Those of you who know me might be surprised that I’ve managed half a dozen posts before posting a photo of a machine gun. (The picture above is an original World War One postcard printed by the Daily Mail and shows two British machine gunners on the Western Front). My interest in military history presents me with a personal conundrum; it is a loaded subject that I’m still conflicted about.
My problem is this. I look down on any country or person that resorts to violence as the primary method of solving a dispute. Yet many of my historical interests and collections focus on war. Why is this?
Here are some of my thoughts.
This is the dark side. This is what I don’t like to admit. I think deep down I suffer from one of the curses that has plagued humanity ever since two men banded together to throw rocks at another two men.
Our own personal sense of identity is often tied into the narrative of a community. In turn, that narrative often seems to in part be defined by conflict with others. On some level I think there is a personal empowerment through the “celebration” of what in an evolutionary sense is deemed to be a good trait, the ability to fight for the lives of your family or community.
The way we look at conflicts such as the World Wars often seems to be similar to the way we watch the Olympics. The media headlines in any country naturally focus on the success of local athletes. Phrases such as “on the world stage” and “all the eyes of the world” get thrown around but the reality is that citizens in every country have very different views of the same event. Entire sports get little or no coverage in one country, while in another country it might be responsible for the majority of Olympic headlines.
The way we look back at military history can sometimes be similar. Each country has its own stories that are woven into its national identity, and those are the stories that are commemorated the most. This is mirrored in the collecting world. Memorabilia associated with specific events can have little value in one country or a lot of value in another. Even the difference between Australia and New Zealand can be large.
A theme that emerges repetitively in my collecting and historical interests is technology. The military is often the driving force behind many technological advancements. Especially in two areas that I’m particularly interested in, transportation and communication.
Perhaps one of the most iconic technological developments of the 20th century was flight. World War One broke out little more than ten years after the Wright brothers made the headlines. By the end of the war there were tens of thousands of trained flyers all over the world and aircraft began to be used in all sorts of roles.
At risk of simplifying things, most air forces still flew at least some biplanes at the start of the Second World War and by the end of the war there were jet fighters and rockets. I’m sure those advancements would have happened sooner or later anyway, but military developments have a major impact on civilization, and war can fast track that processes.
At the core of history are people. The decisions they make, their behavior, their beliefs, prejudices and emotions. In times of war it sometimes feels like a giant magnifying glass is placed over people and everything about them is amplified. Different people respond to the stresses of war in different ways. There are stories of bravery and cowardice, loyalty and treason, love and hate, success and tragedy.
It is those personal stories that are often at the core of how we look at military history today. It challenges many people to think, what would I have done? How would I have reacted?
Personally, I’m not as much into the ‘who was right’ and ‘who was wrong’s of history as I am the ‘what was it like to be there’s. Military history is a particularly rich vein to mine if you are looking for amazing personal stories – but by no means the only place to look!
There are some moments in history where the future of a country or even the world was at a significant crossroad. With hindsight it can be easy to forget this as we already know the result. We know that the Japanese didn’t invade New Zealand in World War Two, but what if they did? Or what if they didn’t attack Pearl Harbor? What if the Southern States won the Civil War? What if the Nazis had invaded Britain? What if Napoleon was victorious at Waterloo?
The ramifications of those moments are far reaching. They affected our culture, economy, politics and whether we speak French.
If you look at military history as events where brave people marched to crossroads like those to decide the fate of the world then you can get a sense for one of the reasons I find the topic fascinating.
Back to the cavemen throwing rocks scenario, sadly there seems to be something about war that is part of the human condition. We like to think we are living in a period of peace but conflict is raging around the globe, all while the impact of previous conflicts is still very clear.
Through learning about history you can find patterns and cycles. There is repetition in the rise and fall of empires, in the clash of cultures, in the emergence of new technologies or trade routes. The more we can learn from the past then perhaps the better we can make positive changes for the future.
It is a cliché to talk about learning from past mistakes and debatable if humanity is collectively capable of it. I think it is at least worth trying and it seems like a good reason to study past conflicts.
What do you think? Do we put too much emphasis on military history? Am I bad person for finding it so fascinating? Do you know any other peaceful minded people who have an active interest in war?
© Lemuel Lyes