Thursday, 24 January 2008

What Use is History?

I have just read 'Foundation' a short story by the London-based author China Mieville. He writes contemporary set stories with elements of both grim realism and also fantastical aspects. That story features a US building inspector who had served in the war in Iraq and was involved in burying Iraqi soldiers alive. As you read it, you think, that is grim but what is more shocking is that you find out it is true. Apparently 'The Guardian' reported in 2003 how US troops using tanks fitted with sand-ploughs had run over Iraqi trenches burying the soldiers alive.

Someone once said to me that they could see no point in anyone actually researching history at university because surely we now knew everything that had happened and surely there was nothing else to find. An old woman said that you needed to study history so that you could teach the children 'that we beat the Europeans and they should not be coming over here trying to take control' in a single sentence indicating her own ignorance of history. On the basis of the first woman's comments, there are many subjects we could simply stop researching. 'Why bother with geography? We know where everywhere is now.' ; 'Why bother with physics? We can all see gravity at work.'; 'Why bother researching religion? We know what God wants.' and so on. Yes, we could simply settle down being happy with what we have and not explore it any further. Yet, the World is not static as climate change, AIDS and fundamentalism show. Yet, even then, surely the past does not change, does it?

Well, to me it seems more that we only know a fraction of what actually went on. In the 1960s people started investigating 'everyday history' as they realised actually we knew quite a bit about what kings, queens and presidents did but very little about what the bulk of the population actually did in history, despite the fact that the very large majority of us are the ordinary people. We are the ordinary people of the 21st century and in decades let alone centuries to come we are going to be entirely forgotten as people study President Bush's actions and maybe those of Queen Elizabeth II. Already the Iraqi soldiers, young me choked to death in blind panic as sand was shovelled over them are forgotten.

In addition to the sweep of history literally neglecting billions of people's lives, much of history is hidden. Channel 4 began a series in 1991 called 'Secret History' which has looked at a lot of hidden bits of history, about scandals and things people even today do not want you talking about. Put the series into a search engine and you find scores of its programmes discussed at length online, examples include the fiasco of HMS Glorious in 1940 (shown 1997), about the Comet aircraft crashes of the 1950s (shown 2002) - provoked lots of controversy, the Charge of the Light Brigade fiasco (shown 2002), Ivarr the Boneless a disabled Viking leader (shown 2003), under-age recruits in the First World War (shown 2004), the so-called 'headless man' in the Duke & Duchess of Argyll's divorce (shown 2004), the story of Mary Seacole the often neglected black nurse in the Crimean War (shown 2005), one on wartime crime in the UK (when everyone now praises how the British all pulled together, in fact crime was soaring). One which became even more relevant was about how the British aerial bombing Iraqi insurgents in northern Iraq (then part of the British Empire) in 1920 with gas, something Saddam Hussein was to repeat 70 years later. Similar bombing in what is now Pakistan in the 1930s gave the RAF a distorted view of how effective aerial bombardment could be as German cities were a lot tougher than Iraqi or Pakistani villages.

Another resource I have been looking for is a long list with little one-page articles about serious strikes and unrest in British history, a lot of which gets forgotten about or pushed under the carpet. I came across it a few years ago: is one interesting section about the early 20th century when the UK seemed to be in meltdown. The site does not tell you much about itself but it seems to be focused on labour history and in particular strikes and unrest; they have the anarchist icon of a half-black, half-red star at the top. They are apparently so-called 'Libertarian Communists' which is an impossibility. Communism by definition is based on strictures and constraints whether these stem from the economy, or from societal or political power and the rules they impose. Libertarianism is a right-wing tendency (as Communism is left-wing) and believes in the total freedom of the individual to choose what they want to do, so these two things cancel each other out. Consequently it may be a joke. Alternatively it may be a consequence of the same kind of attitude as the Nazis. 'Nazi' is the contraction of the German words for National Socialist. Again national socialist combines the left-wing element of socialism, with its emphasis on international co-operation and equality whereas nationalism is right-wing and emphasises the distinction of each nation and that some nations are more important and powerful than others. So Libcom sums up a similar contradiction.

Despite their bizarre political approach (and I cannot accept that they use 'working class' but do not tolerate 'middle class' as a term, they say it has no economic basis so is illegitimate, but you could have always said that about the working class which in itself was so economically diverse as to be meaningless), anyway, despite this the articles do not seem to be pushing much propaganda and are a good start for finding out about bits of hidden history. Interestingly they adhere to the guidelines of 'The Guardian' for submitting articles and they seem to be written by people outside the group itself which may explain their quality. It is good to see these kinds of parts of history mention, though I must say that things such as the Liverpool General Strike of 1911 and the Etaples Mutiny of 1917 now get a lot more coverage than they once did and this seems to be one of the wonders of the internet and history teachers looking for something a bit more radical to include in their lessons. The Libcom site lists a lot of events that you can then search for specifically and then turn up the single topic articles that are out there (again often from left-wing radical groups, so bear that in mind as you read) on these topics.

While looking for the Libcom page surprisingly I did find a current Ministry of Defence document about the UK's 'resilience' to such things these days. I do not know if it is the sort of thing they should have freely accessible online by just searching, but maybe it is just another sign of the government's current data security problems! It was written in 2002 so I guess it is probably felt to be out of date. However, if you want to write a novel it might have some good ideas about how the UK expected to resist (I imagine given the date the focus was Islamist terrorism) attacks or internal unrest in the early 2000s. See: This turns out to be part of UK Resilience, a body I have never heard of, but is apparently part of the Cabinet Office, that rather odd bit at the centre of government. The website is apparently aimed at 'civil protection practitioners', a job title I have not heard of, maybe it is a career to get into as the site lists all the things the government is currently seeking to scare us with. The homepage is: Apparently it uses the 'UK government access key system' but unless somehow my computer has been equipped with that, it is currently not working as I am busily wandering around the site (with its wonderful acronyms such as CONOPS - UK Central Government Concept of Operations, apparently). As I say there is always a lot of secret corners out there and sometimes you can accidently shine your light into one. Go and have a look.
There are probably hundreds more corners of history in Britain, let alone across the world which have been forgotten, distorted or concealed. If we persist with faulty history then our perceptions of the present and our expectations for the future are distorted in a way which is unhealthy for our societies.

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