War, what is it good for?

25th November 1994 at 00:00
History as News, By Phil Hammond and Joan Hoey. Booklet Pounds 5 (individuals), Pounds 10 (institutions). London International Research Exchange, 21 Hillfield Avenue, London N8 7DU.

If war is a dreadful business, the aftermath of conflict can be odious in an altogether different way. Politicians pay homage to the dead, but always selectively. Slyly distorting or concealing inconvenient truths, they twist history to serve present purposes.

Such are the conclusions to be drawn from the excellent History as News, a brief but absorbing analysis of international media reporting of the 50th anniversary of D-Day. This is a survey from which few individuals or institutions emerge with reputations enhanced.

The study makes a number of pungent observations, but one stands out from all others: the overriding concern of the main participants was to emphasise past distinction so as to mitigate present mediocrity. Leaders whose conduct had drawn little but scorn at home tried desperately to wrap themselves in glory abroad.

For the authors, this was nowhere more apparent than in Britain. Time and again, journalists invoked the supposed selflessness of the past with the soft, selfish present, some coming perilously near to regretting the passing of an age in which an old-fashioned, morale-boosting scrap between nations was still a possibility. A focus on the triumph rather than the tragedy of war gave rise to such a tone, as did the comparative neglect of those aspects of the D-Day assault the massive civilian casualties, for example which would make too painful reading.

In a largely anti-foreign, British press, the Germans were widely depicted as recidivist Nazis, the French were frequently dismissed as collaborators or incompetents. And, in the same way that representatives of the former Soviet Union were excluded from any of the ceremonies, the media ignored that country's crucial role in the Nazi defeat.

For old enemies it was an especially embarrassing time. Like children not invited to a party, all the Germans, Japanese and Italians could do was stick their tongues out and say they didn't want to go anyway. In the meantime, while many German commentators highlighted Britain's enduring obsession with the past, their Italian counterparts concentrated on the supposed equivalence between Allied and Axis wartime excesses.

An incisive analysis as well as a marvellous read, History as News contains numerous examples of the plainly maladroit and the patently manipulative, all of which made up the orgy of orchestrated nostalgia that was the D-Day anniversary celebrations. The authors' conclusion is as one would expect from such an unsentimental overview: "All the countries surveyed inflated or minimised their role in the war according to what they felt to be politically expedient in the present." VE-Day, they glumly observe, will surely bring more of the same.

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