Friday, 3 July 2015

War! What is it good for?

When I was at school we learned our history the old-fashioned way. Lists of battles were dutifully memorised. I remember exams in which we had to mark each of the main incidents of the Peninsular War on a map of Iberia. When it was over, I had no idea why the British had been fighting in Spain, or what the importance of the campaign was in terms of Napoleon's ultimate defeat.

Nowadays, we have put this approach behind us. Children are taught to imagine the lives of "ordinary people", especially if these people are women, poor, or otherwise disadvantaged. There's an emphasis on social history; a move away from kings and queens and those interminable lists of battles. It's a humane response to an idiotic way of teaching history.

So why, then, was I talking about Waterloo a couple of weeks ago, the Crimea last week, and, in the weeks to come, will I be writing about the siege of Cawnpore during the Indian Mutiny?

I've written five historical novels. Three are about a spy in the Napoleonic wars, so I imagine that some degree of military action was inevitable. The other two, though, are about issues of colonialism in the mid-19th century. They are essentially about misunderstandings between cultures – misunderstandings that, in theory, do not have to end in bloodshed. The fact is, though, that each of these books includes acts of horrendous violence. This cannot be explained simply by saying that the history of British colonialism is a history of military conquest, for my account of Cawnpore centres on the military aggrandisement of an Indian princeling.

I write books that centre on conflict. Some literary theorists would say that this is true of all books, but my conflicts are more explicit than some others. In the case of the books about James Burke, the conflict is there principally to provide adventure and excitement for the reader, so you could argue that, for example, the battle of Waterloo inevitably features because if you want excitement in the Napoleonic wars, the field of Waterloo is an obvious place to find it. However, in the first of the series, Burke in the Land of Silver, the conflict is the struggle for Argentinian independence, a struggle waged principally between the people of Argentina and the government of Spain. Yet the battle that features in this novel is waged by Britain. It's even less obvious why a story about the dynamics of ruling a small country in Borneo (The White Rajah) should climax with a battle involving the British Navy, especially as the country that the Navy was acting for was not even a British colony.

Brooke's and HMS Dido's forces attacking pirate stronghold 

Part of the problem, I think, is that since the end of World War II we have come to think of armed conflict as an aberration. Economic or political crises should be settled diplomatically. After all, nobody is suggesting that the Bundeswehr is going to march into Greece to demand that it give the Germans their money back. Historically, though, this is arguably an unusual state of affairs. Bismarck famously said that war was the continuation of diplomacy by other means and the idea that disputes between nations should be settled militarily is much older than the concepts of the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. Arguably, our modern notions that history is not about battles are about to be set aside. It is interesting to see the difficulty that the international community has in trying to discuss the future of Ukraine whilst carefully ignoring the reality that that future has already been decided by the presence of Russian tanks on Ukrainian soil.

This does not explain, though, why Britain invaded Buenos Aires at a time when the principal conflict in the area was between the Argentinian people and their Spanish rulers. Nor does it explain the intervention of the British Navy in a conflict between the rulers of Sarawak and a tribe of marauding Sea Dyaks. To a degree, of course, the British were taking advantage of a period of uncertainty in order to strengthen their political and military position. I think, though, that this does not imply that these were calculated moves. There is a lot of truth in the aphorism that the British Empire was acquired mostly in moments of absentmindedness.

When there is cultural or political conflict, there is a tendency for people to resolve the situation with force. Violence is often a response to political or economic upheavals, even when the violence does not in any way address the factors that created it. Thus, there is a clear correlation between economic conditions and the number of lynchings in the southern states of America, although those lynched were more likely to be accused of a sexual crime or a lack of respect rather than anything related to the economy.

It seems, perhaps, that my teachers were at least partly right. History can be taught as a series of military conflicts. However, I do not think that it makes sense to see military achievements as shaping the course of history. Rather, it is that periods of great change are punctuated by military adventures. Waterloo, for example, did not initiate the end of a revolutionary era and bring peace to Europe. After decades of war, Europe was ready for peace and the Great Powers had united to end revolution. The military defeat of Napoleon was an inevitable consequence of social and political change at the beginning of the 19th century: the changes that followed 1815 were not caused by Napoleon's defeat but were the product of the movements that had destroyed him. History can only be understood by looking at social and economic changes, but to pretend that these are not accompanied by violence and conflict is to ignore reality. War is the punctuation of history and to teach the history of an era without teaching about the military campaigns that took place at the time is to present the student with a book in which sentences and paragraphs are run together.

I do not want to spend my life writing about war, but I'm fascinated by the drama of periods of radical change in history and the clashes between different ways of looking at the world. It is not inevitable that writing about these issues will always mean writing about battles, but I suspect that I haven't seen the last of war in my stories. Fortunately, armed conflict, however terrible in reality, can always be turned to good account in fiction. As pedagogical fashions change, I hope that it might also find its way back into the teaching of history.


  1. Super article, Tom. Keep on writing about war, your readers want hear more.

    So why do I keep blogging about murder?

  2. Excellent article Tom - very thought-provoking. I must say that the expression of "The Futility of War" - which you rightly avoid in our nuanced approach always seems mindlessly simplistic. One has only to stand in Auschwitz and Dachau, or to have lived in a country run by a dictatorship, to know that some things are worth fighting for. My much-loved mother-in-law told me that what she was most grateful for in her whole life was the sight of Canadian forces rolling into Amsterdam in Spring 1945.

  3. I agree, as a frustrated Historian that the way history is currently taught is just wrong and very unfair to major events. Learning about Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole is all very well, but learning about Russian Imperialism and British jingoism give one a fare greater vision. By focusing on people, you skip over the massive blunders and errors made by nations, rulers and governments, and encourage a sense that history consisted of wonderful people doing heroic things, instead of misguided rulers pursuing their own megalomanias .. ...