Friday, February 28, 2003

Happy Stalingrad Day!

I've been chewing over this comment all day. Geoffrey Roberts is right to remind us of the awful battle of Stalingrad but I'm disconcerted at his contention that we should be having a national celebration, or at least a day of rememberance. Stalingrad was a key turning point in the war but no British soldiers fought there, and national boundaries do count for something when marking military engagements. The Battle of Midway was a turning point in the Pacific war and a great success for the Allies but we don't mark it. Nor is the hoisting of the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi one of our famous images.

I don't think our lack of veneration at the foot of Mamayev Kurgan betrays our insularity or even our ignorance of the wider war but just indicates that nations mourn their own losses and hype up their own successes. It's a bit much to expect national boundaries to dissolve in an outpouring of one-world gratitude at the defeat of Nazism, especially when the Russians won victory at such a bitter price.

I agree that the Eastern Front is neglected in the teaching of twentieth-century history. I have been fascinated by the clash of the totalitarian titans ever since I watched The World At War when I was nine. Images of the defeated German Sixth Army marching from the shattered city like silent ghosts made an indelible impression, especially when contrasted with footage of the same army strutting victorious through Paris two years earlier. It's a subject I have gone back to time and again. Antony Beevor's Stalingrad is the authoritative work on the battle and a superb document of an era of unprecedented carnage, so I was disappointed to see Roberts peg it with the "revisionist" tag:

The traditional story of Stalingrad has emphasised the heroism of the Red Army's defence. Antony Beevor questioned this heroic narrative, highlighting the coercive measures used by the Soviets to force their troops to fight. His reinterpretation has been seized upon by many conservative commentators, keen to depict the struggle as a contest between totalitarian systems in which the more ruthless emerged as victor. But the contemporary evidence of Soviet heroism at Stalingrad is enormous and cannot be dismissed as wartime propaganda or retrospective romanticism.

Beevor does highlight the appalling cruelty endured by Russian soldiers at the hands of their superiors and the NKVD, but this was hardly a revelation. In no way does this diminish his portrayal of dogged guerilla warfare in the rubble ("Rattenkrieg") or the outstandingly successful Soviet winter counteroffensive which stranded the Germans. What bothers me is the idea implicit in the above quote that historical perspectives have to be boiled down to mutually exclusive "narratives" that either revere Soviet heroism or condemn Soviet coercion. If Beevor's multifaceted opus demonstrates one thing it is that writing about history need not be constricted like this.

There was coercion and there was heroism - and I think this is crucial - on both sides. The Soviets won the war in the east not because they outnumbered or out-resourced the Germans but because they eventually managed to exploit these advantages to colossal effect. Heroism and ruthlessness characterised the conflict but did not decide it. Beevor makes a pretty convincing case that although the battle of Stalingrad dealt a tremendous blow to German morale the real turning point had been a year earlier when the Soviets unleashed the Siberians and thrashed the Germans outside Moscow. The Wehrmacht suffered irreparable damage during December 1941 and with the entry of the United States into the war its defeat was inevitable.

If you are moved and horrified by the astonishing Russian sacrifices on the west bank of the Volga then chances are you will be equally moved by the horrors the Germans suffered, particularly once they were cut off. If the typical Russian soldier was a patriotic but long-suffering victim of a tyrant then the German soldier was equally so. Yes, the Germans were the aggressors but it's hard to watch footage of them marching through the Russian steppes during summer 1942 without thinking of the fate that would befall them or of the lunatic who would march a bunch of young men halfway into central Asia and abandon them to satisfy his vanity.

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

The vote in the Commons is over. The Labour rebellion is substantial but the amendment was voted out. Well, that's democracy in action. There's going to be plenty of yammering about how Parliament is at odds with public opinion on war but it's worth remembering that if constituents feel strongly enough about the issue they'll have the chance to eject their MPs in the next election. Not a luxury granted to Iraqis or citizens of any Arab state.

But if things go smoothly in the Gulf maybe the electorate will have a different outlook. Crowds of jubilant Iraqis tearing down the hideous architecture of the Ba'ath state may prove to be a more vivid memory than the present hand-wringing.

Admit Defeat

Edinburgh University has decided that discrimination is a good thing. Next year it will consider the family background of applicants as well as their academic record in an effort to admit more candidates from state schools.

Tony Blair clearly came down against the social engineering approach in the Commons today, saying that people should go to University based on their merit and not their class background. He didn't specify academic merit so the Government might be able to iron over a conflict between his position and that of Education Secretary Charles Clarke.

The problem with so-called "positive discrimination" is that it inevitably involves a negative element. Admitting state school applicants with lower grades to give them a helping hand means making a choice that will penalise those with higher grades. There's a precarious set of assumptions underlying the approach too. People from "poorer" backgrounds are assumed to be more worthy because they must have worked harder to succeed in such an awful environment. Applicants from independent schools must be born with silver spoons up their arses so they don't qualify for bonus points.

It's patronising nonsense of course, and it also serves to denigrate the concept of individual achievement. Who's to say that comfortably middle-class applicants put in less effort than their sink-estate counterparts? Being rich makes you comfortable. Being rich makes you secure financially. But being rich doesn't make you clever or imaginative or industrious. These are the key qualities which determine academic achievement and they reside firmly with the individual. Any attempt to footer around with "social context" is going to fail embarassingly.

Monday, February 24, 2003

The Resistance against the Machines

Hollywood producers have been driven into a slavering frenzy by rumours of a white-hot science-fiction script by French director Bertrand Tavernier. In it, ruthless robot overseers herd French youngsters into sinister factories known as 'multiplexes' where they are strapped down and have their brains sucked out through their ears and replaced by four pounds of raw McDonalds hamburger patties. Their blood is completely drained and they undergo transfusions of ice-cold Coca-Cola until their cultural sensitivities completely percolate. They are equipped with cybernetic implants, a hymnbook, a machine-gun, Gap khakis and a stars-and-stripes lapel. Programmed to destroy indigent minorities throughout the Third World, they are unleashed in an orgy of violence and whirling camera angles set to a Linkin Park soundtrack. Yeah, okay, there's a Resistance but they all get fed up and reconsider their options vis-a-vis whether succumbing to the techno-hegemony might be in their long-term strategic interests after all.

Via Samizdata, a state-subsidy free zone.


Andrew Dodge and Sasha Castel have tied the knot. Best wishes for their long and happy life together.

In between bouts of decorating last weekend I watched the first repeat of The Great War on BBC2. The critic A.A. Gill raved about it a while back so I was eager to discover this piece of television history mostly unknown to my generation. Judging by the first episode this is going to be a thorough account of the conflict and the age, comparable in scope to the great The World At War so I'll be setting the video for Saturday evenings this spring and summer.

The programme had a gravity about it which BBC bosses may now consider perilously old-fashioned but which was actually quite refreshing. Compare and contrast with the awful The Trench, a modern reality-TV show which reduced the horror of the Western Front to the level of a lifestyle magazine. The most important thing about being a soldier in 1916 wasn't the humdrum squalor of everyday existence but the overhelming reality that it could be ended at any moment. Shorn of this somewhat more than incidental ingredient The Trench became nothing more than Big Brother in slurry, destined not for the annals but the anals of television. Without exploring what trench warfare inevitably included - i.e. the actual warfare - the programme was a toe-curling exercise in futility. It sure as hell won't be repeated on whatever medium we're watching in 2043.

Your assets belong to us

Hell-bent on turning Scotland into a nation of snitches, the Government is encouraging us to inform on our neighbours if we believe they are living beyond their means. The Proceeds of Crime Act contains new asset-seizure measures including confiscating cash sums of over £10,000 from people who cannot prove that they earned it honestly. Note that the burden of proof is on the accused, or should that be "persecuted by the revenue hungry" (see section 14 below).

Another problem is that gossip is a weak substitute for hard evidence and is prone to all sorts of abuse. It's a bit much to hope that the ring-a-reprisal hotline will only be used by the civic-minded and not the envious or plain malicious. Plus, damning someone based on their lifestyle is a world away from reporting a crime you actually know about, and it's not a trait any government should encourage. Says one "senior officer":

"In too many communities kids see the criminal as the role model — the person who has everything but never has to work," said one senior officer. "We want to show them that this will not be allowed. The hope is that the money will go full cycle to feed back into the communities previously blighted by crime."

Sure, around the same time that Concorde passengers look out their windows and see a large sow cruising at twenty thousand feet.

David Marsh, head of the Fraud Squad at Strathclyde police, is keen on targeting crime bigwigs living in Council properties: "As well as targeting the "Mr Bigs" of crime such as Tam McGraw, known as "The Licensee", who is alleged to own various properties including a villa in Spain, Marsh wants to track the financial arrangements of those living in estates around Strathclyde who own flashy cars, go on lots of holidays but do not go to work."

Well, he could start with our MSPs...

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