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the trench


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Mixed messages at CND demonstration in London

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Before long you'll be able to find your way with unerring precision and ease to, say, the woodland spot at map reference TL438000. In the teeth of US opposition, the European Union has agreed to go ahead with 'Galileo'. This multi-satellite programme will (much as the Global Positioning System (GPS) does today) give anyone with an appropriate receiver their precise location is, anywhere. We need never get lost again.

Knowing their location has been vital for travellers ever since we started exploring the world. At first the sun, moon and stars were the only navigational guides. But as military/mercantile adventurers spread across the globe, more accurate maps, clocks, sextants, and other instruments of navigation were devised - no profits in lost bearings. Crossing oceans safely made piracy, plunder and conquest more efficient. Better map-making made it easier to carve up territory to advantage. (Britain's Ordnance Survey began when the army, expecting a hostile visit from Napoleon, mapped the area around Dover.)

Today rather smaller objects than the stars do a quicker, more accurate job. (For some, deadlier.) Information, as we know, is power, and the US isn't keen to lose its virtual monopoly. Galileo will provide a greater degree of accuracy than the limited public access permitted to Europe by US military systems. Their most accurate signals are reserved for guiding cruise missiles through foreign embassy windows....

The US has argued that Galileo is unnecessary and a threat to US security: 'it could be used by terrorists'. The recent decision to go ahead with the project despite America's objections is a sign of Europe's determination to match dominance of the US amid mounting worries about its post-September 11 activities pursued with total disregard to world opinion. Britain's participation, too, signals a welcome commitment to Europe. But although Galileo is a civilian programme, the European military establishment will doubtless be quick to demand special access. 'If the Galileo programme is abandoned, we will in the next 20 to 30 years lose our autonomy in defence,' says Brussels; Jacques Chirac, more pithily, talks of the risk of 'vassal status'. The stakes are high.

But they are old stakes. When the US ended information-sharing on nuclear matters after WW2, Britain decided to go it alone. 'We have to hold up our position vis-à-vis the Americans. We couldn't allow ourselves wholly to be in their hands,' said Labour Prime Minister Attlee in 1947. Interestingly US irresponsibility was feared as much as any Soviet threat. Tory PM Harold Macmillan's chief concern was that the UK should 'have enough nuclear power to prevent some of the foolish decisions being made to our detriment on the other side of the Atlantic'. The EU, born from a passionate desire to ensure that there'll never be another war in Europe, has willingly lived under the shadow (or the dead hand) of US military power, relying on its real or imagined 'protection'. Now, as Europe develops the institutions and political will for independence, it's depressing to see that what preoccupies its leaders is military power and consolidation of arms manufacture. Britain, as the world's second largest arms exporter, has a lot to answer for.

At map reference TL438000, unnoticed by walkers and joggers on the nearby Centenary Walk deep in Epping Forest, is a remnant of past fear and folly. An unremarkable, overgrown dip in the ground is one of the few remnants of a trench which once encircled London. The Outer London Defence Ring was the capital's last hope of stopping the mighty German Panzer tanks if they advanced on London in1940 (despite country-wide removal of road signs!). This was homeland defence at its rawest, most desperate, and most mad.

The Outer London Defence Ring - the capital's last hope.

Close to the centre of this unknown and unregarded circle, thousands today flock to a different trench - the Imperial War Museum's 'The Trench' exhibition, linked to the abysmal TV series. Children on 'educational' visits may tick the boxes on the questionnaires, but they will learn little about war, hardly anything about its causes, and nothing at all about how it might be prevented.

This is 'heritage education'; and in the context of WW1 or indeed any other war it's a disgrace. To teach children about how trenches were built or what the soldiers ate or the unsanitary conditions in which they lived, without addressing the question 'Why?' or discussing the incompetence and venality of those responsible, is an appalling slight to the millions robbed of their lives.

History became compulsory in secondary schools in 1900, only a few years before trenches were dug from the Belgian coast to Switzerland in 1914. For many years 'facts' had been taught, often without question or interpretative contexts; now the growing need to make history interesting to the young opened the way to active promotion of ideology. In the first half of the 20th century, children learned from their history lessons that patriotism, monarchism, imperial expansion, commerce and business were unquestionable proofs of civilisation and success, and that military power was essential to support them.

Today Britain's identity may be undergoing a crisis, but war (especially WW1 and increasingly WW2) is still a central reference point. The successful management of public opinion after WW1, by focusing on the bereaved, prevented serious debate and reduced the war in popular imagination to a sad but necessary event rather that the origin of so may problem in today's world. How and why did politicians let the war happen? How and why was it so catastrophically managed by government and the military? These questions aren't found, or answered, in 'The Trench' or in the Imperial War Museum; or in many other places either. Helped by such enterprises, the ideology persists: war may be awful and sad, but it's inevitable and the myths remain. 'We have to defend ourselves, after all.'

Raising an arm to deflect a blow is a reasonable and 'natural' act. But beyond such basic, instinctive and often autonomic acts of self defence things get very complicated. In today's world, 'defence' has become a complex of values with a bewildering variety of meanings and consequences.

A few yards from the traces of that 1940 anti-tank trench are more substantial remains of another structure of war. Defended now by Corporation of London notices warning cyclists not to ride over it, this trench and earthwork once formed a defensive barrier; it's reputed to be the site of Queen Boudicca's last battle in AD61, when a British rebellion was crushed by Roman governor Suetonius Paulinus. Side by side, here are two potent symbols representing perhaps the biggest and oldest problem of human society - the fear of 'the other' - and the refusal to try to understand that fear. Technology changes, but our collective inability to deal with conflict non-violently remains primitive.

'Our role,' said Bill Clinton in the 2001 Dimbleby lecture, should be 'to help explain ambiguities, to find a way through the complexities, in such a way as to promote tolerance, understanding, compromise and eventually - who knows - even peace.' Yes indeed. But how is this to be done, how are the complexities to be explained, when even many of us in the peace movement prefer simpler slogans? In today's newspaper there's a big advertisement for Microsoft's new game console, the Xbox. There's no tolerance or compromise in the two featured games - it's a simple matter of shoot, slash and destroy. What Clinton says is right. But explaining ambiguities, promoting tolerance, unravelling complexities: those are things every one of us has to attempt. Peace is much too precious to be left to politicians.

Jan Melichar




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