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the devil in the detail 



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‘Could you take a photograph of us, please?’ asked the smiling American, as I passed him and his family on the narrow path. Behind them loomed the outsize naval guns (16”, in case you’re wondering – and that’s just the bore). What could I say? I hastily clicked the shutter as all four – parents and children – smiled at me from the guns’ shadow. I handed back the camera and began to walk away, wondering how I could have dealt with the situation in a way more in keeping with my values and concerns. For someone so unenthusiastic about any display of weapons in a favourable light this brief incident had been an uncomfortable one. Then the family called me back. ‘Come and have a picture taken with us!’ they urged. And so for the second time in my life I was photographed with a big gun.

In the first picture, taken in the Belgian Ardennes, I sit astride the barrel of a somewhat smaller piece of artillery: a remnant of the fierce and bloody battle fought in the freezing winter of 1944/45, some seven or eight years before. Beaming with pleasure at having been able to reach the very end of the barrel without falling off and so confirming the folly of his action to the adults below, that small boy is just part of a happy scene captured on camera one sunny afternoon. But, as for all pictures, there are alternative readings – readings to which we are often blind and thus end up inhabiting a dangerous world.

The boy who clambered over that Ardennes gun had no way of knowing that the same forces brought both of them to the spot. Where does the list start? Before World War I, and the madness of von Schlieffen’s Plan? Even earlier, the obscene output of the factories of Krupp in Germany and Vickers in Britain? The spinelessness of socialists in Germany, Britain and France, who professed a brotherhood of workers but so easily succumbed to cheap nationalism? The carving up of Europe after WW1, the punitive reparations demanded from Germany, the criminal failure of statesmen to develop an international system of arbitration, and finally the sell-out of Czechoslovakia first to Hitler and then to Stalin? All these were some of the headline events that brought both gun and child together in the Ardennes.

Many of the same events brought those huge naval guns to London, to stand in front of the former lunatic asylum now home to the Imperial War Museum. But here, unlike the gun (long since removed) by the Ardennes roadside, the big gleaming barrels pointing at the private hospital across the way are not a casual relic. They have been brought here specially, for…. For what?

Around the time that children in Belgium were scrambling about among the detritus of a devastating world war, in France the director Georges Franju was making a short but trenchant anti-war film – ‘Hôtel des Invalides’. It was included in the programme for a weekend* of films and videos, held at the Imperial War Museum last month. Franju’s film follows a pair of young lovers visiting the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris. Originally built by Louis XlV for wounded soldiers (for which serving soldiers had to pay!), the Hôtel became the Army Museum, stuffed full of militaria. Franju’s camera drifts lovingly among the exhibits – here a cannon, there a tattered flag commemorating a battle won. Occasionally the camera closes in on some medal or a pair of gloves belonging to a victorious general. Occasionally the young couple giggle at some of the items on display. Finally, they leave.

Franju’s film is not anti-war in the current media sense of opposing a specific conflict. Nor is it against war as an abstract phenomenon. Instead, it focuses attention on some of the ideological underpinning of war – honour, heroism, tradition, and so on – necessary to support military endeavour. Think of ‘Band of Brothers’, the recent popular TV series about a unit of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, Easy Company, which fought in the Ardennes in the winter of 44/45. (Perhaps it was one of their cannons in the photograph...) Think of Remembrance Sunday, when medals on the chests of marchers are exhibited with pride. Even death is no obstacle to this display: medals are now worn by proxy, pinned to the coats of living relatives – even children and grandchildren are conscripted into this macabre practice.

Considering that ‘war’ is so destructive an activity, and blights so many lives, it should be surprising that ‘war’ and all things military continue to be valued by so many people. There are many reasons why this is so. Among them, and one we can all try to undermine, is the at best neutral presentation of weaponry at military displays and so on. A wander round the IWM during the breaks in the weekend’s screening, looking at the exhibits, the selection of books and other merchandise, revealed clearly that the museum is not ‘promoting’ war, in that it isn’t actively recommending war as a ‘Good Thing’. But almost every exhibit shouts the message that war, however undesirable, is sometimes necessary. In a place like the IWM, what subtly confirms the necessity and inevitability of war, and therefore encourages support for it, is the absence of any critical counter-message to show that it’s possible to think otherwise.

As long as we continue to see war in terms of weapons, battles or body counts, we limit the possibility of understanding what modern war is really like. At the IWM weekend the Keeper of the Department of Art, talking about the work of ‘war artists’, said how difficult it was to portray war these days ‘Often,’ she said, ‘there is nothing to see.’ Well, that is a technical and philosophical problem which ‘war artists’ will have to work out for themselves. But there is another sense in which ‘war’ is difficult to see. Its mainspring, at least in western countries, is in the minds of political leaders, and in an economic system which fuels the cycle of ever more weapons for which justification then has to be found.

Of course, challenging these things is not always easy, at any level. Should I have explained to the friendly Americans why I would be happy to take a picture of them but not with the guns as background? Of course I should. ‘There! – now you are part of our family,’ said the father after taking our picture. It is the small things that compromise us and conscript us into the war system. I will not be caught out again.
Jan Melichar

*Alternative Histories of Modern Conflict in the Projected Image






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