Saturday, 23 March 2013

The perils of using WW2 as a guide to past conflicts

So thanks to the incapacity of Belfast International airport to maintain normal service during snowfall I've come into possession of the latest 'New Statesman' - a publication I enjoy but don't get around to reading regularly.

The cover story is a rather interesting, but slightly implausible, attempt to link the current economic back-biting in the Eurozone to a consideration of the 'German question' as a driver of European history and international relations. Despite the tenuous linking of these themes it was a good read and I always appreciate any public debate that encourages an engagement with German history beyond the much picked over periods of the World Wars and the Nazi dictatorship.

However, as usual in such a sweeping history there were a couple of historical simplifications that jarred a little. Periods of German history and especially major wars were (possibly merely for reasons of space) characterised mainly in relation to one burning issue or theme. We find that the Thirty Years War was mainly concerned with the ambitions of the European powers in a time of religious turmoil while WW1 was caused by the alarming concentration of power in a unified Germany.

Of course such motivations were indisputably real. The Protestantism of the rebellious Bohemians was as influential in the origin of the Thirty Years War as France's fear of Spanish encirclement. Yet creating such a meta-narrative ignores the chaotic unpredictability of history. Where does the ambitious personality of Gustavus Adolphus or the territorial antagonism of the (universally Protestant) Scandanavian states fit into such an unnuanced narrative? If such awkward questions can be asked about the characterisation of a single war then how can five hundred years of German history before and after unification be tied together into any sort of consistent narrative?

In explaining this phenomena one could focus on the virtues of simplicity and a strong central argument or the political uses of easily understandable historical themes. However, in this post I will instead consider the effects on historical views of conflict caused by the centrality of the Second World War to British teaching of German history.

The dominant narrative and focus on World War II in the classroom and seminar hall allows teachers to focus on the horrors of war while absolving most of the blame from the victors of the conflict. The occurrence of ethnic cleansing and brutal attacks on civilians can be acknowledged by a focus on the mass killing of Jews and minorities during the Holocaust. The suffering of the ordinary soldier can also be emphasised through a focus on the discomfort of conscripted American soldiers, thousands of miles from home, and the privations of Allied paratroopers behind enemy lines.

However, such grim descriptions of the consequence of war are stripped of much of their subversive content by the ascription of the majority of the blame to the losers of the war. The ethnic cleansing and totalitarian acts of Germany can be used to obscure any war crimes or mis-treatment of non-combatants by the Allies. For example, the abandonment of Dutch resistance forces to German repression is justified by the need to end the war (and thus the killing of the Jews and other persecuted groups) as quickly as possible. The American use of nuclear weapons on civilians is condoned by the need to avoid the greater horror of clawing back island after island from fanatical Japanese troops. Such events are portrayed as horrific and distasteful but are ultimately justified by the necessity of combating the evil of Nazism and totalitarian expansionism.

In making this argument I am not sticking up for the Nazis and their authoritarian allies. I would far rather live in a world where the Allies won the war through pragmatic measures than in one where Hitler's grisly extermination of minorities continued beyond 1945. However, such standard justifications of Allied behaviour do influence our perception of previous conflicts. When we consider earlier wars we are conditioned to adopt an equally pragmatic approach in ascribing motivations. We assume that wars must have been fought for a central reason and that the actions of involved states must be explicable by rational necessity. In identifying such central and all-encompassing rationales for past conflicts we risk jettisoning large amounts of necessary historical context. We fail to consider such temporally and geographically specific factors as the difficulty of communicating with distant armies during the Thirty Years War or the incentive for soldiers to continue fighting when their only methods of logistical support were looting and extortion. Similarly we neglect the differences between a war initiated by a (theoretically) unchallenged Monarch and those directed by elected and (theoretically) easily replaced politicians.

This is not to say that there is no place for wide narratives in an understanding of past conflicts. However, care must be taken to avoid smuggling in assumptions by organising analysis around overarching motivations. The context of particular historical situations and motivations should always be considered and a meta-narrative only sustained if it can be extrapolated from an in-depth study of each considered historical example.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Keeping up with the Czechs?

Clich├ęd, I know, but Christoph Scheuermann's article on the 'losers' of Czech liberalisation has inspired me to imitate the majority of amateur political bloggers and wade into the murky debate on drug policy and the potential benefits of liberalising recreational drug use.

The Spiegel article focusses on the social consequences of the Czech Republic's decision to legalise possession of small amounts of drugs (both hard and soft) while continuing to prosecute those who carry large supplies or deal. Inevitably it stresses the plight of individual 'losers' who have been harmed by this policy.

Such anecdotal cases have little value to any real understanding of any issue, despite their attraction to investigative journalists. However, they do reveal genuine tragedies caused by addiction to drink, drugs or gambling. I would only quibble with the connection that is drawn between these sad cases and Czech legislation. You could write an identical article with similar tales about drug use in the USA, UK or dozens of other countries.

The writer's case is also markedly inconsistent  He briefly discusses the plummeting price of drugs and the claims of native dealers that the marijuana business is now in the hands of Vietnamese immigrants to the Czech Republic.

He doesn't dwell on the fact that this suggests some positive effects of the legislation. If Czech dealers are making little profit then a source of revenue for illegitimate use has completely dried up. The American war on drugs has done little to stop Colombian paramilitaries or Mexican narcotics gangs from using drug trade profits for other political, criminal and violent activities. By contrast, if times are bad for Czech dealers there is little reason or opportunity for criminal gangs  to set up shop in the country.

Perhaps realising this flaw in his argument, Scheuermann then switches his focus to the border problems caused by the flow of drugs from the Czech Republic to its neighbours. However, he continues to rely on weak assumptions. The existence of a cross-border trade cannot be laid purely at the feet of the Czech government. There is only regional drug flow because of the differing harshness of legislation in the different Central European countries. If prices are low and production is relatively easy in the Czech Republic then it makes sense for dealers to try to muscle into nearby markets. All it would take to remove this incentive is some coordination between enforcement agencies or, more radically, the adoption of similarly liberal drug regulation by surrounding European nations.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Being Human ends with everyone, well, being human

Well if I was going to have to pick a day to be ill with the lurgy, I could have done worse than the day on which the finale of 'Being Human' and the second part of the 'Top Gear' Africa special came out on iPlayer.

The former crept up on me somewhat. It was only after watching the fifth episode of the current species that I discovered that the BBC were not planning on making any more. As it turned out 'The Last Broadcast' was a competent sending off for an innovative series but an episode that never entirely reached greatness or memorability.

(spoilers ahead)

Firstly, as a Bristolian born and raised, I am glad with how the location change worked out. Bristol got the halcyon days of Mitchell, Annie and George while Barry got messily exterminated during the threatened Apocalypse. Now I'm not saying that the two things are linked but maybe other television producers should consider the example before abandoning the South West. 

On a more serious note, I thought that the finale was, perhaps necessarily, a bit exposition heavy. So far the current series had had to mainly focus on fleshing out the new trio of main protagonists. This meant that the  overarching story had only been patchily developed and the Devil only had his hour to shine in the last episode. 

... and shine he did. He has been a singularly unpleasant enemy from the start and his brand of suicide inducing, head-screwery made a nice change from the more institutional and physical threats that previous series have dealt with. The scenes of chaos throughout the city emphasised what he could do unchained but there was no last minute transformation into a skyscraper rivalling hell demon and he remained a more psychological threat to the cast.

It was pleasant to see a relatively happy ending to the series. I've noted in the past its tendency to become a bit Titus Andronicus like at times as well-liked characters were swiftly axed for dramatic effect and casting reasons. It made a refreshing change from the status-quo worshipping normality of most television series but people do like the odd untarnished victory for the good guys.

It was strongly hinted that the elimination of the Devil led to the 'normalisation' of all Vampires, Ghosts and Werewolves. This seems a neat but unsatisfying ending to the series' examination of the experience of living while being different. If the supernatural types have at times seemed analogous to junkies, misfits and even AIDs sufferers then this extremely artificial removal of the problem gives no clues as to what the directors really think can resolve problems of inclusion and belonging. The actual mental and social issues that lead to alienation are unlikely to be brought to an end by such a quick fix and it would have been nice to have had a less explicitly 'magic' wrapping up of these themes.

All in all though, a pretty good finish to a series that has tried some new things and kept my attention throughout.  

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Not quite getting it ...

When I pop into the supermarket I always make a point of grabbing a copy of 'i' - the mini-newspaper published by the company behind 'The Independent'. While this is not my usual reading material for browsing news and current affairs, I do like the idea behind a 20-30p print newspaper that avoids the excesses of tabloid-ism. Paying a pound or less each week seems worthwhile to support the experiment.

The editorial this week was especially reassuring. Executive editor Stefano Hatfield takes a swing at those snide commentators and pub bores who have taken it upon themselves to denigrate 'International Women's Day' with the usual cries of 'They've never had it so good!' and 'Why do we need Feminism anyway?'.

However, his support for the principles of equality and fair treatment might have been even more well received if he'd kept a keener eye on what was going on in the rest of the paper. Reading through to the 'Food and Drink' section we find experienced journalist and editor John Walsh giving a literary kicking to a new range of Eastern-themed London restaurants. Usually the sort of thing I'd skim or skip but my eye was drawn to the description of the bar stools as "painted a tart's-lipstick-red".

Maybe such a phrase can be explained away as artistic license or flowery description but does such borderline offensive language really deserve a place in a paper that opens with a defence of International Woman's Day?  

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Fight Club vs Fight Club

So I've just finished reading Chuck Palahniuk's 'Fight Club'. I hadn't previously read the novel but am a big fan of the movie, which stars Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. In creating the film they stuck very closely to the book's script (which was proabably relatively easy as it is a slim 200 page paperback) and this only makes it more interesting to see where the divergences are and what effect they have on the overall experience.

1) Tyler's Dream - The final scene of the movie, as the skyscrapers explode to the sound of the Pixies 'Where is My Mind?' is a brilliant climax. It is a remarkably upbeat ending, since the narrator has 'killed' Tyler Durdan and has achieved his dream of financial revolution against the debt agencies and major banks. While the methods are crude and completely insane, I think many people would have some sympathy with such a redistributive motivation.

The novel provides a much darker presentation of this dream. Tyler's visions of hunting elk through the ruins of North American cities evokes the desolation of 'I am Legend' and suggests mass death and destruction in an apocalyptic end to civilization. The narrator is open about the roots of this dream in his personal envy. He wants to destroy the 'beaches of France' because he will never see/possess them. Instead of destroying the skyscrapers through some altruistic dream of freeing people from capitalistic domination he wants to use them to squash the images of the past contained in museums. Small details but they remove any sympathy you might have for his actions.

2) The Ending - The upbeat nature of the movie's cliffhanger ending is not maintained at the end of the novel. We continue the story after Tyler's execution to find that the narrator has been hospitalised. This location supports your pre-existing doubts about the unreality of the narrator's story but, assuming that it was broadly true, we are left with the continued menace of the Project Mayhem operation, which is actively working to retrieve the narrator. A sword of Damocles is left hanging over him and modern civilization.

3) Greater Unpleasantness - The scenes from the novel that did not make it into the film are exactly those that present the narrator/Tyler in their worst light. The tipping of a rich woman into a suicidal depression through deceit, the murder of a political investigator of Fight Clubs and the eventual killing of the narrator's long-suffering boss are all deeply ugly scenes. Their omission from the film enables the misbehaviour of the protagonists to be initally presented in a far more comedic manner. Tyler plays with nunchucks and engages in banter with the narrator rather than being the hard-headed zealot of the novel. This gives a markedly different feel to the film despite its superficial similarities to the structure of the book.