The musings of Mr Monkeysized


Monkeysizing the art of twatting someone with a rock by monkeysized

What happens when war becomes even less monkeysized? There’s an evident worry that moving from shooting up the enemy or flying over them and trying to drop a bomb on their head, to piloting a drone from a computer, might be a touch too far. This excerpt is from an excellent interview in Der Spiegel with PW Singer from the Brookings Institution

The act of going to war used to entail you taking upon great risks. You might not come home one day. You might not see your family again. Now it’s different. I heard a drone pilot explain it this way: You’re going to war for one hour, and then you get in the car and drive home, and within two minutes you’re sitting at the dinner table talking about your kids’ homework. This is a very different experience of war.

The argument is basically that things have gone too far, that by dehumanising the war experience you risk more of it without the attendant horror that keeps it in perspective. I have some sympathy for this as I am, after all, Mr Monkeysized. But then I was recently listening to three and a half hours of podcasts from Dan Carlin about the Punic Wars, and in particular the battle of Cannae. Now that was visceral – especially when Dan described some of the dozens of thousands of trapped Romans awaiting death digging holes and sticking their heads in them in the hope of suffocation rather than being chopped up by Carthaginians.

No doubt the smart-alecs who invented the bow and arrow, or the cannon, or the slingshot, or the musket, or the howitzer, or the dog-with-a-bomb-strapped-to-it, or the Avro Lancaster, or the ICBM could all be accused of the same, taking the up-close nastiness of war away from the much more primeval and monkeysized twatting someone on the head with a large rock.

Hmmm.

My view is that war is a distinct case that does not lend itself to criticisms of being unmonkeysized. Far better, in my view, to remind oneself of the visceral nature of life and death by forcing people to kill and prepare an animal (rabbits etc…) before being allowed to eat meat. That’s where the real disconnect takes place, not in a drone attack somewhere near the Durand Line.

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Monkeysizing history by monkeysized

A simple way to remain monkeysized in your normal life is to remember that vast sweep of history of which you are a part (and, remember, absolutely not the final part).

To get the most out of history it’s important to bring it to a human scale against a vast panorama. Dan Carlin’s ‘Hardcore Histories’ podcasts keeps the human element at its core – reminding the listener to think about what it was actually like to be involved in, say, a battle during the Punic Wars, down to the consideration of whether you would soon be maimed or killed at close quarters, or how much the trauma of doing this to others would affect you. The BBC Witness series does something similar – lifting the human and personal out of a wider story.

Context in history is essential. Dan Carlin explained the rules of war when introducing the Punic Wars. In his view you couldn’t understand the mentality and the brutality of ancient siege operations without it. Dead right.

Here’s a more recent example from Edward Lucas’ excellent europe.view blog on the Economist, on the vexed question of Latvian and Estonian involvement in the Second World War in SS uniform. Massively controversial, and, one might say, overmanipulated for modern reasons by those such as the Russians who are trying to use history to prove a point. This is how Lucas deftly puts the reasonable middle ground:

In the middle are those that see mitigating circumstances. By this late stage in the war the “SS” label was used for all conscripted non-Germans, who were not allowed to join the Wehrmacht. The label “volunteer” was a Nazi propaganda trick: the vast majority of soldiers in these units were conscripts. Though many war criminals did join the new units, fighting in the Third Reich’s military forces was not in itself a war crime. The Soviet claim that the Estonian and Latvian SS were “traitors” is based on the idea that the 1940 annexation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union was legal. That is not an approach that any civilised country accepted then, or believes today.

And then, finally, I have to mention something I’ve spotted twice. First, in a discussion on the BBC History magazine podcast about the Aztecs, and seconly on a How Stuff Works podcast about the Mongol hordes: in both cases these people were applauded, despite the vast human sacrifices, the militarism, the brutality, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, for their commitment and approach to gender equality.

It’s a whole new version of ‘at least Mussolini made the trains run on time’.