Classic war film The Battle of Midway was on this weekend and as the feature film uses some genuine wartime footage (notably in the ariel combat scenes) it reminded me of the legendary Hollywood director John Ford, who shot some of the most famous American films of the mid 20th century (and is largely responsible for the visual look of the classic Western). Ford volunteered to take a documentary film crew to the tiny island of Midway ahead of the expected Japanese attack, to record it for the US Navy. He didn’t just make fictional tales of combat and heroism, he actually dodged bullets and bombs to record what would be a pivotal moment in the war in the Pacific, when the US fleet, so badly damaged after the sneak attack at Pearl Harbour the year before, struck back and seriously wounded the seemingly omnipotent Imperial Japanese Navy. The war in the Pacific would rage on for several more bloody years and cost both sides dearly, but this was one of those pivotal moments when the Americans showed their enemies that they weren’t the soft, decadent people they had assumed but a ferocious force determined to finish what the bad guys had started (ah, the days when we didn’t worry about the morality of US foreign policy because it was a clear cut us and them, good guys versus the bad guys war…). Checking the web I found you can actually watch Ford’s original short documentary footage online – no CGI and special effects here, no actors who have spent a few weeks in a mock boot camp to be trained, this is the real thing and recorded at enormous risk. Makes James Cameron going to the depths of the oceans in a submersible look kind of tame in directing derring-do terms, doesn’t it?
A while ago a petition was started on the 10 Downing Street site asking for the British government to do something posthumously about the great Alan Turing. Turing wasn’t just a genius – an astonishing mathematician, one of the fathers of computing (this in the 1940s, mark you), early thinker in Artificial Intelligence and a legendary codebreaker whose work in the incredibly secret world of BletchleyPark’s Station X was an enormous part of the Allied effort in the Second World War. In fact it is no exaggeration to state without the work of Turing and his fellows there is a very real chance the good guys might not have won, or at the very least the war would have run far longer, claiming many more lives (and imagine if Nazi Germany had lasted another 2 or 3 years, imagine if they had time to fully develop their new fast jet fighters to attack Allied bombers, expand their V2 rockets which there was no defence against, continue atomic experiments… It doesn’t bear thinking about).
There is a part in Neal Stephenson’s fascinating Cryptomonicon, a novel which, like his later (although set in earlier period) Baroque Cycle mixes real historical figures with fictional to create a tale richly detailed with extensively researched history, where those working with Turing in the race to decode the German Enigma codes ponders what they do. At first he thought their team was fighting the shadow war while the real war raged in the skies and seas and land. Then he starts to realise what they are doing, shadowy and theoretical as much of it is, is the real war: fates of convoys, great warships, divisions of troops, even the fates of nations depend on what they are doing behind the scenes.
For his enormous contribution to saving his nation and invaluable intelligence in defeating the most odious, vile threat the free world has faced Turing was persecuted by his country. Alan Turing was homosexual, at a time when it was not just treated as unacceptable by society but actually a criminal offence. His security clearance was revoked, he was hounded, subjected to a ridiculous snake-oil ‘cure’ which was effectively a form of chemical castration. Alan took his own life not long afterwards, eating an apple he had laced with cyanide. An intellectual genius who had armoured the free world against violent Nazi oppression was oppressed by a bigoted society until he took his own life. Thankfully today we have moved on a bit in the way that gay, lesbian, bi or transgender folks are viewed and treated but there are still so many ignorant bastards who still rant their ignorant bigotry as if LGBT people were of a different species and this is the cost of that kind of uncomprehending, ignorant hatred, one of our best and brightest lost and although he used his brain rather than a bayonet or a Spitfire, someone I would consider a war hero who fought the good fight as hard as anyone.
It is good in this month that marks the 70th anniversary of the start of World War Two that Gordon Brown has formally apologised for the way Turing was treated, although a full pardon and offering proper government support for the museum at Bletchley Park would be better – the place where many men and women laboured in secret, without honours or publicity, to help win the war deserves to be better known. Its not as eye-catching as a Spitfire or the Normandy Landings, but the backroom boffins of Station X paved the road to victory as surely as the soldiers, airmen and sailors, as well as pioneering a whole new field of codebreaking, intelligence and birthing the modern computer, all kept secret for decades, so sensitive was this information (much of it was used during the subsequent Cold War for British Intelligence, it was that good) and both Turing and his colleagues should all be far more honoured than they have been. We have many public monuments to those who sacrificed all in defending us, and its right we should, but we should also honour the remarkable intellects who did no less a work in defending everything we believe in.
The 6th of June; on this day in 1944 thousands of ordinary men did something extraordinary and stormed the enemy beaches in a landing now as legendary as the thousand ships of the Greeks beaching at Troy; the bad guys were finally going to be pushed back inch by bloody inch. Before they made that monumental charge how many others had been there secretly before them? How many agents, resistance fighters and Commandos died silently in the dark scouting those beaches to get the information needed to make D-Day work? I wonder where my old childhood hero wee George was that day with his Commando mates and again I wish I had known him as an adult and had the chance to record some of his memories. Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha and Utah; a huge endeavour and an enormous gamble, even with the massive naval and air superiority the Allies had built up, but it worked. I remember seeing a photograph years ago in a history book – I think it was some airborne troops preparing to get into the wooden Horsa gliders; someone had chalked on the side “the Channel stopped you, but not us.” I do wonder, as time passes, in the distant future will people think that this enormous armada and legions of brave souls are just a poetic exaggeration like the Iliad? What a price was paid for our freedoms.
Today marks the 60th anniversary of the commencement of the Nuremberg trials, where the surviving leaders of Nazi Germany were brought before a court which gave the world a new term: crimes against humanity. Just another historical anniversary? Far from it; all of our collective history is relevant – events from 60 years ago influence and shape our present just as events 600 years ago. History is far from a purely academic interest, it is the mould of our current world and a lack of awareness of our history denies us the means to understand and thus alter that mould to a new and better design.
The Nuremberg trials set the basis for later international law and set leaders on notice that they could be held to account for their actions in a world court – as old Slobby is at the moment (‘ethnic cleansing’ – a hideous case of history repeating itself if ever there was). Unfortunately it is unlikely we will see all of those who use their power and position unwisely – will we see Mugabe in the Hague? Blair? Bush? The leaders of the insurgency in Iraq who murdered dozens of Muslims at prayer on Friday? As with the supposedly impartial law of our own land those with influence and connections can and often do manage to circumvent the legal consequences to their actions. Nonetheless, the principal is a good one and we ignore it and the lessons of history at our peril.
On which subject I was watching the documentary series The West (from the producers of the excellent Civil War series, which drew largely on the work of the wonderful Shelby Foote) and once again was struck with how patterns repeat in history, usually to our shame. This episode dealt with Custer’s arrogant downfall at the Little Bighorn, the forcible taking of the sacred Black Hills by the US government after promises not to and the flight of the Lakota and the Nez Perce. Legendary names abound in this episode – Sherman, Custer, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull – but the one thing which stared me in the face from over a century ago was the blind arrogance and greed of a larger power which would make many indications of friendship and peace then break their word and commit any and all forms of brutal act on warriors and civilians alike when they saw land and resources they coveted. Be it minerals in the Black Hills or the black gold of oil in the deserts of Iraq, it seems we are doomed to repeat some patterns as long as those with weak morals and no grasp of history are allowed to rule.
All the more important then, I think, that the rest of us learn and debate these events, historical and contemporary. Perhaps it will only be some of us talking online, but as long as some think about it and discuss it we serve notice that we refuse to be comlicit in these events and that we are watching what they do. And who knows, perhaps one day the people who commit such atrocities, dressing them up in lies and broken promises, will have to answer to us. Last week we commemerated the fallen of previous wars and the phrase ‘lest we forget’ was repeated, almost as a litany; this is a good phrase and one we should and must apply not only to those who fell to protect us but to those who would abuse that sacrifice to further their own selfish ends, dressing it in a rhetoric of lies.
“Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father’s grave. They do not pay for all my horses and cattle.
Good words cannot give me back my children. Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves.”
In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat (Thunder coming up over the land from the water), better known to us as Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, talking of the plight of his people, but it can all to easily be applied to current events. There is a commendable and concise overview of the chief by Jennifer Beck on this site.
No, not the dodgy use of the word in Iraq but the Real Deal – Paris celebrates the 60th anniversary of the liberation. Certainly a great event to celebrate, not least because of the bravery in liberating the City of Light but also because the German commander refused to follow Hitler’s demand to fight a useless battle so this ancient city escaped much of the destruction that other European city’s suffered. However, along with many other British people – not to mention Americans, Canadians and an awful lot of others – I am more than a little disgusted at the way the official version of events has airbrushed the Allies out of the history so it now reads that ‘France liberated France’.
This is not new – it is a form of revisionism that began right after the liberation when De Gaulle, showing his normal gratitude to the people who had sheltered him for years and equipped the Free French forces he commanded, declared to the Parisians that the French had liberated themselves. Presumably this was because of the desperate desire to overcome the shame of their rapid defeat four years previously and the even more shameful collaboration by many, including many in the government, with the occupying Nazi forces (although many brave Maquis risked capture, torture and death to fight on – supplied of course by the Allies and organised by British Intelligence). Well, it makes a change from Hollywood airbrushing everyone but the American GIs from the war. Did I imagine it, or did we actually fight that war here? I’m sure someone once told me the British had a pretty important role in the fight against fascism (nothing big, we just stood off the entire might of Nazi Germany by ourselves for whole year without breaking, but hey, why mention it?). Perhaps I imagined it.
Rather curious behaviour from one of the EU nation’s who is often the loudest in calling for more integration in European brotherhood
Scotland’s First Minister, Jack ‘Furtive’ McConnell has now announced a U-turn over his incredibly foolish decision not to accept an invite as leader of the Scottish government to the D-Day celebrations. Why would any statesman turn down such an invite? Well, he had already accepted an earlier invite to the anniversary of the Saint Andrew’s Royal and Ancient Golf Club. Yep, he considered a bunch of upper class twats talking about golf and wearing clothes like 1970s New York pimps to be more important then honouring the veterans of D-Day. Despite the fact that Scotland, traditionally the backbone of the British Army, suffered disproportianetly in terms of casualties he didn’t anticipate the storm of protest he caused amongst veterans and ordinary Scots. How amazingly stupid can this man be?
Picture this: a darkened room in a stately home in Southern England. It is 1944, the early hours of June 4th. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces Europe, the man tasked with the unenviable decision of if and how to launch the assault to free Europe is talking to Field Marshal Montgomery. We have a two day window of weather when the tides are right. Do we dare to go, boys? Monty considers this. Pauses in his familiar thoughtful manner, looks at his diary and answers, hmmm, the 6th isn’t good for me, I have a game of golf scheduled…
After pissing off many veterans of World War II last week by comparing his illegal foreign adventures to the fight against the Nazis Bush showed his profound understanding of history and the feelings of those vets by re-iterating the same point again. There is no lower step this mass-mudering bastard will not sink down to attempt to justify his insane actions.
Yeah, George, it’s just like WWII. We’ve got a country we invaded which has been bombed into fragments, with no infrastructure left and massive casualties from the bombing of civilian targets while the survivors try to eke out a miserable existence between the ruins while wondering what the future will bring to their ravaged land.
Coming in the week of the D-Day anniversary when we will be remembering the titanic struggles made by thousands of ordinary people to protect us from the most insidious darkness the man is once more utterly sickening.