

And yet I couldn't give a damn. I want it. I don't know if I'll ever be able to work out how o play it, and yet I want it nonetheless. Defending against (or initiating) the Schlieffen Plan over the course of numerous hours strikes me as a rather fitting way for me to waste time under the pretence of actually doing work relevant to my thesis.

After all, I can't really discuss the British impressions of the French Army in 1914 if I haven't tried commanding it myself can I? Thought not.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Choose your own war

I thought I might carry on with the rough 'First World War computer game' track with which I began.

Apologies to any of the people from the ISFWWS who have already seen the links I emailed around.

This is a Canadian game called 'Over the Top' and is modelled on those generally awesome 'Choose your own Adventure' books which made my childhood far more exciting than it would otherwise have been.

Now the actual game setup is pretty good, the choices and results etc are interesting. However it does have many of the 'blood, mud, death' qualities that you expect form the dominant view of WW1.

We have to discuss though whether this is always going to be the inherent issue with attempting to craft narrative entities (such as computer games) around a conflict that, for the vast majority of time, was incredibly dull for the participants and elements of danger were often implied rather than constant. Nobody is going to want to play a game where you spend large portions of time sitting around and doing nothing, with 3-4 days in the front line and the rest moving between the reserve lines and behind the front on work duty.

At least with the image of WW2 there is the perception of forwards movement (post D-Day when most games are set) and progressive combat. The huge set-piece battles of WW1 would probably translate well into a computer game format (look how many times the Call of Duty / Medal of Honour games have reproduced the Saving Private Ryan beach landings or the Enemy at the Gates battle for Red Square and Stalingrad) but would that be enough? Also given how the war is usually portrayed, would your controlled character die in the end? Doesn't seem right really.

That's not to say that you can't have games focusing on WW1, I think you probably could.

The question is; where do you draw the line on an 'acceptable' trade off?

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Whose game is it anyway?

I thought computer games might be a good place to begin.

Recently there was a discussion on the email forum of the International Society for First World War Studies (ISFWWS) about the relative absence of First World War related computer games. The Second World War has always been fertile ground for computer game designers because deep down most people want to shoot Nazi soldiers in the face.

During the teaching for my course (Time and Place: 1916: The Somme) I gave my students a link to this computer game on the BBC website:

It's clearly aimed at school children and, as such, shouldn't be viewed as 'deep history' but at the same time I (and after I brought it to their attention) the ISFWWS found it rather troubling.

The game presents a fairly cliched view of the war (hardly unusual, I blame A J P Taylor) but there are several subversive aspects to it that carry it beyond the traditional 'mud, blood and death' view of war in the trenches.

First of all the actual tactics you are able to employ don't properly match their real world equivalents. The notion of a 'creeping barrage' is well documented in historical terms but the order and implementation of the various aspects within the game often results in you losing the battle and all your men being killed. Even when it comes to employing sound defensive tactics (artillery, machine guns, infantry) the game seems to take a contrary view of such decisions and informs you that you have chosen unwisely. After encountering this response numerous times my eventual reaction was; 'No I bloody have not!'

Most concerning though is that the game cannot actually be 'won'. There are only 4 levels and the 4th (a reproduction apparently designed to mirror the Passchendaele offensive of 1917) is impossible to complete. After trying once the game informs you that to continue attacking in these circumstances would be tantamount to murder and that you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself (or words to that effect).

How do we reconcile the idea that trench warfare could not be mastered and that, to attempt to, robs you of your humanity? Particularly considering the fact that the war in the trenches was, eventually, won by the Entente powers?

Whose history are we supposed to be teaching our children?