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)

 

 

Lemmings

English: Traffic Jam in Delhi Français : Un em...
English: Traffic Jam in Delhi Français : Un embouteillage à Delhi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Australia there have been traffic jams up to 28 kilometres long. In New Zealand the end of the holiday period is likely to create “traffic hell“. Meanwhile, those of us who have stayed at home, have found the roads to be eerily empty.

Why do people rush away at Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere? Of course, it is our summer, and getting away from home for a few days is always attractive, but it is evident that if thousands of people try to travel the same roads at the same time there will be congestion.


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I call those who join the exodus and arrival progressions lemmings. This is of course unfair to both the furry creatures and to the humans. Lemmings don’t really commit mass suicide, and the humans, in many cases, don’t have a lot of choice of travel time.

In the Garfield cartoon, Garfield meets a mouse who is half lemming. Garfield asks the mouse what a lemming is. The mouse replies “A gerbil with suicidal tendencies”. (This cartoon may be online, but I’ve been unable to find it. The Garfield strip for my birthday is quite funny, though.)

In our bigger cities, there will always be traffic problems, because of the sheer number of people that need access to the CBDs and who have to come, in the main from dormitory suburbs. If the roads were sufficient to carry all the traffic it is likely that there would be little room for the CBD itself.

The land of the automobile, the USA, has probably reached the best compromise between the needs of the car and the needs of those who live and work in the centres of cities. Special roads carry cars from the outskirts to the centres of the cities where special buildings have been built to house the cars during the day while the owners are working and shopping. Other special roads take traffic past the city centres and on to other cities. Other countries have copied or extended this model.

Nighttime view of Downtown Los Angeles and the...
Nighttime view of Downtown Los Angeles and the Hollywood Freeway, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Humans often don’t have much choice of when they travel, given that they have to work and working days around holidays are pretty much fixed. Some places even shut down on certain days to avoid having to staff offices when few people will be around.

In the Southern Hemisphere Christmas falls in summer, so the natural desire is to go away from home at this time of the year, on a holiday or, as they say in the USA, on a vacation. So it is unfair, really, to call them lemmings. They don’t have a lot of choice.

English: Bank Holiday Monday traffic approachi...
English: Bank Holiday Monday traffic approaching Horncastle This queue stretched from the town centre beyond the speed limit signs. Oh joy! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The lemmings are unfairly tagged with the appellation of suicidal maniacs. The story goes that periodically the lemmings migrate usually as the result of population pressures. Geographical features have changed over the millennia and consequently the lemmings fall over cliffs (which didn’t feature in the ancestral environment) or drown in rivers and fjords which have widened since their ancestors swam them.

Illustration of swan-necked flask experiment u...
Illustration of swan-necked flask experiment used by Louis Pasteur to test the hypothesis of spontaneous generation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These theories were used to “explain” why numbers of lemmings are found dead at some times and dead lemmings are rare at other times. The Wikipedia article on the animals has some interesting theories on issue, such as the spontaneous generation of the animals in mid air resulting in their demise on hitting the ground.

While we may laugh at these theories, we must remember that in 1530s science was nowhere nearly as sophisticated as today. In 500 years time, it may be that our scientific knowledge may look just as silly.


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I believe that people don’t have to all travel at the same time. Sure the dates are constrained and working requirements also constrain the dates that people can travel, but usually there is some leeway. People could travel a day earlier or a day later. Most employers are more than happy to accommodate such slight variations. If it is impossible for an employee to vary travel dates then a change of travel times would do the trick.

Frequently the call is for the roads to be widened or, as the euphemism has it, improved. This solution may well work in a country like the USA which has a large population which is concentrated in cities with little population in between, but is problematic in smaller countries. In New Zealand, not only are the main centres much smaller, but the population is a lot more dispersed than in the USA.

English: Traffic problems are not new.. Did bo...
English: Traffic problems are not new.. Did both sides have separate car parks? Did Proud Edward go home to think again about the terrible state of London’s traffic congestion. Outside the car/lorry park. A reenactment? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When these factors are considered, it may not make sense to continue to continue to build wider highways in smaller countries. A six lane highway that may be heavily used four times a year doesn’t make economic sense. A four lane highway that is heavily used much of the time does make sense.

English: View of Moscow's MKAD / highway ring ...
English: View of Moscow’s MKAD / highway ring Deutsch: Blick auf den Moskauer Autobahnring MKAD (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I frequently hear people call for “improvement” of roads that I regularly travel with few hold ups and issues. This is because I travel at times which are called “off peak”. People travel to work at the same times every day, and consequently you can travel easily in the opposite direction to the majority and wonder if they could not slightly change their schedules to avoid the hold ups, and indeed some people do do so.

English: Tilehurst Road This is normally chock...
English: Tilehurst Road This is normally chocker with traffic in the morning peak period. After a night of steady snow, on the Friday before Christmas, many people had decided to stay at home. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people travel in to work very early (and leave early too, of course). Some people “work from home”. This latter can be a euphemism for goofing off of course, but most people who work from home treat this option seriously and with the state that the art of technology has reached, people can usefully contribute from home.

There is an example of the pitfalls of merely “improving” roads near where I live. When I came to this city I recall sitting in traffic on a four lane (two each way) highway into the centre of the city. Subsequently a motorway was built into the city and the four lane highway is relatively lightly used. (The road I refer to is on the left of this picture).

On the right State Highway 1 (SH1) Wellington ...
On the right State Highway 1 (SH1) Wellington motorway, and in the centre the North Island Main Trunk (NIMT) rail lines heading for Porirua and the Wairarapa Line rail lines heading for the Hutt Valley : from left Wairarapa up, NIMT up, NIMT down, Wairarapa down. Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously in this case the motorway was not considered at the time that the four lane highway was built, but it does demonstrate that often the most obvious solution can often be less than efficient over the longer term.

English: Road Works on the A43. The road is re...
English: Road Works on the A43. The road is reduced to one lane for a section and the temporary traffic light has turned red (seen in the distance). Traffic is beginning to emerge from the other direction. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)