March 15, 2004 | Peter

Three Movies about War

Over the weekend I watched a trio of war movies on TV. “The Battle of Britain” was about perhaps the most important battle of WWII, “Thirteen Days” was about how we avoided nuclear war in 1962, and “The war of the Worlds” was about a fictional war with invaders from Mars. There is a trajectory in these films in that we go from international war to potential global war and then to speculative interplanetary war.
I believe in history as the result of individuals acting within social, economic, political, etc structures determined mainly by prevailing institutional arrangements and technologies. So in a sense WWI and WWII were inherent in the rise of mass industrial society and the roots of the Cuban Missile crisis lie in the invention of the atomic bomb.
But movies always focus on people, and in this they remind us that sometimes the actions of individuals – for good and bad – make all the difference.
Many argue that the Battle of Britain was the decisive battle in WWII because if the British had been beaten and invaded then the US would not have had the unsinkable aircraft carrier from which to eventually launch an invasion of Nazi Europe. If the Germans had achieved air superiority, the argument goes, they could have crossed the channel and at the time their army was vastly superior to that of Britain. Others, however, have claimed that even with air superiority, the Royal Navy, which was still Britain’s trump card, could have prevented an invasion. Fortunately, we’ll never know.
The battle was going Germany’s way as their planes concentrated on the British air bases to wipe out the defending aircraft, but then one of those strange history-making things happened. An off-course German bomber dropped its bombs on hitherto safe London, the British bombed Berlin in retaliation, and an outraged Hitler shifted his main attack onto London in response. This gave the hard-pressed British Air Force a chance to regroup, and they then successfully defended Britain. So if those German bombers had not got lost…
But the reason why the greatly outnumbered British fighters were able to defend Britain was because of the early warning system that included radar and observers and efficient operations teams. This system was the result of research into systems organisation which is an aspect of perhaps the most important long-term trend in history. That is, more and more efficient organisation through the systemisation of activity of all kinds.
‘Thirteen Days” was the kind of film Hollywood rarely makes these days, a well-made and reasonably accurate historical reconstruction. It showed just how close we came to nuclear war – Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence at the time, recently admitted how very, very lucky we were to escape the Cold War without it going hot. Luckily, the Kennedy brothers held out against the generals, and an agreement was made to avoid war. We now know that Soviet local battlefield commanders did have permission to fire their short range nuclear missiles, so if he US had invaded Cuba, well…
The Cuba missile crisis scared the shit out of everyone, resulting in much more careful communications between the Soviets and the Americans, including the construction of the famous ‘hotline’. So the crisis made the start of ‘accidental’ war much less likely, and marked the end of the early phase of the Cold War. Some kind of crisis, and perhaps war itself, was going to happen sooner or later, but fortunately for humanity, John Kennedy and Nikita Kruschev led their respective nations when it did.
The 1950s movie “The War of the Worlds”, loosely based on HG Wells’ terrific tale, has a subtext of Cold War fear. The more recent “Independence Day” is also a version of this story. It was President Reagan who said once that what humanity needed was to threatened by an alien species so we would combine against them. He had a point.
What we need to do is make the intellectual leap to realise that we do in fact face the choice of recognising our human solidarity, or face complete disaster. All our major problems, from terrorism to global warming, require that we start thinking like one species, not like separate nations.
Watching the reconstruction of the least of these battles, as Spitfires and Hurricanes fought ME 109s and Heinkels – all mostly flown by boys who should have still been in classrooms – as below London burned, I was reminded of the terrible cost in life, limb and material of modern war. Even without nuclear weapons we just cannot afford such mistakes any more. But in the end war is not avoided through accident, and systems of maintaining peace must be built to ultimately replace our systems of war. And to this, we really do need to dedicate many more of our resources to fixing the causes of war.

Posted by Peter at 12:38 pm | Comments (1) |
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1 Comment

  1. Yes, we do need to recognise our human solidarity or face complete disaster.
    There have been times in the last century when we have seen this need; but the clear trend in more recent decades has been towards complete disaster.
    “Globalisation” is one of those apparently easy terms that flows off the tongue but that too often means the opposite of human solidarity.
    When we “globalise” we are mostly intent on competition, rivalry, both of which often lead to resentment and conflict.
    We “globalise” poverty. We have, for decades, abandoned any real attempt to “globalise” welfare.
    The massive armament of so many countries, with such sophisticated weapons, even though they are not yet all nuclear, illustrates our preoccupation with conflict, euphemistically called “defence.”
    We use terms that we know we are abusing. We talk of free trade when we know we don’t mean it. We talk of democracy when we know that real democracy is, to us, anathema. We talk of operation freedom, when we know it is operation occupation.
    The most dangerous thing about this is, yes, that we fail to seek human solidarity, but also and perhaps above all, that we are deceiving ourselves. We are leading ourselves into the abyss – which is another way of saying that we are inviting ourselves – all of us – to join in the celebration of an imminent “complete diisaster.”

    Comment by James Cumes — March 15, 2004 @ 5:50 pm

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