Tornado of war can whip up learning

10th September 2004 at 01:00
Refusing to look at war in history because we don't like it makes as much sense as refusing to look at the Holocaust because we do not approve of genocide. The more I learn about war, the less I like it and the more I realise how important it is to avoid it.

Throughout history war, rather than peace, has been the norm. War has been a defining human characteristic and a major factor in shaping societies.

Many states owe their existence to wars of conquest. Others, including Britain, have survived into the present because they have been able to defend themselves. It can be argued that the ultimate challenge for any civilisation lies on the battlefield. Egypt, Athens, Rome, the Inca and the Aztec states, all the diverse political entities in history have faced the test of war and many were destroyed when they failed to meet it.

Today there are scores of wars and millions live in conflict zones. The United Kingdom's armed forces have fought at least five wars in the past 20 years, not to mention peacekeeping and anti-terror operations. A British soldier has been killed in action every year, except 1968, since the Second World War. If you ignore war you deny yourself an appreciation of one of history's motive forces and an understanding of the present. Social and political change are often the result of war. Fighting Louis XIV brought about a financial revolution in Britain and ushered in a system of parliamentary democracy. The enfranchisement of women in 1918 was intimately connected with changing gender roles during the First World War.

The welfare state grew out of the wartime command economy.

Yet to many, military history is an outdated account of "scraps and chaps" - a propaganda tool for warmongers who use tales of glorious past wars to militarise the young. This ignores the actual state of military history today. Take one of the few military topics still being taught, the First World War, where the mud, blood and apparent futility of trench warfare have profoundly impressed generations of pupils with the horror of war. In fact recent historians worry that the public have too bleak a picture of the Great War.

Few of us can name any Victoria Cross winners but the destruction of Coventry, Dresden and Hiroshima are imprinted on our psyche. Recent military history bestsellers have highlighted the butchery and mass rape perpetrated by the Red Army as it encircled Berlin in 1945 or the horror of the Warsaw uprising. A visit to any battlefield centre such as Culloden leaves you with a healthy abhorrence of war. The plight of the sleep deprived, starving Highlanders charging suicidally into a storm of musketry, is vividly brought alive. On the field itself the mass graves containing their shattered remains are still visible.

Military historians recount how different societies deal with war. The true nature of a society can often be seen when they are at full stretch in a battle for survival. How democracies mobilise their citizenry for war compared to totalitarian states illustrate crucial differences between the two. Even armies hold a mirror up to society. Issues such as recruitment, training and promotion give us fascinating insights into the cultures from which they are drawn.

There is no point pretending that people and children in particular are not hugely enthusiastic about military history. Stories about the Anglo Saxons on the ridge at Hastings or powder monkeys in Nelson's navy often form the bedrock of an interest in history. This is not because children are obsessed with violence and death. It is because military history offers drama, evil, heroism and tragedy as no other human activity does - no amount of wattle and daub housing and spinning jennies can create that sense of excitement. Not only this, but the outcomes of so many battles have been decisive. Bannockburn, Gettysburg, Tours and Salamis compare with the Industrial revolution and the Black Death as milestones in history. But those battles have a sense of urgency all of their own; they were decided in a matter of hours. History moves not at a glacial pace but like a tornado. Rather than writing off this huge reservoir of enthusiasm for military history, why not use it to build a deeper and wider understanding of the past?

Dan Snow is co-presenter, with father Peter, of the Battlefield Britain series on BBC2. The book which accompanies the series is published by BBC Books, pound;16.99

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