It’s History

The Sunken Road at Waterloo, painting by Stanl...
The Sunken Road at Waterloo, painting by Stanley Berkley, from A History of the Nineteenth Century, Year by Year, Edwin Emerson, Jr., 1902. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was never any good at history. That’s probably because I couldn’t get straight in my mind who was battling who and for what reason and for how long and so on. Later I came across the concept that history is written by the victors. This makes sense to me in some ways but the losers will still have their point of view and will likely instruct their children according to that point of view.

So while one side may say that a battle was a heroic victory over huge odds, the other party may describe the heroic resistance against huge odds. One side might add that an ally came to the rescue at the last minute while the other side might mention a traitorous change of allegiance of a former ally.

English: US and Iraqi Army Soldiers guard bord...
English: US and Iraqi Army Soldiers guard borders in Iraq (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In wars before the twentieth century it might be that the average person would be unlikely to see any military action or even be directly affected by a war or battle. Of course, the authorities might increase taxes and conscript young men, but most people would not have seen any fighting.

Communication about the battles and the progress of the war would have been hit and miss. An injured person on their way home after fighting would no doubt have little idea of what was actually happening either on the small scale of the actual battle or on the wider canvas of the whole campaign.

English: trench listening to a handmade crysta...
English: trench listening to a handmade crystal radio during the First World War 1914-1918 . Français : poste à crystal utilisé durant la première guerre mondiale 1914-1918 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyone who has taken part in any sort of war games, such as paint-ball or capture the flags type games, will know that an awful lot of running through undergrowth and an awful lot of lying in wait is involved, and an awful lot of not knowing what is happening. In older times, it could be that what is going on 100 metres away would not be known.

A lot of ancient warfare was waged based on intelligence brought in by scouts and observers. That’s why armies always try to take higher ground, as it gives you a better view of the field of battle and it also can be defended by fewer people. The disadvantage of course is that a patch of higher ground can be surrounded and isolated.

English: View across Gordano Valley View acros...
English: View across Gordano Valley View across Gordano Valley from Tickenham near Cadbury Camp. The south Wales coast can be seen on the horizon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scouts and observers can of course be mistaken. That “100 or so” men that were spotted may actually be many more, or it may even be a contingent of one’s own troops or allies which are out of position. A scout also risks his life by approaching as close to the enemy as he can.

Such intelligence as filters back to the commanders is obviously flawed and incomplete. They probably don’t know too much about the country that they are invading, whereas the locals may possibly have a better idea of the lay of the land. Maps may be incomplete or inaccurate, and may even have been built up directly from the intelligence.

The Map Room in the Churchill Museum and Cabin...
The Map Room in the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The commanders then need to deploy their troops according to their best knowledge and the intelligence. As a result they may send off troops to places where they may be easily overwhelmed or may be ineffective.

The commanders will instruct their platoon commanders on the objectives for their troops but once the platoon commanders reach their positions they are pretty much on their own. Chaos inevitably ensues, in spite of any attempts to keep order.

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Signals are used for communication, bugle calls, semaphores, runners and other methods are used to try to give the overall commanders an idea of what is happening at the front lines. Inevitably messages will go astray and orders will be misunderstood and this may well turn the tide of battle.

Perhaps this is why I was no good at history. When one is taught about the battle of Waterloo for example, one learns that Wellington deployed his troops here and here and that Napoleon attacked here and here and the Prussian army attacked here and here. While these statements may cover the actual flow of the battle, much of this will have been rationalised after the event.

Am Morgen nach der Schlacht von Waterloo Detai...
Am Morgen nach der Schlacht von Waterloo Detail John Heaviside Clarke (1771 – 1863) England, um 1816 Öl auf Leinwand aus der ständigen Sammlung des Deutschen Historischen Museum, Berlin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a wider scale, take Napoleon for example. He is described in Wikipedia as “one of the most celebrated and controversial political figures in Western history”. From the English point of view he is the villain of the piece but I suspect that to many on his side he was a hero. There is no doubt that he was respected even by his enemies as a brilliant politician and military leader.

On the principal of “history is written by the victors” mentioned above, if Napoleon had won, and should France have held sway over England, then no doubt he would have been painted either as a benevolent leader or as a heavy-handed dictator, depending on his acceptance or rejection by England. By “England” I mean the politicians and powerful in the country. The “man in the field” probably wouldn’t care too much, unless it affected him in some way.

English: One of the signatures of Napoleon Bon...
English: One of the signatures of Napoleon Bonaparte (1804), made with Inkscape by David Torres Costales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

History, to my mind, attributes intent much more than is justified, which renders it debatable at the least. We read that Country A pushed into a region in order to cut off Country B from some resource or other. More likely Country A had the opportunity and the resources to be able to expand into the region while Country B failed to do so because of lack of foresight, opportunity or resources.

So the expansion of Country A would have more to do with young men seeing the opportunities and travelling to the colonies to make their fortunes than any real plans by the government of Country A.

Canadian CF-18 Hornets participated in combat ...
Canadian CF-18 Hornets participated in combat during the Gulf War. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Baudrillard published some articles on the Gulf War, the last of which is entitled “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place“. He disputed the history of the events in the Gulf as presented.

Firstly he argued that, because of the superior air power of the Americans, they did not actually come into actually engage in conflict with the Iraqi army, and therefore the events could not be really considered to be a war.

Ex-Iraqi BMP-1 IFV captured by the US forces i...
Ex-Iraqi BMP-1 IFV captured by the US forces in Iraq during the First Persian Gulf War. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Secondly he argued that the view of the war as presented by the media which was fed, not from actual events but mainly from the propaganda machine of the American military and as such it presented only one point of view, that of the Americans.

History will present the Gulf War and the American handling of it in overwhelmingly positive light. History has been written by the Americans for better or worse, as the victors in this event. I’m not arguing that history is wrong. Just that it presents a picture and that picture may ignore many important aspects of an event and we should be wary of official histories.

Braine-l'Alleud Belgium, Lions' Hillock. - Com...
Braine-l’Alleud Belgium, Lions’ Hillock. – Commemorative monument of the Battle of Waterloo standing on the spot where the Prince of Orange was wounded during the fight. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



How do I get from A to B?

Ngaio Tree; Português: Mulateira. Portimão, Po...
Ngaio Tree; Português: Mulateira. Portimão, Portugal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We had reason to visit another suburb today. It wasn’t until I was sitting waiting for some traffic lights to change that I thought about how I was navigating from home to destination.

We just got into the car and drove there. I didn’t consider the route in advance, and it seemed that I just pointed the car and we got there. Obviously I knew the way, as we had been there or through there a number of times in the past. But I didn’t have the destination in mind from start to finish, at least not consciously. I’m not sure that I had it in the forefront of my mind at all.

English: Driving Route 40 to El Chalten was pu...
English: Driving Route 40 to El Chalten was pure driving pleasure. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I knew that it was in that direction though, and that did not leave a lot of route options. I did have a general feeling that I should go south, in this instance and that really only leaves two options, the back road, or the motorway. The back road is a lot prettier!

I made the choice to take the back road but it was not, as I said, at the forefront of my mind, as I was doing other things at the time, like finding my keys, my phone, my wallet and these things occupied the forefront, while the decision about which route to take was more background.

English: Mind the dip Looking down the road is...
English: Mind the dip Looking down the road is a hidden dip. The farmers are busy with the harvest while the weather stays dry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the route was chosen more of less in the background, but not subconsciously. Much the same process happened on the way there, and at each junction or turning point, I didn’t have to consider at the front of my mind which direction I should drive. I just did it. Some part of my mind knew that to get to our destination I had to turn right, or go straight on or whatever.

This is good because the front of my mind was doing the driving, keeping the car on line, signalling, accelerating or braking, keeping us safe on the road. Except that it wasn’t right at the front mind, since I was also talking to my wife about various things. Christmas things from memory.

English: Two motorcycle trailing off the brake...
English: Two motorcycle trailing off the brakes through Tooele Turn at Miller Motorsports Park. Rider on the white bike is Warren Rose, Rider of the green bike is Dave Palazzolo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been driving for many years and I’m confident that if needed the driving part of my mind can instantly oust the things currently in my mind should the unexpected happen. Many year ago, when I used to smoke, I was driving with a friend and an emergency happened. When it was over I realised that I was no longer holding my cigarette. Meantime my friend was scrabbling between his legs where my cigarette had ended up when the driving part of my mind grabbed precedence and the cigarette holding part was temporarily ousted.

The route planning part of my mind would not suddenly get control like that, fortunately. That would be highly dangerous. I could if I had wanted have brought the route planning part of my mind to the front, but it wouldn’t say much except “turn left at the next junction”.

Turn Left, Turn Right
Turn Left, Turn Right (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have on occasion made a navigating mistake. I’m going to A and the route to B is the same in part. Suddenly I realise that I have missed a junction and will have to backtrack. It seems that the route finding part of my mind spends much of the time dozing and checks in only infrequently, sometimes missing the turning point or ritually following a more usual route.

It also seems that the information it keeps is like an instruction to take an action at each decision point rather than the whole route from home to destination as well as a general direction, less well specified. GPS guidance systems seem to work this way too in that they instruct you to take an action at each junction without setting out the whole route each time.

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The model of the mind that I’ve used above, of various parts of the mind at various levels of “forefrontness” or consciousness is nothing new. The need to make a part of the mind the one at the top of the conscious levels, suddenly as a result of a danger, or selectively by choice, as in route following reminds me of the way that computer programs

Computers have several methods for navigating through programs and reacting to things that happen when they are running. One big part is called “handling errors”. Dividing by zero is an error and if the computer reaches a point where it has to divide by zero something needs to be done. The program can report the error and gracefully stop, or it can take some action to fix the error and then carry on.

English: A Texas Instruments TI-86 graphing ca...
English: A Texas Instruments TI-86 graphing calculator displaying an error message, indicating that the user or a running program has attempted to divide by zero. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Computers handle error by means of “interrupts”. Whether the errors is software (eg divide by zero) or caused by hardware connected to it (eg input/output errors) the computer stops what it is doing and runs a bit of program that handle the errors by sending a message or fixing things up. The bits of program that were running are suspended and after the error is handled the bits that were running may be given back control.

The mind seems to work in a similar way. When an emergency arises the current part of the mind that is at the forefront gets suspended and the emergency is handled by another part of the mind. A pedestrian steps into the road and you react by standing on the brakes “before you know it” as the saying goes. As soon as the emergency is over, the conscious mind takes over again.

a short .gif of the Taiwanese animated pedestr...
a short .gif of the Taiwanese animated pedestrian road crossing sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You do indeed react “before you know it”, one might say instinctively. But humans have not been driving cars for much more than one hundred years, so it appears that the reaction is not instinctive in itself, but is an instinctive reaction to a danger that has been learned. We seem to have this fast reaction to events which is instinctively based but can be applied to learned situations, which is much more flexible than hard-wired instincts would be.

So, pondering on how I get from A to B has led me to conjecture that there are parts of the mind which are forefront in our minds and other parts which are not directly in the forefront but which can be brought to the forefront in an instant, when an event happens. It is evident that these parts are only partially backgrounded as the mind as a whole has some aware of the location at the time, but they do act semi-autonomously, that is until the pedestrian steps out onto the roadway.

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Evidently there are parts of the mind that are less foregrounded and more backgrounded. When the part of the mind that is concerned with driving wants to signal or change gear, another part of the mind which controls the arms and legs wakes up and make the limbs move as needed.

I’ve spoken above as if all these different levels are discrete states, but I think it more likely that is a continuum from the foreground of the mind to the background or a least the series of levels of consciousness are close enough togerther to appear so.  The mind is a complex and wonderful thing.

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[Comment: After finishing this post I went looking for other discussions of the same topic. I first found this Wikipedia article which has the issues mentioned in the article’s header. Interestingly the implication in the article is that there is a single level of consciousness at any one time. This I do not agree with. Another article I found was a little better, I feel, but only because it acknowledges that several levels may be active at the same time, but divides them into three levels with well defined scopes. I feel that it is a lot more complex than that, with all sorts of sections of the mind at all sorts of levels being active at the same time. Neither article deals with the issue of one section of the mind apparently seizing the highest level when an external event triggers it.]