Confessions Of A Military Historian


new internationalist
issue 247 - September 1993

Confessions of a
military historian
John Charles ponders on the fascination
that war still holds for so many.

At grammar school in England, following my father’s instructions, I was a ‘conscientious objector’ in the cadet force. The issue became something of a cause célèbre. I was caught between two fires, for neither the sergeant-major nor my father were people to be trifled with. I refused to wear a uniform, marched glumly on two left feet carrying a ludicrously large Enfield 303 rifle of First World War vintage, to a chorus of schoolboy taunts and martial bellowings. Only when I nearly removed my front teeth with the damned Enfield was I allowed to do art and drama instead. In 1982 this same luckless schoolboy, researching an MA in Naval History, found himself on American TV learnedly pontificating about the Falklands/Malvinas War.

Fate gives strange twists to a life story, and the trend continues to this day. Burdened with cameras and tape recorders I have puffed and blown my way through dripping jungles and musty concrete bunkers across large parts of Asia, stuck microphones up countless people’s noses and listened endlessly to retired officers maligning their soldiery and the rank and file cursing their officers. I’ve ended up concluding, like John Keegan in his shocking book The Face of Battle, that the feelings of soldiers are brief and stark. Main sensation: Fear. Main desire: Escape. Main objective: Survival.

The strange ups and downs of human behaviour under combat conditions are part of the magnetic fascination of war studies: here we see Homo Sapiens in all his (for after all it is the male of the species who has taken to warfare as a kind of gender vocation) grandeur and rottenness: a Naked Ape if ever there was one. While there are many weird people around who dress in military kit and subscribe to magazines that sensationalize war, most of the great writers on the subject have been obsessed by its waste and pity. The first resounding words of Virgil’s Aeneid are echoed in the poignant insight of Dr AL Rowse: ‘It is very disheartening how human affairs always follow the same patterns... nobody ever learns anything, nobody ever profits by the mistakes... but lets himself in for the same mess of blood and misery as before.’

In disputed histories it now seems dangerously optimistic to assign ‘causes’ for the simplest everyday matters, let alone bloody conflicts that leave thousands dead. The behavioral sciences, the professoriat, the Learned Journals, seem no more effective in dealing with war than the weeping of a Serbian widow or the vows of a Somali boy to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of Canadian troops. But the historical echoes of war never seem to die away.

In Australia, for example, the Pacific war still has strong echoes. Old photographs of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra show much of the rest of the city to be, despite its sweeping boulevards, a comparative scrub – clearly the memorial was the architectural priority with even the Parliament House standing in its shadow. As for the names and ages on the monuments, they recall Air Chief Marshal Dowding’s remark during the Battle of Britain: ‘Unless our young men can kill their young men at a rate of more than two to one, we shall lose the war’.

Even today the Canberra monument remains one of the most beautiful and haunting places of its kind anywhere, yet bristling with paradoxes and unanswerable questions. When I visited, some (Asian) kids were clambering over a large tank, making all the battle noises adults make in just as earnest but a more deadly manner. An elderly curator, on the verge of apoplexy, screamed: ‘This is not a toy! Soldiers died in this... to save your freedom. You should respect them!’. The children seemed abashed and slunk away, only to rush squealing back when the curator disappeared.

What is it that evokes such passion about the history – particularly the recent history – of military experience? Insight was provided recently by one of my oral-history informants who, though well aware that the Army aimed to dehumanize the enemy by orchestrating myths about them, sought the truth about military life elsewhere. For him the decisive factor was the comradeship: the boastful derring-do, the safety of the group, the dirty jokes, the remorseless march of 50,000 hobnails in unison. ‘We thought we were God at least,’ he said. ‘We set ourselves to right every wrong there ever was, even some invented for us.’

This rings true. For many, many people ‘The War’, whether planned by generals with maps and chalk or led by ragged guerillas, was the only really meaningful experience they ever had: a dangerous but exciting oasis in a drab landscape of nine-to-five. And if comfortable retired bank clerks can look back wistfully on it, how much more valid are the claims of those with nothing to lose? You see them every day in news photographs from all the latest global trouble spots; some of them mere children dressed in rags with their AK-47s held triumphantly over their heads.

Few who fight wars have the luxury to challenge or even think much about the reasons for fighting. Historians do that after the damage is already done. Oral historians are in a peculiar position. We know that the role played by our informants assumes vastly greater importance as time passes. Instead of softening prejudices time tends to harden them. Most of the former soldiers I talked to enjoyed their war, at least in retrospect. They revel, they bask, they magnify. ‘It was a good war for me at least,’ said one old man unselfconsciously. ‘Plenty of grub; your mates all around; you were proud, know what I mean? And I can tell you some tales. We got away with murder... plenty of sex.’

War is thus far more than the ‘spiritual return to the Dark Ages’ that one former general recently described. This in fact applies only to the defeated. For most of its winners the glory increases as the historical shadows lengthen. Their stories lose nothing in the telling. Murderers become heroes and gangsters patriots; rapists were just letting off steam; trivial lives gained a transitory majesty. Perhaps this is war’s most insidious side: turning horror into glory. It is this popular male culture of glory and adventure that helps politicians like Margaret Thatcher and General Galtieri continue to follow William Shakespeare’s advice in Henry V to ‘busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels’.

John Charles works for the National Institute of Multimedia Education in Chiba, Japan.

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