Monday 28 May 2012

Britain's War Machine

David Edgerton, 2011
(April 2012)

The idiosyncrasies of the English education system mean that I’ve not been formally taught History since I was 14 years old. I’ve tried to make up for lost time since then, but I can’t recall that much from school. The Norman Invasion, The Spanish Armada, and The Somme were pretty much it. No WWII, though.

That seems like a fairly odd ommission, given the cast-iron grip it still holds over the national imagination. Dunkirk, The Blitz, The Battle of Britain. I’ve talked about nationalist myth-making before, but sometimes you don’t need to invent stuff, just cherry pick the best bits and ignore any inconvenient contra-indicators like, say, willful and indiscriminate obliteration of civilian targets on a biblical scale.

But the good stuff is actually good, at least. Plucky Britain as the Atticus Finch of mid-twentieth century global relations, taking on an unwinnable fight simply because it was the right thing to do; standing alone against the wave of tyranny sweeping across the civilized world; beggaring and bankrupting ourselves as the sole defenders of freedom and democracy until the Americans finally realized that actually, yes, Nazis are bad, and they should probably pull their finger out and lend a hand.

Except of course that at that point Britain still had a vast empire, however rapidly its twilight was approaching. Hard to square the ‘brave little island nation’ concept with the fact that we still ruled a quarter of the globe. We do love an underdog though, despite being top-dog for a good few centuries. It’s hardly like our own history prior to 1939 consisted of unblemished millennia of peace and love and fairy cakes.

Despite the slightly dick-waving, Boy’s Own title this is a very persuasive book, aiming to counteract the, ‘idea of a weak Britain which made only a minor contribution to victory’, and it succeeds admirably. As with other popular histories written by academics more used to scholarly journals, there’s a tendency towards long lists of unnecessarily explicit facts and examples which doesn’t help the flow; it's not really necessary to write out ICI's name in full quite so often. I get that it's short for Imperial Chemical Industries, no need to ram it home quite so unsubtly. Shades of Obama's 'British Petroleum' after Deepwater Horizon there, and just as heavy-handed. Even so, you’d rather have too much evidence than too little, and it all adds up to a fairly compelling case.


  1. My father was in industrial Yorkshire as a child during the war, which is probably why he ran off to Canada as a young adult... His stories were mostly about the tin bomb shelter in the garden being the only time he got candies, and that he refused to eat lamb later as mutton was a ubiquitous and disliked wartime protein.

    Not to put down Britain, which I am sure you could do more convincingly, but I have become more interested in the Soviet experience: that's where Hitler lost his war (threw it away, more like). Just finished 'Life and Fate', which is a great read: 'War and Peace' in Stalingrad.

    Vasily Grossman bravely compares Stalinism to Nazism and finds little difference, apart from the ovens. Yes, that is a huge difference, but both were similar police and gulag states with irrational and brutal leadership. If anything he shows the Nazis as more rational, if more blood thirsty. The story of its publication is fascinating. The book was 'arrested' rather than the writer, as Grossman was too much a hero of Stalingrad reportage.

    The post war Soviet Union had fantastic graphic design and far more mature science-fiction than the west. The more you look into that period of history the more you realize 'we' were the aggressors of the Cold War. Trostkyvite 'world revolution' was already destroyed in the '37 purges. Even if the USSR had the will, they did not have the means, as we found out after its post '89 disintegration. Rather they were beggaring themselves not to be wiped out by our rising-tide. 'Plus que ca change...'

    1. The Eastern front is massively overlooked in western histories and culture. I read a discussion about a book in Eisenhower and someone started banging on about this 'being no way to talk of the general who defeated the Nazis'.

      To which some other commenter replied, 'Zukhov? What's he got to do with this?'

  2. I think the Brit General that supported the incendiary bombing of civilian targets policy is...well...maybe that's where Malcolm X REALLY got his "By any means necessary" way of thinking.

    1. I think the world would be a better place if Slaughterhouse 5 were required reading in schools.

      Funnily enough, got another Vonnegut book coming up tomorrow. So it goes.

  3. Many are quoted as saying, "History is written by the winners." It seems most meaningful coming from Orwell.

  4. "... just cherry pick the best bits and ignore any inconvenient contra-indicators like, say, willful and indiscriminate obliteration of civilian targets on a biblical scale."

    On a biblical scale indeed. With as much as historians like to talk about WWI being the point where mechanized warfare showed us how truly horrific wars would be in the future (which it did), WWII is where we showed that we truly don't give a f@#k about it...

    1. I reckon this is one of the less obvious dangers of the current Eurozone shitstorm. A strong motivating factor behind European integration was trying to bind states together in a way that would make another war impossible. If Greece left the Euro it would be the first undeniably backward step that project's taken.

      Not that this stuff is limited to Europe, of course, but we have shown an uncomfortable knack for dragging loads of others down with us.

    2. The EU started as trade agreements between France and Germany post WWII, as I recall. Quite brilliant.

  5. Though it is a bit early in the season, Hardy's poem - Christmas 1924 - went through my mind as I read your post and comments...

    ’Peace upon earth!' was said.
    We sing it,
    And pay a million priests to bring it.
    After two thousand years of mass
    We've got as far as poison-gas.

    A shame he didn't live long enough to see what the next big war would bring.

    1. As well as history, we did a load of WWI poetry in school. I've got a couple of draft posts with the working title 'Pro Patria Mori', but I can't decide whether they're too glib or too depressing. I'll sit on them a while longer, I reckon. Unfortunately they're unlikely to become irrelevant any time soon.