Learning history in school
A history curriculum is often a telling sign of how a nation and its elites see themselves: for example, as victims of colonialism or practitioners of imperial power. And there is increasing – and refreshing – debate about how history should be taught. In Ireland, during the 1980s, some influential people had grown uneasy: the old story (Ireland oppressed by the English for 750 years, bravely fought back in 1915 and were victorious) was not only oversimplified, it was fuelling conflict in the north. The Catholic Church had encouraged an apparent fusion between religion and patriotism – but now its influence was faltering. History lessons began to be more open-minded.
In Australia’s classrooms, teachers are resisting patriotic history that omits important truths. ‘We don’t present one story, we use all the terms associated with white settlement: colonialism, invasion and genocide.’
In South Africa, ‘the main message of the new school curriculum is inclusion and reconciliation’. Symbols and anniversaries have been redefined: for example, a date commemorating war between white settlers and Zulus is now an annual Day of Reconciliation.
Israeli revisionist historians have rewritten conventional accounts of their country’s birth to reflect its mistreatment of Palestinians, and some leaders are pushing for a revised approach in schools, whose minister has ordered that textbook maps should clearly show the Green Line; she is also trying to bring back the teaching of Arabic, which has lapsed.
Problems of war and law
One fundamental issue is the problem of taking a basically European institution (the Geneva Conventions and other international laws for the conduct of war) and trying to make it international. Can humanitarian law work in a world that is home to such a variety of cultures, ideologies and religions? Have our common perceptions of ‘humanity’ enough power?
Another problem: adapting the laws of war to accommodate the changes in the perception and nature of war itself, which are threatening the central tenet of the laws: the distinction between combatant and civilian.
Yet another worry, this one generated by the diplomatic processes which now produce the law. States can – and do– use them to secure the high ground in propaganda, not to promote humanitarian practice. States have also failed to develop procedures that make the law effective: indeed, some states have leaders who actually do not want the law to work.
The shadow of Hiroshima
(From a letter by Canon Paul Oestreicher)
By 1942 the deliberate killing of civilians on a vast scale had become part of allied war strategy. Whether it was criminal or not is a matter for the ill-defined laws of war. Whether it was morally defensible will always be debated.
Given the prevailing mood in 1945, the launching of the nuclear age on human targets was no huge departure. But President Eisenhower later said ‘Japan was at that very moment seeking some way to surrender with minimum loss of face. It was not necessary to hit them with that awful thing.’ Field Marshal Montgomery said: ‘It was unnecessary to drop the two atomic bombs on Japan. It was a prime example of the declining moral standards of the conduct of modern war.’
Women at war
There are nearly 18,000 women in the regular British forces, 1,600 of them serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. Officially they cannot serve in so-called close combat, deliberately to ‘close with and kill the enemy’. In reality this boundary no longer exists. One Corporal, a nurse, routinely carries a pistol and assault rifle. ‘The enemy doesn’t recognise medical personnel to be left alone.’ Her team partner adds, ‘It is strange for a medic to think of taking a life, but you are a soldier first and you have to make sure the ground is safe before you can do the work of a medic.’
A Lance-Bombardier isn’t unhappy that work in the artillery takes her closer to the action. ‘If I have to kill, I have to. I wouldn’t hesitate. You just have to think it’s my life or theirs.’
An operator with the Royal Corps of Signals says to start with she just thought she’d love to go to war. ‘I love it. You couldn’t prise me away for all the money in the world. I’d rather die doing my job than die of cancer.’
Lessons from the British Raj
(from an article by William Dalrymple, 2007)
150 years ago the British Empire found itself threatened by anti-colonial revolt, the largest and bloodiest so far seen. In putting down the revolt, British forces massacred not just the rebels and jihadists, but also ordinary citizens.
The lessons of the Indian Mutiny are very clear. No one likes people of a different faith conquering them, taking their land or force-feeding them improving ideas at the point of a bayonet. The British in 1857 discovered what Israel and the US are learning now, that nothing so easily radicalises a people against them, or so undermines the moderate aspect of Islam, as aggressive western intrusion in the east. The histories of Islamic fundamentalism and western imperialism have long been closely and dangerously intertwined. In a curious but concrete way, the fundamentalists of all three Abrahamic faiths have always needed each other to reinforce each other’s prejudices and hatreds.
In many ways the legacy of the 1850s is still with us. Not only are westerners again playing their old game of installing puppet regimes, propped up by western garrisons, for their own political ends; more alarmingly, the intellectual attitudes sustained by such adventures remain intact. The old colonial idea of the Muslim ruler as decadent oriental despot lives on; and as before it is effortlessly projected on to a credulous public by warmongers in order to justify their imperial projects.
Today, West and East again face each other uneasily across a divide that many see as a religious war. Again, western countries, blind to the effects of their foreign policies, feel aggrieved and surprised to be attacked – as they see it – by mindless fanatics. Those who fail to learn from history are always destined to repeat it.
(from an article by Ulrich Beck, a professor of sociology, 2007)
Climate change forces us to realise that the only way of setting up effective checks (on reducing emissions while allowing economic growth) is through fairness and equality, taking account of others in our decision-making.
We need a new cosmopolitan realism to tackle the challenges of terrorism, globalisation and climate change. Only a broad-based coalition that includes ‘old Europeans’, eco-conscious Americans, underdeveloped countries, developing countries, and civil society movements, can succeed. It is not a matter of undermining, let alone abolishing, nation-states. It is a matter of restoring to them the capacity to act effectively, together and in collaboration with one another.
The vision of a cosmopolitan future combines the concern for national and global justice with an interest in the survival of each individual. In other words, the idea of having roots and wings at the same time could replace the worn out ideas of communism, socialism, neoliberalism and old Labour. The new cosmopolitan left might make the improbable possible: the survival of humanity beyond the 21st century without lapsing back into barbarism.
‘The world through their eyes’
(from an e-mail message by Alan Johnston, BBC’ correspondent, 2006)
There is something I remember from Grozny (the war-torn capital of Chechnya). I went into an abandoned apartment where a shell had come through the wall. If you looked around the room for a minute, you could see the life that used to go on in it. You could see the books that the family used to read, the sort of pictures they hung on the walls. From photographs you could see that they had three kids and that the eldest girl had graduated from university
So much of the job of a journalist is trying to find the imagination within yourself to see the world through the eyes of the people in the story. Not just through the eyes of the Palestinian who has just had his home smashed, but also through the eyes of the three young Israelis in a tank who smashed it. Why did they see that as a reasonable thing to do? What was going through their minds as their tank went through the house? You have to give the whole picture. And when you are with one side in a conflict, you have got to put to them the best arguments of the other side, the toughest questions. The aim is absolutely not to smother the story with a search for 50-50 balance. If the truth is that the Israelis, or the Palestinians, have acted appallingly, then that is what your piece must end up saying.
Putting yourself in the shoes of the people in the story can only be done if you listen to them. And you’ve got to put the listener right there in the alleyways with the kids and the donkey carts, or on a Gaza beach with the surf and the wind.
And you’ve got to put yourself in the shoes of the listener as well, whether in Lagos or Lima or Luton, who may not know much about Gaza at all. If you were in their position, what background information would you need?