Thursday, January 5, 2012

Crimea and the forgetfulness of war

Orland Figes makes a good case for the Crimean War as the first 'modern conflict' in his compulsively fascinating history, 'Crimea'. Not least because its was the first conflict that could be reported on virtually immediately (and photographed, though with a time delay and with rather static, posed images).

It was possibly the first war where hyperactive public opinion played a critical role in both its initiation and its bringing to an end against a formula that appears almost archetypal. We begin with enthusiasm flushed with outrage - for the protection of brotherly coreligionists in the Russian case oppressed by barbarous Turks or for the protection of the poor underdog Turks against the barbarous depredations of the Russian Asiatic horde in the British case. Only the French public appeared divided, many mistrusting Napoleon III's motives, that principally seemed to revolve around adding the glitter of foreign victory to his fragile new regime (and making sure the British did not win all the spoils)!

You, also, have the dissonance between announced public motivation and the grubbier complexity of actual policy. For example, rescue 'underdogs' yes, but further and secure trade for the British too. It is not that it is 'all about oil' - the world is more complex than that and the chilling thing is that our 'ideals' matter in shaping our policy and practice in the world - and our 'ideals' are often deeply suspect and partisan!

This unifying enthusiasm begins to dissipate against the realities of the actual conflict, especially when it does not end by Christmas (as it never appears to) and (as in this case) soldiers find themselves under-equipped and under-supplied to face the depredations of an exposing winter. It is as if between conflicts everyone forgets what they are truly like - and this one was particularly new and awful, equipped as it was by much that became hauntingly familiar - trenches, withering fire, inadequate medical care, bursts of action followed by numbing times of anxiety and waiting.

But the strongest unlearned lesson is that conflict is often an example of irresistible momentum. We begin rattling our sabers, imagining that this will be effective and  we can stop at anytime but like the infection of a riot, we are, in fact, creating an accelerating momentum that activates rather than dissipates conflict. It as if we imagine there is no ground between threat and appeasement, no other options.

Several times in the march towards conflict, there were opportunities for robust dialogue and engagement (and the building of trust) and they were trampled aside by the hurrying footsteps to war - that the protagonists of which conveniently did not have to actually fight themselves (though Napoleon III had to be dissuaded from going to the Crimea).

There were moments in the conflict when chivalry was offered as an option out of barbarity. One Russian officer suggested the siege of Sevastopol be settled by a chess match!

Mr Obama and Mr Ahmedinajad for a chess competition anyone?

P.S. One little final vignette is that Mr Putin ordered the Kremlin to hang pictures of Tsar Nicholas I - the obsessive, and towards the end, imbalanced autocrat that led Russia into this miserable conflict (ably assisted by goading western powers). Let us hope he does not model himself after his hero.

PPS The war was triggered as an argument over giving the Catholics access to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem: would that benighted building of sibling rivalry be wrapped in a cloud and transported to heaven!

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