‘…and so it begins’ was the subject line of an email from Tony Jaques yesterday, the centenary of the official start of World War I.
In Australia, the WWI commemoration is the world’s most expensive – more than either the British or the French are spending – and a bizarrely bipartisan product for which the planning started under the Rudd-Gillard governments.
Tony had been watching TV and heard a reference to the 1st AIF as the ‘Australian Infantry Force’ rather than what it was – the Australian Imperial Force. Tony, as well as being one of Australia’s foremost issues and crisis management experts is also a distinguished military historian having produced the massive, and massively good, book the Dictionary of Battles and Sieges. It’s published by MUP, demonstrating that they do from time to time publish books other than Mick Gatto type biographies, and is a guide to 8500 battles from antiquity to the 21st century. For those who normally look for information first on the Internet Tony’s book has an easy to source format and meticulous cross-referencing which makes it a very handy first source for any military information.
Tony, like the blog, is a bit concerned that Australia is spending more on WWI commemoration than even the British and the French and that much of the material circulating about Australian military history is a bit, to say the least, wrong. “How easily we ‘manage’ history to suit the predilections of today. Doubtless we can expect it to continue for the next four years,” he said in the email.
Indeed, if the first day of commemoration is any indication we will no doubt see as much fantasy about the war as there is in the source from which the ‘and so it begins’ quote is drawn. Speaking at the Canberra War Memorial Veterans’ Affairs Minister, Michael Ronaldson, spoke of the ‘decisive role’ Australian troops played in ending the war in 1918 suggesting that before he makes any more speeches he ought to read Zombie Myths of Australian Military History edited by Craig Stockings or its sequel Anzac’s Dirty Dozen usefully reviewed by a serving soldier at http://www.army.gov.au/Our-future/Publications/Australian-Army-Journal/Past-editions/~/media/Files/Our%20future/LWSC%20Publications/AAJ/2012Winter/14-AnzacsDirtyDozen12Myths.pdf . He might also usefully get his speechwriters to have a look at the Europeana site http://blog.europeana.eu/2014/02/learn-more-about-world-war-one-with-the-british-library/for some perspective and useful links and keep a copy of Tony Jaques book close by.
But the best Lord of the Rings worthy comment on day one was Tony Abbott’s statement that the war was ‘the most cataclysmic event in human history’. The comment is arguable if, like Lenin, you maintain that everything is connected to everything else, and link the war, the disastrous peace settlement, the post-war influenza, the aftermath of the Russian revolution, the rise of the Nazis and World War II as a sort of continuum. Some people would argue that’s right – especially when you consider the successful globalisation and the relatively long period of European peace which preceded the war – but the blog suspects this is a long bow and that not all those events were inevitable.
What the most cataclysmic event in human history actually is though probably depends a bit on context and whether you experienced it or not. If you lived in Africa anytime from living under King Leopold’s rule in the Congo to the Rwanda massacres or assorted other events they would look distinctly cataclysmic. If you lived in antiquity Carthage and the salt, the various acts of genocide listed in the Old Testament and other ancient events would seem particularly cataclysmic. Nevertheless, irrespective of context, it’s possible to make some rough and ready assumptions about what might rate in any discussion of worst cases.
The Thirty Years War, given the populations of the time, would probably be the most destructive war in history. The post-WWI influenza possibly killed more people than the war did although it has largely slipped from human memory. The 1930s Stalin purges and the deliberate starvation of millions are among the very worst atrocities in history. WW2 and the Holocaust are cataclysmic on a scale which dwarfs WWI. The Maoist regime, once so warmly supported by Keith Windschuttle, probably killed more people than either Stalin or Hitler.
But when it comes to identifying what led to more murders, more tortures, more abuse and more persecution of more people over the longest period of time it is hard to surpass the record of Christianity. So, on those grounds, the invention and dissemination of Christianity is arguably the most cataclysmic event in human history. The blog suspects, however, that that thought has not occurred to Tony Abbott.