Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Merry Christmas from the Idle Historian

Wishing all readers a very merry Christmas...

[This photo seems to really capture the camaraderie and spirit of the season. American soldiers celebrating a simple Christmas, 1941]

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Winston Churchill on Writing a Book

One of the many fascinating aspects of Winston Churchill's remarkable life is the fact that he fit in a prolific writing career among his many other pursuits, including his famed afternoon naps. This is what he had to say about the process of producing a book. As one who has been through it [in all its glory here], I can attest to some of these sentiments:

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy, and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress. and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phrase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him about to the public.

Friday, 27 September 2013

The Shifting "Red Line" in Syria and Historical Context on Chemical Weapons

George Orwell once wrote, “Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.” This is the shadow, originating from the conflict in Iraq, which overlays the debate regarding military intervention in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Sentiment against an attack, when the debate was at its height several weeks ago, was strongly suggestive of embarrassment at the fallout of earlier events: the doctored case for war in Iraq, the failure to find WMD, and a decade of costly Coalition occupation. The rejection of intervention by the British Parliament mirrored all these concerns. If that discussion were displaced to the era before Operation Iraqi Freedom its tone would have been very different. Pundits spoke of President Obama’s fatal diplomatic blunder, and his hesitant statements and delay in waiting for Congressional debate were viewed as last-minute obfuscations on the path to retreat. There was no doubt about both widespread opposition to war and doubt about how such an operation would function without proverbial “boots on the ground.” The eleventh-hour promise of international negotiation, the machinations of the Russians, and Vladimir Putin's famous op/ed piece in The New York Times changed the debate radically, allowing all the "disaster" (diplomatic or military) scenarios to be put on the shelf -- at least temporarily.

The debate over the “red line” took a crucial turn at the gathering of the G20 in Russia at the beginning of September and the war of words highlighting the difference between Putin’s narrative of the West and the way the West views itself. David Cameron, who had resigned himself to the sidelines, had his nose put out of joint due to the “small island” row. Obama has continued to insist that the red line was devised not by his administration, but through over one hundred years of international treaties recognized by most nations (not including Syria). Even our own Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had initially only offered tepid moral support, came out with strong words against the Russian position and pointed out that even the most barbarous regimes of the twentieth century (with some exceptions) refrained from the use of chemical warfare. He went so far as to say that a failure to act “is a precedent that humanity will regret for generations to come.”

The historical red line against chemical weapons is worth exploration. Many instinctively feel that this taboo is curious, though it is difficult to articulate why. Some wonder how death by gas is much different, in the end, from death due to shelling or aerial bombardment? The answer lies in the historic evolution of our notions regarding “civilized warfare.” Since ancient civilization, those who employ poison have been particularly loathed. In addition, weapons which imitate prehistoric violence such as rockets, shells, bayonets, and mortars have found greater acceptance as “natural” weapons. Chemical compounds have been regarded as illegitimate weapons of war on these grounds.  The human aversion to gas warfare is visceral. As early as 1899 Hague Peace conference delegates voted against chemical warfare, charging that nations should “abstain from the use of projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.” These attitudes remain an entrenched part of international laws of armed conflict, enshrined in the Geneva Protocol of 1925. It formally banned the use of chemical warfare, though Europeans in the 1920s and 1930s were not optimistic that it would be adhered to by a future aggressor. Ethicists may ask why the red line does not also include all targeting of civilians; indeed, pacifist campaigners in the 1920s and 1930s were interested in outlawing aerial warfare in addition to the use of chemical weapons.

The fact that we know we cannot prevent aerial bombardment, drone attacks, or civilian casualties from conventional weapons does not necessarily mean that it is not important collectively to maintain some taboos. Obama, Harper, and other leaders were expressing the anxiety that chemical weapons will become “normalized.” The deaths from these terrorizing attacks are, of course, no more tragic than 100,000 Syrian fatalities from conventional weapons. Having become increasingly cognizant of how “generations to come” will judge their decisions, leaders of the "world community" have taken a major step in at least attempting to enforce and negotiate an end to Syria's current, and hopefully future, use of chemical weapons. The news that has just come in highlights that the UN is, finally, taking this issue seriously and has approved a plan for action to destroy an estimated 900 tonnes of chemical weapons. There is admittedly much work left to do and many uncertainties and intractable problems remaining, but it is, at the very least, an important start.

Michele Haapamäki is the author of the forthcoming book The Coming of the Aerial War: Culture and the Fear of Airborne Attack in Inter-war Britain

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Probing another King Richard: The Heart of a Lion

February was an interesting month to be a long-dead English monarch answering to the name of Richard. In early February came the startling news that the remains of Richard III, a controversial King (perhaps) libelled by Shakespeare, were identified under a car park in Leicester - turning into a rich historical saga known to historians on twitter as #kinginacarpark. (Our sister blog's story about the Canadian lineage connection.)

Now, out of the blue, we have this story about researchers probing the remains of the heart of Richard I, the Crusading King most commonly known as The Lionhearted. (Video story here) There is, naturally, a limited amount of information that even the most sophisticated scientific processes can discover from a dessicated heart - even that of a King. Yet researchers were able to determine that the king had not perished from a poisoned-tip arrow to the heart. They did, however, find embalming spices that demonstrate piety or a symbolic imitation of the materials used to embalm the body of Christ. From the BBC:

"Mark Ormrod, professor in history from the University of York, said the research was extremely interesting.
'That consciousness of using very high-quality herbs and spices and other materials that are much sought after and rare does add to that sense of it being Christ-like in its quality,' he said.
'Medieval kings were thought to represent the divine on Earth - they were set apart from other lay people and regarded as special and different. So that treatment of the heart strikes me as being absolutely credible.'

[Richard I's tomb at Rouen]

The research into the fates of both Kings Richard, separated in time by some hundreds of years, demonstrates how the clinical aspects of forensic science can provide answers, or at least probable suggestions, to historical mysteries and questions. The most fascinating possibility is that we may find confirmations of myth and legend, such as the depictions of Richard III's curved spine. It also appears that a Welsh poem describing his facial wound is remarkably accurate. As for the questions of character (the suggestions that Richard I was a cruel and despotic ruler, and the controversy over the extent of Richard III's misdeeds) and historical interpretation, the debates still continue unabated. 

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils

Monday, 24 December 2012

Happy Christmas!: The Victorians and their Odd Christmas Cards

As most people with a cursory knowledge of 19th century are aware, many of our Christmas traditions were imported in the Victorian era from Germany via Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort until his death in 1861. In researching Edwardian Christmas cards for my post on the sister blog, Eating Like an Edwardian, I discovered that many themes were not of the winter-Christmasy sort to which we are more accustomed. There were "summer" settings, young men and ladies in boats, and other such images used. Some Victorians, it turns out, had even odder notions of appropriate Christmas cards.

The Victorians pioneered the Christmas card - the first being sold in London in 1843 - and the mania was soon assisted by the Penny Post, which ensured that sending mail in general was no longer the preserve of only the wealthy. The giving and reciprocal obligation of holiday cards had begun. The present writer is old enough to remember a time when unsealed cards of no more than a certain number of words and mailed before a certain date, were charged a lower Christmas postage rate. Alas, no more. Expense, along with the proliferation of instant electronic communication, threatens the long tradition of the Christmas card.

Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year from the Idle Historian, and a few Victorian postcards (traditional and otherwise) for your pleasure.

[Well-known image of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children
decorating the Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle, circa 1850]

[From the British Library: Two children, we suppose, wishing each
other good cheer?]

[A rather fanciful "Hearty Greeting" for the season]

[The Kindly Robin wishes you a Happy Christmas]

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Why the Taboo on Chemical Weapons?: A (Very) Short Historical Snapshot

The increasingly bloody conflict in Syria has been ongoing now for more than one year, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. None of the major powers have been willing to act, with Russia and China remaining decidedly anti-intervention. Diplomats have trotted out the commonplace statements of “grave concern” and condemnation of brutal acts against civilians. Yet the rhetoric changes sharply as the possibility of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime employing its (assumed) stockpiles of weapons in a no-turning-back-scorched-earth-manoeuvre is raised (at least one analyst thinks this outcome highly unlikely). Individuals such as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton use phrases such as a “red line” and other Western leaders have followed suit. John Baird, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, alluded to the opinion of the “civilized world” as being immovable. Russia and China are said to privately warn the Syrian regime that such a move would negate their neutrality.

Many people instinctively feel that this talk of a “red line” is curious, though it is difficult for them to articulate why. Of course chemical attacks against civilians, such as those perpetrated by Saddam Hussein against the Kurdish minority in Iraq, are horrific and despicable. But, as some wonder, how is death by gas much different, in the end, from thousands of deaths due to shelling and aerial bombardment? The answer lies in the historic evolution of our notions regarding the rules of “civilized warfare,” and what is known as the “prohibitory norm.” Since ancient times, those who employ poison have been particularly loathed and viewed as cowards. In addition, weapons which imitate prehistoric violence (even if mechanized), such as rockets, shells, bayonets, and mortars have found greater acceptance as “natural” weapons. Chemical compounds have been regarded as illegitimate weapons of war on these grounds. 

 [Preparing for the nightmare world of gas warfare -- the 1930s]

The human aversion to gas warfare is visceral. As early as 1899 delegates to a Hague Peace conference voted against chemical warfare, charging that nations should “abstain from the use of projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.” These attitudes remain an entrenched part of the international laws of armed conflict. The primary international agreement regarding the use of poison gas was the Geneva Protocol of 1925. It formally banned the use of chemical warfare, though Europeans in the 1920s and 1930s were not optimistic that it would be adhered to by a future aggressor.

There have always been some who took a more “sanguine” view of gas warfare – before, at least, the invention of modern gasses such as sarin. Some military professionals and commentators in the 1920s studied the casualty figures from the First World War and decided that gas was the least harmful of weapons deployed, since most men who were gassed in the trenches did survive (even if they suffered terribly). Military theorists such as the famous Basil Liddell Hart, J.F.C. Fuller, and J.B.S. Haldane tentatively proposed that gas even be considered a more “humane” weapon which might shorten wars and lead to less loss of life. Yet by the 1930s the uniform horror of gas warfare was enforced by doomsday novelists, pacifists and the international “taboo.” Gas warfare was not utilized against civilians in the Second World War as had been predicted, for reasons ranging from its unpredictability to the fear of retaliation.

The taboo against the use of poison gas has become so entrenched in both military ethics and practice to the extent that it is impossible to imagine the international community ever regarding it as simply one choice of weapon among many. The ethicists may ask why the “red line” does not also include the targeting of civilians in aerial warfare? Indeed, pacifist campaigners in the 1920s and 1930s were interested in outlawing aerial warfare in addition to the use of chemical weapons. Whatever does unfold in the sad reality that is current Syria, our collective questions about war, morality, and what is truly “taboo” have no easy answers. They will, no doubt, still be addressed by our descendants. But they, like us, will be constrained and influenced by the attitudes which have passed into general acceptance beforehand.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

I went to the War of 1812 Experience and All I Got was this Postcard: Ideology, Politics, and the Function of History

Modern museum-going has become, in large part, an exercise in genre-identification. We can sense and feel the direction that any given exhibit will take as soon as we walk through the doors. Our mental checklists unconsciously click into gear as we attempt to look suitably grave and impressed whether we are or not – as if, perhaps, the stone-faced security guard might call eject us if we appear less-than-worshipful in the temples to human achievement or creativity into which we have ventured. We can all recall exhibits both fine and dreadful – even if words fail to adequately describe how and why we would categorize them in these ways.

 [Free postcard - Sir Isaac Brock: hero!]

Such was my dilemma after finally capitulating and going to view the Canadian Heritage War of 1812 Experience at Canada Place in Vancouver. I had initially declared that words failed me to describe the entire War of 1812 commemorative project – including the costly television spots which Canadians have been viewing for some time. But, on reflection, I have since found some choice words. The entire campaign is estimated at $28 million, so it is not unreasonable to ask what we get for it.

 [Outside the exhibit - the general idea]

What of the exhibit? It is a small, two-room affair (excluding the exterior replica cannons and the like as pictured) – which is bound to have its limitations. All the same, the limits are attributable more to the creators than to the space. The first room consists of the multi-media presentation, beginning with a silhouette of British soldiers inside a warning (somewhat incoherently) that the Americans are coming. The viewer then turns around to view loud volleys of gunfire and battle re-enactment which demonstrate that the Americans have come, armed to the teeth. A touch of dry ice puffing from the walls (I kid you not, dear reader) completes the verisimilitude. From there the jolted nerves are dispatched to the second room which consists of replica weapons on display, a few explanatory panels, interactive displays and free postcards of six heroes/heroines of the conflict (well, one heroine - Laura Secord). I chose Sir Issac Brock, as I have been to the memorial of the battle at Queenston Heights; and, besides, he looks rather natty in his uniform, don’t you think? Oh yes, and there is a photobooth to take a picture superimposed onto one of the six “hero” portraits. I declined to take one, thus depriving the readers of this blog of much merriment.

 [This way for the War of 1812 "Experience" -- on site for two years]

The message conveyed by the exhibit is in one way laudable for the inclusivity of the various groups that made up British North America in 1812 – French, English, and Canada’s First Peoples. But it does so in a simplistic fashion that reduces the conflict to two or three (not entirely accurate) take-away points: “we” repelled American aggression from our land, the conflict forged Canada as a nation, and various people of differing hues and languages were happy to help in the endeavour. This narrative ignores the many complex reasons for the War and the geopolitical tussle between Great Britain and the United States in which “Canada” (of course not in its current form - "Upper" and "Lower" Canada at that time) just happened, in many ways, to be a staging ground. I will not delve deeply into a critique of it as a de-contextualized glorification of war, but an excellent starting point would be this article in War is, yes, a part of our history, but it reflects only a fraction of who were are as a people. One friend who is an historian of pre-Confederation Canada remarked that there is much fascinating scholarly work being done on the War of 1812 – its causes, the roles of the participants, and innovations in the waging of war itself. Yet, sadly, not even an iota of nuance is conveyed to the public. It is – and I don’t think the word is too strong – “propaganda” - so thin and simplistic as to be reducible to the gravitas of a “hero” postcard. Ultimately, it is laughable. And, for an enterprise costing millions of dollars and residing for TWO YEARS on the pretence of serious public display, laughable is perhaps the worst of epithets.

In the current political and economic context, however, it is much more than simply a poorly put-together exhibit. Ten years ago it might have been passed off simply as a “dud,” but given the Harper Government’s approach to history, the humanities, and scholarly knowledge in general, the revealing ideological basis of the exhibit bears scrutiny. Despite the lavish spending on 1812 commemoration, the government is on a path to undermine history and the humanities in numerous ways that are, at their core, ideologically driven. The practice of history as one of the liberal arts has been under attack – from the drastic cuts to libraries and archives to funding for humanities research - everything from graduate student grants to the opportunities available for postdocs and faculty research. These changes are a reflection of a “we don’t need no book learnin’” anti-intellectual approach to public policy and governance. This has been in ample evidence from the diminishment of Statistics Canada, the decision to cancel the long-form census (and here), and the scandalous muzzling of scientists who speak out about the effects of climate change.

I am prepared for the accusation that I am a mere “elitist” – a favourite charge often promulgated against those who insist on the value of expertise, research, peer-review, the empirical method, and likewise. The rhetoric against “pointy-headed” or “ivory-towered” intellectuals is part and parcel of over thirty years of rhetoric aimed at diminishing the independence of universities, academia and scholarship. It, regrettably, has strong purchase and is prevalent in many of the attitudes of both politicians and the general public towards the academy. I am not an “elitist” in the sense of being an aesthete or an intellectual snob; I have been involved with public history for many years in my community. I can and do appreciate simple exhibits of historic note put together in public places, in community centres or libraries, or even by schoolchildren. I am not a snob for criticizing the War of 1812 exhibit. On the contrary, I criticize because it smacks of the ideological conformity and simplistic incurious narratives of Canadian identity which the Harper Conservatives have pursued throughout both their minority and majority mandates. In discussion with one of the two young people staffing the exhibit (who were, understandably, rather bored as attendance was – to say the least – scant), I learned that he worked for the private company who was sub-contracted to design and run the exhibit. Given our government’s approach to all public services and amenities, this one fact really tells us all we need to know.

If you have read anything of this blog previously you will know that the Idle Historian is by no means a wild-eyed radical intent on jettisoning any cherished narratives. In fact, I actually prize a certain form of nostalgic tradition a great deal – even old-fashioned and quite unpopular concepts such as church and army, and (at least some) warm and fuzzy feelings of our past as part of the British Empire. By consequence I maintain, in a boldly self-confident manner, that I am more than qualified to pen this critique. Yet at the same time I know that history does not exist to shore up my fuzzy feelings and identity, comforting as they may be. History is a practice by which we continuously seek to depict the world from different perspectives than those of previous generations, give voice to those largely unrecorded in the standard narratives, and discomfort our simple notions that history is a “lesson” which merely exists to teach us X or Y. It is not a fungible commodity to be used as a corporate-style national branding exercise (one can only imagine what will become of the new Canadian Museum of History). The War of 1812 exhibit offends against hard-fought, diverse, and complex understandings of scholarship. Because it also represents such an enormous investment of our (scarce) national “heritage” funding, it must be consequently held to account.
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