As a former military man, I obviously enjoy military topics, but I’m puzzled by the fascination the general public of almost every nation seem to have with war. In many ways, I suppose it’s a way of exhibiting your national prowess, a dick-measuring contest on an international scale; I’m still surprised, though, that in this politically correct day and age, the most liberal left-winger who one minute is trying to convince you that a man dressed as a woman is totally normal in the modern world (“It’s her life choice!” they bawl, banging a fist on the table and leaving you to correct their grammar) is also capable of banging the martial drum and putting down the military achievements of other countries while at the same time promoting those of their own homeland.
In this respect (and in so many others), I’m very lucky to be British. Britain (and before the union, England) is almost undefeated in war, and when things haven’t gone quite our way there’s usually been a damn good reason; the only real blips on our record are the American Revolution (a British loss) and the War of 1812 (a sort of no-contest). The Americans like to rub our noses in both cases since they’re the only two occasions Britain and America have ever really fought and Britain didn’t win either, but as far as we’re concerned there isn’t much venom in the bite; many people these days (myself included) prefer to think of the War of Independence as another English Civil War, with our colonists rebelling against a German king for their basic human rights; this was a long time before the ‘American people’ really existed as an entity. And anyway, Britain still won most of the battles. The result of the 1812 war doesn’t have much sting in it either, since it is not a war that Britain lost, and we console ourselves when we remember that had the bulk of our Army and Navy not been busy bashing Napoleon’s armies back to France, the outcome likely would have been different.
Living in Georgia, it didn’t take long for people to start telling me about Georgian military prowess, and at first I found the experience quite confusing. It seemed to me that people were boasting about wars they had lost which they thought they had won; it didn’t seem to matter whether they were talking about battles against the Ottomans, Persians or Russians. One man told me that five hundred Georgian special soldiers massacred five thousand Russian troops during the 2008 war, and no amount of me showing him official figures which stated the Russian military lost less than two hundred men killed would convince him otherwise (and he worked for the Ministry of Justice, God help us).
I was confused as to why so many Georgians seemed to do this, but the truth is I didn’t really understand them back then. Georgians have a very confrontational approach when it comes to their history, and it seemed to me to be utter madness to suggest that Georgia might have a more glorious military history than Britain. It made me angry, since I was never the one that brought the subject up and it was always a competition, and one that I didn’t think they should even bother getting involved in; from where I was standing, Britain had a history of going up against numerically superior forces and winning. Georgia always seemed to fight numerically superior forces and lose. Did they not know about Agincourt? The way a tired English army destroyed a French horde vastly outnumbering them? Or the Spanish Armada, when the largest invasion fleet ever assembled was destroyed by our much smaller navy? Or an even more glorious repeat of the same at Trafalgar centuries later? (Nelson, rest in peace, we will never forget you). Or Waterloo, which brought about Bonaparte’s utter destruction? Or Rorke’s Drift, in which a hundred Warwickshire Welshmen held off and beat four thousand (!) Zulus? I could go on, you know.
What I didn’t understand back then is that Georgians don’t see the word ‘victory’ in the same way as we do (and neither, now that I think about it, do the Americans, whose military history seems to consist of them invading poorer countries, losing, and then convining themselves that they won). The Georgian idea of victory is much closer to what we would term survival, and when you consider it, it does sort of make sense; no matter how many times they’ve been invaded and conquered, they’re still here. No matter that they had Islam forced down their throats, they’re still Christian (and if this was a liberal world, we could talk about why Islam seems to be the only religion which has a habit of putting forward a ‘convert or die!’ policy, but this isn’t a liberal world, and if we talk about it I will automatically be an intolerant racist, because Islam is also a race when it wants to be as well as a culture and a religion. Islam has a lot of cultural values that must be appreciated and accepted by us Western barbarians, including intolerance towards homosexuals, stoning to death adulterers, and killing anyone who doesn’t agree with you).
In this way, then, many Georgians claim they won the 2008 war against Russia, which to a British person whose nation is used to nothing but absolute victory, the statement might look a little thin. After all, American-trained Georgian troops were running away from the Russians in less than a week (Christ, what the fuck happened there?), and Georgian casualties were heavier than those inflicted on their Muscovite enemies. But Georgia survived; it’s still a free country, the five cross flag still waves instead of the Russian tricolour. Georgians are tough people; I’ve boxed more than I care to remember, and they are hard men who can take a punch and throw one back, and as an interested party I think I can claim with a degree of accuracy that had Georgia been lucky enough to be surrounded by water in the way that Britain is, perhaps its history would have been different. Britain’s power, after all, is in the sea. It was, is and always will be everything to us (vote UKIP, restore the Navy to its former glory!).
They have a very different way of looking at things, basically, and that needs to be understood before engaging in this kind of discussion. Having said that, though, I still don’t understand the way they look at World War 2. Many I’ve spoken to talk about the ‘glorious’ way in which millions of Soviets went to their deaths in order to defeat the Germans, but the fact that the Soviets suffered such appalling casualties says more about German martial skill than Russian/Georgian brilliance (Stalin is credited for the victory, you see, and he was Georgian. So there).
I’m not a scientific sort of chap, but I would love to see some kind of study into what makes the people of some countries better at soldiering than others. One never hears much about Spanish, Italian or French military successes in the past (not compared with other countries, at any rate), and the latter only managed to do so well in Europe thanks to Bonaparte’s brilliance, although even he was ultimately defeated by Wellington and Blucher. I genuinely believe that Saxon peoples do make the most natural soldiers, and history supports me fairly well; Germany and Britain have almost unmatched success in war, and having worked with German soldiers I can honestly say that I do not envy our predecessors. I would not have wanted them as my enemy.
Supporters of the Saakashvili administration frequently claim that America has the best military in the world, which is a bit of a sweeping statement; some American troops are brilliant, others…not so much. Obviously I’m biased, but on the whole I’d say that Commonwealth are superior in training and ability, but to be fair I suppose that’s also a generalisation and you take as you find. I suppose my point is that the USA does not have the glorious military history the Americans and some Georgians would like to think they do. Could we have won the World Wars without them? I doubt it; after all, during WW2 they dominated the Pacific front, and one dreads to think what would have happened to India and the Burma campaign if so many idle Japanese troops had been able to be redeployed from the Pacific islands.
…but let’s also not forget it wasn’t quite like Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan, wherein an alien would be forgiven for thinking the US had won the war for the rest of the planet. The Americans did not join either World War until both were well underway, and those two conflicts remain the USA’s greatest victories. Vietnam, Iran (the attempted hostage rescue situation in the early ’80s), Somalia, Iraq 2 and Afghanistan have hardly covered the US in glory, but it is lucky in that it has Hollywood to support it, and since films account for much of the public’s formed opinions, the influence of movies is more important than you might think. Black Hawk Down, for instance, tells the story of how an American operation in Mogadishu saw the elite US Army Rangers and Delta Force be utterly defeated by Somalian insurgents, but due to the film showing the heroic exploits of the soldiers (who were bloody brave men; look up Randy Shughart), the fact that it was such a massive fuck-up gets forgotten. Lone Survivor, starring Mark Wahlberg and soon to be released in cinemas (I think) will likely go the same way. It will portray Operation Red Wings, during which Naval Special Forces were defeated by Islamic militants, and a rescue helicopter full of yet more Navy SEALs was shot down, killing everyone onboard. One member of the original recon team, Marcus Luttrell, managed to escape, and I thoroughly recommend reading the book on which the film is based.
However, if you bother to look up Operation Red Wings on Wikipedia, you will notice that the result is described as a ‘Temporary US Pyrrhic victory’. A Pyrrhic victory, to those not in the know, is a win that costs the victor extreme casualties, although I confess I’ve never heard of a ‘temporary’ variety. Clearly the article was written by an American who could not bear the thought of admitting that the elite US military operators were beaten by amateur goatherds and farmers. And Muslims at that.
(And two other pieces of Hollywood manipulation spring to mind: U-571 is by far one of the most criminal, since it shows American sailors capturing and decoding critical German enigma machines during the Second World War. This was actually carried out by the Royal Navy. The movie attracted such criticism it even got to Parliament, and even Tony Blair condemned it (the only good thing the bastard ever did, mark you). Another is Master and Commander, an American film which for once portrays the British in a positive light. It takes the plot of one of Patrick O’Brian’s naval Napoleonic period novels, and portrays Jack Aubrey and his crew pitted against a bigger, stronger and faster French ship…more or less the plot in the book, except the Acheron of the book is an American vessel, not French.)
The French are another people who are touchy about their military history, most likely due to the emphasis placed on the way in which France suffered during both World Wars and the performances of the French armed forces. British, Commonwealth and American people frequently mock the French for their lack of martial prowess, but in the Germans they faced a formidable enemy who had trounced them in the 1870s. I honestly believe that psychological perceptions affect the performance of soldiers; I’m no psychologist myself, but I feel I can make the comparison with boxing. A few years ago, I got into the ring with a guy who I expected to walk over, but he hit me harder than I’d ever been hit before and I wonder that I survived that fight. I fought with him a few other times over the following months, and although I could dominate other opponents, I could never get going against this man…I believe due to the fact I could not forget what a mess he’d made of me the first time.
A will to win is something civilians don’t always appreciate. I wasn’t there in 1940’s France, but after suffering against the Germans twice in living memory, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to wonder if the French honestly believed they could win. It reminds me of Georgians I’ve spoken to, who believe that Russia is an indestructible wrecking ball of a country whose soldiers cannot be defeated, when in fact all available evidence suggests the contrary. Outdated vehicles that break down, poorly trained conscripts which make up 50% of the army’s ranks, low morale, widespread corruption, and far too many officers. I’ve written about that elsewhere, though. Feel free to look at it (and tell me I’m wrong if you’re Georgian).
I’m told that when the Falklands War broke out, the reaction within civilian and military circles was dumb shock. We were the British, we’d had the largest empire the world had ever seen, and who the hell were these damned Argies to attack our territory? We were going to get the bastards; nobody touches us with impunity, d’ye see, and Johnny Foreigner was going to get what was coming to him.
All in all, it just strikes me as odd that in today’s world, wherein patriotism and national pride are almost illegal in the eyes of the ‘enlightened’, there’s still a lot of pride in military history; it’s by far one of the most common put-downs used in arguments between people of different national origins. I could write more but I feel far too lazy. Leave your thoughts. Or don’t.