Outside the city ...

Outside the city …

I am finally away from my Greek Island and the “five star” resort with no internet access, so I am able to resume blogging. Yesterday evening I arrived in Athens for a three day stay, and as is my wont in a new city, the first thing I did was go out for a wander. My hotel has a rooftop bar with a view direct to the acropolis, which is pretty amazing, and is on the temple slopes so it’s a short walk to the old town. Walking through the old town one can catch regular glimpses of the acropolis from the streets, and also experience the pleasures of a summer night in the city. The streets were heaving with people, all out to enjoy the evening air. All the restaurants in Greece seem to be open to the sky, and alfresco dining is the norm, so everywhere you look people are enjoying eating under the stars. I passed a Suleimanese punch-and-judy show, where the puppets are dressed in Persian-style pantaloons and curled hats (but still beating each other) and the horde of gathered children scream at the villain in Greek. I passed a concert being held in an old temple ruin, all lit up with red spotlights. Every square was full of people sitting chatting and drinking; the main square was absolutely heaving with young people in groups just enjoying the night air. The weather was dry and warm, the temperature perfect, the sky a million miles away and clear and the whole balmy evening cupped within the bowl of the distant mountains, with the Acropolis the gleaming jewel set in the middle of that frame, seen occasionally between buildings and lit up against the night sky.

I found a stylish open restaurant in the old town, that served excellent food and had a massively camp Swiss host. They serve a chicken cooked whole inside a loaf of bread and cut up on your plate for you, and an exquisite lemon-flavoured pumpkin soup garnished with little cthulhu-esque octopuslets. I didn’t have my camera with me so didn’t order the cockerel; I may return to experience this strangeness this evening. I have to say, the way Greek people use lemons in their cooking – and the predominance of citrus throughout their cuisine – is excellent and commendable.

After dinner I wandered a little more, enjoying the chaos and light-heartedness of the city. I found myself in the area just west of the Syntagma square, which is supposedy full of bars and night clubs, and in front of a rock bar called Six Dogs. They were hosting an American band called The Shrine, some sort of classic heavy rock outfit that I’ve never heard of, so in I went, for my first experience of Greek punk/metal fans.

What is on your playlist, Archilokos?

What is on your playlist, Archilokos?

The band was average, I have to say, and somewhat hamstrung by the fact that their singer has exactly the same accent as the weird zoo-owner from the Mighty Boosh. They were a pacey, hard rocking classic metal outfit with a bit of skate-punk overtone, so pretty likeable overall. The crowd, however, were fascinating. First of all they were really lively and cheerful, bouncing around with way more energy than the band deserved, and managing to do spontaneous crowd-surfing efforts even though there were only about 50 of them. This meant that whenever one of their number wanted to go up, he had to get the others to lift him, and then a group of 10 or 15 fans would go charging around the room in a little chaotic loop, carrying the surfer aloft, and then drop him. It’s not quite lollapalooza, is it? But they were really into it. But the best thing about them was the way they looked so … classical.

I think every second rocker in the crowd was basically a classical Greek stereotype, come to life then covered in tattoos and stuffed into a pair of skate-punk shorts and a band t-shirt. They all had the broad shoulders and narrow waste of the classic Greek pottery or statues, and that particular style of Greek beard that you see in the classic pictures: the one that is cropped close to the skin along the jaw and near the ears, but extends to a block or point out from the chin, and merges in a perfect gradient with short-cropped hair. It works perfectly with the classical Greek profile of aquiline nose and strong jaw. The rockers also had the same classical hair style, that is neatly cropped at the back but then a little unruly or longer and forward-pointing near the front.

It was like moshing with the guys from 300, if they had bothered to put on t-shirts. It was one of those classic moments, like when a French waiter pulls a 110% expressive face, or a German man says very precisely about one of his most memorable experiences, “it was in general perfect” with German precision, or a Japanese person bows on the phone – one of those moments where the person you are talking to is subconsciously channelling a million years of cultural history and to the rest of the world they’re a stereotype of fantastic proportions, but to them it is so completely normal that they would never realize they were doing it, even if you could play them a video of the moment. So it was that these Greek rockers were moshing not to the tune of an ordinary Venice Beach band, but to a couple of thousand years of classical Greek history. The Pelopennese war through hardcore, or something. I think I will dub this style of Greek counter-culture “300-core.” I hope to see more of it as I wander this city of romance and history!

The struggle for improved town planning laws continues unabated...

The struggle for improved town planning laws continues unabated…

Today’s Guardian is running an article about the controversy of renaming Volgograd to Stalingrad for the annual celebrations of that particularly brutal period in World War 2. If anyone hasn’t read Anthony Beevor’s book on this topic, I strongly recommend it – I don’t know how factual it is but it’s an excellent read anyway. Apparently, according to this article, the decision to rename Volgograd to Stalingrad for this few days of the year (covering the time when the Nazis surrendered) is controversial because it is seen as honouring Stalin, who was in charge at the time. From the article:

Communists and other hardliners credit him with leading the country to victory in the second world war and making it a nuclear superpower, while others condemn his purges, during which millions were murdered.

Stalin was definitely a bad, bad man, who did bad, bad things, and although some have argued that many of the bad things he did were necessary conditions to enable the rapid industrialization that gave the USSR the power to destroy Hitler, others would probably just as likely argue that his excesses reduced the USSR’s power to resist invasion. Beevor doesn’t make a judgment either way but certainly describes how Stalin’s behavior before the war and in the early stages of Operation Barbarossa made the Nazis’ job easier, but by contrast Aly and Heim in Architects of Annihilation argue, at least by implication, that Stalin’s programs of “de-kulakization” and industrialization – which were accompanied by famine, mass relocation and the destruction of whole communities – were essential to the later war effort and were actually copied by Hitler’s planners and demographers as they set about the extermination of the Jewish race and the residents of Eastern Europe. So in this sense it could be argued that Stalin’s specific pre-war policy framework[1] may have been an essential pre-condition to the victory in the war[2]. If so, it’s a very odious fact but it does suggest that Stalin’s role was essential to winning the war[3], as were the sacrifices of the 20 million or so people who died as a result of his policies.

Beevor on the other hand quotes a general speaking to Stalin early in the war, when Stalin was panicking. I can’t remember exactly the quote, of course, but basically the general told Stalin “It doesn’t really matter how tough they are or how badly we fare now; just pack up our industry to the other side of the Urals, and eventually we’ll destroy them.” A lesson they learnt, of course, from Napoleon, though they did have help from vampires back then.

So reading that article on the reveneration of Stalingrad’s name, and the dispute about how much Stalin needs to be tied to the victory over Nazism (and, by extension, its fascist satellites), or whether the Soviet Union (and Russia) was/is the kind of place where it doesn’t matter who is in charge, no one will ever be able to conquer it. I guess it won’t change anything about the current debate (after all, since when are these debates ever actually about historical facts?) but it’s an interesting question about Stalin’s legacy, since implicit in it is the suggestion that the only way Russia could have defeated the Nazis is by a massive program of industrialization that cannot possibly be achieved without mass suffering. If that’s the case, then it’s hard to believe that the first half of the 20th century could have followed any trajectory that would not have ended in mass suffering – at least not once WW1 was over. And if so, that really is a sad, sad state of human affairs, and points to something cruel and terrible in the heart of modernity.

fn1: it sounds so innocuous when put like that, doesn’t it?

fn2: not to mention the massive contribution of the USA under lend-lease from 1941-1945, something for Americans to throw back in the face of unsympathetic foreigners who tell them they didn’t win the war.

fn3: another side reason that he may have been essential was that Hitler was obssessed with capturing Stalingrad because of its name, and had the city been named Puppygrad he might have been a little less focused on squandering hundreds of thousands of well-trained troops on it.

Not the picnic Gordon thought it was ...

Against all expectation, the Guardian today reports that the British government destroyed records of its colonial atrocities.The government destroyed many documents detailing its worst excesses, and hid those documents it didn’t destroy. These latter documents were kept in a secret location and should have been released in the 1980s, but were kept secret in breach of the government’s own disclosure laws. The atrocities they detail aren’t very pretty, either:

The papers at Hanslope Park include monthly intelligence reports on the “elimination” of the colonial authority’s enemies in 1950s Malaya; records showing ministers in London were aware of the torture and murder of Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya, including a case of aman said to have been “roasted alive”; and papers detailing the lengths to which the UK went to forcibly remove islanders from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Among the documents that appear to have been destroyed were: records of the abuse of Mau Mau insurgents detained by British colonial authorities, who were tortured and sometimes murdered; reports that may have detailed the alleged massacre of 24 unarmed villagers in Malaya by soldiers of the Scots Guards in 1948; most of the sensitive documents kept by colonial authorities in Aden, where the army’s Intelligence Corps operated a secret torture centre for several years in the 1960s; and every sensitive document kept by the authorities in British Guiana, a colony whose policies were heavily influenced by successive US governments and whose post-independence leader was toppled in a coup orchestrated by the CIA.

These are not the kind of low-level violence we see depicted in your average Passage to India type story, they are serious, systematic and government sanctioned human rights abuses that under the laws of war would see their perpetrators imprisoned for a very long time – and many of them happened after the establishment of the Geneva conventions and the modern settlement of the laws of war. It’s also clear that the destruction of the documents was directed from the very top, with an attention to detail that would make Orwell proud:

Painstaking measures were taken to prevent post-independence governments from learning that the watch files had ever existed. One instruction states: “The legacy files must leave no reference to watch material. Indeed, the very existence of the watch series, though it may be guessed at, should never be revealed.”

When a single watch file was to be removed from a group of legacy files, a “twin file” – or dummy – was to be created to insert in its place. If this was not practicable, the documents were to be removed en masse.

This is not news because of a sudden revelation that the UK did bad things in its colonies – this has long been known – but it is important because it shows that the historical narrative (and particularly the public debate) about British colonialism has been biased in the UK’s favour. There is a strong belief in the UK that British colonialism was “benign,” both objectively and when compared to the French or the Dutch, and that the British presence in these countries civilized and advanced them – this belief is tackled directly by Orwell in Burmese Days, and is still present in the public understanding of colonialism in the UK. For example, many British still believe that India is where it is today because of, and not despite, the British presence there, and much of British debate about “the state of Africa” ignores the possibility that colonialism might have played a role in influencing the political and economic character of the post-independence states.

Now we can see part of the reason for this blithe ignorance of the systematic and cruel nature of British oppression in the colonies: the government carefully hid it, both from the post-independence governments and from its own people. It destroyed the worst evidence and hid the rest, well past the time when it should have been revealed, thus ensuring that the true character of the colonial era was never publicly documented or allowed to be sourced authoritatively. This makes it much easier to pass off post-colonial states’ claims of abuse as sour grapes or political posturing, since there is no “credible” evidence that anything happened. It also enabled the government to present the violence of the anti-colonial political movements as unjustified, and this in turn played into its depiction of the remaining post-colonial movements, like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as using violence that was excessive for their cause – after all, if British rule had been relatively benign in Asia, why would it be worth killing people to achieve independence in Ireland? Had these documents been released in the 1980s when they were supposed to be, the IRA’s claims that a peaceful settlement was impossible would look somewhat more credible, and their behavior after Bloody Sunday (1967) would look more like a rational response to systematic state violence than the commonly-characterised “over-reaction to an isolated incident.”

And this is the key role that the systematic destruction of evidence plays in fabricating the history of British colonialism: in the public narrative, British violence in the colonies was just isolated incidents by a few colonial soldiers or the odd governor, not a coherent system of repression coordinated and directed from the centre. Nationalist violence was an over-reaction and everyone should have just done what Gandhi did. Britain left with its head held high, having civilized these far-flung realms and then handed them back with only the occasional moment of unfortunate retributive violence. The real narrative, it appears, is very different, and the release of these documents enables us to look back on the events of the time and especially the political and military decisions of the anti-colonialists with a very different perspective. They weren’t fighting for an unrealistic ideal of third world sovereignty, but were trying to overthrow a repressive invader that protected its power through the systematic use of state-sanctioned torture and murder.

This also colours our understanding of previous eras. If the UK government of the 50s and 60s was willing to engage in this system of deception, what were previous governments doing and how does our understanding of previous colonial events change? For example, A.N Wilson’s The Victorians dwells extensively on the behaviour of Britain in India and the British public’s attitude towards India, and describes in detail the Indian uprisings in the 19th century and the British military response. But did Wilson have access to all the facts, or was he working from a highly biased and selective British account of those events? Wilson depicts the British response as largely restrained, excessive only in some instances and not given any strong centralized repressive impetus. Is this true, and can any scholarship on the colonial era before 1950 claim to be able to make claims to truth about British behaviour?

I believe Britain hasn’t come to terms with its colonial past, and part of the reason for this is its biased public narrative. Now we can see what role the government played in constructing that bias, and begin to question the common conception of British colonialism as misguided but largely benevolent. In fact, it was cruel and evil, and the government is finally beginning to admit it. In 2005 the Prime Minister declared that Britain did not need to apologize for its colonial past, and asked ex-colonies to focus instead on British ideals of “liberty and tolerance.” Perhaps they can enlighten themselves as to exactly how those ideals operated through a review of the documents at Hanslope Park? And perhapsthe British should be asking whether they really do need to apologize for colonialism, just as Australia has for child abduction, and the USA for slavery?

 

This is to be my last post on what I’ve learnt from John Dower’s War Without Mercy, and it is also to be my most speculative. Did the feverish anti-Japanese propaganda of the Pacific war era influence at all the allies’ decision to engage in large scale bombing of urban areas in Japan, and/or their decision to use nuclear weapons? In this sense I’m not interested in whether these tactics were “right” or “wrong,” though I think we can all take it as read that a decision to drop a nuclear weapon on a city is definitely wrong in anything except the most extreme of circumstances. My question is more about whether our subsequent interpretation of these decisions (which remain controversial) and the decisions themselves is clouded by the propaganda that was being used at the time, and the general beliefs about Japanese and allied behavior in the war, as they existed then and exist now.

I have always accepted what for this post I will call the “standard” view of the urban bombing campaign and the nuclear attacks: that in the absence of convincing proof that they would be destroyed as a nation the Japanese were not going to surrender and were going to fight a long and protracted military campaign that would lead to the deaths of millions of Japanese and potentially hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers. In the standard view, the allies discovered on Okinawa that the invasion of the mainland was going to be a hideous affair, and decided to use terror bombing to bring the war to a close so that they didn’t have to expend many lives. This view can even take the pesky form of having been for the good of the Japanese too: I don’t think it’s hard to find examples of people saying that less civilians died in the bombing campaign than would have died if the allies had invaded the mainland.

I have also read Dresden, which contains a passionate defense of the terror bombing of German cities on strategic grounds and argues that the frantic German efforts to defend major cities represented a huge drain on their military resources and hastened the end of the war. I’m inclined to accept this view of the strategic value of the terror bombings of Germany, and against the backdrop of all the horrors of that war I can understand why Stalin was pleading with the allies to do more of the same. But just because it worked in Germany doesn’t mean it was strategically necessary in the Pacific, and my suspicion is that decisions about when to start the bombing, how intense to make it, and why it was necessary, were influenced by the extreme propaganda about Japan. We have established that there was an eliminationist sentiment to this propaganda, that it was extremely racist and that the underlying principles of the propaganda were believed by the public and war planners alike. We also know that the allies got up to all manner of nasty war crimes in the Pacific, were not particularly inclined to see the Japanese as human, and that just as their behavior towards Japanese was different to Germans, so was their propaganda. So it doesn’t seem a stretch to me to imagine that the allies were also inclined to favor brutal tactics, and that decisions about the necessity of these tactics would be colored by some genuinely held beliefs about how unreasonable, crazy, childish and brutal the Japanese were. Also underlying the allied response to the Japanese is a need to remind the other “sub-humans” of the Pacific that rising up against the accepted international order is a very bad idea, and a fear that the Japanese “lesson” might be learnt by others in Malaysia and Indonesia. There are also a few examples from Dower’s book of specific beliefs about the unwillingness of the Japanese to surrender, and specific actions taken by the allies that suggest that the terror bombings weren’t embarked on reluctantly or purely for military/strategic reasons. I’ll cover these first.

Beliefs About the Chances of Surrender

The allies based their understanding of Japanese war-time thinking on a whole suite of crazy sociological theories about the Japanese psyche: that the nation was stuck in a child-like stage of development, that they were crazy, that they could not be reasoned with, and that they could not be trusted. Many allied planners seemed to think that the Japanese would use any kind of honourable or conditional surrender as a chance to regroup before attacking again, and the Japanese were generally viewed as treacherous and shifty. Dower describes the generally held view that the Japanese would need to be thoroughly defeated, possibly “to the last man” because their nation had a suicide psychology and needed a “psychological purge.” Allied planners may have expected the Japanese to behave as a nation the way they (also erroneously) believed Japanese as individuals preferred suicide to surrender. Furthermore, Japanese treachery and savagery meant that only by the complete destruction of their current order could the Japanese desire to dominate Asia be prevented. Allied propaganda also maintained that the Japanese were “patient” and sinister (common traits ascribed to Orientals) and would happily wait 100 years to launch another war of domination, as Germany had done after world war 1, and so the only way to prevent them going to war again was their complete destruction. This view is particularly interesting because there really was no historical basis for thinking that the Japanese have a long-standing interest in dominating their region – they had chosen isolation over expansion, and their first international military activity was against Russia in 1905. The allies were nonetheless willing to believe that the war represented a manifestation of some constant belief in Japanese culture.

Lack of Interest in Surrender

In addition to a general belief that Japanese did not surrender, allied soldiers and their leaders did not show much interest in obtaining surrender from their enemies. In military engagements allied soldiers would kill soldiers who did surrender, or would refuse to accept a surrender and force Japanese soldiers to fight on to their deaths. Dennis Warner reports this exchange between two high-ranking officers in Bouganville:

“But sir, they are wounded and want to surrender,” a colonel protested [to a major general] at the edge of the cleared perimeter after a massive and unsuccessful Japanese attack.

“You heard me, Colonel,” replied [the major general], who was only yards away from upstretched Japanese hands. “I want no prisoners. Shoot them all.”

They were shot.

Accounts from Marines in Okinawa also suggest the same behavior in Okinawa, and not just towards soldiers: marines also killed civilians. This account from a war correspondent summarizes the battlefield philosophy of the Americans:

What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway? … We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers.

This was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1946, when the memories and philosophies of the war were still clear in people’s minds and admitting such atrocities was still acceptable. By now, of course, we look back on our soldiers as having fought for a noble cause, and no longer discuss the barbarity of the time. It’s clear from these accounts that the mistreatment of prisoners and refusal to accept surrender crossed military types (navy, air force and army) and was held at all levels of command. It’s also clear that the blood-letting on Okinawa was not entirely the fault of Japanese unwillingness to surrender, and suggests that whatever judgments military planners were making about a battle on the mainland, to some extent at least the numbers of dead they were expecting to see were being partly brought about by their own soldiers’ misconduct. With such a disinterest in either surrender or treating the enemy population kindly, perhaps they were inclined to see a protracted campaign of urban destruction as a good thing on its own terms?

Destruction for its Own Sake

The saddest example of this interest in destruction as an end in itself is the final air raid on Tokyo. This happened on the night of August 14th, just hours before the Japanese officially surrendered, and when everyone on both sides knew the surrender was going to happen. The raid was the biggest of the war, consisting of 1014 planes, and suffered not a single loss. The planes had not yet returned to their bases when Japan’s unconditional surrender was announced. There is no chance that this raid was necessary, or that even a single death it caused could possibly have advanced the end of the war by even a heartbeat. It is perhaps the clearest example of simple cruelty on the part of the allies, in which a city was destroyed merely for the sake of it. From this act we can see that the allies valued destruction for its own sake, and were acting on Churchill’s demand to lay all the cities of Japan to ash, even where they didn’t need to.

The Question of the Bombings

This leads us to the question at the heart of this post: could the allies have negotiated an end to the war in some other way, without the use of terror bombing and atomic weapons; could they have used less terror bombing and no atomic attacks? Were their decisions driven by a desire to destroy as much of Japan as possible, rather than purely strategic concerns? And if their decisions were based on a genuine belief that the Japanese would not surrender and would fight to the last, to what extent was that belief correct, and was it at least partially clouded by their own stereotypes of and fantastic notions about the Japanese psyche? What portion of the decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki was strategic, what portion was cruel, and what portion was based on misconceptions about the Japanese psyche that were, ultimately, founded in racism?

The decision to end the war in this way may also have been driven by the desire to assert colonial power over Asia – a conditional surrender would probably have meant allowing the Japanese to retain some colonial possessions, and the implication from this would be that Asia could control its own destiny. Furthermore, they needed to end the war before the Soviets invaded Japan. But it seems to me that there are other approaches they could have taken: for example, after Okinawa they could have ceased all aggressive action targeting civilians, used their overwhelming naval power to enforce Japan’s isolation, and just waited them out. I don’t know, but I have never heard from any source that the allies genuinely attempted to negotiate surrender before the bitter end. One doesn’t hear stories of attempts to subvert the military clique in charge, to foment civil disorder, or to use captured Japanese soldiers as propaganda tools – it’s as if they just all assumed such actions would be impossible, and I think these assumptions may have been wrong.

In essence then, I strongly suspect that much of the barbarity of the final year of the war, and especially the terror-bombing campaign, was unnecessary and was driven by a complex mix of racist and colonialist beliefs. I think the allies may have been able to negotiate a different end to the war, but they didn’t believe it was possible due to racist assumptions about “orientals,” and they didn’t want to because they wanted to punish the Japanese and inflict a defeat on them that would send a signal throughout Asia. I think this means that, while in retrospect the bombing of Japan has been painted as a necessary tactic, it can only be portrayed as such if we accept the racist premises of the propaganda of the time, and overlook the wanton cruelty of the allied forces. Is a more realistic historical interpretation that allied thinking about Japan and the Japanese was deeply flawed, and the policy of mass destruction that “won” the war was both unnecessary and heavily influenced by this same racist worldview?

I’m fascinated with finding elements of culture that have resisted the force of culture, because I think that many societies retain a socio-cultural core that is resistant to mere events, and drives the society through massive cultural changes with its fundamental structure intact. I have tried applying this idea to east Asian history, and now I’m reading Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, and thinking I see some elements of British history that maybe show the same continuity. I’m quite happy to take Cornwell’s work as definitive historical content, because it’s a fun book. So what continuity do I find between modern British history and the ancient era?

The Essex Dog

In the Arthurian era depicted by Cornwell, the British are fighting the Saxons in Britain. The British occupy Wales, Wessex, and the West Country, while the Saxons have captured Kent, Essex, London and the Southeast. That is, the Saxons are the original Chavs, and the source of the cultural force that divides modern Britain[1]. Just like in modern Britain, on the weekend they teem westward and get into fights with the locals, who have to beat them off in scenes of violence that are just like those you might see in modern London: lines of men with spears locked fighting against chavs. Except in the ancient era, the chavs also had shields: in Arthur’s time soldiers fought in lines of shields locked close together and penetrated by shields, a tactic they picked up from the Romans, and success in battle depended on keeping your wall of shields locked together and disciplined, and beating your enemy on their mistakes.

So what did the Saxons bring to this battle to give them an edge? Huge, nasty dogs that they would unleash on the lines of British warriors, breaking the shield wall. Anyone who has lived in London for more than a week is familiar with the phenomenon of the chav with their nasty dog, a great big fucked up bulldog or some other nasty arse-faced wolf-fucker that they have beaten since childhood and can barely control when they walk it down the street (if they can be bothered putting it on a lead, the anti-social arseholes). These are the dogs whose shit you have to dance around whenever you walk anywhere in London, and woe betide the man or woman who asks the tracksuited “owner” to clean up after their nasty slobbering canine. Reading about a horde of saxons in stinking bear furs, pointing their massive dogs at the British lines and yelling “oi” is pretty much exactly like reading about a Sunday afternoon in Finsbury Park or Tottenham. That, my friends, is continuity in history.

King Arthur and the Scrum

The crucial part of your average Arthurian stoush is the shield wall. Bascially this involves a bunch of tanked-up blokes carrying shields and spears, pushing against each other and sweating and screaming and spitting while the men behind them push them forward and try to force them to break their opponents’ line. Reading this while also regularly watching Rugby World Cup matches I could only really conclude one thing: it’s exactly like a massive scrum, with spears. Every description Cornwell proffers for this battle tactic sounds like a huge scrum. Tonight, watching Ireland play rugby (against Italy) with a fire in their bellies, I found myself imagining the same men draped in wolf fur, carrying spears and shields, coming towards me in scrum-like formation with the intent of beating their way past me to get to my farm and my children, and it was a disturbing idea. Rugby (and all modern ball sports?) struck me then as a formalized version of an ancient and very nasty code … is this also continuity in history?

A Final Semi-Prediction

Like a good Briton, at this point I should stab a slave in the belly and read the splatterings of their blood as they die to get an augury for the coming battle. Alternatively, I could just say that after watching Italy today I have a premonition that Ireland could make the final and maybe, possibly, even win. Their performance against Italy was exemplary and although Italy are a second tier team, they aren’t pushovers, and Ireland have already beaten Australia … and that was not a one-off (I think they did the same thing earlier this year). Their path to the final will involve first Wales (a probable victory) and then England (in a world of off-pitch trouble) or France (who just fell to Tonga and seem to be suffering from severe internal tension). On the other side, NZ’s path to the final should be assured; first Argentina, then either South Africa or Australia. But NZ are famous chokers and a semi-final against SA is the perfect opportunity for them to call on their famous curse, which would set up a SA vs. Ireland final. If Ireland get that far they will have beaten Wales, who almost beat South Africa … so it’s entirely possible.

Of course as an Australian I am supporting the All Blacks, but after they choke I’ll be supporting the underdog (even though I like South African rugby and I really really like Brian Habana). So I think there’s a chance I’ll be cheering Ireland in the final. Who’s with me?!!

 

 

fn1: You might say I’m drawing a long bow here, but Saxons didn’t really use missile weapons, so as the Saxons would say, “fuck off!”

The French soldiers at the Battle of Agincourt were so exhausted by the time that they entered battle that they could barely have fought, according to new research reported in the Guardian. A professor of biomechanics asked staff from the Royal Armouries Museum to walk and run in replica armour from the 15th century, based on a variety of designs, and took measurements of oxygen use, which enables estimates of energy consumption. The Guardian website has a video of how they did it.

Apparently running in a typical suit of armour uses 2 times as much energy as running in normal clothes, because the armour weighs up to 30kg; but worse than that, running in a backpack carrying 30kg of weight uses only 1.7 times as much energy. This is because the armour distributes some of that 30kg onto the limbs, which move more than the back during ordinary movement. Additionally, armour constricts breathing. The news report also points out that in Agincourt the French had to slog through mud, which would further add to their energy load. Interestingly, armour is comparatively more efficient when running (1.9 times the energy load) than walking (2.3 times).

I’ve always been suspicious of mediaeval re-enactors oft-repeated claims that plate armour is easy to move in and not that exhausting. I suspect this comes from their limited experience of battle. I’m guessing that most mediaeval re-enactment battles cut straight to the chase, and ignore the lived experience of 15th century soldiers. Most battles probably consisted of many hours of standing and walking, and obviously we don’t do things like mediaeval re-enactment in order to reproduce the tedium of ancient warfare (or the cholera and dysentery, for that matter). So if you cut out the long, arduous process of getting to and from the battle, waiting fororders, etc. the armour probably doesn’t seem so bad. But if you think about moving around for hours in it, and the battle itself just a short part in the middle, you can see that the energy expense of just walking would be a terrific burden on the use of armour. When we think about adventurers in caves and dungeons, slogging around for hours in their full plate, it makes sense that it should put an inordinate penalty on their combat actions to represent this. Warhammer 3 reproduces this nicely with punitive encumbrance rules that quickly punish characters with fatigue penalties; I don’t think D&D was ever so good at this (largely because no one ever bothered with the encumbrance rules, I guess). Of course Rolemaster does it with complex movement manoeuvre penalties, which would be really good if they were combined with fatigue (which I don’t recall RM using).

I think the Guardian has probably over-egged the pudding on this one though, so here’s a few additional thoughts:

  • The study subjects weren’t fit: Some workers at the Royal Armouries are probably re-enactment types[1], and might be used to armour, but at a guess most of them weren’t that fit or trained for running in armour. My guess is that, just as longbowmen trained to use the bow, mediaeval soldiers trained for their armour, though this guess could itself be over-optimistic (“training” is actually a pretty modern concept). So it could be that the relative burden of armour compared to no armour is reduced in mediaeval soldiers compared to modern archivists, since fitness training tends to adapt the body to specific activities
  • The study subjects were modern: and thus almost certainly physically healthier than a mediaeval soldier, with better diet and less childhood illnesses to reduce fitness. However, they were likely also bigger, and bigger people (I think) use energy less efficiently. But one should never underestimate the importance of good modern diet, housing and healthcare (as well as childhood fitness training at school) in improving the fitness of modern people over their ancestors. So it could be that armour was even more exhausting for the mediaeval knight
  • Study bias due to armour type: Wikipedia tells me that actually most soldiers didn’t use the type of armour depicted in the video on the Guardian site, and were more likely to wear weaker wrought iron or composite armour types, that are probably also easier to move in (though wrought iron full plate could be awful, I would guess!) It also tells us that the elite knights in the vanguard at Agincourt[2] were relatively unharmed by the longbows. Still, they would then have to engage in melee combat against lightly-armoured and mobile foes while exhausted. So the best tactic for these guys would be to ensure they were surrounded by less heavily-armoured allies while they regained their breath; unfortunately, the longbowmen would have reduced the numbers of those less armoured mooks quite hideously (the stats and description of the bows at that wikipedia entry suggest that for the lighter-armoured French soldiers Agincourt would have been truly terrifying). In any case, the army fielded at Agincourt would not have looked much like the army being tested in the linked study
  • The longbow was actually not that effective: Wikipedia also tells us that, although they had a few successful battles, the French quickly got the measure of the longbowman as a weapon of war, and in some battles either defeated them or routed them. This is probably because tactics based on the longbow depend on this phenomenon of exhaustion – you thin out the lightly-armoured troops in the charge, and by the time the knights reach you they’re too buggered to fight. But I guess this depends on either a numerically superior force or having very good positioning to force a long charge (as happened at Agincourt, with mud). This goes to show that tactics are ultimately more important than most single weapons or devices. Also, I guess that although the longbowman appears, superficially, as an appealing strategic investment (lightly armoured, so cheap to equip, and manpower was something every mediaeval country had an excess of), he was probably actually a type of elite professional troop that was highly expensive to develop (15 years on that bow!), and you only need to beat them in battle once or twice to have essentially destroyed a once-in-a-generation investment. So maybe as a military tactic the longbow was as much of a dead end as the knight. The pikeman, on the other hand…

It’s nice to see science attempting to answer some of these questions about how the ancient world waged war or achieved some of its more impressive peace-time achievements (like the science of longitude, cathedrals, etc.) Some of what we think of now as quite barbaric or backward practices, or don’t esteem because they’re trivial in the modern world (like church-building) actually required prodigious talent and willpower (like any kind of mediaeval warfare) or skill, and it’s good to appreciate that.

fn1: If you’re from the Museum and you’re reading this, please don’t sue me for this slur

fn2: Ah, the days when the people who chose to go to war actually had to lead the charge! I bet if that were expected of your average modern politician, we would have much much lower “defence” budgets that were actually for defence.

Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is touring tsunami-affected parts of Japan today, and discussing deepening military ties with a country that just 70 years ago we were at war with. This is testimony to both the power of Australians and Japanese to overcome prejudice, and the huge changes that have occurred in Japan since the tragic end of that terrible war. These changes are particularly notable because, like Germany, Japan entered World War 2 only after the country had been overtaken by, essentially, a military dictatorship – but I think it’s safe to say that Japan’s pre-dictatorship democracy was more fragile than Germany’s. Julia Gillard’s tightening of Australian-Japanese ties, and her discussion of the role of China in the region, reminded me of two theories I’ve been harbouring in my breast for years about Japanese and Chinese history, so I thought I’d lay them out here and see if anyone has anything to say about them. I have no skills in historical analysis, so I think it’s reasonable to say that they’re likely bullshit, and probably not even factually correct. If so, please correct me. First Japan, then my (much more speculative) views on China.

World War 2 as a Revocation of Meiji

I use the phrase “World War 2″ to appeal to a western reader’s view of the war, but Japan’s involvement in world war 2 was only a very brief and tragic part of a much larger military engagement, which gets called various things here, such as “The Fifteen Years War” and the “Great Pacific War.” This started around about 1932, I think, when Japan started causing trouble in Korea and China, and began to assign itself the right to have “colonies” in Asia. A large part of this attitude was driven by a newfound chauvinism and a view that Japan had entered the tier of developed nation great powers, and I think such views were common at the time. The Germans were also complaining that they were the only European “power” without colonies, and I think Italy was trying to establish Imperial possessions in North Africa. It’s worth bearing in mind too that democracy in the 20s and 30s had much less legitimacy than it does now – many countries in the 30s had only had universal suffrage for 10 or 20 years, and for much of its history to date democracy had been a means by which the ruling classes debated amongst themselves as to how to dispose of the fruits of the labours of their non-voting classes. Now, of course, democracy has a 100-or-so year history of genuinely universal suffrage, and it’s been more than 100 years since the vote was extended to working-class men. So it’s easy to see that in the 20s and 30s colonialism and anti-democratic ideals could have mainstream appeal.

Japan had newfound military and international political confidence in 1905, after they trounced the Russians, and by the 1930s the western powers were starting to get worried, and forced Japan to sign up to a treaty limiting their naval tonnage, as well as rejecting a racial equality motion at the League of Nations. I have read people in Australia pointing out that the mismanagement of Japan’s military and economic growth is a good example of exactly how the west should not deal with China – responding to a new economic and military power by trying to cut off their legitimate political interests and military development is likely to exacerbate the risks of conflict; and in the 1920s colonial possessions were seen as a legitimate interest. It’s also worth remembering that before world war 2 Japan was a major industrial power as well – anyone in doubt of this should visit the Kawasaki museum in Yokohama, to witness the vast array of heavy manufacturing that was being exported from Japan in the 20s.

Along with this growing military confidence and colonialism, Japan was also going through a series of significant cultural developments that have been very well described by Basil Chamberlain, who maintains that Bushido was a fictional concept invented by the turn of the century Japanese military establishment, and points out that Shintoism’s place in national politics was changed to support the development of an intense nationalism in Japan. But this nationalism was heavily slanted towards militarism, and steeped in imagery of the power of the emperor and the importance of political ideals from before the Meiji restoration. In fact, I think that the Great Pacific War represents the terrible culmination of a long project by the military class in Japan to unwind the Meiji restoration and end the separation of the state and the military.

While western nations have struggled to separate church and state, Japan has historically had a huge problem with the non-separation of the military and the state. This problem came to a head in the 19th century after the Americans forced the Japanese to end their period of isolation. In the ensuing political and cultural struggles, civil society reacted against the historically overbearing role of the military – represented through the excessive power of the Shoguns in political life. By 1867 the emperor had become so weak and the Shogunate so powerful that the military were essentially the dominating force in domestic politics. The Meiji restoration undid this dictatorship, and included a civil war that the shoguns lost convincingly to a civilian army, a military defeat that I think they and their descendants never got over. After Meiji came a series of democratization reforms, most of them adopted along German models, and culminating in the early 20th century with universal suffrage (I think!) and the adoption of a kind of liberal democratic modern world.

However, from the 1920s on the military used flaws in the constitutional process, and their historical position near the levers of power, to regain control over the government piece by piece. I have even read that by 1942 they had so far pushed the Emperor out of power that he never learnt of the defeat of the carrier forces at the battle of Midway, and only learnt of it in the dying days of the war. By the mid-30s the military had complete control over who would sit in the cabinet, and could control the selection of the government; they were also engineering “incidents” (such as the Marco Polo bridge incident) in China to bring forward plans and excuses for war and colonization. As is often the case, every step down the path to war reduced the power of civil society and caused Japanese political life to become more closed and thus more amenable to militarism. By the time of Pearl Harbour the Japanese military was basically running the country through a puppet cabinet, with Emperor Hirohito as basically a figurehead (though, I suspect, a willing one).

i.e. they had restored the Shogunate, and returned Japan to its “natural” position as a society ruled by enlightened military leaders through puppet governments. They achieved this through a 20 or 30 year process of interference in political life, and before that by careful development of cultural ideals (of Bushido, and of the righteousness of Shintoism) that served their goals. Compare this to the military dictatorships in Europe at that time, which generally came about after short political struggles in civil society, during which the thugs of the far right intimidated the unionized left, and then at some key point the civilian leadership invited the military to help them through emergency rule. Hitler’s ascension, for example, was almost entirely conducted through the political sphere, and in fact he had to develop a parallel military to serve his aims (which he then disbanded, brutally, once he had the real military on side). I think that the Japanese slide into dictatorship was a very different animal, conducted subtly as a process of revocation of Meiji.

This isn’t to say that the military knew they were doing this – they may just have been seizing power by the means they thought best suited their culture, but that means inevitably ends up resembling a return to the pre-modern era, and could only be facilitated through a continual slide into war. Given that the USA was hell bent on stymying Japanese expansion in Asia, and the military’s plans for domestic power required foreign intervention, a collision was inevitable. I think America and the UK could have avoided this collision had they been better acquainted with Japan, but by 1935 Japan was still largely a mystery in the West – in 1905 when he wrote his essay, Chamberlain notes that there is only one history of Japan published in English, and the first real interpreters of Japan for a foreign non-academic audience only started writing in the late 19th and early 20th century. So it’s reasonable to say that the west – and especially the English-speaking west – were struggling to understand Japanese political goals in the inter-war era.

So, just as the war in Europe put an end to military dictatorship as a respected form of political power in Western Europe (but sadly, gave proletarian dictatorship a big boost), so it was only the complete destruction of the Japanese army that ended its long-held desires to return to a Meiji-era position of prominence in Japanese cultural life. It took a war of unprecedented scale and horror to finally guarantee Japan a pathway to peaceful democracy, and even then the post-war disputes were quite vigorous and violent. It could even be argued, I think, that there is another kind of revocation of Meiji going on in modern Japan, with the military’s role replaced by the big corporations, who sometimes appear to control the government in much the same way as the military once did. Maybe this is a model of democracy that the Japanese can’t escape, and the continuity is still there even now.

Communist China as a Continuation of Empire

So now we move on to the issue of communist China. I visited China for a month in 2002, and I was struck by some of the parallels between the modern communist government and the Empire that it replaced. Three particular parallels surprised me: the reconstruction of the great wall, the judgment of heaven, and the role of mandarins.

The Reconstruction of the Great Wall: Throughout history, when a new Emperor seized the reins of power in China his first task would be to reconstruct the Great Wall, as a kind of nation-building project and example of his power and authority. When I went to China in 2002, the government was engaged in a massive rebuilding project to restore the Great Wall and make it better available as a tourist attraction. The Wall isn’t only a tourist attraction though, it’s also a symbol of China’s continuity as a nation, and its resistance to foreign occupation. No surprise then that the communist government saw the same value in restoring it that previous Emperors did, even if the public face of it is for tourism rather than war.

The Judgment of Heaven: Something that is often overlooked in criticism of Mao’s Great Leap Forward is that China has always suffered from periodic famine, and its peasants suffered terribly from the policies of successive Imperial governments. This phenomenon was so pronounced that it even had a religious and political explanation – if famine or drought struck the land the Emperor was assumed to be out of favour with heaven, and had to go to a special part of the Summer Palace near Beijing to sacrifice some bulls in a special ritual to restore favour. Too long out of favour, and the Emperor would fall. When I was in China my guide, an Australian chap who spoke good Chinese and had spent years there, told me that the Chinese government is absolutely terrified of famine, and does everything it can to ensure there will never be a threat of starvation in China. In fact, for all the cruelties of its early years, the communist government deserves credit for being perhaps the first government ever in the history of China to end famine. There has been no famine in China since the Great Leap Forward, which is possibly the longest period in history that this has happened (don’t quote me on this!) The communist government values this judgment of heaven, and strives to maintain its good graces through a wide range of political and economic tactics… I think the 10 years since my visit have shown that they will go to great lengths to ensure an ordered transition to market mechanisms, guaranteed employment, etc.

The Role of the Mandarins: Imperial China was ruled by a tiny clique of public servants, who worked in a very ordered and structured system. One entered the service through passing tests, and there were strict levels and heirarchies, through which one ascended by carefully prescribed mechanisms. i.e. the Imperial court was pretty much exactly like the communist party that rules China now.

So, they had a huge revolution, 20 years of turmoil, and … nothing has changed. Except that the current government enjoys the favour of Heaven… Whether this government will last as long as some Imperial dynasties we will never know, but I’m willing to bet now that whatever replaces communism in China will show the same general principles.

It’s interesting that huge changes – reformation, revolution, turmoil, world-consuming war, famine, civil war, strife – can befall a country like Japan or China, but through it all they can maintain this strange coherency of political structures, even if on the surface they seem to have changed completely, or even been put in place in reaction against the previous processes. An interesting form of continuity…

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